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Messages - HtoHe

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Theatre / Billy Liar - Royal Exchange, Manchester
« on: June 18, 2014, 10:15:00 pm »
There are some attractive performances in this production of the Keith Waterhouse/Willis Hall piece.  Harry McEntire is good as pathological liar Billy Fisher though I was more taken with Katie Moore as his determined ‘ex’ Rita.  She’s the one person who really won’t take Billy’s self-centred nonsense lying down – she doesn’t mind breaking off their engagement but she’s not leaving without the ring!  Another of the young women, Emily Barber as ‘scruffy Liz’, has the best line and delivers it superbly.  She’s another of Billy’s exes who returns to town after a few weeks away and, when she finds out what he’s been up to says “You don’t waste any time do you?  Getting engaged… everybody!” Because Billy has at least one other fiancée – the stuck-up, mean-spirited Barbara (Rebekah Hinds), favourite of his mum, who probably deserves him (if anyone deserves that misfortune).

The set is a bit cluttered for an in-the-round set up.  It’s basically a 1950s sitting room but, for reasons that are beyond me, they’ve stuck a front door (no walls, just a front door) in one corner – at the cost, apparently, of a dozen or so seats that can’t be sold behind it.  Why we couldn’t be left to imagine that door I don’t know – after all, we had to imagine scenes in the street and the garden played out among the chairs, tables, television etc. 

I’d never seen this play before and I can’t really say I was mightily impressed by it as a theatre piece.  I have vague memories of reading the novel many decades ago and I seem to remember it as rather more successfully exploring the mind of a fantasist fighting a rear guard action against a world that’s trying to force him to grow up .  I also remember the film being more striking.  Of course, film can do things that can’t easily be done on stage but I think some of the more powerful aspects of the film would have been easy enough to do.  I found the ending of the play particularly weak as it fails to make efficient use of the character of Liz in the way the film (and, iIrc, the novel) does.  The ending here was so low key that the cast were almost all back on stage before anyone realized that was it.  I’m sure this wasn’t the actors’ fault – the play seems to be written (or, at least, directed) to fizzle out.

Entertaining and well-acted but not top-drawer stuff.  Runs until 12 July

The Coffee Bar / Re: What has made you smile today?
« on: June 16, 2014, 09:49:58 pm »
I had to crack a smile, albeit a very wry one, in Joe Coral’s this evening.  I’d popped in to the bookmaker’s on my way home from a conference to catch the end of Germany v Portugal and noticed that, with 10 minutes left and Germany leading 4-0 and with Portugal reduced to 10 men, the in-play betting was 200/1 for Portugal to win!  Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with football will know how ridiculous that is.  For the benefit of those with no knowledge of the game at all I’ll just say that 2000/1 would have been stingy.  A Portugal win was as near to impossible as you can get – as witness the fact that no betting was available for Germany to win because, in practical terms, no other result was conceivable by that time.  The bookies weren’t going to put themselves on the wrong end of a foregone conclusion.  Of course, nobody is compelled to bet; but the mere offer of such appalling odds is close to insulting.

Only two performances of this left in the tiny Playhouse Studio and as far as I can see the tour ends here so you might struggle to catch this passionate and energetic production.  The play deals with the iniquitous apartheid system; specifically with the South African Pass Laws and modern productions must lack some of the impact they would have had when those things were still in place.  The piece still manages to hold the attention for 100-odd minutes without interval (don’t count on the theatre’s 95 minute estimate – it was 2130 by the time tonight’s 1945 performance let out) due in large part to tremendous performances from two actors in three (or maybe four?) roles.  In a way these roles investigate some of the ways people get by in a world that doesn’t offer them many legitimate options.  Tonderai Munyevi is Styles, a photographer who opts for setting up his own small business catering to the photographic needs (including, presumably, the hated Pass Book pictures) of local people and Buntu, a Port Elizabeth* wide boy who knows how to work the dodges and avoid the dangers.  Sibusiso Mamba is the hapless Sizwe Banzi – a man trapped in the Apartheid nightmare who - like Willie Loman trapped in the American dream – has to deal with the realization that he’s worth more to his family dead than alive.  Arguably there is a fourth character, Robert Zwelinzima, who personifies some other consequences of he system (but who doesn’t appear on stage).  In fact one could argue, without giving away too much of the plot, that he is the most important character embodying, as he
does, the central message that this system values the paperwork over the person.

The set is pretty basic – can it be anything else at the Playhouse Studio – with Styles’s studio at the centre (and closed and padlocked for much of the time) and the other locations represented very simply – a table and chairs for Buntu’s house; boards with numbers on them around the walls to represent the township houses.  I didn’t particularly like the gimmick of segregating the audience at the door and guiding the early entrants to the front rows so that the front of the house looked like a segregated audience with whites on the right and non-whites on the left.  Since they obviously couldn’t sell the tickets on a racially segregated basis they couldn’t extend this beyond the first few rows anyway.  That apart, though, the production was very effective.

Worth seeing if you can get a ticket for one of tomorrow’s shows.  If not, keep your eyes open for a revival.

*a bit of local coincidence here as the Port Elizabeth township appears to be called New Brighton!

The Coffee Bar / Re: Grumpy Old Rant Room
« on: June 11, 2014, 09:44:39 pm »
I can honestly say I'd rather have all this nonsense stopped than have the money.  The sad fact is, though, that they probably find it easier to pay off the minority of determined complainers like me than to change their bad habits.  Furthermore, the compensation would not have been forthcoming if I hadn't suffered some material loss.  There seems to be no deterrent at all for their poor security procedures.  I'm disappointed that consumer programmes like You and Yours - which are always telling the public never to give out sensitive information on an incoming call - never seem to challenge large utility companies and financial institutions when they ask their customers to do this.  I wrote to You and Yours when British Gas invited me to tap in my account number, meter reading and a few other details on an automated, unsolicited incoming call (obviously they intend to put the meter readers out of a job) but all I got from the BBC was an automatically generated acknowledgement email.

The Coffee Bar / Re: What has made you smile today?
« on: June 11, 2014, 09:24:33 pm »
Currently advertised on ebay:

78 RPM Collection
Vintage Records
Bing Crosby Count Bessie Records


Bessie's been demoted.  She was an Empress last I heard!

The Coffee Bar / Re: Grumpy Old Rant Room
« on: June 11, 2014, 12:52:55 pm »
That's the problem, Selva.  The way they behave seems to be rooted in an absurd belief that good practice doesn't apply to them because they're not crooks.  I've tried over and over again to get across the point that, whatever their intention, their behaviour undermines attempts to get people to exercise caution; but many of them clearly don't get it - and, as you say, get offended when you suggest that the rule applies to everyone including them.

That said, the Customer Service person who dealt with me yesterday called back today and was clearly content, this time, to accommodate my insistence on calling her back.  She also, as I anticipated, offered me compensation far in excess of any claim I would have made if asked (not quite 1.5% of £15k but not far off).  The get-out for them, of course, is that the offer is ex gratia and expressed as a lump sum for my inconvenience (plus a small amount towards my phone call costs) so, while it far exceeds anything I could have earned in the 2 hours or so I spent dealing with the matter, it doesn't set a precedent whereby a person on a very high hourly rate could take them for thousands.

In case you're interested an ISA is just a special kind of savings/investment account which allows a limited amount per tax year to be saved without the interest (which is already, in most cases, far below the rate of inflation) being further eroded by taxation.  One of the rules is that you can only contribute to one ISA in any tax year so the mistake, if uncorrected, would have committed me to an account from last year that no longer offers the most attractive terms and prevented me from opening a new one until next year's allowance kicks in.

The Coffee Bar / Re: Grumpy Old Rant Room
« on: June 10, 2014, 10:27:21 pm »
The financial system is driving me mad.  A few weeks ago a cashier at my bank branch made a mistake transferring funds from one current account to the other.  Unfortunately, she mistakenly transferred a pretty small sum from my income account into an ISA account then immediately transferred it back out and into my pocket money account – which is where I wanted it in the first place.  A fortnight later I got a statement showing this transaction as a credit and a matching debit on my ISA – meaning, of course, that I can’t open another ISA until next April. 

The cashier was a bit naughty as she left me to find this out from my statement rather than tell me what she’d done – but it was still just a minor human error.  What’s infuriating me is the institutional incompetence that has taken over as I try to get it rectified.  The bank keeps giving me different stories about what is going on.  They are now blaming HMRC who, they claim, won’t allow this very obvious error (the electronic trail must make it clear that the money was only in the ISA for a matter of seconds) to be amended without written testimony from the cashier – which, ten days after I first raised the matter, hasn’t been forthcoming.  I don’t know if this claim is true because, when I phoned HMRC on the number given for ISA enquiries I was put through to someone who listened to my story then said ‘you need to speak to ISA enquiries’ and couldn’t explain why I had been put through to him!

Worst of all, though, in response to my complaint (which I stressed was about the institutional incompetence at HO and not a minor slip at the branch) I had a call from someone at Customer Relations who wanted me to go through a security checklist before she could discuss anything.  She was very surprised when I refused, asking her for a verifiable number on which I could call her back, on the grounds that I don’t on principle – and on advice repeated countless times on consumer programmes – answer sensitive questions on an incoming call.  She kept telling me it was perfectly safe as nobody could do anything malicious with the information she was asking for and lots of people were perfectly willing to answer her questions.   Summoning up all my remaining cool I said ‘And lots of people answer scammers’ questions.  Look, I’m not suggesting that you’re a scammer – I’m suggesting that any scammer could give the assurances you’re offering.  In short, to me you’re just a voice coming from who knows where’  This is not the first time this has happened to me – British Gas did something very similar earlier in the year.  What's the point of telling people how to avoid scammers if major institutions behave like this?

Just over a week ago I was merely looking to get a simple error corrected.  Now I’ll be expecting compensation – which I have been told I’ll get.  The amount of money I stand to lose is small – even if I’m prevented altogether from opening a new ISA I wouldn’t have saved even the old maximum, let alone the new one – but I’m not telling them that.  If they offer me the difference between 2.7% of £15k (which is the best on offer) and 1.25% of £15k (which is the rate in their ISA) I won’t feel guilty about taking it even though I would never have saved anything like that amount.   And I'll be expecting something for my time and phone bills, too!

Television / Re: Rik Mayall RIP
« on: June 09, 2014, 05:07:29 pm »
I just heard it on PM and seriously thought I was imagining things.  Without wishing to be flippant, my first thought was 'no, they must mean John Mayall'.  Not that I would rather lose the great Blues man - it's just that Rik Mayall dying was so unexpected.  I didn't like all his work but at his best - Alan B'stard or the unforgettable Flashheart, for example - he was truly wonderful.


The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts 2013-4
« on: June 06, 2014, 08:40:10 pm »

This looks interesting, especially as I'm going to see the WNO production of the Debussy work in a fortnight's time:

Does anyone know Charlie Barber's music?

(It's not, strictly speaking, a concert but it is live music so this, rather than the Cinema board, seems the appropriate place)

Theatre / The Last Days of Troy - Royal Exchange, Manchester
« on: May 31, 2014, 11:01:44 pm »
I’d be surprised if Simon Armitage’s take on the siege of Troy went down in history as a great play; but it is a great story and this is a very fine production.  The Royal Exchange stage is at its best with a basic set and this one, as befits a production destined for the Globe, is very simple indeed.  Apart from a ramp which opens up from time to time to give more space and allow an extra point of entry and two very simple contraptions that descend from the ceiling (a gauze curtain to give Helen and Paris a degree of privacy and a sort of wooden cylinder representing the belly of that horse) the only thing other than basic props and costumes is a makeshift balcony in the lower circle which is mostly used for Helen (Lily Cole) to stand in looking all enigmatic.  No prizes for guessing how this will be done on Bankside!  The costumes are pretty much stock mythological stuff – floaty frocks, breastplates; that kind of thing – except for the rather gimmicky effect of Zeus (Richard Bremmer) being a modern day travelling hawker in a crumpled linen outfit remembering events of antiquity (it got a bit too silly when Hera called out ‘Zeus, supper’s ready’).

The treatment is very accessible without, to my mind, being dumbed down*; and it was refreshingly free of politically correct revisionism.  These are stories in which, for example, women are treated as chattels and, uncomfortable as it might be, that aspect of the culture was amply depicted in Armitage’s text.  The fights were very well choreographed – the confrontation between Achilles (an excellent performance by Jake Fairbrother) and Hector (Simon Harrison) being particularly convincing.

Worries about Lily Cole were unfounded.  Although Helen is central to the story it’s not actually a big or demanding part and Ms Cole isn’t bad – though, to be honest, she wasn’t very good by comparison with the rest of the cast.  As well as Jake Fairbrother, Clare Galbraith, as Andromache and Thetis, and Garry Cooper as Priam took the eye and most of the others were also good in an impressive ensemble performance.

The play runs in Manchester for another week

then on to Shakespeare’s Globe

If you have the luxury of choice I’d recommend catching it in Manchester because it seems to me the impact can only be diminished in the larger space.  Now that it has bedded in at the RE the piece holds the attention throughout.  I suspect the previews pointed to the need for substantial cuts as today’s run time was 2H45m whereas there were reports that the first preview overran the estimated time of 3H20m!

Anyway, wherever you can see it, it’s a definite ‘recommended’ from me.

*though I did wonder about a couple of things.  For example Odysseus is sent to offer Achilles various inducements, including any of Agamemnon’s three daughters, to heal the rift between them.  Has Armitage got it wrong or does he want us to think Agamemnon has forgotten that Iphigenia is by this time, ahem, no longer with us?  Or maybe it’s me.  I’m no classical scholar so perhaps there’s another version of the story than the one I’m familiar with.

Television / Re: The Duchess of Malfi, BBC 4
« on: May 31, 2014, 10:57:54 pm »
I didn't put this in the report I've just finished, jean; but if you get to The Last Days of Troy you might have to cover your ears for the (mercifully short) time Lily Cole is warbling!  We were very polite today but it's rumoured some audiences actually laughed.

News and Current Affairs / Re: Today's Barking News Story
« on: May 30, 2014, 08:33:20 pm »
I don’t wish to be flippant or confrontational.  I’m even open to the possibility that there is an explanation that makes this look less horrible.

But I’m genuinely baffled as to why this isn’t huge headline news.  Can it be that there are still powerful people around for whom a single parent is a sinner, a single termination is an abomination but 800 babies in a mass grave is a statistic?

Theatre / Re: Coming up....
« on: May 30, 2014, 01:03:27 pm »
Maxine Peake appears as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange in September.  Tickets are already selling fast despite the fact that little info is available other than that Ms P plays the Dane.  I’ll be going for day seats rather than booking but those of you who don’t like queuing on the day might want to get in before it’s too late.  Sarah Franckom is the same director who did The Mask of Anarchy with Miss P last year but, unlike the Shelley, Hamlet has at least a few performances that will finish in time for me to get home – I found it immensely frustrating that they couldn’t have staged the 45-minute piece any earlier than 9.30 in the evening.

Students from the University of Chester are putting on Love and Information at the tiny Forum Theatre tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday.  If I’m honest I have to say that the production isn’t as accomplished as the Royal Court original or, indeed, the amateur effort I saw recently at Putney – which followed the RC interpretation rather closely.  However, enormous credit is due to the students and especially the directorial team for doing the vignettes (or a selection of them – this was a cut down 50-odd minutes) very differently from the way they were introduced to audiences just under two years ago.  This is surely what Caryl Churchill intended given that her text contains very few stage directions and no character names, descriptions or even gender specifications (indeed this production does many of the scenes with characters (or at least actors – I don’t suppose we are even justified in assuming men play men and women play women) of different genders from the premiere production’s.  The students also use far fewer actors – eight as against fifteen at the Royal Court – and all stay on stage throughout; perhaps a deliberate contrast given that the technical facilities at the Forum wouldn’t allow them even to attempt the Royal Court’s ‘sealed box’ effect and complete blackout for the dozens of scene changes. 

The acting was of a high standard and provided a good antidote to a woeful student production of What the Butler Saw in another town the previous evening (the less said about that the better – it’s finished now so I don’t need to warn against it!).  The Churchill piece was was coupled with George Brant’s Elephant’s Graveyard- a play based on the story of a circus elephant hanged in Tennessee in 1916.  Again the acting was of a commendably high standard though I thought the play overlong.  It’s essentially a parable – and not a particularly subtle one at that; hammering home the moral by having the sheriff announce, on discovering that it might be possible to execute such a large animal ‘this is America, we can do anything we want to’ – and a desperately sad story but it shouldn’t take eighty minutes to tell it. 

I won’t post a link as it set my malware alerts off this morning but the box office number is 01244 341296  If you can get to Chester it’s well worth the £5 ticket price (and I’m told the nearby market car park is free in the evening).

The Concert Hall / Re: Youth Hostels for Festivals
« on: May 26, 2014, 10:19:45 pm »
Does anybody use youth hostels for the festivals? Proms/Edinburgh?

I think you'd need to be committed to the YH movement to use them for the Proms, Threni.   I usually get a Travelodge or Ibis Budget somewhere in Zone 4, 5 or 6 for under £30 a night by booking in advance.  Even if you're set on waking up in Central London there are - at least for single/double rooms - better deals to be had from  University Halls of Residence; one of which is literally next to the RAH.  Youth hostels are not cheap unless you want to brave the dorms - and I need my sleep when I'm queuing and Promming all day (and sometimes even going in to work beforehand).

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