Monday, 13 June 2016

Brimstone & Treacle: Sewell Barn, Norwich

Powerful, disturbing, thought-provoking... all this and much more. Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle still has the power to shock us to the core, 40 years after its original tv broadcast. The production currently playing at the Sewell Barn Theatre is strong, brave, effective and superbly presented.

The four actors present a balanced framework - a sturdy four-legged table, if you like - for this challenging evening. The dynamic between each combination of characters is carefully defined while at the same time allowing for the uncertainty that has to exist in the text, the questions that arise - concerning trust and truth and reality - in each story or confrontation.

It's not for the faint-hearted. In its film incarnation it has an 'over 18' rating, and understandably so, for the explicit nature of some of the action. However, it has humour and honesty and warmth as well as fear and shock and darkness, and it's the combination of all these elements that makes it such a remarkable play. Moreover, the sure handling by director Jen Dewsbury of such challenging subject matter, and by all four actors who are required to inhabit such damaged personae for the evening, make this a remarkable production: brave, demanding and ultimately successful.

If it's a feel-good, cosy tale you are after, then this is probably not for you. If you are open to thought-provoking subject matter, skilled performances and a strong theatrical experience, don't miss it.

Brimstone and Treacle resumes performances on Wednesday 15 June at 7.30 pm, playing until Saturday 18, with a 2.30 matinee on the Saturday. Tickets are available in person or by phone from Prelude Records in Norwich, or online through the Sewell Barn website. All booking details can be found on this link.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Sharing the stars

One of my favourite Facebook groups is Norfolk Countryside Photos - a public group for the sharing of (naturally) images of the beautiful county in which I am fortunate to live.

Members of the group cover a wide range. Some simply enjoy viewing the work of other people; some contribute snaps from their smart phones; some are 'point-and-shoot' users, some enthusiastic amateur SLR users, and some are professionals. The joy of the group is that wonderful images - and discussions - can come from any of those people.

A recent thread has touched me very deeply, and with the permission of those who have participated, I'd like to share it here. None of the photographs are mine; they are all contributions from other members.

On the afternoon of 3 July, a member called Sonya posted the following request.

I met a lil old lady in hospital last night when I was visiting my little girl
The lady has been there for 9 weeks, is not mobile at all and can't see very far either and she was lovely 
When I left I asked if I could bring her in anything the next day, biscuits, fruit, drink... she said there was nothing she wanted except for me to say "night to the stars for her"
I tried to take a photo last night but my iPhone is not good at night so was wondering if anyone had any recent local star photos....googling it feels like cheating but I'd like to take some photos in to show her of our night sky 
Thank you
I meant to add please to this 

A member called Tracy summed up the feeling of the group:

I came over all emotional reading this, bless her heart and bless yours for doing this for her, I'm sure some of the wonderful photographers can help you out here xx

Tracy was right. Over the next 24 hours, the contributions poured in from around the group. Here's one of them (from Russell Waite):

Now click here to view a further selection. The photographers are attributed in each caption. This isn't all of them, either. There were at least as many of these again.

Sonya thanked the group for all their contributions:

Oh wow!! Thank guys
She'll love them
She looks so poorly but she remembers my name and just sits smiling and waving all day 
Such a happy lady... makes you think 
But thank you for the pics, I will show her later xxxx

Member Kirsty replied on behalf of us all:

This is what this group is all about! What an amazing bunch of people you all are, first Sonya for thinking of doing such a lovely thing for this lady, then all you wonderful people for jumping to her need. Your all amazing, each and every one of you, my heart leapt reading this and all the comments and pictures this morning. xxxx

Late on the evening of 4 July - just 36 hours after her original posting - Sonya told us what had happened:

I took photos in today on my phone and she couldn't see them so I transferred them to my iPad and showed her on that tonight instead
She took a deep breath in, drew the cross over her chest, closed her eyes for a bit and when she opened them she had tears in her eyes
She was so happy and asked me to thank you all 
So, thank you, you made a lovely lady very very happy

In response to several comments saying how glad we were that Sonya had taken the trouble to do this, Sonya replied:

It's strange because I don't feel right taking credit for anything because I would hope most people would do the same (def most of the people on here would anyway) and I'd do it for anyone ️

Lots of people might think it was a nice thing to do... the difference is that Sonya went and did it, and that the photographers took the trouble to find and share appropriate photographs.

I was overwhelmed by the response, and you all made a lady very happy 
I told her how many people had liked the status or sent their love 
She was so happy... she kept saying 'to me?'

Yes. To you, anonymous lady in hospital. Even though most of those who have read or contributed to this story will never meet you or know your identity, we send our love to a 'happy lady' who 'sits smiling and waving all day', and who wants nothing more than to say goodnight to the stars.

The little things mean a lot.

Friday, 12 June 2015


So, if you're already a friend of mine, you'll know this. If you don't, here's the deal: there is a small theatre venue in Norwich, just to the north of the city centre, housed in a converted barn, in the grounds of the Sewell College. It seats a maximum of 100 people on three sides of a stage which is viewed from above the performers. It has a unique and intimate atmosphere, and is ideal for many kinds of theatre, but is especially appropriate for plays where we, the audience, feel that we are eavesdropping - sneaking a peek through the 'fourth wall' - at what goes on 'behind closed doors'.

The current production - Mint, by Clare Lizzimore - is perfectly suited to this venue. Focusing on the effects of imprisonment, not only on the convicted criminal but also on his family, it brings an extraordinary intensity of insight into the ebb and flow of emotion as the clock ticks relentlessly on. As Alan lives through his sentence, moved between prisons, working out in the gym, walking around his reduced space, reflecting on his life, we are reminded of the happenings in the world (for real) during the late 1990s and into the new century, and kept in touch with the lives of his sisters and his parents. Most importantly, we also see and experience the emotional and practical difficulties of life 'outside' once he has served his time.

Without wanting to give away any spoilers - you need to see this show for yourself - the cast, crew and director do a truly magnificent job of conveying the frustrations, the fears and the anger that arise from this situation. The evening is also full of humour - some of it dark, some shocking, some simply glorious comic timing. Jen Dewsbury's direction is neat, precise and elegant, unafraid to use silence and the unspoken visual message, and the members of her stellar cast respond beautifully on all levels.

The family dynamic, with all its flaws and fears, is accurate to the point of pain. Each of the six members of the cast - across a wider-than-usual age range - display a professionalism, maturity and skill that is frankly staggering.

Glenda and Roger Gardiner - married in real life - head up this dysfunctional family unit in a way that sometimes has us squirming in recognition. Steve Dunn, as the prisoner Alan, maintains an awesome focus and stamina as his character is dragged through many more emotional mills than feels just, and as he paces the floor of his cell, we follow him through the circles of regret, cheerful resignation, despair and explosion. Rebecca Wass, as Alan's sister, shows extraordinary skill in conveying the changes in her own life across the six years of the action of the play (including the birth of her own child). Rachel Godfrey-Bennett, as Alan's younger sister, displays a maturity of performance way beyond her own teenage years, with a development of character and focused stagecraft that I have seen lacking in performers three times her age. And last, but definitely not least, the extraordinary Connie Reid likewise brings conviction, clarity and an innate sense of timing that is normally only achieved after many years on stage. It is especially impressive that the director has worked so beautifully with a wide age range - across something like five decades - to create such a satisfying whole.

I'd also mention that Jonathan Adkins' superb set and David Nicholas Green's original music contribute in no small measure to an immensely satisfying package.

This is not a play to watch if you're after light-hearted, frothy escapism. (You can easily find that on the television.) This is a production that gives food for thought and discussion, that moves and shakes, that provokes and intrigues. It demonstrates that there is room on our local stages for every age. It is worthy of attention and appreciation and a great deal of praise.

Photograph: Sean Owen of Reflective Arts

Mint plays until Saturday 13 June, and then again from Wednesday 17 to Saturday 20 June, 7.30 pm each night plus a 2.30 pm matinee on the final Saturday. Tickets are available from Prelude Records in St Giles, Norwich, or via the Sewell Barn website.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Unscorched : Sewell Barn, Norwich

I've expressed the view before that my favorite theatrical experiences are often the most surprising. They are the shows that are new, or at least new to me; themed on subject matter that may sound unpromising, or scary, or challenging; evenings that don't necessarily promise a cosy, feelgood, warm-and-fluffy legacy, but what they deliver is of far more value than that. If I want warm-and-fluffy, I'll get a Richard Curtis movie off the DVD shelf, thanks.

Unscorched doesn't sound like a jolly evening out. Written by local Norwich playwright Luke Owen, it takes us on a journey into the world of 'digital analysis': the characters are involved in investigating websites, photographs and videos, relating to child abuse. It brings home forcefully the strain of such work on the private lives of those whose job it is to investigate such matters, and how it affects their own ability to live, love and continue.

It's not devoid of humour - far from it. Just as paramedics and other emergency services develop a 'black humour' to keep their sanity when faced with ghastly situations, Owen's writing keeps us facepalming with embarrassed recognition at dating awkwardness, laughing aloud at the diversionary tactics used by the investigators (Buckaroo, anybody?), or smiling with pleasure at successfully tender moments. It makes the effect all the harsher when we are faced with the very real pain and trauma encountered by his characters.

Not only is this a superb piece of writing (Owen captures a completely natural reality in all his dialogue; he maintains a gripping narrative thread, and he treats an unbearably difficult subject with great sensitivity) but it is performed, set and directed with a precision and skill that took my breath away. Jonathan Adkins' set is a triumph, enabling the shifting focus between scenes to work beautifully - and I shall never look at a post-it note in the same way again. Michelle Montague's direction is unobtrusive, thorough, elegant and focused. Her magnificent cast, without exception, present performances of the greatest integrity. Every one of them turned in a performance that was professional, absorbing and completely convincing. All five actors were magnificent, but I especially want to commend the actor in the 'smallest' role - appearing only in the first scene: Myles Crowder's completely convincing work in that very short time was a masterpiece, and bears out the old saying about small parts and small actors - in no small measure.

And I'll tell you something else: it was enormously enjoyable. Of course it was dark, shocking, upsetting; with that subject matter, it could barely be anything else. But it was also full of opportunity, skill, hope and tenderness - and, yes, laughter. The show left me feeling as I do when I read a particularly good novel that I (a) am totally absorbed in, to the exclusion of the rest of the world, and (b) absolutely do not want to end.

If you wish to be intrigued, captivated, moved, convinced and provoked to thought, I would strongly recommend that you do not miss this play. Theatre of this calibre is a gift. Take it.

Unscorched runs from 27-29 Nov and 3-6 Dec at 7.30pm with a matinĂ©e on 6 Dec at 2.30pm. Tickets available online, in person or by phone; click here for details.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The wrath of the Almighty

Bible-bashing is not one of my favourite occupations. In fact, I avoid it at all costs as a rule. However...

This cartoon appeared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. In the light of the utterly ridiculous, bigoted, unloving and un-Christian proclamation made by the Bishops of the Church of England today, I made some efforts to find it again as it resonated so much.

The rain and wind are howling outside as I type this. Ghastly UK winter weather? Yes. Global warming? Quite likely. God's punishment? I don't think so. If there is any direct divine reason for the present appalling conditions, I don't believe it to be God's punishment, it's God's tears for those who ignore the greatest commandments of all:

"'And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12:30–31

Do you see anything in there about "except if your neighbour happens to love his own sex"? No, neither do I.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Local theatre... in great shape

Photograph: Michael Stanislaw

The third show in the Sewell Barn's 2013-14 season was directed by Luke Owen, a regular performer with the group, and more recently a published and performed playwright. (I know he gets uncomfortable with his friends and colleagues banging on proudly about his achievements, but given the undoubted success of Unscorched, it looks as though he's going to have to get used to it.)

Having shared a stage with Luke, I knew that whatever his production delivered, it would most likely be intentional: precise, professional and focused. My hope was that his choice of play and performers would permit such an aim to be realised; to my delight, it was.

The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute, is a contemporary play, dealing with very twenty-first century attitudes.

"When Adam meets a young art student named Evelyn, his world begins to change. The two fall in love, and keen to impress his new girlfriend Adam begins to alter everything about himself for the better – he works out, he buys new clothes, he stops biting his nails... 

But why is Evelyn so eager for him to change? And what is he becoming?"

Having said that: there are shades of Pygmalion here, so perhaps the subject matter resonates far further back than the era of Starbucks, mobile phones and the gym. Maybe that's one of the reasons I liked it so much: real-time relevance rooted in enduring observations of human nature. And it is an excellent script: thought-provoking, funny, sinister, sharply-observed and intelligent.

The four young actors were perfectly chosen. Any small-cast show has the opportunity for exciting chemistry (or not) to ignite the theatrical experience (or not); in this case, the tuning between performers was perfect. Each displaying far more artistic integrity and professional composure than is entirely fair in those so young, the four wove their characters together, bouncing and merging, arguing and sparking, each confrontation entirely believable. It's actually not possible to comment on individual scenes or characters without giving away key plotlines - which I won't, because I want you to go and see for yourselves - but rest assured that all four performers inhabit their characters with total conviction, interact with love and fear and uncertainty and excitement and despair, and truly live. David Green, Hazel Wilson, Louise Waller and Jack Churchill are all to be very highly commended for such devoted and professional work, both as a team and individually.

And as for Mr Owen: this was a fine, fine example of a vision created and realised. With Gemma Goodwin's clean and ingenious set, simple movements of blocks to create various environments, swift transformation of light and stage, and careful use of appropriate incidental music, the world of LaBute's 'Midwestern American university' was firmly established on the Barn's versatile stage. With performers who are mature enough to exhibit skillful stagecraft but youthful enough to be entirely flexible about the characters they create, we were not watching David, Hazel, Louise and Jack, but Adam, Evelyn, Jenny and Philip, and we believed it. And with that precise, professional and focused direction I mentioned earlier, the whole creation was brought together as an exceptional work of art: yet another production of which the Sewell Barn Theatre can be very proud.

As I write this, you have four more chances to witness the creation for yourself. I strongly suggest that you do. Box Office: 01603 697248.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

T-Mobile: a tale of how not to do it.

Mobile phones: a necessary evil. Well, actually usually rather useful and enjoyable. I've had one for something like twenty years, and as a geek-queen have always enjoyed making the most of new technology. I keep an eye out for the best deals, ensure I don't need to pay much to upgrade, sell on phones in good condition after such upgrades, and so on. I have two numbers on my account: one each for my husband and myself.

Back in the summer, one of our phones had its upgrade, and with the shuffling around of handsets in the household, we ended up with a spare, excellent condition, iPhone 4, still locked to T-Mobile. I obviously recognised that it would be easier to sell the phone if it was unlocked. Here's the saga.

19th July: I phoned, and requested the unlocking code. I was told it would take 20 days. Fine.

I was on holiday in the summer, and realised at the end of August that I'd heard nothing.

9th September: I called again. T-Mobile denied all knowledge of the previous call. I was told it would take 20 days.

18th October: having heard nothing, I called again. This time I had the presence of mind to ask for a name. 'Jenny' on 'x731' listened carefully, told me she would escalate the matter to a 72 hour timeframe, promised faithfully to call me back on Tuesday 22nd October. Are you surprised that I heard nothing?

28th October: having heard nothing, I spoke to 'Jamie O'Hanlon' and went through the saga again. I was told it would be sorted by Thursday 31st October. And that he would call me.

1st November: hooray! A text message from T-Mobile! Unfortunately, it informed me that the IMEI number they had was incorrect, so they couldn't complete the process.

Monday 4th November: I called again. After explaining the whole sorry story (bearing in mind that I was in serious need of the money for the phone at this point) I was told explicitly by the person I spoke to (whose name I sadly didn't get on this occasion) that it would be quicker and easier to go to 'any branch of Carphone Warehouse', and pay a fee to them to unlock it. At this point, we checked the IMEI, which proved to be entirely incorrect on the T-Mobile records, and I gave them the correct one.

This being the case, well, I figured it would be simpler to sell the phone, as locked to T-Mobile, but letting the purchaser unlock the phone themselves if they needed to do so. (As such, I charged less than I would have done had it been unlocked.)  I quickly found a buyer via my contacts on Facebook, arranged to meet, and the sale went through on Wednesday 27th November. The purchaser took the phone off to Carphone Warehouse after meeting me, and also tried T-Mobile. Both told the buyer that the unlocking couldn't be done by them (despite what I'd been explicitly told before).

29th November: having ascertained that the buyer of my phone, having given me the money in good faith, could not unlock the phone to use it, I called again. I explained in great detail to 'Winnie', and pointed out that I had had no customer service to speak of, no callbacks, no help. She said that she would have the matter escalated and solved within 72 hours (have you heard this before?) To give her her due, she did phone me over the next couple of days - to let me know that she'd made no progress. Eventually, she failed to call me as promised on 6th December...

6th December: I called again, and went through the whole business with 'Ann-Marie'. She agreed it was unacceptable, and that she would make absolutely sure it went through in 72 hours (what?), and that she would call me back on Saturday 7th to touch base. Are you surprised that I heard nothing?

9th December: I called again, and went through the whole business yet again with 'Bernard White' (ostensibly on x54652). He promised faithfully that he would call me back on Wednesday 11th December as he was (guess what) ensuring that this was processed manually and 'should be done by the 10th'.

I am typing this as I wait on 'hold' (nearly 30 minutes so far, and this is on my third attempt this afternoon) to speak to the mysterious Bernard White. I am listening to exceptionally annoying music, and have done for at least 15 minutes of that time, with nobody returning to the call to reassure me that they are trying to put me through.

The purchaser of my phone still can't use it. I told them what I had been told by T-Mobile about the unlocking process, which proved to be entirely false. I feel a responsibility to my purchaser (unlike T-Mobile). She has so far had the phone for two weeks and has been unable to use it. 

Had the phone unlocking happened back in the summer, when this laborious process began, I could have sold it for more money as it would have been ready for any network; it would have been worth more at that stage, too. As it is, I have spent countless, fruitless hours on the phone to an assortment of incompetent idiots, each spinning me a different line; and it's not just me that is involved, but the poor lass who has bought my phone in good faith.

And still I wait. And wait. And wait.

PS: as I concluded typing, the call disconnected itself. Today's calls have been (a) a failed attempt to get through, (b) 10 minutes followed by (c) 27 minutes. And no conclusions.

Update : 11th December 18:15: after a total of 53 minutes on the phone, across three separate calls this evening, I spoke to 'Karl Fitzgerald', who tells me that 'Bernard White' had left the office at 6pm (if my first call had got through to him he would still have been there). 'Bernard' has not left notes on my records for the matter to be escalated as he promised. 'Karl' assures me that he will 'escalate' the matter and he will ensure that 'Bernard' will call me back on Thursday morning.

Are you going to give me odds on whether I receive a call, never mind an unlocking code?

Update: 12th December: So, we finally got there. Two phone calls from Bernard and one from Paul (the latter being from the Social Media team), and - just after midday - email confirmation that the phone had been unlocked. (No code required, simply instructions for rebooting the phone.) Email forwarded to purchaser, and a grateful reply from her later in the day - using said phone.

So what do we learn from this?

  • Keep a note of every single call you make and message you send, with all the details. Make sure you know the facts.
  • If your initial attempt doesn't work, make it public. Blog the story as I have done. Stick to your facts as recorded above.
  • If you have problems with a mobile phone company, don't bother using the phone to contact them. (Ironic, huh?)
  • Instead: use social media. Somehow it appears that responses are far better (this isn't the first time I've experienced this: the Twitter and Facebook teams are much more on-the-ball than the call centre versions).

It may simply be that the staff of the Social Media team are better at their job. Or maybe it's because the public nature of the complaint makes it rather more important that they perform said job. Call me cynical.

Final, ironic, PS: 13th December: As I complete typing this blog post, a text has just this minute arrived from TMobile. Is it an apology? An offer of some compensation? No. The text reads:

Thanks for submitting you request to unlock your phone. Please allow 20 days to receive your email detailing the code and instructions to unlock your phone.