Thursday, 13 December 2012

A mix of goodies

A single theme eludes me today.  So this blog is a mix of goodies.

I’ve recently been to Newcastle and was very impressed with the friendliness of northerners.  Getting off the train someone carried my bag.  Within ten minutes of arriving in the theatre someone bought me a pint.  An hour later I’d been propositioned; which of course I politely declined but it’s nice to be wanted.  And then I saw The Borrowers – Erica Whyman’s last production before leaving the helm of Northern Stage to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

I’d gone up from London on the train, and the warm buzz of the foyer followed by Erica’s staging of the classic children’s tale (written by Mary Norton and adapted by Charles Way) was well worth the trip.  For starters the cast were good actors who could sing – an important emphasis when you want solid dramatic performances.  The musicians were also actors, so they glided on and off stage with tuned theatrical timing. 

The music and lyrics by San Kenyon were a delightful mix of originality and cheeky ‘borrowings’, creating a comforting familiarity without losing spice or freshness.  The trickling of violin solos throughout was clever too.  It allowed mobile musicians to act as wordless narrators, ‘turning the page’ from one vignette to another with a touch of fairy-dust.  And this sprightly nuance of melody, sensitively delivered, added a child-like anticipation to the atmosphere as one might expect from Ariel or Puck.

Given my admiration for this creative use of music, I was pleased to discover one of the performers was none other than Elisa Boyd – Arthur Boyd’s grand-daughter, the great twentieth-century Australian artist.  I’m a huge fan of Boyd’s impressionistic and expressionistic work, and my house in Kiama on the south coast of NSW is not far from Bundanon; the artist’s residence given to the Australian Nation by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd in 1993.  Given Elisa’s genetic pedigree – gifts extending to aunts, uncles, parents, siblings and no doubt cousins – I was not surprised to find her talent for acting as strong as her musicianship; her social skills and personality delightful.

I also loved the design by Andrew Stephenson.  It framed the wide proscenium exceptionally well, layers of images unfolding toward the action like the pages of a pop-up story-book.  When richly lit by Charles Balfour, the endless colours on wide horizons and oversized objects (to contrast with the little people known as ‘borrowers’) made you feel anything was possible.  Of course it was Erica’s imaginative and tight direction - with help from her assistant Rachel Oliver - which brought all these attractive elements together: a fitting swan song from someone who has taken Northern Stage from strength to strength.

In the foyer afterwards, as person after person chatted freely, without any of London’s status-conscious or reserve, it hit me.  It felt like Australia – the northern laugh, down-to-earth manner and direct way of talking, wonderfully robust and familiar.

The icing on the cake was an extremely enjoyable detour to visit a special friend, returning back to London just in time to see the final dress rehearsal of the much-loved Wind in the Willows in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.  Directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett, to a score by Martin Ward after inspiration from George Butterworth, it would be hard to say which was most engaging: the inimitable, timeless characters; the dancing; the music; the puppetry; or the evocative design.  I was very happy to see a friend, Anthony McGill, in the role of narrator, and as the production has been restaged many times audiences must agree dance is an effective way to express the camaraderie and mischief of Kenneth Grahame’s pastoral romp.  It certainly seemed to speak straight to the hearts of the children present, their lively imaginations freeing them of the need for discursive rationality.

A day later I was gutted to hear my friend was struck down with a bad cold followed by laryngitis.  It’s dreadfully frustrating for a performer to lose his instrument, let alone before opening night – like a tennis player breaking his wrist before Wimbledon.  It reminded me of the experience of losing my voice right before they made the Australian Cast Recording of Return to the Forbidden Planet.  To this day I cringe at the memory of it; for the recording sounds more like Kermit the Frog than Janis Joplin and absolutely nothing like myself.   Ah, the ups and downs of showbiz. 

Feeling flat the next couple of days – due, amongst other things, to coming down from the friendly northerners and missing Australia’s summer sunshine – I decided to embrace the season and do something quintessentially London: go ice-skating at Somerset House.  What a great venue it is: bucket-loads of style, atmosphere and good cheer.  My Olympics buddies stood at the rim cheering me on, as we hadn’t booked in advance so I was the only one to score entry (on a returned child’s ticket which the charming chap in the box-office decided I deserved).  And, happily, I managed not to fall over even once!  We then adjourned from the cold into the deliciously warm tent for mulled wine and ebullient chatter.  Many hours, bars, and red wines later, I fell asleep on the night bus from Trafalgar Square and had to walk fifteen minutes back toward Clapham Junction in the bitter cold. 

It was all good though because it was a night which could have only happened in the West End… reminding me why I am drawn to the city Samuel Johnson famously said should appeal to anyone who is not “tired of life”. 

So despite the struggles I have sometimes with London, while I work on getting my books published there is always another show and museum to see and another evening of high quality entertainment.  

And who knows, maybe the next bag of goodies will include a white Christmas…