Theatre

Summer sun, something’s begun But, uh oh, those summer nights (Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh!)

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We have our summer rituals. Newspapers carrying pictures of girls at Glastonbury in muddy wellies. The declaration of undying love by a ludicrously remunerated footballer for his current employer and supporters, followed by his transfer to a club willing to pay him even more – “always been my dream to join the team I supported as a boy”/ “realising my life long ambition to play in front of the world’s most passionate and knowledgeable fans”. Boris Johnson making it clear that he has no desire whatsoever to become Prime Minister.

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One international footballer “kisses the badge”, just before departing for a better paid post elsewhere. 

 

For me the summer ritual is realising that the only bit of gardening I actually like is lighting the barbecue and chimineas and obliging our long suffering neighbours to huddle around them on the chilliest of cool evenings. (Note that plural, chimineas – reminds me that once, during a house move, I labelled one cardboard box “Spare wok”. Very Posy Simmonds.)

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Mrs. Blog and I enjoying a summer evening on the patio. In my dreams.

 

Then there’s outdoor theatre. Mrs. Blog and I don’t “do” music festivals. And certainly not battle re-enactments. But we do outdoor theatre – only to watch, you understand, not to act. Mrs. B says she’d rather eat her own liver than perform on a stage. (I was surprised she didn’t insist on an understudy at the register office.)

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There are so many reasons Mrs. Blog and I don’t do battle re-enactments…

 

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a nation with weather systems like ours to major on the alfresco play but they seem to have been an essential ingredient of our culture for longer than even I can recall. I’m not thinking here of Punch and Judy, though why not – other than that the first one I saw frightened the bejasus out of me. I was a sensitive child. (This predated me going to university.)

No, this is about proper plays. Or, as proper as you can get when the dialogue has to pause for each overflying aircraft, as I recall from one that my parents took me to many years ago on Richmond Hill, under the flight path to Heathrow. Perhaps it was Boeing Boeing, I can’t be sure.

Despite the uncertainties of the summer weather, taking in a homespun but highly professional production (which is what they usually seem to be) in a gorgeous setting has been very much part of my summer since I don’t know when.

It’s been nearly 50 years since I first saw Mikron Theatre Company perform in the beer garden of a canalside pub in the Midlands and I’m delighted to see that they’re still going strong, with their blend of social, environmental and historical stories, told through words and music by a small, enthusiastic cast of relatively unknown actors.

Now it seems that, all over the country, in the grounds of stately homes and hotels, on village greens and anywhere that might make an attractive backdrop, on any given summer evening there will be dozens of performances taking place, from Shakespeare to self-written – preferably nothing too heavy, and nothing that might be spoiled if it has to compete with a downpour or two, lowing cattle or the odd low flying bat.

Why do so many of us take the risk of getting soaked, of dodgy acoustics, of long interval queues for the only toilet in the village hall, of a vertiginous drop in temperature during the second half, after arriving in shorts and sandals on a hot afternoon?

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Well it beats sitting on the sofa in front of the telly…

 

Because indoors you can’t see the trees and the stars, that’s why. Because open air theatre can put you close to the performers, at the very heart of the action. Because, before the light goes completely, you can check out what everybody else has brought as their picnic – and wondered why your slice of gala pie, cheese and onion crisps and bottle of ale looks a tad miserly compared with the spread that Pauline always puts together. Because it’s what we do.

It may be that we do more of this in the south, I don’t know. Moving to Lewes in East Sussex  with a daughter of primary school age, the plays that took place in the Gun Garden of the castle soon became a fixture for us. With the promise of a picnic, the possibility of being able to whisper without upsetting those around, and the ability to move about if necessary, this just had to be a great way of introducing a young child to live theatre – as well as having a good time.

And so it has proved. The daughter, now in her twenties, has developed a love of theatre much more sophisticated than ours and no longer has to be tempted to a play by the prospect of chicken drumsticks and cheesy straws – though it helps. And we can still be guaranteed to take in at least one outdoor production with chums during the course of the summer.

Any regular readers of this blog may be aware that I have been known to have “constructive dialogue” with those who insist on talking, or singing along, during outdoor classical concerts but, in truth, I have not found this to be an issue with plays. To date, performances of Romeo and Juliet or The Importance of Being Earnest have proved mercifully free of audience members chanting along with the punch lines. Altogether now, one two three, A Handbag?? A Handbag???

I did wince last weekend as the play began and a number of iPads were immediately raised to record the proceedings, but I’ll live with it. There was a time when you went to an art gallery to look at the paintings, not to take your own self-portrait in front of it. And a time when a play was to be experienced and enjoyed “in the present”, rather than being inflicted afterwards on friends (real or facebook) who, frankly, couldn’t care a….

I’m not saying that all of our open-air play experiences have been plain sailing. If arriving early, for example, at the play venue and having been asked by friends to “save us some space near the front for our picnic”, I have never found it comes easy, defending acres of green sward on my own, armed only with an assortment pack of crisps to spread thinly around as the crowd presses in on all sides. I think this reluctance goes way back – to when my mother used to drag me to the old fashioned Sainsbury’s where you got put in the queue for the loose packed butter to “save a place” while she went for the sugar. By the time I reached the front of the queue, still searching anxiously for a returning parent, I was spent.

For one memorable production of The Tempest at Lewes castle (you’ve guessed it) we turned up with the rain already torrential and were supplied on arrival with binliners to wear as ponchos. That wouldn’t have cost them much – only a few perverse idiots had made it to the starting line, this blog and blogdaughter amongst them. (We will draw a veil over Mrs. Blog’s response to being asked if she intended to come with us and just say she didn’t make it.) The dialogue was tricky to pick up in competition with the rainfall and intermittent thunder and the action wasn’t easy to track between the umbrellas, but the effect of all that water on some of the skimpier costumes provided a diversion.

At the interval, with audience numbers having continued to dwindle throughout, the company manager announced that anybody who wanted to throw in the towel, as it were, would be welcome to exchange their tickets (or papier mache, as they might by now reasonably be described) for another performance, but that the troupe was prepared to soldier on if wanted. Well, call me dogged if you will (I suspect the actors may have had another word) but, as true patrons of the arts, and being by now far too wet to care, we held our ground and the six of them continued to perform to an identical number of us. Churchillian? I think so.

We are fortunate to have seen a few different touring troupes in Sussex but one we never miss, year on year, is the Rude Mechanicals (the “Rudes”), whose final performance of their summer tour we thoroughly enjoyed last weekend. Named for the manual labourers and amateur actors in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and touring the south of England since 1999, the Rudes bring their own version of commedia dell’arte, a style that uses large comic and often acrobatic movement and physical humour, with white faces, bright costumes and liberal use of the “slap stick”. Hard to describe but huge fun to watch. And bawdy. If you’re easily offended, make sure you see them!

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The Rude Mechanicals get to grips with the Wife of Bath

 

Like many other arts groups, the Rudes struggle to make ends meet. Not because they’re expensive to run – they’re not — but just because that’s the way it is, with public and private funding harder and harder to come by. You may take the line that, if the customers won’t pay enough for the product, it’s tough – market forces and all that. Somebody will no doubt tell me that most other forms of entertainment have to pay their own way. Funding for the arts isn’t really my field (come to think of it, I’m not sure what is), but I, for one, would find my world a sadder place if there were no Rude Mechanicals, no Mikron. Go see!

It turned colder; that’s where it ends…

…Summer dreams, ripped at the seams

But, oh, those summer nights

 

http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk/

http://www.mikron.org.uk/

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Travel

Rites of Passage

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This blog has eventually been obliged to acknowledge the slow but inexorable approach of what must be referred to as his Early Middle Age – in much the same way as Methusaleh may be described as “knocking on a bit”.

I’ve noticed that I’ve started to make a kind of sighing noise when I take the first sip of tea. I hand back plastic bags at the Waitrose checkout with the plea, “Could you open that for me? It’ll take me ages”, and youngsters have started offering me a seat on the train. No, sorry, cancel that one. You can only take imagination so far.

Last week marked a “big one”, my passage into “masters” status. My birthday meal comprised a burger in a bap at Lewes’s annual skittles competition.

Live on the edge, that’s my motto

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The customers in front of me seemed to be enjoying theirs

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This maintained a fine tradition. Mrs. Blog and I had celebrated our wedding anniversary the previous week with a bacon and egg roll (no butter, crispy bacon, open the egg or it’ll run all down your shirt) in a layby on the A27, courtesy of the Taj Mahal of burger vans. It’s these small romantic gestures that keep the marriage fresh, don’t you think?

Where was I? Oh, yes, celebrating birthdays.

Friday evening with four chums to the CAMRA beer fest at the town hall with brews like Skull Splitter and Rector’s Revenge. (Perhaps the word “beer” is superfluous there. What else would they be celebrating?)

“Skull Splitter (quoting the official tasting notes): An intense velvet malt nose with hints of apple, prune and plum. The hoppy taste is balanced by satiny smooth malt with fruity spicy edges, leading to a long, dry finish with a hint of nut.”

And you thought we were just there getting absolutely pixelated.

But how best to maintain a smidgin of credibility in terms of manly ale consumption while not consigning the next day to oblivion? I opted for turning up a bit late and supping half pints. One of our number opted to drink only “thirds”. I’m saying nothing but you know who you are… 

The five of us settled in for a long session 

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Anyway, all very well organised as ever. Three of our number with Manchester connections, including this blog, focused our not inconsiderable efforts on brews from our youth, though the price had risen. I didn’t eat the burgers this time as I’d had a nice salad before leaving the house.

Saturday to London where ten of us ate Greek on Bankside before seeing a performance of J Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe. Blogdaughter had promised that the birthday boy would be encouraged by management to throw plates around after the meal. This turned out not to be entirely true but there was unexpected compensation in the arrival at our table of a flaring not-to-be-held-in-the-hand Roman candle embedded in a baklava, accompanied by two token mini-candles,  some embarrassing numerals and a posse of singing waiters. What more could a blog want? Other than 10% off the bill, of course.

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In a previous blog I furnished essential advice for those tempted to join in from the audience with what’s taking place on stage. At the Globe there are plenty of opportunities to engage with the cast, especially if you’re standing throughout the play in “the pit”. This may include blocking the actors’ passage to the stage with your bag (yes, I mean you, MT), but the most effective way of attracting their attention is either to faint (what conditions do you expect as a groundling when you’ve only paid a fiver?) or by calling out “Look out behind you” whenever Brutus goes anywhere near the star turn.

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Home via Blackfriars station. I know I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog, but the view from the platform straddling the Thames must be one of the finest in London, especially at night.

The following day found us back in London for “UpattheO2”, an assault both on the summit of the former Millennium Dome and on the wallet. This was highly enjoyable with enough of a sense of achievement to justify a good lunch afterwards. Mrs. Blog doesn’t usually do heights under her own steam, in the belief that, if the good lord had meant us to walk up high mountains and Blackpool Tower, he wouldn’t have invented Easyjet and escalators. That said, with the promise that the shortest route to the nearest branch of Marks and Spencer lay straight across the roof of the O2, she led our party from base camp at something close to a jog. The emerging views during the ascent reveal parts of London not so frequently seen, other than from the nearby cable car – the Olympic stadium, (ArcelorMittal) Orbit tower, City airport, Thames barrier, the docklands. We were lucky enough to have warm sun and very clear skies.

Mrs. Blog and I enjoying a hard earned view Up at the O2.

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Trying out our best moves to see if the rarer atmosphere helped us “fly”. It didn’t.

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From the Dome to Greenwich by way of a favourite of mine, the old foot tunnel under the Thames, then by river ferry back to Bankside and a jug of Pimm’s in the sunshine that scarcely “touched the sides”.  If this is what being middle aged is going to be like, bring it on.

I’m still awaiting my birthday present from Mrs. Blog but she assures me it’s on its way, just as soon as she thinks of something.

But perhaps the best thing this week was when Waterstones, our biggest national chain of proper bookshops, opened its first ever branch here in Lewes, in an attractive 18th century listed building in the pedestrian precinct. I was more or less down there when the doors opened. That’ll do me. That’s where my pocket money will be going. I share all the concerns about the threat of major chains and online sales to small independent shops, including the delightful (non-second hand) bookshop we still have, and which I frequent, but this arrival is likely to keep me shopping here in Lewes, rather than heading to Brighton.

I also understand the role of e-books, Kindles, etc and, believe it or not, am able to work them, but nothing will replace for me the look, feel and even the smell of an array of new books. Wonder if they can be persuaded to open 24 hours…

 

Waterstones in Lewes, with its elegant exterior…

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…and even more impressive interior

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Lewes

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

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This week sees Lewes’s annual demonstration of the triumph of hope over experience as more than hundred local teams attempt to prove that their modest showing in last year’s Rotary Club skittles competition in Grange Gardens was simply down to ill luck.

My own team has picked up a trick or two over the years. Not so much sledging our opponents, or ball tampering or reverse swing, as the covert appropriation of heavy balls (no, I’m not going there) from neighbouring lanes in order to boost the prospects of tumbling skittles. But, at the end of the day, skill tends to emerge victorious. So, despite the best efforts of “Two Puddings”, “Scan my Chip” and the rest of the team, we were stuffed as usual.

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I still haven’t worked out the etiquette here, after more than two decades of uninterrupted participation. Is it best, in the event of an occasional quality score (say, seven or more), to walk modestly forward, sensing – rather than actually hearing – the rapturous applause of one’s teammates, or should one give full vent to one’s inner Rooney and go into a knee slide along the bowling lane towards the fallen victims to one’s prowess. At my age, and with my orthopaedic history, I guess this is what they call a no-brainer.

But at least I’ve worked out that you have to go down the other end of your lane to pick up the skittles after your turn. Mrs. Blog still expects that to be carried out by some kind of mechanical device when she’s done and invariably goes in search of the Pimm’s she’d momentarily creched.

For Mrs. Blog and me, and for many in our social network, this is one of those fixed points in the Lewes calendar which makes the town what it is. A beer tent run by one of our bonfire societies, a burger stand run by the Inner Wheel (which supplied my birthday dinner of a “pulled pork” roll on the night), the whole thing well supported by press, businesses and the local community.

I still didn’t manage a “strike”.

But the town doesn’t content itself with just one major annual sporting spectacle. Each spring sees Lewes Lions Club organising its International Toad in the Hole competition. Toad is a pub game which involves throwing brass coins at a lead topped table with a hole in the middle. East Sussex is apparently home to the country’s only Toad league, with three divisions and a score of teams based in pubs around the county. So, “International” in the sense of “around Lewes”.

“But, what of stoolball?”, I hear you cry. Another Lewesian activity which I was dragooned into playing as soon as I arrived in town.

The game appears to have originated in Sussex, played by milkmaids around the 15th century, using milking stools as wickets, and been a forerunner, not only of cricket, but also of rounders, and even baseball.

Historians have theorised that the game was a Christian adaptation of pagan ball games strongly associated with fertility rites – in the comedy, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the phrase “playing at stool ball” seems to be used as a euphemism for hanky panky, if you’ll pardon the expression.

The game is played on grass with two wickets, a little like the arrangement for cricket, with one team fielding and the other batting. Bowling is underarm, with the ball reaching the batsman on the full as in rounders or baseball rather than bouncing from the pitch as in cricket. The wicket itself is a square piece of wood at head or shoulder height fastened to a post and the bat is shaped like a frying pan. The batsman scores runs as in cricket and can be out caught or run out.

The game appears to have been rediscovered and codified in Victorian times by a local vicar who felt it would make a suitable pursuit for young ladies in their crinolines. This does not explain why, a century later, bearded, overweight blokes are bashing balls with their stools. Or is it the other way round?

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Stoolball seems to have run into something of an evolutionary cul-de-sac compared, say, with cricket or baseball and didn’t manage to hitch a lift on the backs of the Empire builders to reach the far flung corners of the globe (inasmuch as globes actually have corners). There is, sadly, little prospect of Lewes hosting test matches against visiting teams from the West Indies or the Antipodes any time soon. What’s the matter with these people?

“Where Lewes leads”, as the saying goes, “nobody else bothers”. But we’re happy doing what we do. The Lewes Arms, for example, hosts the annual World Pea Throwing Championships, having successfully beaten off a challenge to that title from the nearby village of Wealden over Fracking. Each competitor lobs three of the popular legumes down Castle Ditch Lane next to the pub and the winner is the one whose pea travels furthest. Well, obviously that’s the winner, we’re not that weird. If your pea goes down a grate, you get another go, even if you’re from out of town, which seems very fair.

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Not content with this claim to global pre-eminence – and setting aside for now the delights of its unique “adult” spring panto – the Lewes Arms also plays host to the pastime of dwile flonking (see also dwyle flunking). This surprisingly under-appreciated activity involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team. Ok so far?

As the rules make perfectly obscure, a “dull witted person” is chosen as the referee or “jobanowl”, and the two teams decide who flonks first by tossing a sugar beet. The game begins when the jobanowl shouts, “Here y’go t’gither!”

The non-flonking team joins hands and dances in a circle around a member of the flonking team, a practice known as “girting”. The flonker dips his dwile-tipped “driveller”, made from hazel or yew, into a bucket of beer, then spins around in the opposite direction to the girters and flonks his dwile at them.

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If the dwile misses completely it is known as a “swadger” or a “swage”. When this happens, the flonker must drink the contents of an ale-filled “gazunder” (chamber pot) before the wet dwile has passed from hand to hand along the line of the now non-girting girters chanting the ceremonial mantra of “pot pot pot”.

Now, I’d like to see Gary Neville commentating on that if it were to go to a penalty shootout.

I wouldn’t want to sign off on a blog about excellent local games without a mention of another healthy outdoor sport which East Sussex gave to the world. I talk of course of Poohsticks, devised and codified in this very county by none other than local resident Pooh Bear, in the far off days when we still had ursines at large in Ashdown Forest and the Hundred Acre Wood and before they had been hunted to extinction by supporters of the Countryside Alliance.
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While we are content for non-Lewesians to enjoy their own imitations of our creation on their own “patch”, the game in its truest form belongs here. But, if you do wish to pay homage and play the game at its birthplace, could you please bring your own supply of sticks, as the river banks around Poohsticks Bridge are now somewhat denuded of competition standard timber?

Now, off to the World Marbles Championship just down the road…

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Woodland

If you go down to the woods today…

Wilderness Wood to be precise – in East Sussex – and a delight. Privately owned and run, open to the paying public with trails, barbecues to hire, timber furniture for sale, grow-your-own Christmas trees, a barn with shop and cafe. And a continuing source of pleasure to this blog and its family.

We have walked in the Wood on a nearly weekly basis for more than a decade. The wife happily made an exception to her golden rule of not wandering about in woods on her own. We’ve burnt our burgers and sausages on the industrial scale bbq’s as a family and we’ve burnt them again in a larger social group. Sankersblog has sat it out in the tearoom while others walked, when recovering from major heart surgery, and has eased himself round on crutches after knee replacement (this blog, you may claim, is past its best).

Key family decisions have been made while wandering in Wilderness Wood  — does the frank exchange of views I overheard recently over the phone mean that the wife is about to change her job, is it time for the chief blogger to take early retirement, where are we holidaying this year, which cake shall I have?  We have seen deer. And, I think, a dormouse. Well, it was small and cute and we hadn’t brought it with us.

But the family member most in tune with the ambience and changing seasons at the wood was Molly, the black Labrador. Ears flapping, nose truffling enthusiastically through the fallen leaves, competing with the robins for a meagre crumb outside the cafe, rolling in the mud under the small footbridge by the Blair Witch hut. (I think it’s officially called Streamside Wild Cookout but we used to frighten the bejasus out of our daughter by asking her how much we’d have to pay her before she’d agree to spend a whole night on her own down there).

Molly would expect a stick to be thrown and, in the time honoured way, would – in theory – chase it down. She was however totally useless at finding what you’d just hurled. Bags of enthusiasm, absolutely no aptitude. To compensate, she would instead reappear with a sizeable branch between her teeth, struggling to extricate it from the undergowth. As the walk continued, the scale of these branches would grow steadily and, by the time we were heading back past the Tree of Life (as we christened the mighty beech) towards our well deserved cup of tea, Molly would be trimming passers-by at the knee with a substantial log and we would be shouting our warnings and frequent apologies.

Molly went to meet her doggy maker a year or two back, just short of 14 years old. Mrs A, who, being a vet, knows about these things, said her ashes (Molly’s, not her own) should be laid in her favourite place. The fridge, then? Apparently not; her ashes could really only go down by the Blair Witch hut. So Family Ankers walked slowly and sadly down the trail towards Molly’s muddy haven, bearing the tin containing her remains. But, as we approached the intended final resting place, we were dismayed to find what – by the prominence of a white bridal gown and chaps in tails — was clearly a wedding party occupying the space we felt was rightfully Molly’s on her special day. The wife ventured that we would have to dispose of the ashes at some other location but this blog is made of sterner stuff and pressed on through the throng bearing the tin onto the footbridge. No doubt, if approached, I could have dabbed a little ash onto the odd forehead and hinted at some dark local custom. I stood on the bridge, opened the tin and tossed the ash into the breeze, sadly failing to note the wife’s shouted warning about wind direction. I received Molly’s earthly remains full in the face and hair like something from a sitcom and for some days afterwards noted a grey sheen in the bath and shower — I just knew Molly would never leave me.

I do wonder just how our presence in the background of the wedding photos is explained away.

We still visit the Wood, and we still go down to the footbridge where Molly  now presumably plays her own small, muddy, malodorous part in the ecosystem. Bless.

 

 

 

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