August to November 2015

18 November 2015 ~ Review of a Staging of Ben Hur at the Tricycle


Makes the Life of Brian look like a parody; an excellent night out.


The four actors bringing the epic novel Ben Hur to the stage are carrying a torch passed to them by the National Theatre of Brent. Which is hardly surprising when the script had been provided by Patrick Barlow, the founder of and the most persistent writer and performer in the NTB.


Long ago I started to read Ben Hur and soon gave up.  Let’s just say the style of the novel is woodenly Victorian. If any story needed spoofing to breathe new life into it, this is the one. And the Tricycle staging does just that.


Four actors might seem a little shorthanded for a work that was filmed with a human cast of 10,000, not to mention 200 camels and 2,500 horses. However, four is double the number of the typical NTB cast and the production uses puppetry, sleight of hand, imagination and the audience to excellent effect.


There are also more costumes and props that I recall seeing in NTB productions. The two four-horse chariots that loomed over the front rows were a tour de force. And the music and sound effects are elaborate and greatly add to setting the scenes and melodrama.


Much of the NTB style and themes are present, but the production also has a number of pythonesque moments and I am not just referring to the scene were people struggle to hear Jesus, depicted by a Lilliputian puppet, preaching the Sermon on the Mount.


At one point, most of the audience were asked to row a galley while others hurled abuse at the slaves, including, “Row you Macedonian scum”. I recall this invective in an NTB production over a decade ago.  What have the Macedonians done to so upset Patrick Barlow?


The audience laughed from beginning to end. This would make an excellent alternative to a traditional pantomime. The Tricycle’s Ben Hur has the slapstick, wordplay, cross-dressing and the nods and winks found in panto.  But it also uses the talents of four competent actors to send up the vanity of thespians and a theatre company’s attempts to mount an epic. Don't miss it.

17 November 2015 ~ Seckou Keita at Rich Mix


Rich Mix, a venue in Shoreditch, is hosting part of the London Jazz Festival. Seckou Keita, a kora player, singer and composer was the festival act that most appealed to me because I find the kora a fascinating instrument.


It may bear some resemblance to a lute, but is played more like a harp and can have some of a harp's ethereal quality. The  kora has over twenty strings, including one that provides a bass line. The instrument has a long history and a tradition of professional players, many of whom learned from masters who were relatives, often father to son. Songs and singing style were also handed down. To my ears, neither the playing nor the singing sounds alien, unlike say sitar music (which I also love) and Chinese singing (which I haven't yet learned to love).


Another reason for going to this concert was that my niece, Hannah, who arrived in London in July, had never seen the instrument played. So I persuaded her to come even though it was a Tuesday night and she has a demanding job and no chance of a lie in.


Seckou is a brilliant musician and had a nice line of banter. We were only five metres from the stage so could see much more of what he was doing than the two other kora players I have seen. And he also took a few minutes to show and talk about how the instrument was played. But...

The concert was advertised as 8pm. He started playing at 9.30. At 8.30 there was a warm up act, Gwyneth Glyn, a Welsh singer songwriter. She played for half an hour. Her style was folk rather than jazz. I wouldn't have minded her performance (good voice and guitar playing), except for the late start and the seats being of the folding kind with no lower back support, and the space between rows minimal.


I won’t be going to Rich Mix again in a hurry. And if another London Jazz Festival act attracts me, I will check out the venue and ask how reliable the start time is.


5 November 2015 ~  Literary Quiz


Sue and I took part in the Literary Quiz run as part of the Kilburn Literary Festival. We were part of a team of five with the other members made up of people active in Brent community libraries.  And our team won.  I ended up with two tickets for the opening night of Ben Hur, which is being staged at the Tricycle Theatre. Sadly, Sue can’t make that night.


Will report on the show.


I have let the blog slide as I have been busy writing and teaching writing and setting up a website as a resource bank for writing tutors who are part of the University of the Third Age.  Creating this website was made much easier by the suggestion that I use, a free and ad-free platform for social user groups. I found it very user friendly. It also includes the facility to describe folders and files and a simple to use wiki page creator.

22 September 2015 ~ GRaVi PaNE  Rant & Petition


The arrogance of Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw appalled me so much that I decided I had to do something about the rot  in Parliament. Both men would have us believe that because their peers and a few lay people didn't find against them they had been mistreated. In fact, the film record of the Dispatches programme is more than clear. They were both happy to sell their influence for money. Rifkind claimed he wasn't paid to be an MP and Straw described covert lobbying as better.


I think the Westminster rot became much worse after 2002. MPs felt emboldened after not reappointing Elizabeth Filkin as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. This triumph of wrong-doers over someone who challenged them has served to encourage sleaze.  Filkin was forced out after launching scores of inquiries into shady dealings by ministers and MPs of all political parties. Martin Bell, an independent MP elected on an anti-sleaze ticket said about her effective dismissal, "She is an outstanding public servant and should have been offered another term of office with her resources increased and her mandate unchanged… I was aware of a whispering campaign which did indeed start within weeks of her taking office and it was done by friends of people in high places.”


The standards that apply in Parliament now are dismally low and too many MPs have a vested interest in dealing leniently with offenders because they also have their snouts in lobbying and other troughs.


My response to the Westminster Gravy Train has been to set up the GRaVi PaNE online petition - Grass Roots against Venality in Parliament and Needless Expenses.


 It asks candidates to declare that they will be content to have no other income than their parliamentary salary  (so no paid lobbying) other than what they specify as an exception well before election day. In other words, voters would know what other jobs and income an MP will have and an idea of how much will be taken from the duties taxpayers fund.


Please go to the petition website and encourage others to do the same.


Two brief personal updates:


I have submitted my first play, Alderfley. The good news is that the Bush Theatre encourages new playwrights to submit scripts. The bad news for me is that last year they received over 2000 submissions. Alderfley's major themes are attitudes to death and the impact of a cult on members and their shunned relatives. It is set in two houses on opposite sides of a cemetery in a fictitious outer suburb of London called Alderfley, an old name for the ephemeral may fly.


And I have begun running a creative writing group for my local University of the Third Age.


30 August 2015  ~ The Separation


My summer has been busy. Most days I have spent so much time writing short stories and a play that the idea of making time for here has lacked appeal. However, tonight we watched an Iranian movie that was so good I want to share my enthusiasm for it.


I recorded it on Film 4 some time ago based on a brief recommendation. It's the fourth Iranian film that I can recall seeing and all were to a high standard. The first was Blackboards, which was based on the plight of Kurds fleeing the chemical atrocities inflicted upon Saddam Hussein. It is hard to believe such a gritty and adult film was made by a twenty year old.


However, both Samira Makhmalbaf's father and step-mother, Marzieh Meshkini, are celebrated movie makers. In fact, the step-mother, who is also Samira's aunt, made The Day I Became a Woman, my second experience of Iranian film making. And Samira's father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, has made many films including a number that have won international praise


My third Iranian movie was About Elly, by Asghar Farhadi. He directed produced and wrote the script for this and The Separation. Both focus on middle class people while making known that others they interact with have far less security and material comfort.


The Separation is particularly intense for a number of reason. It begins with a couple seeking divorce and speaking to an official whom we hear but never see. One of the film's themes is grinding bureaucracy. The wife wants to leave Iran and her husband wants to stay and care for his father afflicted by dementia. The old man frequently appears in all his infirmity. A new carer struggles to look after him and her failure results in a court case. Both sides lie to help their case and among the most poignant scenes are the ones where daughters on both sides of the dispute are dragged into the conflict. And, of course, one these girls is also watching her parents separating and is under pressure to choose between them.


An exceptionally good film full of insights into Iran and yet full of tragedy that is without borders.