Bank holiday Monday in the park.

Stunted daffodils drowning in puddles.
Swings and slides relocated in ponds.
Cafe closed.
Crazy golf and trampolines locked away.
Seagulls splodging around aimlessly on flat feet.
Grey sea stretching into the distance.
No horizon.
No cliffs.
Just one cold, miserable dog walker,
trudging along in the rain with a reluctant dog
…….. me.


Napoleon Disrobed. Told by an Idiot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 22-03-18

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Napoleon disrobed, a “comic alternative history” of what happened to Napoleon after he fell from power is a playful and inventive piece of theatre, typical of the work of Told by an Idiot, directed by Kathryn Hunter who knows a few things about theatre. It takes risks and asks its audience to go with it. It is the kind of telling that only works on stage which is always a good sign. As we see Napoleon attempting to come to terms with his loss of power and wondering who he really is, we are asked interesting questions about status, power and control in a lighthearted, absurdist way. There is a lot to enjoy, above all two technically accomplished and focused performances from Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter. They have to think fast and keep their timing perfect, both vocally and physically. Paul Hunter engages with the audience and has some moving moments where we see him as he once was while Ayesha Antoine plays a number of parts with style and charm. I was delighted to see her back here again. Kathryn Hunter has asked a lot of them- the direction is fast and often quite technically demanding. The audience are part of the action throughout and playing a character and managing the physical demands of the show while keeping it moving forward must feel a bit like juggling.

The stage itself, designed by Michael Vale, is a wooden platform which can be rocked or raked and have things hidden under it via trapdoors- a wonderful tool which the production makes full use of- and the backdrop is made of three coloured lengths of cloth forming a tricolour. It’s a clever and versatile setting.

This is a very good production- it has worked well elsewhere and it will work well again- so why did I feel that the performance I saw didn’t quite take off at the SJT? Firstly, to allow for the staging, part of the round had to be screened off so we were on three sides rather than in the round. The round at the Stephen Joseph is never a comfortable space when that has to be done. There is a sweet spot, a connection with the audience, which is lost and what is a very special space seems to sulk. Napoleon Disrobed relies on that connection and on this particular afternoon too many of the matinee audience I was part of were uncomfortable with it rather than delighted. From my seat I was looking across at the tiered audience on the other side so I didn’t have to guess about that. They were wondering what was going on rather than allowing themselves to follow a flight of theatrical fancy. It was their loss. Maybe they hadn’t read the words “comic” and “alternative” in the tag-line. The one moment which they really made work was when those who had been given paper Napoleon hats were asked to stand up,look at Napoleon and copy what he did. As they pointed and put on their hats they were serious and uncertain and the effect was genuinely eerie. If only the audience had worked as hard as the cast things might have been very different.

The Merry Go Round.

So long ago, too long ago,
when the world was new,
there were endless hours
with so much to do,
Long afternoons, gilded with sun,
so many beginnings,
a race to be run.
I sat in a blue ship
time spinning around,
sand on my feet,
ice on my tongue-
a tiny adventurer,
waving at mum.

Now I am watching
from the far side of the years,
listening to voices
which nobody else hears.
A small child scrambles
to begin a new ride,
waving and bouncing,
mum bursting with pride.
A few things have lasted,
though many are gone,
there is no bus, no motor bikes,
but the ship sails on.

Somewhere hidden
under thick layers of paint,
the times I remember
grow distant and faint.
Figures are waving,
sketched in black and white-
people I remember………..
almost out of sight.
Swirling in the shadows
as the world turns,
and the rhythm of memory,
slips away and returns.

Amadeus. National Theatre. 13-03-18

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner

“Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Watching the National Theatre’s revival of Amadeus is an overwhelming experience. I only wish that its author Peter Shaffer had lived to see it. It is a very personal, intense story of jealousy and hubris; a small but marketable talent which has brought social success set against the kind of genius which will always go its own way and scatter everything before it, even when given to a rude, annoying little egotist. However much Salieri, the established “court composer” fights against the young upstart Mozart and puts obstacles in his way to make him suffer there is only going to be one winner. The “voice of God” which pains him so much may come from an “obscene child” but it is still the voice of God and only that can confer immortality.

The play demands two great central performances and Lucien Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart deliver them in spades. Both characters are deeply sympathetic as well as flawed.

Lucien Msamati appeals directly to the audience from the start (as fellow mediocrities) and we know how he feels. He commands attention alone on stage or rises above a spectacular tumult of music and action seemingly effortlessly. We may not like Salieri but we can understand him. He is our alter ego and who can say that they would not have behaved as badly as he did when provoked by a far greater talent which appeared in the form of someone with no social graces or sense of the politeness and restraint necessary to succeed at court? The rules which he had lived by were being thrown aside. He was good enough to know how far he was surpassed but not good enough to do anything about it and that is a bitter pill to swallow- one that we all have to force down.

Adam Gillen as Mozart is just extraordinary. It is easy to show us the hyperactive, egotistical little upstart and he does, but what makes him extraordinary is that we also see the heart of the music. He is a vulnerable young man who has been denied a normal childhood, made to work frantically with a strict discipline that has left him with a need to let rip. That kind of childhood leaves a scar and he shows us both the genius and the lost child. It is a performance that I will never forget. His costumes are utterly perfect too, which always helps. Adelle Leonce is a perfect wife for him as Constanze- not an easy job- and they make a believable couple.

The director Michael Longhurst took a huge risk in this production and needed all his considerable skills, along with the choreographer Imogen Knight, to marshal both the cast and the South Bank Sinfonia who appear alongside them and play Mozart’s music live. This opens out the text gloriously, making what Salieri is telling us come to life, and allowing us to see the joy and freedom that Mozart finds in his music as he conducts. Their discipline is immaculate and they have been given complex direction, moving around and commenting silently on the action as they play. Their timing is perfect throughout. The design by Chloe Lamford is spectacular. The Olivier revolve and the whole of the space is used to great effect as we are shown different perspectives and viewpoints and the costumes are colourful and witty, period with a twist. It is beautifully organised too- we always know exactly where we should look. This production doesn’t just fill the huge and notoriously difficult space, it commands it and batters it into submission. It is a complex and ambitious concept which was either going to fall flat on its face or soar and it is thanks to the talent and, perhaps even more than that, the discipline of everybody involved that it takes flight.

I think that the biggest compliment I can pay this production is that if I ever see Amadeus again I want it done in exactly the same way and if Adam Gillen can come back and play Mozart again that will suit me just fine.

Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company at Hull New Theatre. 15-02-18

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet. Production photograph copyright RSC.

The RSC, only an hour away, with a production of Hamlet set in Africa that I had wanted to see in 2016 and missed, and Paapa Essiedu, who I had admired as Romeo for Tobacco Factory, playing Hamlet. It is fair to say that I was excited as I made my way to the New Theatre in Hull on the train.

I liked Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet very much. I believed in his grief and his anger. He was warm and engaging- a nice guy- and in better times he might have been a happy and uncomplicated young man. He handled the soliloquies beautifully with fine timing and a clear understanding and made a real connection with the audience. I missed some of the humour and the sense of danger that I feel Hamlet should have but he had clearly looked inside himself and found the part which is what every actor playing Hamlet needs to do. If an actor is brave enough to do that for you in some ways you can have nothing to complain about- each person will find something different.

The rest of the cast were new for the 2018 tour. Lorna Brown looked wonderful as Gertrude- plenty of style and hauteur- and Clarence Smith was a convincing Claudius although I didn’t really feel the turmoil as their world fell apart later in the play. Mimi Ndiwene was very moving as Ophelia. She had real warmth in the early scenes and delicacy and grace as her mind weakened. The other cast member who really impressed me was Ewart James Walters as both the ghost and the first gravedigger. He had great presence and authority.

The African setting brought with it plenty of colour, some exciting drumming, and a fine stage fight at the end, but while I can easily imagine the events of the plot transposed to a small corrupt country on that continent I’m not sure I really felt the reality of corruption and threat at the heart of Elsinore as strongly as I would have hoped. It should have worked much more strongly than it did. That has to be down to the direction from Simon Godwin. I would like to have seen the original production as a comparison. There was a bit of awkwardness in some of the stage positioning too which perhaps came from adjusting to a fresh venue, although I liked the way that the auditorium was used, especially for the ghost.

It was a great treat to be able to to see the RSC so close to home in East Yorkshire and while there were plenty of empty seats- money is tight for many of us on the East coast- those of us in the audience were delighted to see the company. There were young children in the audience who were completely enthralled and people standing at the end. It is always easy to come away from Hamlet musing over what you didn’t feel was quite right, this is one of the things that makes it worth coming back to see it again, but nothing should take away from the fact that the RSC had come to Hull. I really hope that they come back. We need them.

Short Story: Every Little Helps.

You can’t get a signal for a mobile in Margaret’s local supermarket and she tended to think that this wasn’t by chance. A person could get lost in there and never come out, stuck in a time warp where they couldn’t decide which biscuits to buy. An unwary person could be tricked into spending a fortune. There was a lot of reading to keep them busy and discourage them from going home: posters showing smiling people holding out plates of food with recipe leaflets underneath them, tiny samples of food to try, offers to work out and best of all a row of clear plastic bins telling you about local good causes where you could drop in a blue token they gave you at the till to support them. Of course Margaret didn’t know any of the people in the photographs above the bins which were supposed to help her choose but she used her common sense and it made her feel as though she was part of something. Carrier bag charge money paid for it, or so they said. It was all very surprising. It couldn’t amount to very much money really these days. You hardly ever saw people taking a plastic bag. Margaret herself had a rather nice brown canvas bag with a row of badgers on it which even went in the washing machine and a trolley with cow markings on it for her weekend shop. Sorted. People should think ahead.

Choosing the things that she wanted to buy was the bit that she enjoyed most. Now that Jack was no longer trailing behind her, making unwanted suggestions and getting in the way she could choose anything that she liked. The reduced section was her favourite part of her shop and that was always where she started, in case someone else got in first. Once she had found a whole lot of chicken drumsticks in a big tray for thirty five pence and gone straight home and cooked them all at once. She had lived off them for three days. She could take her time now and there were all kinds of things on the shelves to puzzle her. Things like Half Spoon which allowed a person to put a whole spoonful of “sugar” in their tea while consuming only half the calories and thin gossamer sheets to put in the drum of your tumble dryer to stop your clean washing smelling bad. In reality Margaret almost always bought the same things but she liked to look at the items that she might buy one day and wonder what you were supposed to do with them. In her young days a salad had been lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with a blob of salad cream. Nowadays you could spend a fortune on things that looked a bit like a lettuce, but weren’t, and people seemed to have completely forgotten how to chop things up for themselves. Someone else miles and miles away did it for them and sent it back in a plastic tub costing twice as much as it had done to start with. Madness.

Negotiating the tills was the difficult part. She had once picked out some mushrooms from a big box, nice ones, ones that she had chosen specially, and when she got to the till it refused to allow her to buy them. The assistant said that they had gone “off sale” and they were taken away from her. Ten minutes later she had watched the whole big box being taken from the veg section and carried through the plastic swing doors in shame to be dumped in the store room. The till bell had been rung and another assistant had been sent to fetch her a small plastic pack of shrink wrapped mushrooms as a replacement. They were not the same but if she had said so she would have had no mushrooms so she didn’t cause a fuss. The girl was only trying to help and she had learned that, when you reached a certain age, you were expected to knuckle down, just get on with stuff and avoid being a nuisance at all costs. Of course she must never mention what that certain age was, or not until she was so old that she became a national treasure…. or at least she would become a national treasure if anyone ever knew who she was. Young people could faff around as much as they wanted to of course. They didn’t get judged. Not like she was. An old person was judged by how much like a young person they could still manage to be. It was hard work. She had stopped using the self service tills now, even though she didn’t want to talk to anybody, because she was never fast enough. She knew exactly what to do but she was just never fast enough and the person guarding the tills insisted on helping her the moment they saw her hesitate. Once, when she had poked the wrong picture on the screen by accident she had been been carefully shown a picture of an apple by the assistant as though she had never seen one before. For a dreadful moment she had seen herself as they saw her. A little grey haired old woman who needed help. Vulnerable. Well she didn’t need help. Certainly not. She just wanted to be left in peace to do what she needed to do. So much talking. So much repetition There were only so many times you could explain that the trolley standing next to you meant that you didn’t need a bag and yes you were capable of packing it for yourself. The worst days were the ones when there were a whole lot of strangers with buckets wanting you to give money in exchange for mauling your food about and packing it in a way that you didn’t want it packed. It was like a hold up. On those days she did use the self service tills as they were the lesser of two evils.

The day when something surprising happened had begun well. Margaret had picked out a can of dog food to donate to the poor dogs who lived in concrete kennels and found king prawns in the reduced section- the ones with garlic and coriander that Jack wouldn’t eat and she really liked. She had reached the bread section and she was staring at the empty chute where the ciabatta rolls should be when she realised that there was an elderly gentleman right next to her, standing far too close. He was smart and bright eyed, with a nattily trimmed moustache. His shock of white hair was combed back neatly and he had dressed for the occasion in a tartan tie and a tweed jacket. He was having a day out among the aisles and he was looking at her curiously. So curiously in fact that, even though she never talked to people, she told him what was the matter.
“There are none of the bread rolls I like left.”
He looked at the empty plastic box where they would have been calmly.
“Oh dear.”
“I don’t like any of the others.”
The last time this kind of thing had happened to Margaret there had been a bit of an incident in the bakery which had ended in a very nice young man having to cheer her up and wish her a nice day. She didn’t want any more trouble. The man smiled at her.
“You need to ask them. They will have some in the back, they always do.”
Margaret didn’t want to ask them and she didn’t want to be given advice by a man. Men of his age did come into supermarkets but they were usually sad broken figures trailing behind a domineering wife who pointed at things and ordered them about. They didn’t know what they were doing basically. If she asked about the rolls she might have to talk to the woman who had once come out to get another loaf, a replacement for the one that Margaret had given her to be sliced, after there had been a loud roaring noise. She had claimed that the machine had “ate it” and Margaret hadn’t been sure what to think. The loaf had still been warm and both of them should have known better. The nice young man might not be there to fend her off this time. The old gentleman (and he was most definitely a gentleman to his fingertips) thought that she was hesitating because she didn’t believe him.
“I know what goes on in here you see. I have come in here for a couple of hours every single day since my dear wife died in 2011, to fetch my bit of shopping, and I don’t miss much. My wife always did the shopping and I had a lot to learn. I know everything that goes on.”
Margaret tried to work out how many hours two hours every day for over seven years would add up to. Too many. It was a wonder she had never seen him but it was a big place and she knew from experience how easy it was to disappear in the aisles. It was an ability that she sometimes found very useful. A superpower. Not the kind of dramatic superpower that her grandson admired, throwing thunderbolts and shinning up buildings, but useful nonetheless. A quiet superpower, Very suitable for old age, so long as you could keep your mouth shut, which some people couldn’t. You were able to stand by and watch while people made complete fools of themselves right in front of you.
“Thank you very much.”
He looked at her expectantly. Margaret went over to ask the woman if they had any more rolls and she said that there would be some more in about ten minutes. He nodded encouragingly. She gave him a thin smile in return and wandered listlessly back towards the salad section, filling in time, trying to remember how many bananas there were left at home and how brown they might be, when she realised that he had followed her. He was standing by her right shoulder looking anxious.
“Excuse me. They said that they were bringing some out for you.”
She tried not to look irritated. He meant well.
“Yes, I know, but they said it would be in ten minutes.”
He shook his head and held his basket in front of him defensively.
“They will have put some out for you by now.”
“Thank you.”
He walked away, still shaking his head. In the distance Margaret could just about see that the empty plastic box had been filled with ciabatta rolls. When she went to get some they were only just baked through. It was annoying.

That was just the first day. For the next few days they nodded to each other. By the end of the first week Margaret knew that the man’s name was Harry and they had shown each other what was in their baskets. Exactly one month later they had a cup of tea together in the supermarket cafe and she found out that he liked prawns and would only ever use Fairy liquid. From then on they did their whole shop together each week, pointing out good offers and suggesting things for each other. Of course once they were married Margaret never allowed him to set foot in the supermarket again.

Daffs on Parade.

How do they know?
How do they know that the time is theirs?
Are they the first to feel the warmth rising,
the sap sprinting upwards,
tightness unfurling?
A longing to move?

Soldiers of the Spring,
uniformed, precise.
A regiment of happiness
reporting for duty,
jostling for position,
straight backed and trim.

Yearly manoeuvres almost complete
they wait to receive their dress uniforms
from the touch of the sun.
“Stand at ease!”
“Present blooms!”
“Show time!”