Wonder.land: a new musical by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini

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Welcome to wonder.land, where you can be exactly who you want to be.

A brand new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s iconic
Alice in Wonderland, with music by Damon Albarn and
book and lyrics by Moira Buffini.

The adventure will start here.

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When I found out I was going to see wonder.land, (which was approximately 35 minutes before the show started courtesy of a brilliant birthday surprise from my dear friend Gem), I was super excited, but didn’t know quite what to expect.

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“Meet me at The Palace Theatre at 7pm …”

I hadn’t heard much about it but the hot pink, semi faced Cheshire Cat on the billboard astride the Palace Theatre told me that I could expect some Alice and Wonderland type shenanigans with a modern twist. Sold. After the obligatory purchase of  showtime sustenance (giant buttons, obvs) we descended into our seats in the rafters (seriously, there should be parachutes or some kind of safety apparatus provided in those seats. I felt very much like a seagull coming to roost on a steep cliff face. But without the wings. I’m quite sure I developed vertigo.)

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View of the stage from the rafters at the Palace Theatre

The show began with our modern day Alice (Aly) in her rather drab bedroom, introducing us to her life and the other life in the game Wonder.land that is about to swallow Aly and the audience whole.  Aly uses wonder.land to escape her world, in which she is struggling to fit in at a new school that she has moved to due to a breakdown in her family. The drabness of her room is soon replaced by a psychedelic array of colours, textures, special effects and sounds that appear to filter from her imagination as she begins to play the game. Here, she creates an avatar that looks like the classic image of Alice that we all know and love.

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The White Rabbit and Aly’s avatar, Alice (theskinny.co.uk)

There is a wonderful amalgamation of real actors and visual effects on stage which creates a very other-worldly feel.  The Cheshire Cat is a little bit creepy, gliding across the stage in his ethereal, projected form, while the mad hatter (a real humanoid) pops up every so often throughout the musical in various locations, guiding the characters into ever mischievous adventures.

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The Cheshire Cat

I enjoyed the modern back story, which depicted the adolescent Alice’s attempt to survive a new school environment and wove together with Lewis Carroll’s original characters. As Aly guides Alice through Wonder.land, she meets these other characters, such as an egg and a lizard who are fellow students of Aly’s. We also meet the Caterpillar and of course the ominous White Rabbit who must be followed!  I thought some of the scenes were a little inconsequential and didn’t really add to the story. Some of the scenes with Aly’s errant dad felt a little forced like they were trying to eke out the story.

My absolute favourite character (I think possibly of all time) is Alice Manxome, the slightly delusional and very hilarious head teacher at Aly’s new school. She was just brilliant. She provided the most laughs, had the best voice by far and gave the musical a bit more oomph for the adults in the audience, the rest of the show being aimed more at teenagers. A particular favourite line was during a conversation between Ms Manxome and an errant student, which went a little something like this:

Student:

But Miss, I have dyslexia!

Ms Manxome:

We didn’t have dyslexia in my day. We had a condition                                called Thick.

Controversial, perhaps but that got the biggest laugh/ applause of the evening. This one line essentially sums her up. I love her.

Alice Manxome and her manipulated version of Alice with Aly watching helplessly on. (scscircle.com)

Alice Manxome is also a very cleverly placed, pivotal character that links the two worlds together. After confiscating Aly’s phone and placing her in detention (Ms Manxome delights in the habitual humiliation and incarceration of her students) the cruel head teacher provides our villain as she develops from simple Alice to a rather vicious Queen of Hearts character. She does this by assuming Alice’s avatar, making her as manipulative and malignant as she is. This of course causes problems for Aly who has to fight to save her character from the judging eyes of the other players (i.e. her fellow students at her new school) and worse, complete deletion from wonder.land.

While at times I did feel that I had stumbled into a show for the young ‘uns, I did enjoy it very much, weirdness and all. As well as being very entertaining, the show provided many good messages for the audience, young and old alike. There is a strong emphasis on “being yourself” and accepting yourself when others maybe don’t. Another message is to stand up to bullies, whether they be your peers or your superiors. There is also a strong commentary on the overwhelming use of technology in every day life. We’re all guilty of obsessively starting into our smartphones while dismissively grunting at the people in the real world who want to talk to us. When did it become socially acceptable to reach for your phone before saying “good morning” or playing games in lieu of having a conversation of an evening? It’s just rude, people. Look up and get a life. But read this blog first because its really good, then get a life.

Wonder.land has finished its run at The Palace Theatre in Manchester but it will be continuing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 150th anniversary celebrations in London from November 2015. You can watch the trailer here and read more about the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here and here.

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Romeo and Juliet by Chester Performs

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This is my second trip to Chester Performs in as many years. For those of you who are unindoctrinated, Chester Performs is an outdoor theatre event that springs up for the summer months in Grosvenor Park in the middle of Chester. Its a risky business, weather wise what with the gaping hole atop the auditorium. Allow me to illustrate further: on Sunday we started with torrential downpours, which progressed onto a light chill/ drizzle which then blossomed into eye squinting, sunstroke inducing hot sun.

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Awaiting the performance in the rain.

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A kindly Chester Performs worker fighting against soggy bottoms


The initial deluge saw the performance delayed a little but we didn’t mind. This was helped by inhaling the poshest picnic ever which consisted of sandwiches, cheese, olives and prosecco. Good times.

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Slightly bedraggled but happy with our prosecco!

It was a struggle to choose between the three plays but in the end we went for Romeo and Juliet because its a classic and it just happened to be on my birthday (happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to Alicia, happy birthday to me). Ahem.

You can never see Romeo and Juliet too many times. This is not possible. I last saw it in September 2014 at the Victoria Baths in Manchester, which you can read all about here. I love how each interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is so original while retaining the authenticity of the story. Chester Performs version is the most refreshingly “authentic” version I’ve seen to date. I think a lot of theatre companies try to modernise, sexualise and americanise this play (just like wordpress is doing now as I write. NO, wordpress there is no “Z” in modernise and you do not spell “theatre” as “theater”. No offense to any American readers. But you’re wrong.) But here, we have a rustic, Italian setting, a young and petulant teenage Juliet, an excitable and somewhat immature Romeo and a historically accurate ending (read, no guns. Luhrmann, I’m looking at you).

The costumes were pretty and practical. Juliet had some great costume changes; a sage green play/ work dress; innocent, bridal white bed clothes; a stunning golden wedding robe. My only gripe is that the wedding guests arrived in black (bit depressing) but then again, the wedding day does immediately morph into a period of mourning so I’ll let that one slide. At least the guests didn’t turn up to the wedding in white and/ or cream. That would have been v. embarrassing for all involved, I’m sure we all agree.

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Awaiting drama in the rain!

Juliet was my favourite Juliet to date. She was a young, bouncy, conflicted, petulant, bright, passionate, beautiful angst ridden teenager. I enjoyed seeing a Juliet with a tousled blonde bob as opposed to the usual long, sleek, brunette locks. Romeo wasn’t my favourite, but again he was refreshingly different. He wasn’t stylish or devastatingly handsome or particularity suave but he was Juliet’s perfection, and that’s all that mattered. They played the relationship in such a believable way. They were hysterical in each other’s company and desolate when apart. They conversed at a remarkable speed,infusing as much emotion as possible into their last days. At one point I could not reconcile the soaring energy of the first half with the inevitable tragic end. It just didn’t seem possible that the world could continue without these two ecstatic lovebirds within it. But the whole cast were brilliant and the energy levels remained constant, if the happy mood did not.

One of my favourite things about Chester Performs is the use of music in their performances. They always have cracking singers and this time we were even treated to a singalong sesh pre-show with two ukulele clad minstrels. We had to sing in Italian, so I have no idea what they tricked us into saying. Everyone seemed to enjoy it anyway.

All in all, a very fun day out, which comes very highly recommended.

I’m hoping to get to some more performances this year to see the other shows on offer, but if not I’ll definitely be back next year!

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And the sun came out! See you soon Chester!

 

 

 

Off the Hook – Dylan Moran

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Hello comedy fans! I just wanted to tell you all about a cracking night at Leeds Town Hall last night with one of my all time faves, Mr Dylan Moran. Now, those of you who know me understand that I am a slightly huge fan of this man. I even named my kitten after his cantankerous alter ego, Bernard Ludwig Black. And behold, here we have a photo of little Bernard …

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I know; the resemblance is uncanny isn’t it. He even loves books. What a dude.

Being such a huge Black Books fan, I was a little reticent about seeing Moran in a stand up capacity lest I be thoroughly disappointed and become disillusioned with the world. I can now confirm that I was not disappointed and Moran’s performance was the perfect balance of cutting irritability and raucous hilarity.

Very like his character in Black Books, Moran would be ranting about one particular nuisance of life when a distraction would intervene and send him off on a rant tangent, for example in the direction of late-comers to the show or audience members in the possession of flashing cameras and telephonic devices. I suspect these distractions led to a bit of off-roading script-wise but this added to the fun of the show. I suppose it provided a nice bit of audience participation – apart from those audience members being thoroughly scolded, head teacher style, for taking photos or using their phones. And quite rightly so; isn’t it common knowledge, common courtesy and common sense to not take photos of live performances? Come on people.

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Leeds Town Hall

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The stage!

Moran made a good point about this actually; about cherishing the moment rather than being bogged down by technology. Its so much nicer to experience a moment live rather than through the lens of a camera. Wise words.

Awaiting entertainment with Ian

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Pretty ceiling of Leeds Town Hall

Just a little bit on Leeds Town Hall; what a lovely venue! It’s my second trip here, having visited to see Caitlin Moran last year. I would definitely recommend checking out their what’s on list. I’ve only ever seen stand up here so not sure what its like for music gigs etc. but definitely worth a look.

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Leeds Town Hall

Dylan Moran can be found wandering around the UK and elsewhere for the rest of 2015 here.

Storytime with Joanne Harris at Huddersfield Literature Festival

Joanne Harris HLF2015 image c. Kyte

Photo by Kyte Photography

Its Huddersfield Literature Festival time again! Yay! On Friday 6th March my excellent friend Ben and I visited the cellar of the Lawrence Batley Theatre where  Joanne Harris made her contribution to the festival with a new and exciting project, which she called Storytime.

Joanne began the evening by introducing the concept of her Storytime. She had joined Twitter a few years ago and started telling stories on it because that’s what she does; tells stories. If you are a twitterer I’m sure you’ve experienced these bursts of stories of a slow day at work, while “researching” that important thing you were supposed to be working on ….

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 Joanne was not alone on her stage in the cellar of the LBT. As well as a range of lighting and colourful projections to accompany each story, she had a band of helpers. Literally. Her stories were accompanied by a drum set, guitar, keyboard, bass, a flute and other miscellaneous percussive instruments.

Following Joanne’s introduction, we were treated to a musical introduction from the band. They played a beautiful song including the lyrics ‘There is a story the bees used to tell, long ago, long ago…’. This is how Joanne begins each of her twitter stories. The music, composed I believe by Joanne’s husband, was rather haunting. The melody was calm and lilting but with a dark edge to it. It was almost like accepting a warm invitation but once inside, a minor sequential cadence tinged with a sceptical coolness wrapped around the room, trapping us all inside. ‘…long ago, long ago, which makes it hard to disbelieve.’

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Photo by @Cat_Lumb

Each story once told was summarised in musical form by a song or an instrumental. Who knew that Joanne Harris was such a talented flautist? As a writer and flautist myself (show off) I have never considered putting the two together. But that’s what the whole evening was about; challenging storytelling norms. There was one point when Joanne leaned towards the mic without her flute where I was worried that she was going to sing. Then she did. And I was pleasantly surprised. What a beautiful voice. But writers aren’t supposed to be singers. Writers are solitary creatures who only surface once in a while to sign a few books and push the boundaries of blood to caffeine ratio.

I think there’s often a supposition about what people should be and how we identify with them. This is a philosophy that Joanne is trying to dispel. A lady in the audience asked the question “In your short stories tonight and actually in many of your novels, there is a feeling of ‘seize the day’. Would you agree?” Joanne did agree and she talked about this at some length.

When I saw her at the Huddersfield lit fest last year (where she was talking about her excellent book The Gospel of Loki) she made the point of saying that she didn’t subscribe her writing to any particular genre, preferring instead to tell her stories and letting them land where they land.  So it is with her Storytime on Twitter. The stories had been ephemeral in nature, flying through the twittersphere and being sporadically caught by readers. Now the stories are being saved and collated and are even being published soon in a book titled Honeycomb. But that all came from sitting down and telling a story in a different way.

The stories themselves were often quite dark, again belying the apparently safe, cosy nature of ‘Storytime’. My favourite was about a toymaker (I think he was a toymaker. Or a carpenter. He was a handsy sort of person anyway) who one day, noticing that his once lovely wife is no longer perfect, sets about fixing her to his satisfaction. A poignant parable about the struggle for unattainable perfection and (as my friend Ben surmised) the throwaway, consumeristic way that many of us live our lives. Thought provoking stuff.

All in all, Storytime was a magical evening. It was very refreshing to see a writer not only thinking outside the box, but dispelling said box altogether. An amalgamation of stories, music and theatre, Storytime with Joanne Harris and friends is something that I would certainly like to see more of.

There are still many fun events to get involved with in the Huddersfield Literature Festival. You can find out about it here.

 

P.S. Joanne, it was very lovely to meet you again. Thank you for signing one of your books for me. Should you need an additional flautist and/ or keyboardist for your future projects, I am always available. I’m really good. And sometimes modest.

P.P.S It was also very lovely to meet Jennifer and Lynne of Kyte Photography. You should check out their book of famous people from Yorkshire ‘Yorkshire Made Me‘.

Bouncers by John Godber

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Directed by its writer John Godber and featuring a frightening array of northern talent, the definitive production of multi award-winning hit comedy BOUNCERS follows 2014 revival of Teechers to the LBT stage.

Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph are the original men in black, portraying an astonishing range of characters over the course of one eventful night in a Yorkshire disco in the 80s. All the gang are out on the town: the boys, the girls, the cheesy DJ, the late-night kebab man and the taxi home, all under the watchful eyes of the bouncers.

Sad, hilarious and full of humanity, BOUNCERS won the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award an amazing seven times, and was named as one of the top 100 plays of the 20thcentury by the National Theatre.

http://www.thelbt.org

On Wednesday evening I visited my beloved Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for to watch a performance of John Godber’s Bouncers. Having watched Teechers last year I was very excited to see another of Godber’s plays. I can confirm that I was not disappointed!

The four main characters, Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph, are played by four very talented actors. We duck and weave with them as they become the various groups of intoxicated clubbers of a Saturday eve. The whole play is very fun and chuckle worthy, but particular hilarity ensues when the fellas don their sparkly handbags and became the  young girls out for Rosie’s 21st. Tres amusement.

As the play is set in the 80s the music is obviously amazing. You’ve got your thriller, you’ve got you spin me round, round baby right round like a record baby …. Plus other classics that will be firmly lodged in your head until the very moment that you need to remember them for when you’re writing a review about them. *severe eye roll*

As previously stated, this play is v funny. However, before I recommend that you immediately purchase tickets for this play I feel it is my duty to warn you of one very disturbing toilet scene. Now, as a former bar attendant (Lloyds No.1 Bar, Huddersfield circa 2005-2007 before the indoors smoking ban. I smelled just wonderful after those shifts) I am under no illusions as to the thoroughly disgusting nature of the men’s toilets. It is only now that I have witnessed this particular scene in Bouncers, along with acknowledging sniggers from male members of the audience, that the full picture has been revealed to me. I have learned how truly grotesque men can be. I fear I can never unlearn this. There. You have been warned.

If you haven’t seen Bouncers, don’t panic! There is a list of remaining tour dates here.

Piano From a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts

Right, everybody. Cease what you are doing immediately. Buy this book. Read it. This is a direct order. ‘Piano from a 4th Storey Window’ is stupendously brilliant. You need it in your life. And here’s for why.

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Lawrence Fyre and Marin Strang aren’t like other people.

He is the eccentric owner of failing Sargosso Books in the Brighton Lanes. She is an ex-Jehovah’s Witness and isolated Spanish teacher. If they live together in his illegal, beautiful, rope laddered lock-up, can their love overcome their losses?

Original, sexy, very funny and deeply moving. An author in complete control of a number of unforgettable characters and emotional highs and lows. Jenny Morton Potts leaves the reader breathless, and wanting more

The central characters, theme and plot are centred on relationships. Specifically, the relationship between Marin and Lawrence. We see the cross section of the whole thing from beginning to end and beyond. Marin is immediately intriguing in the opening pages. It is clear she has a past that even she is unsure what to make of. Throughout the book, Marin grows as she discovers the answers to some necessary questions. Meanwhile Lawrence is a relentlessly optimistic constant despite some rough patches along the way.  Together, they are perfection. Until they are not.

Much of the story deals with what it means to conform in today’s society. Jenny asks questions that I think we must all wonder about from time to time; is it ok to abandon one’s family religion if it means getting them in trouble? Is it ok to be friends with an ex? Is it ok to be friends with your partner’s ex? Is it ok to live in a lock up on an industrial estate without heating? (I think this is a standard no. By law). Is it ok to go for a very long jog on Christmas Day while the turkey goes cold (ABSOLUTELY NEVER).

Ms Morton Potts has such a beautiful way of neatly placing her characters into the world. The story is based mostly in Brighton and a little bit in the Orkney Islands. Then something happens about halfway through and the paradigm shifts so that while most of the story is still in Brighton, a large part of your consciousness is still floating around in upper Scotland. The two places couldn’t be more different and so perfectly complimentary of each other. So it is with Marin and Lawrence. If only they would realise this sooner!

What makes this book stand out for me is the obvious amount of research that has gone into it. There are quotes galore from all sorts of people and books. If you are a Jean Rhys and/ or Diana Athill fan, I guarantee that you will adore this book.

I really don’t want to say too much more. So much of the magic of this book comes from the little surprises that spring up from page to page.

I love reading and reviewing books by new authors. There are no expectations. To paraphrase Mrs Gump, reviewing new books is like a box of chocolates; you never know whatcha gunna get. I love it even more when a new author approaches me with a book she knows I’ll love. Jenny Morton Potts is one such author. I now bequeath her book to you dear readers, because I know you’ll love it too. I’m going to use a chocolate analogy now (mmm). Like the much coveted hazelnut whirl off of a Cadbury’s Roses box, ‘Piano From a 4th Storey Window’ will melt you inside and make you see that there is so much joy in the world. But! Out of the blue, you will bite down on a crunchy bit that you knew was there but had forgotten about, which will cause a little pain and make you want to cry. Anybody else experience these extreme emotions when rummaging around a box of chocolates? No? Just me?

You can (and should) purchase Jenny Morton Potts brilliant book here and here.

Let me know what you think. Enjoy!

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P.s. It is generally safe to read this book in public but I would recommend avoiding people in all quantities circa page 231. You will be a mess and you shouldn’t inflict yourself on anyone in this state. You. Are. Welcome.

P.p.s Thank you Jenny for sending me a paperback copy of your beautiful book for to read and review. Love it. More like this please!

“Jersey Boys” at the Rex

This week I went to see “Jersey Boys”. It was amazing. (This is my whole review of the film. Just amazing. That’s all you need to know. But if you want another opinion, I recommend Dan the Man).

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You may have noted that I’m a little behind the times in seeing this film as it was released some weeks back. Well my friends, there is a very good reason that I held off until now, which is that I was waiting for it to appear at my favourite cinematic establishment, the Rex.

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The Rex is a 100 year old picture house in Elland, West Yorkshire. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but there is a treasure trove inside waiting to be discovered. Walk with me.

Through the glass panelled doors, which stick slightly with age, a smiling face extends a welcome from behind the counter. Once tickets are purchased (at a very reasonable price. At least half the price of your regular cinema ticket), an array of neatly presented treats await your inspection. There’s the obligatory popcorn (sweet, obviously. We’re not animals), chocolate in all its forms, cans of pop and you can even get a hot brew. There is always an interval in the showings, so plenty of time to replenish the treats later on. Ice-cream is always a winner.

The Rex was built in 1912. After over half a century of success, turbulence and closure, the cinema was given a new lease of life with a full refurbishment in 1988. The décor in the entrance is respectful of the history of the building. You can almost picture a 1920s couple, resplendent in their fedoras and fur cloaks, excitedly purchasing tickets for the latest Hollywood picture. The dark, wooden panelling is adorned with black and white photographs in heavy frames. There is a collection of old cinematic paraphernalia, carefully displayed and informatively labelled. Its part cinema, part museum. Very interesting for any film enthusiast.

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Inside the auditorium there is a gentle sloping incline that looks down onto the smaller than usual screen. The red curtain exudes a charming warmth reminiscent of a theatre rather than a cinema. On this particular visit, we were treated to extra entertainment before the film and during the interval in the form of an organist. Very vintage-carousel-a-la-Blackpool-Pleasure-Beach. Have you ever seen an organist play live? Even if can’t get on board with the hollow pipe sounds and the oom pah of the bassline, watching an organist play is most fascinating.

So there you have it. That’s why I think the Rex is just brilliant. Its just a gorgeous night out.  Its a rare, independent gem, worth digging out every now and again as an antidote to our busy modern cinemas. Its so perfect for avoiding the rush, if you enjoy watching films but are not too bothered about being the first person to see it and/or have a low tolerance to overproduced, over amplified noise levels. Hearing aid/ old lady jokes welcome on a postcard.

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For the latest releases and film schedule at Rex Cinema click here.

Enjoy

Photographs of Rex are mine.

Jersey Boys pic from imbd.com