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.


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Festen: a dark celebration

I saw this show on its opening night. I'm delighted to report that my enthusiastic urging to see it was, in my opinion, wholly justified: it was a startlingly impressive show.

First, a few comments from other audience members:

"I would like to publicly congratulate Michelle and the cast and crew of Festen. I saw the production yesterday and I can truly say it is a most engaging and atmospheric performance. The language was at times a bit 'strong' but that was not a problem.  I felt involved in the ghastly revelations at what, on the face of it, was a happy dinner party celebration. The audience were all equally enthralled, there was the occasional short sharp intake of breath which convinced me they also were involved with the dysfunctional family. Comments during the interval and after the performance were among the most enthusiastic I have ever heard."

"Awesome production, loved the Michael Douglas charm of the father, superb acting from every character, a complex set of characters & perspectives brilliantly portrayed. They captured all the emotional tension and loved the 'silent scene' and very clever use of the limited space, thoroughly enjoyable night out and one which will be remembered for a long time."

"Amazingly successful, engaging production. One audience member said she had seen it at the Theatre Royal a few years ago and our production was just so much more atmospheric!"

"Just back from seeing Festen... It was just fantastic, it's left me feeling a bit speechless, the actors are utterly professional to the very end, an absolutely tremendous production as always. Thank you for a great evening."

"Big Congratulations to all the cast of Festen, James Thomson, Jesse Kirkbride and all. A brilliantly directed and expertly written piece of theatre. Challenging and direct with distinct and believable characterisation. A breath of fresh air at The Sewell Barn Theatre."

And my favourite review so far, from David Shaw:

"What a play!! What a production!! Brave, corrosive, coruscating. I can't remember being so involved in a production.  You were there, weren't you? and frequently wishing you weren't.  When they sang that song at the end of act one I felt disgusted, dirty and ashamed.

All the cast were excellent.  I particularly liked the maid, her naivety, her freshness, and was so relieved that she gave us a glimmer of hope at the end. Shadows of Casablanca "at least we will have Paris!!" And she was such a contrast to the chef who was malevolently terrific. Faultless, everyone.  And I want to be directed by that woman!!"

And from me?

Well, this is not a light-and-fluffy evening at the theatre. It's dark, emotional and intense. There is strong language, and there are 'adult themes'. But then, if you want light-and-fluffy, there's plenty of chewing-gum entertainment available on the goggle-box.

Every one of the characters was consistent. No matter how much or how little they had to say or do, they remained steadfastly within their creation, never dropping their alter-ego for a moment. Given that the experience of the cast ranges from a teenager to an octogenarian, this was impressive. Every single one of the actors was focused and impressive, and I could mention every single one by name; but I have to especially commend Terry Cant for the strength, charm and vulnerability of an extraordinarily difficult creation; and Matthew Buck for an intense and passionate performance that, at times, literally took my breath away.

The direction of this complex piece was excellent. Working in the confines of the intimate Sewell Barn, which is both a huge benefit and a potentially tricky limitation, the interaction of characters (sometimes with three scenes superimposed over each other) was kept clear and strong. The brave use of silence and discomfort was deeply affecting and effective. The set was elegant and sophisticated without being intrusive. The use of music - both as performed by the cast and as incidental mood-setting - was haunting and atmospheric.

If you really cannot bear the use of four-letter words (not gratuitous, although frequent: they are intrinsic to certain characters); or if you would be too deeply disturbed by the powerful portrayal of abusive family relationships, and feel that you would therefore be prevented from appreciating the skill and dramatic intensity, then perhaps this play is not for you. However, if you are willing to suspend preconception and to immerse yourself in a fascinating, powerful and thought-provoking piece of theatre, I strongly recommend that you catch one of the remaining performances. As I've already expressed on Facebook: if either caution or apathy prevents you, it will be Your Serious Loss.

Festen plays at the Sewell Barn until Saturday 19th October, including a matinee on the Saturday. Visit the Sewell Barn website for details, and/or call Jarrolds on 01603 697248.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

I've never tried it so I don't like it

There's a splendid quote that I'm rather fond of from the inimitable Lewis Carroll.

Little girl to nurse: "I'm so glad I don't like asparagus."
Nurse: "Why, dear?"
Little girl: "Because if I did like it I'd have to eat it - and I can't bear it."

How much does that apply to many of us with new experiences? Specifically, in this case, theatrical experiences. Yes, I know I've been here before (several times): my love of the theatre (from all perspectives: performer, director and audience) means that I believe passionately that 'trying the new' is something that we should all do. But I'm about to bang on about it again.

I've said a lot of this already in the lead-up to a previous show at the Sewell Barn: Airswimming. You can read the post here. This truly magnificent show was a classic example of the comments that I hear, time after time: "I so wish I'd seen that play - I heard it was brilliant." The same was true of the show that followed it (When the Rain Stops Falling). Both shows were stunning experiences, superbly acted and directed, highly challenging, and outside predictable theatrical fare. Neither was Ayckbourn or Shakespeare, or the stage version of some recognisable TV show. In fact, you'd be very unusual if you'd heard of either of them before (I certainly hadn't). But these were evenings that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Now, the upcoming show at the Sewell Barn is Festen. It's dark, disturbing and powerful. It's not a light-and-frothy farce or a Mills-and-Boon dose of slushiness. There's strong language, there are 'adult themes', and no, it's not suitable for young children. However, I've seen some rehearsals, and can strongly, highly, emphatically recommend it. There are some stunning performances, an extraordinarily well-designed and imaginative set, superb direction.

"It's not my sort of thing"... how do you know if you haven't tried it? I wouldn't have thought that a tale about two women incarcerated for fifty years in a mental asylum for the crime of having children out of wedlock was 'my sort of thing'. (If you're wondering, my 'sort of thing' is more likely to be a hefty dose of Kander & Ebb, stuff-strutting and fishnets.) Yet I left that theatre having laughed and cried, thought and pondered, discussed and dissected; yes, stimulated. I didn't know what to expect, and I got it.

"What if I don't like it?" Well, sue me. The worst that can happen is that you feel you have experienced nothing in that two hours or so that has given you an intellectual or emotional workout. Personally, I think that's very unlikely. Don't get me wrong: I don't leave every show I see raving about it (far from it). But I can safely say that, in some forty years of theatregoing, I can count on the fingers of one hand the shows that I really, honestly, seriously disliked on all counts. For 99% of the time, I'll leave full of questions, comments, praise - and, yes, criticism - but very, very seldom unmoved. Even a show that left me, on the whole, underwhelmed will have some performance, some element of direction, some creative idea that has thrilled or interested me. In other words, it is very unlikely to be a completely wasted journey. On the other hand, I see television shows all the time - especially so-called 'talent' shows - that leave me thinking "well, that was two hours of my life I'll never get back".

As I've said before: do yourself a favour. Try it. You might like it. And even if you don't wholly, unreservedly 'like it', you'll take away something: a new experience, a thought process, an emotion, a challenge.

And if you do shift yourself to buy a ticket, you'll have done something else: made it more likely that shows like this - and unlike this - will be put on at this unique venue in the future. Because without you, there is no point.

Box office: 01603 697248. Over to you.

Monday, 23 September 2013

This week - nothing.

Hearing your husband preach each week has its good and bad points. Not, I hasten to add, in respect of his sermons: I know I'm biased, but he remains one of the most good-humoured, intelligent preachers I've ever heard, irrespective of my relationship with him.

No, I refer to the fact that sometimes (whether intentionally or not) he manages to produce some thought, some soundbite, some observation that goes straight to the heart of whatever it is I happen to be struggling with at the time. This was the case this week. And last week, actually: being a Harvest homily, I have actually heard it two Sundays running. Not that I mind.

The address began, as so many of his do, with a joke.

Two old friends bump into each other on the street one day.  One of them looks forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. 

His friend asks, “What has the world done to you?”

The sad one says “Let me tell you.  Three weeks ago an uncle died and left me $50,000.”

“That’s a lot of money!”

“But then two weeks ago a cousin I’d never even met died, and he left me 100,000.”

“Sounds like you’ve been blessed....”

“No, no, you still don’t understand.  Last week my great-aunt passed away, and I inherited nearly a quarter of a million!”

“Then – why look so glum?”

“Well, this week – nothing!”

Of course, this then led us into the focus of Harvest Thanksgiving: being deliberately aware of blessings, all good gifts around us, etc., and proactively expressing our gratitude to The Boss - whether by stewardship, hospitality, or a basket of random cooking apples and tinned soup to be donated to a local charity. However, the story took me somewhere slightly different.

There have been some fairly difficult times recently: for my friends and loved ones, and therefore for me as well. I'm a solver, you see. Anyone who knows me well, especially in a professional context, will recognise this: I like nothing better than a cry for help to which I can respond, making it all better. "Cassie - why doesn't the computer do this?" "Cassie - how do I deal with this pile of stuff?" "Cassie - have you got the music that I need?" However, most of the recent tricky stuff has got me down rather badly - because most of it is of the type that has no solutions. Nothing, niet, nada. I am left floundering, disempowered and helpless.

My life is usually one that bounces along with a fairly high proportion of good things. So when I find, in one fairly short period, that I'm fighting this lot, it's a bit of a blow. In absolutely no order of seriousness: a badly sprained foot, and hence dropping out of the play I was in; resulting pain stops my regular walks, so I put on weight (always an issue); my father descending ever more rapidly into dementia, and all the ghastly stuff that goes with it for my mother; a colleague's father dies suddenly, another colleague's mother is diagnosed with terminal illness; the freelance earnings take one of their occasional nose-dives, but it's bad timing; three (THREE) of my clients, lovely ladies and in one case a close friend, have serious marital problems; a very dear theatrical colleague has painful and as yet undiagnosed health problems; and so on.

It's all fairly ghastly, and the nonsense with my foot - hardly earth-shattering news in itself - undermines my usual sense of optimism, leaving me debilitated and depressed.

And then along comes my husband's little story. In a reluctantly-accepted lightbulb moment, I think: well, if you take 'weeks' and replace them with 'years', or even 'quarters', my life's been a bit like that. Every year, when my husband and I probably bore the collective pants off our friends and relations with the ubiquitous Round Robins, there is always so much more to celebrate than to commiserate. Friends, visits, music, food, drink, theatre, food, places, photography, family, work, play, joy - including, within the last two years, my 50th birthday and all its joyful celebrations, and a magnificent four weeks in the USA. Not Pollyanna-style - the good is always interspersed with the bad and the ugly - but on balance, a pretty colourful and fabulous cornucopia.

And this week - or this period of the last four months or so - nothing. Bad news, ill health, deep sadness in many quarters. And I can't do bugger all about most of them. I can keep doing the stuff I do best - organise, pay bills, be taxi service, be there, make stuff work - but I can't make it better for anybody, including myself.

Even as I read this back, I think, "well, that's a load of crap. It's not 'nothing' at all. You've had a week with very dear friends and a week in a beautiful place in Wales. You've created a successful concert with some stunningly talented friends." So even that is true: it's never 'nothing'.

But even if life feels like wading through treacle right now, for the most part - it's just a phase. It's just 'this week'. And joys go on around me. Two other dear friends, after many years and several disappointments, have just produced a beautiful little boy. Another pair of theatrical colleagues, gorgeous people both, have got engaged. Yet another pair celebrated the most inspiring, simple, joyful wedding it's ever been my pleasure to attend. Their stories weave around my own, in their own colour and light, and they celebrate their 'great weeks', and share them with the rest of us. That keeps me going.

And when, as I trust and know from experience it will, my next 'great week' comes around again, I hope I'll be able to share it with those I love and care for. Meantime, I've got to keep remembering: it's just "this week - nothing". Not "this lifetime".

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

What the pigeon was doing

I was asked, a few weeks ago, by a Facebook friend, if I could provide a few photographs as 'writing prompts' for a creative writing challenge created by Word Bohemia. Of course, I was delighted to do so. The challenge began on 1st September, and two of the four images so far have been mine, which gives me an odd sense of vicarious fame.

Today's was a photo that always amused me - not least because I always wondered what the pigeon was up to when I took it (in a doorway in Norwich, if you were wondering). Now, thanks to the splendid Alan MacFarlane, I know. Completely inspired.



… 32, 33, 34 …

Let’s go there.
Admiralty Arch?
Are you serious?
Yeah, why not?
We spend most of every bloody day on that, that’s why not.
Alright then, what about up there?
On his hat I suppose?
No, don’t be daft. That would be too obvious. Besides it’s lunchtime, there’ll be a queue.
Bloody hell.
Sometimes I wonder what damage all that pecking has done.
It was just a suggestion.
We were up there ten minutes ago, remember? That’s the first place he’ll look.

… 45, 46, 47, 48 49 …

We could jump buses for a while.
Too much effort.
National Gallery then?
Western European painting exhibition on. It’ll be packed.
South African Embassy?
Too political.
Charing Cross Monument?
It’s got to be somewhere in the square remember.
St Martins?
They’ve got the nets up. Bob got stuck earlier. Did I tell you about that? Funny story -
Yeah you did. Come on, we need to hurry.

… 58, 59, 60, 61…

Right, let’s think…
I know!
Behind one of the lions.
Go on.
We stand out of sight then move round depending on where he is.
Finally a good idea.
But not good enough.
Guh. Why not?
Somebody’s bound to drop crumbs and I’ll get distracted.
Alright then smart arse. Where do you think we should go?
It’s obvious.
Is it?
Let’s hear it then.

… 73, 74, 75, 76…

We stand on that window ledge above his head.
That’s dafter than anything I’ve said.
You think so?
Yeah, isn’t it?
Listen, you know what he’s like.
What do you mean?
He always does things first and thinks later, right?
I suppose.
Well, what do you think he’s going to do when he stops counting?
I dunno.
Give me strength … He’ll take off, won’t he? Then he’ll start looking for us.
And we’ll be -
Right there where he won’t think of looking for us. Exactly.
Let’s get over there.


…89, 90, 91, 92, 93 …

Heh heh.

… 96, 97, 98, 99, 100. Coming ready or not! (flap, flap, flap)



Sunday, 28 July 2013

Simple gifts

We attended the wedding of two dear friends the other day. To be accurate, it was their celebration day (they'd done the legal bit already), with an Independent Celebrant and their family and friends. The weather was kind; the landscape of rural Norfolk was glorious; the venue was unique and delightful; and the simplicity and joy evident in the event was thought-provoking and life-affirming.

The refreshments were gloriously stylish. Gin & tonic (served in jam-jars, which were the glasses we used all day); afternoon tea, with vast scones, cream and jam, followed by a tasty prosecco with which to make the toasts; and fish & chips. There was a very affordable pay-bar. The DJ was a unique chap who played early 20th century dance music 78s on windup gramophones. The entertainers were talented friends of the bride & groom. The 'bridesmaids' were dressed in green-and-white cotton, down to the tiniest small person. The literary contributions were from William Shakespeare and Winnie-the-Pooh.

I haven't posted the photographs to social media yet until I have the approval to do so (or they do it themselves) from the happy couple. However, I did share just one photograph of them as my 'photo of the day' on Facebook.

A friend of mine (who doesn't know the couple) commented thus:

"What I love about that wedding photo, Cassie, is the sheer joy and simplicity - it just shows the trappings around a marriage is all just 'stuff'. Love is the important thing..."

It's so true, and so much of a pleasure to see it. This day wasn't the be-all and the end-all here: my beautiful friends were celebrating their love. It was a summing-up of, and thanksgiving for, what they already have, and a hope and trust for their future, founded not on the expectations of the world or the dictatorship of fashion, but on the glory that is their visible and workable happiness as a family.

I've created a collage of a few of my favourite non-people images from the day to be going on with. It sums up a day that was completely magical, but knowing that it was also a day where - as my friend put it - love was the important thing.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

William Shakespeare: Sonnet 116

Friday, 26 July 2013

Observing the detail

My last two evenings have been spent watching two very different shows. Each is entirely worthy of your time and interest, and I urge you to see them if you can.

Both are very small casts (three men in the first, three women and a man in the second). One is very down-to-earth and identifiable, gentle, 'feel-good'; the other is strange, curious, fascinating and unusual.

The other thing they have in common is that very little either happens or is resolved. I was reminded strongly (and read in the programme of one that the director had made the same observation) of Waiting for Godot, where in the final moments of the play, the characters continue to take as little action as they've done throughout the evening.

You may love or hate either of them (as plays) for a multitude of reasons, but they are both very special.

On Wednesday I saw Heroes, by GĂ©rald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard, at the Sewell Barn. This small theatre is beautifully appropriate to detailed shows, with the 'goldfish-bowl' effect of the audience being raised above the performers. The set was beautiful and pleasing on the eye; the fourth member of the cast was skillfully created (go and see it to find out more!). Each of the three actors has an acutely-developed sense of comic timing; superb stagecraft; and a well-developed understanding of the relationship between the three old men.

If pushed to explain the appeal of Heroes, I'd say that it was the British love of creations such as Last of the Summer Wine. Very little happens in those episodes either, and certainly nothing of importance; but the antics, thoughts, wonderings and gentle humour of Foggy, Clegg and Compo earned the love of the British public and retained it for many, many years. This is the delight of Heroes: we have detail, some history, some background, some interaction, some relationship dynamic; but in the end, the piece observes, and does so with delightful humour and sensitive respect for its subjects.

Heroes has three performances remaining: tonight (Friday 26th), and two performances tomorrow. Visit the website for more information, and call Jarrolds for tickets on 01603 697248.

On Thursday it was the turn of the Maddermarket Theatre, and New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh. This extraordinary, strange, disturbing creation was a revelation to me. The limited, enclosed world of the sisters who never leave their home, and who continually re-enact a heartbreaking tale of their youth, bewilders and challenges; but once the audience has tuned in to the thought processes of the women, the show takes on a lyrical intensity that I found extraordinarily powerful and affecting.

Further comparisons: I've mentioned Waiting for Godot, but this show also owed a great deal to Under Milk Wood, with its bizarre, extraordinary population; situations that are identifiable but at the same time alien; language that flows like an unstoppable tide, drawing us deeper into the immovable world that the sisters have created for themselves. I also was reminded of elements of James Joyce's Ulysses, with its deluge of language that creates its own powerful effects in a highly un-naturalistic way.

The four performers here did a stunning job. Their characters were focused, consistent, troubling, tragic and at times hilarious. The deep heartbreak of Patsy's final speeches was, to me, unutterably painful; the superb timing and integrity exhibited by all of the actors was a masterclass.

New Electric Ballroom plays each night until Saturday 3rd August (except Sunday); visit the website to book tickets online, or call the box office on 01603 620917.

What strikes me about both shows is that they were created with a strong vision and complete professionalism. If I had to, I would say that I was more fascinated and stimulated by the Ballroom, but more amused by Heroes; but I took away a huge sense of delight in the skills of our local performers and directors in both cases, and am extremely pleased that I got to see them both.

As I said at the start, you may love or loathe either or both; but if you don't go and find out for yourself, you'll never know, will you?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

When The Rain Stops Falling

It’s been some while since I performed any proactive genealogical research. However, around 15 years ago this eccentric hobby took up a good deal of my time and energy, and I found great satisfaction in being able to assemble, however incompletely, the extraordinary jigsaw that resulted in the person that is me today. There’s a suicidal, alcoholic, wife-beating shoemaker; a city gentleman, estranged from his wife, who died alone in a cinema; a royal lady-in-waiting; umpteen agricultural labourers. All these tiny facts have filtered through, and I know they are still not the whole story.

The extraordinary When The Rain Stops Falling at the Sewell Barn Theatre (commonly referred to as WTRSF by the cast and crew) pieces together, in the same addictive and painstaking way, lives across eighty years and two opposite points on our planet. Slowly, without fanfare or sensationalism, each fact slips into place, and finally we understand better (but never completely) who these people are and how they come to be connected. Complex, challenging, truthful and compelling, it takes concentration and commitment, from both audience and performers, beyond almost any other show I’ve ever seen; but the rewards are enormous.

Ginny Porteous guided her cast through this tense network with a sure hand and a clear vision. The extraordinary rain-themed images and back projections, the insistent two-note guitar refrain, the white furniture and fittings, the beautifully-painted postcards on floors and tables, all made wonderful use of the quirky space that is the Sewell Barn.

The nine members of the cast all rose to these substantial challenges – mentally leaping around between eras and continents – with aplomb. Every single performance was a masterpiece of integrity and skill, and it therefore feels (as always) disingenuous to isolate individual performances. However, I have to do just that in the case of the two Elizabeths (Jenny Hobson and Jo Parker-Sessions), whose joint intense focus and intelligence were emotionally shattering.

The play defies classification (tragical-comical-historical-pastoral). There were many laughs, some of recognition; intakes of breath, for shock or heart-sinking realisation; smiles of satisfaction when another piece of the jigsaw dropped into place. Like Airswimming, this is not a show for glib distraction or easy entertainment; it’s far, far more worthwhile than that. To refuse the opportunity to see it on the basis of ‘I’ve never heard of it’ or ‘it’s probably not my sort of thing’ is, to me, akin to insisting on eating nothing but English fish & chips when on holiday in some exotic part of the world.

When my husband and I returned from seeing the show, we (as usual) browsed around the internet for further information on this play that had had such a profound effect on us. We found an excellent review – a blog post in a series by Brendan Lemon, focused on the production of this play at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in early 2010 – which sums up the emotional value: “…the unsentimentality …means EARNED emotion rather than the unearned, easy variety habitually served up by plays and movies and TV shows”. He goes on to say that “It is only sentimental if you think that loss of loved ones is a tra-la-la type of occasion. If you do, then Rain probably wasn't for you. For the rest of us, the production reminded us why we go to the theater.”

Quite. This is the second production in succession at the Barn that has come into the ‘unusual’, ‘risky’ category of ‘earned emotion’ – and both have moved me deeply, made me think very hard, and proved their worth beyond doubt over the attractions of a night at home in front of the tv.

Just remember: 3D entertainment has been around for thousands of years. It’s called theatre.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Cathedrals: des res for peregrine falcons

We are very fond of observing both the wildlife in our own garden and in the surrounding countryside, and it's wonderful to see the increasing interest in such matters through programmes such as the excellent Springwatch (and its sister seasons). The new-ish technology of webcams enables an extraordinary study capability without intrusive disturbance.

I was delighted, however, when I Googled 'peregrine falcons cathedral' - without saying which cathedral - to discover that it's not just our local, beautiful Norwich cathedral that's home to these beautiful birds. So (more for my own aide memoire than anything else) here are a few of the dedicated sites I've found - where the high cathedral spires are clearly regarded as the penthouses of the bird world.

First, our local Norwich birds, first seen on the cathedral in 2009:

The Derby peregrines have been there since 2006:

Chichester peregrines are old hands: they've been there since 2001:

Lincoln since 2007:

I can't find how long they've been resident in Worcester:

The birds returned to Salisbury for the first time since 2003 this year:

There may well be more, but these have come up on an initial search. Many of the above give amazing webcam coverage, which of course will only be active for a short time longer as we're into the fledging season.

I haven't had the opportunity to attempt photography of these lovely creatures myself, but Gordon Burwood (a first-rate local amateur) has captured some wonderful images. I thoroughly recommend his Facebook page for some excellent work. Here is a beautiful example.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Take a chance on ... the theatre

After my rant a couple of weeks ago about local audiences missing chances to see wonderful theatre, simply because it was outside their comfort zone, I thought it was only fair that I shared my thoughts once I'd actually seen the production. I assure you that it came well up to expectations. The review (which has been published in the appropriate theatre Newsletter) can be found below.

There is another 'unusual' play - a curious sounding plot, a playwright of whom I've never heard - lined up for the next slot at the Sewell Barn. Once again, it doesn't sound like we're in for a predictable evening. Goody, I say. I wouldn't want it to be.

So if my review of the glorious Airswimming inspires you to feel a little braver about how you might choose to spend an evening away from the telly-box, for the princely sum of £8, please book soon for the fascinating-sounding When The Rain Stops Falling. Step outside the box. Go on - you might even enjoy it.


Airswimming by Charlotte Jones

Reading the publicity material, this sounded like a challenging show to attend, and so it proved. Consider the situation. Two women are institutionalised in the 1920s for the crime of producing children out of wedlock (even if the child was as a result of rape, it was still considered proof of mental instability). They are erased from family memory, and spend the next fifty years – fifty years – cleaning bathrooms and deprived of the basic human right of freedom. The heart and head go into revolt at the very idea. We know that laughter will be underscored with pain, with fear, with challenges; and we know that we, the audience, will not escape unscathed.

It was also a technical and artistic challenge. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in shows of all cast sizes, and each has their different dynamic, pressures and rewards. I’ve never been in a two-hander, though, and appreciate just how intense that pressure must be for all sorts of reasons. There is no distraction for the audience, no letup in the goldfish-bowl scrutiny (always the case at the Barn in any case), no room for error.

So Mandy Kiley and Kirsty Hobson, and their director Carita Liljendal, began this show with a huge challenge before them. A relatively bare set, plain institutional costumes, and just them. Two women, a challenging and difficult script, and nowhere to hide. In less accomplished hands, this could have been a painful experience: but it was a triumph on all levels.

Both actresses displayed consistency, integrity and a deep understanding of their characters; neither was guilty of over- or under-acting (both too easy a trap to fall into), maintaining the level of convincingly natural stagecraft (insofar as it’s possible to be ‘natural’ about such an unnatural situation), histrionics being completely believable as emanating from the characters rather than from the actresses. Whether whispering childishly or shouting furiously, every word was audible and comprehensible; and their physical changes as they aged were strikingly well-observed. Carita’s direction was clear and sympathetic, her concepts carried through consistently and stylishly, with exquisite use of movement, shadow puppetry and a glorious simplicity of staging and musical enhancement. Like the extraordinary beauty of the shadows of the developing foetus that opened the show, this was a creation of precise and sensitive beauty.

The script is not easy to tune into at first; the chronological chopping-and-changing is tricky, given that only the actresses’ voices and words are able to indicate the change from, say, the 1920s to the 1950s. However, once the audience has ‘tuned in’ to this oddity, we became alert to references to entertainers and news items of the day which helped us to keep track of the passage of time – in much the same way as, of course, the women themselves struggled to do.  It was painful to witness Dora’s distress when she realised that she was no longer able to tell what year it was, and we realised that the script had effectively done the same to us.

We left the theatre, in many cases, in floods of tears. In the final scene, when we realise that the women are finally being released much too late - when they have experienced far too many years of confinement to be able to gain happiness from ‘liberty’ – the words “I think they’re putting us in council accommodation” and “I don’t know that I can be bothered” were a knife in the gut when we’d spent the last two hours mentally waving placards for their freedom.

I wrote a blog posting after the first night of this show had attracted a sadly small (though very enthusiastic) audience, expressing my disappointment at the inability of the local theatregoing public to take the risk of going to see an unconventional and/or unfamiliar show. I was relieved and delighted to find that the show was well worth taking such a stand over, and indeed exceeded my expectations. However, that’s not really the point. As I said at the start of this review, this looked on paper to be (and indeed was) a challenging evening: not likely to be a relaxing, feel-good, take-me-away-from-all-this experience. It promised, and delivered, challenge and difficulty and indignation and tears and food for thought. And not enough people chose to share in such a banquet: the theatre should have been full to capacity every night.

Maybe non-attenders don’t want to be challenged. Maybe they want to attend the theatre only when they know exactly what’s going to happen, like picking up a well-worn novel from the bookshelf which you could recite by heart. But if that’s the case, I feel great sadness for what they are missing. The theatre is there to make us feel happy, of course (and this show did that as well, in spades); it’s there for bellylaughs and familiarity and beautiful sets and glorious lighting effects. But these are experiences that relate to life “as we know it, Jim”. To ignore the other stories, what’s happening outside our own little box, the off-beat, the quirky, the unusual, is to view life only in primary colours, ignoring the rest of the spectrum.

Miss Kitson and Miss Baker were real women. They were denied the human experiences of choice and variety: they were confined within an asylum for fifty years, never again to have the option to taste and try, to listen and learn, to question and to understand – although they did an amazing job with what was in their own heads. If we, who have our freedom, don’t take the chance to experience life, and theatre, of this calibre, we dishonour the memories of those who never had, or have, the choice.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Not to be missed

Last night, a new show opened at the Sewell Barn Theatre. It's called Airswimming, by Charlotte Jones.

The show's description says: "Based on a true story, Airswimming is stark, moving and entertaining. Persephone and Dora - placed in a hospital for the criminally insane in the 1920s for bearing illegitimate children and not released until the 1970s - create an extraordinary comic world. They day-dream, sing, plan their escape and most of all air swim. This is a highly visual, poetic and touching production of hope and friendship."

The audience last night was small. The Barn isn't a large venue - it holds 100 people at its fullest - providing a unique intimate theatrical experience. But even this small theatre was far too underpopulated for a superb show.

The Sewell Barn puts on eight shows a year, a wide range of large and small casts, classic and modern texts, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. The standards are high, the dedication of cast and crew immense. The word 'amateur' does not have any derogatory connotations here: rather, in the sense of its literal translation, it's theatre that is performed for love.

I perform, I direct, I attend shows. I have a family and responsibilities and my own business. I know how hard it can be to take time in a busy schedule (I'll be going to see Airswimming myself next Wednesday - it's the only performance out of the eight that I'm able to attend). But I do feel strongly that people are missing such a lot.

There was another two-hander on offer in Norwich just last week: Duet for One at the Maddermarket. Much to my personal sorrow, I wasn't able to attend this at all (which is unusual - I manage to see most shows at both of these venues). The comments that I read were universally positive, praising highly the direction and the performance. Yet audiences for this show, too, were extremely poor.

Why don't people come to shows like this? Will they only attend when they recognise the name of the author? When it's an old chestnut of a farce, or a familiar Shakespeare? Will they only go to the theatre when, in short, they know what they're going to get? Frankly, in some forty years of performing and theatregoing, I can honestly say that the more unusual and obscure the show, the more likely I am to emerge entertained, challenged, weak with laughter or preoccupied with thought. Although it's a sweeping statement, I can truthfully say that the more 'predictable' a show, the more ho-hum my experience is likely to be.

The tickets are not expensive (£8). There is plenty of free parking. These are real people, not figures on a screen.

Here are some of the reviews so far from those who did see it last night.

"I want to say a massive thank you to the extremely talented Carita Liljendal for creating such a moving and incredible interpretation of one of my favourite plays, Airswimming. You would be stupid to miss this Sewell Barn production! The acting is superb, and the direction spot on. But Carita, the only problem with the whole play..... you made me cry BIG TIME!"

"Well, much as expected, Airswimming was just amazing. Some of the best acting I've seen at the barn, a great script, superb direction... just an all-round fantastic show."

"The reason that I love theatre so much is the constant possibility of surprise and this production is full of them. Again that creative pressure cooker of talent, the Sewell Barn Theatre, grabs an audience by the heart and mind dragging them into another world. Leaving them forlorn in the depths of sadness or lifting them to the heights of comedy and almost helpless with laughter.

In this small theatre, that somehow felt even more constricted than usual, perhaps due to the starkly impressive set, played out the tale of these two women deprived of their freedom. This intense focus on the acting talents of Kirsty and Mandy would have instantly revealed even tiny flaws in their performances. There were none. It is also such pleasure in watching the seemingly effortless ease with with they create, switch and hold such strong characters. But even more there is such a special chemistry between the pair that is pure magic to watch. The director also creates a special ambience with the use of images, music and sound that provides the perfect background, highlighting the actions of these already intensely engaging characters.

There is so much more going on in this very rich play but I won't spoil the surprise. Enjoy!"

One final note. I'm a self-confessed geek. I love my computer, my iPhone, my social media (I'm not actually that sold on the television). But it doesn't - never can - measure up to that little thing called Reality. Being there. Seeing other human beings.

I shared an image on Facebook the other day, which made me laugh. But very wryly.

If I've convinced you, visit or telephone Jarrolds (01603 697248) to book your seat NOW. Airswimming plays for seven more performances. Do yourself a favour and experience one of them. Try it. You might like it.

And if you don't, well, sue me.