Delving into Dickens

The following article was first published in the December 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

It’s 1843. The last few years have seen Charles Dickens earn a reputation as one of England’s greatest storytellers. Yet he’s not happy. All around him is suffering and injustice, with the children of poor families often sent out to work in dreadful conditions. In addition, there’s no guarantee of education for the children who don’t work. And he can see financial problems of his own on the horizon. Dickens plans to write a pamphlet to express his views… but then changes his mind. Instead he’ll craft a piece of fiction; a work that’ll influence public opinion and hopefully earn him some money. Around six weeks later, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is finished: a fantasy in which the burgeoning traditions of a Victorian Christmas are linked with goodwill to all.

Fast-forward to December 2019, where Darren Heather is directing an adaptation of the tale at Lewes Little Theatre. “We are very much following the traditional line of the story”, he tells me. However, they’ve made a few minor changes to the play, which was created a few years ago by Gary Andrews. “We’re trying to approach it from the social injustice aspect. It will start off relatively dark and get lighter, with Scrooge’s reformation at the end. It’s still a piece of entertainment, not a lecture.”

Why, I ask, is Darren keen to emphasise this particular aspect of the story? “I think it’s a fairly topical thing. We have so many people relying on food banks to just live normally. It’s not quite the same as workhouses but it is a modern version of that.” Darren’s changes to the script have been welcomed by the playwright. “Gary’s been absolutely fantastic, he’s been so supportive.” In fact, he’s even got a role in the show. “I decided fairly early on that Dickens would be a good addition as a character.” As Gary has previously played Charles Dickens in a one-man show, he was an obvious choice. “It’s been a very good collaboration so far – and it’s fantastic to have him physically in the show.”

But there’s more to this presentation than physical appearances. “We’re going to be using a lot of technology and a lot of good lighting effects to tell the story as well.” A number of the scenes will feature back-projected skylines of London, whilst some of the ghosts manifest themselves in video form before coming to life. Alongside the high-tech drama, there’s an original music score.

Ultimately, Darren explains, this is a story about redemption. “The young Ebenezer was a lovely child but something went wrong along the way to make him what he was. I guess he starts off as an isolationist. He starts off being very insular, very much looking inward. Fearing the world, fearing everything, then realising he has to engage with the world to get something out of it.”

A Christmas Carol runs at Lewes Little Theatre from 8th until 14th December 2019. lewestheatre.org

Lewes Repair Cafe

The following article was first published in the September 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Susanne is using a needle and colour-coordinated cotton to reattach the paw of a pastel-striped cuddly sloth. At a table next to her, Fran is ready with a cocktail of adhesives guaranteed to eliminate the wobble from the second-hand table lamp she’s disassembling. On the other side of the room, Paul’s putting a revitalised vacuum cleaner back together, while Roy is delivering a generous squirt of switch-cleaning lubricant to the innards of a noisy wind-up radio.

This is the monthly Lewes Repair Cafe at Landport Community Hub, where a team of enthusiastic and capable volunteers fix anything from toasters to trousers, from chairs to china. Currently, around 30 people are involved or ready to lend a hand, organiser Tony tells me. “We’ve got into a sort-of throwaway culture, because sometimes things are very cheap”, he explains. “The cafe seemed a way of subverting manufacturers’ ways of getting us to buy new stuff.” Although having an item repaired can save the price of a new purchase, even the cost of repairs may be prohibitive. As a result, the Lewes service is free, although donations towards the running costs are appreciated. There’s also a social angle – “getting the community to come together, interacting with each other”, says Tony – as well as a hope that some visitors might learn from the people doing repairs. And yes, calling the event a ‘cafe’ is entirely accurate: you’ll find tea, coffee and an assortment of home-made cakes on offer while waiting for your broken items to be fixed.

“It can sometimes be more expensive to repair things than buy new stuff”, Tony admits. Indeed, some products seem designed deliberately to frustrate the non-professional fixer. Take the iPhone, for example, which requires specialist tools to disassemble it and has key parts glued in place. This type of complexity has even become an election issue in the USA, with politicians arguing that manufacturers should be obliged to provide repair manuals and diagnostic tools rather than forcing customers to rely on authorised service agents.

But repairs aren’t just about fixing a fault. They can restore happy memories, as Fran has found. “I’m usually dealing with people’s sentimental items. If it’s china, it’s always something from their family history. It’s so rewarding – and they’re so grateful.” In some cases, repairs can even improve the original item. Imogen, another of the volunteer menders, chats to me about the Japanese art of kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired with precious metal – often liquid gold or a mixture of lacquer and powdered gold – to enhance rather than disguise the joins. The same applies to her dressmaking skills, she insists. “You grow more in love with clothes you’ve repaired. You like them better.”

The next Lewes Repair Cafe takes place at the Landport Community Hub on Landport Road from 2pm to 5pm on Saturday 21st September, then again on Saturday 19th October. facebook.com/lewesrepaircafe/

Feral

The following article was first published in the July 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

John Foster has, without doubt, a talent for writing crime drama. He’s crafted episodes of classic TV cop shows including Softly Softly, Z Cars, Juliet Bravo and The Bill. He’s also written a BAFTA-winning BBC documentary about detective fiction author Raymond Chandler and devised the story behind murder-mystery film Letters from a Killer, which starred Patrick Swayze. So it’s a surprise when I briefly stop him in his tracks by asking what fascinates him about the darker side of life. “I don’t know, really. I’m quite interested in people who are forced to the brink, as it were. It’s really a means to an end: it’s looking at ways in which you can examine people’s psychology. That’s what interests me. It’s not so much the crimes themselves as why people commit crimes.”

His new play Feral doesn’t start with a crime, although its leading character soon finds themselves on the edges of society. “It was a true story I came across years ago. A teenage boy living on a council estate in Dorset travelled to Cornwall, not knowing why he had this strange call of the wild – and not knowing he was from gypsy heritage, because his parents had kept it quiet. He’d experienced these mental storms, these pulls to nature, but was very resistant until it took over. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for some time.” In John’s play, the boy becomes 18-year-old Simone. “I enjoy writing for female characters more than male characters. Also there’s a move to provide more parts for female actors; it’s been a male-dominated situation for many years. And it rings the changes a bit: it’s a different perspective and raises all kinds of other issues.”

The forthcoming Lewes production of Feral is being performed outdoors, as was the original Bournemouth show last year, although it wasn’t penned with any kind of staging in mind. “It was written as a one-woman show with a lot of descriptions of the outdoors. When we came to work on it [with director Charmaine K Parkin], we thought it was a good idea to perform outside.” Another way in which the play has evolved is its music. Singer and songwriter Hui Hue, who originally performed the role of Simone, turned some of her character’s words into lyrics. “I simply wrote it as a monologue”, admits John. “She took those lines, composed music and sang them. The new actress, Maria Theresa Rodriguez, has done the same and composed one song, so now there are four or five songs in the whole piece. It adds a lot to it.”

Finally, given his long and successful career, I wonder if John has any plans for retirement. He laughs. “The R-word? No, I don’t think so. I shall be at my word processor as they lower me into the coffin.”

Feral takes place in the Gun Garden of Lewes Castle on Sunday 7th July 2019. Tickets available via ticketsource.co.uk/sisata

Loving Androids

The following article was first published in the March 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Imagine a future where relationship counselling is handled by a pair of lifelike robots. Rather than just talking, each becomes a substitute spouse to the human they’re helping. And although these ‘Partnerbots’ are capable of offering physical comfort, they also assess and role-play the problems they discover. Consequently, the human couple quickly gain a new insight into their incompatibility, at which point the robots are taken away to have their memories wiped clean.

Fortunately this isn’t a dystopian nightmare. It’s the premise of Loving Androids, a comedy drama crafted by Philip Ayckbourn. Not only is Philip the writer, he’s also directing the forthcoming production at Lewes Little Theatre, where his farce Timeshare was performed in 2017.

Philip Ayckbourn (photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes)

“I’ve always been interested in gadgets and people”, Philip tells me. Those interests coincided in Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, which saw human-looking robots used as entertainment in an adventure park. “I was hugely influenced by that”, he explains. “I was very interested about their lives and how the humans treated them as playthings.”

“The Partnerbots are quite human-like, they’re not clunky, which also makes the margins a bit blurred. They’re not just a toy you can switch off; they have feelings because they’ve been programmed in a very advanced way.”

A robot counsellor is a fascinating proposition but it’s not a straightforward one for the actors to interpret. “It is a challenge – it’s a challenge for me, too”, Philip says. “It really comes from movement, from stillness, really. Starting from nothing and building up from the stillness. It gives them a great power and strength, which is lovely to watch. If they become too animated, too emotional, they become more human.”

Science fiction isn’t the only influence on Loving Androids. This play – and Timeshare, too – have a comedic style that owes a debt to Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Philip’s father. “The Ayckbourn DNA is there”, I suggest. “I’m very aware of that when I’m writing”, Philip replies. ”Obviously I’m steeped in his work. There’s no escaping that – which I think isn’t a bad thing; I feel very fortunate for that DNA. Something I really admire about him is the comedy; the ability to find the right word, the right line, to set something up and the payoff. And since principally I’m concerned with comedy, that’s very good DNA to be able to call on.”

“When you’re playing with slightly heightened or unreal situations – like Loving Androids – you need humour, I think, for people to go along with the believability of it.”

There’s a supernatural Ayckbourn double-bill planned for the 2019-2020 season at Lewes Little Theatre, featuring Haunting Julia by Sir Alan plus Psychic Connections by Philip. But, like android counsellors, that’s yet to come. Right now, Philip’s heading back to rehearsals… and teaching people how to be less human.

Loving Androids runs at Lewes Little Theatre from 16th to 23rd March 2019. lewestheatre.org

Rule 1: Everyone Talks About Album Club

The following article was first published in the January 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Back in June 2018, music publicist Del Day and musician Danny George took over Union Music Store from founders Stevie and Jamie Freeman. In some ways, little has changed. It’s still very much the antidote to mainstream online retailing: a local record shop where the owners love discovering new music and sharing their knowledge. Despite this, they’re also happy to order anything you want. “We’re not snobs but we’ve only got a certain amount of space to play with”, Danny admits. It’s what Del describes as a curated approach. “We want it to be a shop where you can pick a record up and we go ‘that’s a great record’ and genuinely mean it. It’s becoming a little arts hub here for us – and we’d like to extend that.”

Del and Danny at Union Music Store. (Photo: Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes)

Look closer and you’ll spot a broadening of genres, heralded on my visit by the jazz trumpet of Lee Morgan greeting me as I walked through the door. “Since we moved in we’ve expanded the range of stock”, Del tells me, “so rather than just being a specialist Americana/country shop, we’ve now got world, jazz, blues, some classic rock and a lot more interesting left-field records.” You’ll also discover loads more vinyl albums – “we’re probably 80% new and used vinyl” – and, if you turn up on the last Wednesday evening of any given month, there’s a good chance you’ll find a session of the shop’s Album Club taking place.

Album Club is “essentially like a book club”, Del explains, attracting an even mix of men and women. You buy a copy of the month’s chosen album – obviously the shop would appreciate your custom but what’s more important to them is that people obtain a physical copy rather than relying on streaming services – and you listen to it as much as you can. “It’s about embracing the art form again and actually cherishing buying the record. And this gives you a chance to reinforce that.” Whoever turns up for the meeting will find the kettle on and beer in the fridge. “We meet in here at 7.30pm, we play back the record and we discuss it for about two hours”, says Del. “It’s basically a chance to nourish that artistic element in your head.” There’s no fee and no obligation to stay until the end.

Union Music Store has hosted five album club meetings so far, from Damien Jurado to Janelle Monáe. January’s meeting will be listening to Merrie Men, the latest album from supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Yes, it’s a diverse collection – but what’s the point? Del has a characteristically matter-of-fact answer. “It’s a little bit of publicity for our shop, it’s a way of embracing the art form, which we think is really important, and it’s also a social event. It’s immensely enjoyable. I really look forward to it.”

Union Music Store, 1 Lansdown Place, Lewes. unionmusicstore.com

Treasonable tomfoolery

The following article was first published in the December 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Mark Brailsford is uncharacteristically lost for the right phrase. “I know you can’t use that word. There might be a better word without swearing.” His eyes twinkle. “It’s a clusterfudge.” Our conversation has turned to Brexit, which is certain to be a key part of the satirical revue he’s directing this month. “We scattergun everyone, both sides get it from The Treason Show, but because the dominant narrative is so incompetent, we only have to cover what’s going on and we look like we’re biased. And I can’t help that, because Brexit is a disaster. Whichever way you look at it.”

Now in its 19th year, The Treason Show has become a Brighton institution, reflecting current affairs in a collection of comedy sketches and songs. In recent years, the group’s annual end-of-year show – That Was The Year That Was – has even spread beyond the city to Lewes and Shoreham-by-Sea.

Although Mark founded the show, he’s keen to emphasise the collaboration involved. He reckons there have been well over 300 contributors since the original cast of four trod the boards at Brighton’s Komedia. However, The Treason Show might easily never have happened at all. Back in 1999, Mark mentioned his work on the Radio 4 Week Ending sketch show when he met Geoffrey Perkins, then BBC Head of Comedy. The Perkins response was “That taught you two things: how not to write and how not to be funny.” Mark “loved him even more after that” and decided to drop satire in favour of playwriting. Whilst arranging for his latest play to be performed at Komedia, he was asked if he’d like to set up a topical sketch show. Despite hesitating initially, Mark decided on a three-month trial in June 2000. “After two marriages and near-bankruptcy as well, the company motto is ‘we’re still here’.”

Indeed they are – and in the final stages of assembling this year’s conclusive performances. “You would think the Christmas show, which is a ‘best bits’ show, would be easier to put together than the regular shows. It’s not. It’s actually harder. Because it’s a review of the year, it has to encompass the big stories and then marry up with our best material – and those aren’t always the same thing.” Ultimately, Mark’s aiming for “a distillation of the narrative”, he says. “There are story arcs for every year. You will see a thread of triggering moments that everybody’s reacted to throughout 2018.” And so we return to “the b-word”, as Mark puts it. “There will definitely be a reaction to Brexit stuff. A mix of people going ‘I don’t like that’ and others cheering wildly. We want it to be a unifying, cathartic experience. Making people laugh together. It’s tougher to do comedy these days.”

That Was The Year That Was 2018 is at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes on Saturday 22nd and at Horatio’s on Brighton’s Palace Pier from Thursday 27th until Monday 31st. treasonshow.co.uk

Dickens Digested

The following article was first published in the November 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

David Lean’s 1946 film version of Great Expectations won two Academy Awards and went on to earn itself fifth place on the British Film Institute’s list of the best 20th century films. It’s also directly responsible for a theatrical presentation of the story coming to Lewes.

Shaun Hughes at Lewes Little Theatre
Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

“I’ve always thought it was one of the best movies of all time”, says Shaun Hughes, who’s directing a stage version of Great Expectations at Lewes Little Theatre this month. “And that hooked me into Dickens.” Shaun’s theatrical career started when he was a professional dancer, before expanding into acting, singing and design. These days his stage work is a hobby, albeit a hobby that keeps him very busy: next year he’s directing Shakespeare’s King Lear in Surrey and then taking the show to Germany.

There’s a Shakespearean link with this version of the story, too. It was written in 2005 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod for the Royal Shakespeare Company and, Shaun tells me, attracted him because of its similarities with the RSC’s earlier production of Nicholas Nickelby. “That involved people talking to the audience directly, furniture came and went, and the actors played many roles. This reminded me very much of that.”

Compressing a 500-page novel into two hours has resulted in a show that’s “really fast paced”, according to Shaun. “There is a lot going on and all of the actors have got to play a variety of roles”. He’s using a composite set that represents a number of different locations, with cast members moving the staging when required, rather than relying on scene changes and stage crew. “There’s no such thing as an entire blackout. Something pulls the eye and the audience will look at it – which is only right; they’re here to watch a story being told.”

That tale takes place over quite a few years, so I ask Shaun how the aging of key characters will be conveyed. “Pip, the main character, will change costume on stage to show him changing from being a boy to a young man to an adult. There won’t be any makeup involved but it’ll be down to his ability to act. And Estella, the same. They’ll both be playing their younger selves and then their adult selves.” This sounds like challenging work for the cast, I suggest. “They’re all excellent, absolutely amazing.”

Ultimately, the fact that a lengthy 150-year-old novel can be transformed into a compact contemporary play is a testament to the skills of Charles Dickens. Shaun agrees wholeheartedly. “He’s writing stories that are romantic. They always end in a positive. Although there may be many negatives along the way, people always travel through his stories: Oliver, Pip, Scrooge – they travel and change… and come out the other end a better person. It’s very, very appealing.”

Great Expectations runs at Lewes Little Theatre from Saturday 24 November until Saturday 1 December 2018. lewestheatre.org

Live, Love, Laugh

The following article was first published in the October 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

When it opened in 1971, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies was a contemporary tale set in a dilapidated New York theatre. “A lot of the context is very topical for that time”, says Thomas Hackett, who’s directing a version for LOS Musical Theatre in Lewes this month. “We’re setting it when it was written. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” We’ve found a quiet spot for a chat during rehearsals by squeezing into the costume store, which seems particularly appropriate for a story about theatrical lives. “It’s about growing up and looking back at your younger self. Your course may have changed but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong”. Before the fictional theatre closes forever, former members of Weismann’s Follies reunite on stage for one last time. “They were showgirls, they’re proper performers”, says Thomas. This, he tells me with a smile, is why he’s working with choreographer Star Bray. “I need someone who knows what they’re doing, not just to wing it myself!”

Fortunately there’s space in the storeroom for all three of us. “We both wanted to keep the choreography as part of the story, rather than the singing and the dancing being separate”, explains Star. “The music is beautiful. You have the opportunity for Charleston, for 1940s close-hold jive, for Shim Sham, and we’ve got elements of Fosse as well. There are plenty of different dance styles to play around with, which has been fun”.

“We’ve been incredibly blessed with the amount of talent that has rocked up”, Thomas adds. “We have this plethora of leading ladies with so many credits to their name – here, Brighton, Eastbourne – and they’ve brought all that talent. Every time something happens on stage, it’s a highlight.” Not only is the show packed with performers, it’s also packed with Sondheim songs. “When he wrote it, it was an homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein, to Oscar Straus… Obviously ‘Losing My Mind’ is the big torch song, ‘I’m Still Here’ is another big number but, as a piece, it’s really hard to break it down. I look on it very much as a whole.”

Although Thomas has kept the show rooted in the 1970s, he’s made one change from the Broadway production. “We’re breaking for an interval. When Sondheim originally wrote it, he didn’t want one but an interval was subsequently put in the script. It’s a long time to sit and hold focus. And there’s a social side as well; having a chat at the bar is part of an evening out.” As I emerge from the costume store, I ask the director what message he has for those sociable theatregoers of Lewes. “More than anything, if you don’t know it, you need to see it.” To which his choreographer adds “And if you have seen it and you do know it, then you’ll want to see it again”.

Follies runs from Wednesday 3rd until Saturday 6th October 2018 at Lewes Town Hall. Tickets via losmusicaltheatre.org.uk

Starting Out

The story of my introduction to journalism was published in the July/August 2018 edition of The Journalist, the magazine of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ):

Jim Rockford, the fictional private detective played on TV by James Garner in the 1970s, made a big impact on me as a child. Jim lived in a static mobile home – what an intriguing notion for a youngster – and solved mysteries. ‘Cold cases’ mainly, because he didn’t like upsetting the police. A sensible maxim, I thought. Perhaps one day I’d have a similar job, solving mysteries and not upsetting people.