Chess: Political Pawns

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

It’s 1984. US president Ronald Reagan is cracking jokes about bombing Russia. There’s political tension between West and East. The CIA and the KGB are spying on each other. And Chess, an allegorical musical about international rivals, has just been announced by the unlikely triumvirate of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice. Their concept album heads into the top 40 and the subsequent West End show opens in 1986.

Three decades later, the musical is about to be revived on the London stage… but not before Lewes gets its own production, courtesy of the LOS Musical Theatre company. Andy Freeman, who’s directing the local version, allays any worries about the plot. “You don’t need to know about the game of chess”, he tells me. “If someone’s coming along, expecting to be confused by ‘Knight to Bishop’s Pawn Three’ or something like that, they’re not going to be.” Although the story is packed with comparisons between chess playing and political machinations, it’s actually a love story connecting American chess whizzkid Freddie Trumper, his assistant Florence Vassy, Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky and the family he’s left at home. “It’s a love triangle that pretty much spreads into a love square, if you can have such a thing”, Andy explains. “Underlying everything is the partisanship of the Americans, of the Russians, and the puppet-masters pulling the strings of their players.”

Back in the 1980s, the Cold War was a genuine threat to peace and the Berlin Wall was dividing Germany. Does Chess still have relevance to the 21st century? “There is always something going on somewhere in the world where one country is playing off against another”, Andy says. “Big countries, big organisations, they still use their athletes, their chess players, whoever, to their own ends.”

The music has also aged well, thanks to the partnership of Benny and Björn – best known as the guys from ABBA – and the storytelling of lyricist Tim Rice. “There’s some cracking stuff in it, some beautiful music”, Andy explains. “It’s picked up the flavour of the 80s but there’s other stuff there that would sit happily in any musical written today. Some of the choral pieces are almost classical.”

As well as singing the praises of the performers, Andy is equally enthusiastic about Liz Allsobrook’s “stunning” set design. “We’re doing it as a black stage, which is one of my trademarks, and we’ve just got white cubes that we will move around – half a dozen big ones, half a dozen little ones – they can be beds, they can be tables, they can be a desk in a TV studio or whatever. For the first time we also have this whizzy backdrop that is a flexible LED screen.”

And what about that rival production from English National Opera? “I shall go and see it. See if they can get anywhere near ours. We don’t feel threatened!”

Chess runs from 10th – 14th April 2018 at the Town Hall.

Belongings: Music and Migration at Glyndebourne

The following article was first published in the November 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Walking into the staff café at Glyndebourne, I find myself surrounded by dozens of excited children who are taking a break from rehearsing a new opera. ‘Belongings’, composed by Lewis Murphy with words by Laura Attridge, compares the lives of World War 2 evacuees with present-day refugees fleeing war zones. As the youngsters return to the stage, Lewis sits down with a coffee. I ask him if there’s a moral to the story. “If there is a moral, it’s about learning from history”, he tells me. “It’s about openness and human connection. As well as entertaining the audience, I’m hoping we can make them ask questions of themselves.”

Glasgow-born Lewis has been Glyndebourne’s Young Composer in Residence since 2015, before which, he admits, “opera was quite new to me”. He’s clearly a fast learner. As well as composing ‘Belongings’, he’s subsequently been commissioned with librettist Laura to write for Scottish Opera. Should we expect more music from the Attridge and Murphy partnership? “Whether we actually brand it as that, who knows. But in terms of setting ourselves up and promoting ourselves as creators of new opera, it’s something we are interested in. We’ve reached a point now where we feel comfortable working together.”

This type of collaborative approach runs throughout Belongings. “Lucy Bradley, our director, was involved from the very beginning of the project, talking with me and the librettist about the story and trying to structure the narrative of the whole piece. And Lee Reynolds, our conductor, has also been heavily involved.”

Earlier this year, culture and arts project The Complete Freedom of Truth arranged for all four members of the creative team to visit the Italian town of Sarteano and meet young people in a refugee community. Lucy encouraged the community to perform an improvised drama that represented ‘home’. “It was really heart-warming, touching and very humbling for us to see what these guys missed”, Lewis says. “It was the first time we’d actually had direct contact with people who’d been through that situation.”

Insight from the trip has been passed on to the 65 members of Glyndebourne Youth Opera, aged between 9 and 19, who are singing alongside three professional singers: Rodney Earl Clarke, Leslie Davis and Nardus Williams. “The production taking shape here looks incredible, so I’m really excited to see what happens.” There’s a special show for schools followed by one public performance – but what next? “I would love to get it performed again”, Lewis says. “I think it is still a very relevant piece for our times. Themes of displacement and people being thrown into a new environment; these have happened throughout history and will probably continue to happen. As soon as you create conflict, people have to move.”

Belongings will be performed at Glyndebourne on Saturday 11 November. Tickets available from 01273 815000 /

The Askew Sisters

The following article was first published in the October 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Hazel Askew is half of a folk duo that played one of its first professional shows at the Lewes Arms around a decade ago. She and sibling Emily return to the town this month with a music workshop and gig.

When did you and your sister first play music together?
Probably towards the end of primary school. In our early teenage years we had a little band called Rubber Chicken, of all things! When we were a few years older and I started playing melodeon and Emily played the fiddle, it fell into place a bit more as a duo. That’s when we started performing more seriously.

A lot of early musical instruments seem less sophisticated than their modern counterparts. Why are they so appealing to you?
Early instruments are less technically sophisticated but we love the quality of their sound. For example, the vielle (medieval fiddle) is slightly larger than a modern fiddle but has gut strings and no sound post, meaning it is quieter and has a beautiful earthy resonance.

Where does ‘early music’ and ‘folk music’ overlap?
The distinction between folk/traditional music and ‘art music’ is much clearer now than it would have been in medieval times. If you look at the surviving music from that era, a lot of the melodies sound like folk tunes. Music would have been more improvised, much like folk music today. The idea of notating every expression, dynamic and ornament in music has only been around a few hundred years.

How do you choose songs for your albums?
We love how folk music connects people in different ways, including the way that narratives from the past can strike a chord hundreds of years later. Often we are drawn to songs like that. As I get older and I’m more in tune with the subtleties of the personal, political and social struggles I see around me and hear about in the world, I find that I’m much more picky about what traditional songs I want to sing. For example, I find the gender politics of some traditional songs interesting to navigate, and that’s much more nuanced than just wanting to sing songs about ‘strong women’, whatever that actually means. It’s not about never singing a song that has something potentially problematic in it, but whether the way you sing it and introduce it on stage highlights that or just lets it go as the status quo.

What will people learn in your Early Music for Folk Musicians workshop?
We will cover a range of different early tunes and songs from England, France, Spain and Italy. We’ll also bring lots of instruments to demonstrate and lots of material so we can tailor it a little to the needs to the participants. We really enjoy teaching folk and early music; it belongs to everyone, so we love encouraging people to play it.

The Askew Sisters play the Elephant and Castle at 8pm on Saturday 21st Oct. Tickets £8. Full details of the workshop from / 01273 476757

Record Store Day 2017

The following article was first published in the April 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Stevie Freeman
Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

Record Store Day is a worldwide celebration of independent record shops, prompting many musicians to release special vinyl versions of their songs. “It’s like Christmas”, says Stevie Freeman of Union Music Store. The Lewes shop she runs with husband Jamie will be open from 8am on Saturday 22nd April for this year’s event, with queues of people expected outside. “Last year the first person was here at about five in the morning”, Stevie tells me. “Luckily Tanya [Laporte’s café] opens early for coffee. And then from 12 noon until 5pm we’ll have a stage outside with live music. We generally get a barrel of Harvey’s, so you can have a pint while you’re listening to your music as well.”

Behind the scenes, Record Store Day is serious business. A retail code of conduct commits participating businesses to not taking pre-orders or reservations for their exclusive vinyl stock. Stevie can’t tell me which of the Record Store Day discs she’ll have in stock because there’s a strict embargo until the end of March. “Around 800 special edition titles are released for Record Store Day. Some will have just 500 copies; the most that any release gets is probably 5,000 copies worldwide”. As a result, there are no guarantees. “We look at the list and ask ourselves what our customers would want. But we might order ten copies and just get one or two. Generally we won’t know what we’ve actually got until the week before, when stuff starts arriving. Then we’ll publish it on our website.”

Limited-edition versions of vinyl records aren’t simply collector’s items, Stevie explains. They’re also helping build a connection between artists, record labels, retailers and music-lovers. “That’s such an important thing. It had got lost but I think we’ve found it again. I might have one or two customers who collect and don’t play their vinyl but I’d say 99% of vinyl that I sell is for people who want to play it. I know this because last Christmas we sold more record players than anything else.” It’s surely no coincidence that December 2016 also saw UK consumers spending more on vinyl records than they did on digital downloads.

Last year’s Record Store Day witnessed half-a-dozen acts turning up in Lewes, so who’s expected this year? Another secret, sadly. “I haven’t got any names I can give you yet… but it’s going to be great”, Stevie assures me. Given that she’s attracted acclaimed Nashville fiddle players 10 String Symphony to the town for a show at the Con Club on Sunday 2nd April, plus award-winning folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow on Thursday 27th, it promises to be an entertaining afternoon. “It’s been great every year and we’ve had some surprise visits from bands. So come along on the day, even if you don’t want to buy vinyl. It’s a big fun party.”

1 Lansdown Place, Lewes.

My Space: Dr Bike Lewes

The following article was first published in the March 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Bob Trotter, volunteer bicycle fixer

Photos by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

You’ll find us outside the Nutty Wizard every Saturday morning, at the junction of Cliffe High Street and South Street. From March we’re there from 9.30am until 12.30pm.

Dr Bike is a group of cycle enthusiasts who want to help local people to use their bikes more. We offer friendly help to cyclists who have fairly basic bikes that are in need of first aid. Most bikes go wrong because they haven’t been maintained: cables seize up through lack of oil, brake blocks wear out, gears go out of adjustment or tyres go flat. We can even sometimes unbuckle a wheel but that depends on the state of the spokes. Higher-end bikes or those needing more complicated repairs are better served by Lewes’s two Cycle Shack outlets.

At the moment there are around eight Dr Bikers in total, usually with three or four volunteers on duty each week. The service began in 1991, shortly after the first Lewes Green Wheels Day to encourage the use of sustainable transport. Pete Barnes and Chris Franks were the two original ‘doctors’. They were based outside Fitzroy House, the old library building opposite Boots, which is where Chris lived at the time. By 2014 Chris had moved away and the Farmers Market was being held on the precinct twice a month, so we moved our surgery to the Nutty Wizard building.

I’ve been told the Nutty Wizard was originally a public toilet before it was converted. It now hosts a youth club, book swaps days, language lessons, an occasional cafe and much more. Dr Bike helps support all this with any extra money we’re given.

We only charge trade prices for the parts we supply. Customers can make a donation for our labour, which pays for our insurance, tools and rent.

Our most important piece of kit is the work stand, which holds a bike up in the air so the wheels can rotate. It means we can fix gears, brakes and punctures without getting a bad back. We’ve got a well-stocked tool box, puncture repair kits, cable inners and outers, brake blocks and, most importantly, lots of good oil.

I started volunteering in November 2013. I’d previously worked in the fire service with one of the other Dr Bikers but now I am a cycle trainer for East Sussex County Council, teaching Bikeability; a road-based version of the old Cycling Proficiency Test.

Whatever your views on global warming and green travel, cycling will make you fitter and is more fun – especially when you can pedal past traffic jams on our ever-expanding cycle route network. I often find I can actually get somewhere quicker by bike than by driving, so it’s win-win. If the only thing preventing you from cycling more is a poorly bike, then maybe it’s time to take it to the doctors!

As told to Mark Bridge |

Dr Bike Lewes

Directory Spotlight

The following article was first published in the February 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

Directory Spotlight: Mobile chiropodist Alison Merrien

I treat people in the comfort of their own homes. I travel around on foot with my trolley, which carries my instruments and equipment. I cover all of Lewes and also come out to Ringmer on the 28 bus.

I have been a chiropodist for over twenty years and am registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). They’re an independent regulator set up for the patient’s benefit.

People have problems with their feet for many different reasons. Often it’s inappropriate or badly-fitting footwear. Some have underlying health issues that affect their feet, such as poor circulation or diabetes. Others may have back problems or knee problems and can’t physically reach their feet any more. And if your eyesight isn’t good, you could cut yourself instead of your toenails.

Neglecting your feet is the worst thing you can do to them. They can change shape and size all the way through your life. So when you buy shoes, it’s best if you get them fitted professionally.

Try not to wear the same pair of shoes for two days in a row. Your feet sweat, even though you’re not aware of it, and the shoes will pick up that perspiration. They need time to dry out and go back to their normal shape.

I love it when my patients tell me how comfortable their feet feel after I’ve completed my treatment. When they’re happy, I’m happy.

Interview by Mark Bridge

Telephone 07722 725096

Opera Anywhere

The following article was first published in the December 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

The British tradition of wandering minstrels and itinerant actors can be traced back for hundreds of years. Transporting that tradition into the 21st century is Opera Anywhere, a touring company bringing music and drama to venues across the country, from railway stations to stately homes. Now a registered charity, the group was formed in 2000 by married couple Mike and Vanessa Woodward. “We have a passion for making opera accessible”, Mike tells us. “Not just pricing but choosing venues where people can be comfortable and happy.”

It’s the intimacy of performing in smaller locations that particularly appeals to Opera Anywhere. They’ll happily put on a show anywhere within commuting distance of their Oxfordshire base. “We tend to leave early on the morning of the performance and will do a half-day rehearsal in the venue before the performance in the evening. It’s quite gruelling but it works.”

The set, the costumes and the performers all travel in two customised vans, sometimes with lighting equipment and a temporary stage as well. This lean yet practical style also applies to the company structure: Mike is the only full-time employee, his wife Vanessa works part-time and the board of trustees are all volunteers. Everyone else is freelance, contracted for a particular show. When the Opera Anywhere vans arrive in Lewes, they’ll bring ten professional singers and a ‘mini-orchestra’ of two musicians. Mike’s the stage manager and production manager, helped in his duties by a lighting designer and Vanessa, who manages the costumes.

They’re performing The Magic Flute at the moment. “From a musical point of view, I think it’s one of Mozart’s best-crafted operas”, says Mike. “The storyline is a magical tale that attracts all ages. There are some great tunes… and some great voice types on display.” There are also changes from Mozart’s original work. “We’ve got a fantastic English edition of the opera. This production is set in the 1950s with a kind-of Hollywood glamour theme. It’s been carefully edited to just over 2 hours long, so the story still makes sense but has a faster pace.”

Although the world-class Glyndebourne opera house is just up the road, Mike still expects Lewes to deliver the usual broad audience that his shows attract. “Sometimes you get people who have never seen an opera before; some people will come because it’s their particular favourite.” And there’s no rivalry between opera companies, either. “People in this industry don’t really see each other as competitive. We’re all here to celebrate this fantastic art form”.

But what makes opera so special? “I find the combination of music and drama to be the ultimate theatrical experience”, Mike explains. “It reaches a whole range of senses. It compels you to give it your complete concentration. You completely switch off from everything else that’s going on in your life for a couple of hours.”

The Magic Flute is performed at Lewes Little Theatre on Friday 30th December 2016 at 6pm. Tickets £20 from or telephone 0333 666 3366

LewesLight 2016

The following article was first published in the October 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

LewesLight isn’t exactly what I thought. Although the name offers a clue, anyone who imagines it’s a celebration of floodlit local landmarks is missing the point. “We’re all about context and people”, lighting designer Graham Festenstein tells me, “not simply an engineering exercise”. And he’d rather I didn’t use the f-word. “As designers, we don’t particularly like the term ‘floodlight’. It does what it implies. That’s the old-fashioned way. We’re generally working to enhance the nature of what’s there – the colours, the materials – not to distort them.”

Unlike some similar international events, LewesLight isn’t just about creating something artistic. “It’s very site-specific”, Graham explains, “looking at the context of the space”. This year the festival is focussed on history, with a theme described as ‘The darker side of Lewes life’. It promises to go beyond familiar local events. “The idea is to investigate less well-known stories and those that have a more scandalous or darker undertone.”

The day-to-day management of the LewesLight festival is handled by three people: Graham Festenstein, Phil Rose from Sussex Downs College, who’s the festival’s Community Coordinator, and history consultant Edwina Livesey. They’re part of an organising committee that’s worked to ensure almost everyone involved has a local connection, including the lighting designers and artists who have been invited to take part. There’s been financial support from Lewes Town Council and a few other sponsors, although much of the assistance arrives in the form of equipment loans from architectural lighting manufacturers and suppliers. “The lighting companies tend to help us by providing us with equipment”, Graham says, “and they also provide personnel to help us put it in and get it all working properly.”

There’s a strong educational link to this year’s event. LewesLight has partnered with the local Sussex Downs College campus, working closely with Production Arts, Digital Arts, History, Tourism and Marketing students. It’s also developing STEM workshops (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with local schools, supported by Sussex University. In addition, LewesLight is promoting energy-efficient lighting and explaining the importance of ‘dark skies’. All of last year’s event only generated the same amount of electricity as half a football match under floodlights, Graham tells me, which demonstrates the effectiveness of LED lights.

In fact, the 2016 electricity bill could be one of the few aspects of LewesLight that’s largely unchanged from last year’s festival. Participating locations will be better advertised, there’ll be clearer maps and the guided tours will contain more information. There’ll be different venues as well: Graham tells me I shouldn’t assume it’ll be all the ‘old favourites’ illuminated this month. “We’re not doing all the same sites. There’s always going to be a little bit of overlap but, if we do overlap, we’ll have a different designer.”

LewesLight starts on Monday 10th, with installations around the town on the evenings of Friday 14th, Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th.

Lewes Octoberfeast

The following article was first published in the September 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Sometimes it seems that every other shop in Lewes wants to sell you a cappuccino… yet we’re also a town with food banks as well as farmers’ markets. In the middle of this complexity sits Lewes Octoberfeast, a celebration of food in September and October that focuses on enjoyment and education – from home cooking to watching professional chefs in action.

Capturing the essence of Octoberfeast in a single event is the free Feast & Food School, which takes place in Harvey’s brewery yard on Saturday 17th September. One of the special guests is Brighton’s Kate Henry, who appeared as a competitor on BBC TV’s The Great British Bake Off in 2014. I ask her what’s planned. “Oooh – I’ll be making something sweet and scrumptious”, she reveals. “Probably a chocolate cake, but it will have little or no sugar in it.” She describes sugar as “the greatest threat to human health, bar none” and has turned to what she describes as “new age sweeteners”, such as plant-derived stevia. “I’ve had to unlearn all that I thought I knew about sweet baking and start again.” Kate’s love for cooking has transformed her life after Bake Off: “I’m a full-time food person! I work with brands, consulting and developing low sugar recipes for their ranges; I am also working with a couple of beverage companies to pair their drinks with my food. I try to host a few supper clubs and pop-ups, too – and I demo when I can.”

There’s a different kind of demonstration on offer at The Butcher, The Farmer & The Cook, which takes place on Wednesday 28th September at The Riverside. Food writer and cook Hattie Ellis joins forces with fifth-generation butcher Danny Lidgate and farmers Maxine and Ivan May (of May’s Farm Cart) to explain how to get the best from a local butcher. “Danny will demonstrate his craft”, Hattie tells me, “he’s astonishing to watch, like a tailor with a beautiful piece of cloth. And I’ll be talking to Maxine and Ivan about local meat, food supply and nose-to-tail butchery. How you can use the cheaper but really delicious cuts, and how to cook bigger pieces of meat.”

Hattie’s books go beyond recipes to investigate where food comes from and to learn about the people who produce it. “In countries such as Italy and France, it’s not considered ‘foody’ to be into food. It’s just normal. Celebrating food doesn’t have to make it elitist. The more you know about food, the more you appreciate it – and the more an everyday necessity becomes something you share and enjoy.” It’s a sentiment that’s also at the heart of Lewes Octoberfeast, whether that’s expert demonstrations or pop-up restaurants. Bon appétit.

Octoberfeast 2016 starts 16th September. Full details are in the Octoberfeast booklet (available from venues across town) or online at

Addicted to Bass

The following article was first published in the June 2016 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Velvet-voiced Christopher Purves returns to Glyndebourne

“Where’s home?”, I ask baritone Christopher Purves as we sit in the gardens at Glyndebourne. He’s taking a break from rehearsals for The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that weaves love stories around a forester and a fox. “Apparently it’s in Oxford”, he laughs. “I’ll be back home Saturday afternoon and then back here on Sunday evening, very late. So I get a day and a half at home, which is not enough but that’s just the way it goes. We’re relatively used to it.” These days Christopher sings his way around the world, staying in temporary accommodation when performing in Europe, the United States and Australia. “When the kids were small I would not go abroad, just because I thought ‘this is ludicrous, not being able to see them at all’. I couldn’t think of a good enough reason to ruin my life so completely.”

It’s now 20 years since Christopher first came to Glyndebourne as an understudy before returning to perform in 2007, 2009 and – in a ‘truly fearsome and mesmerising performance’, according to Opera Today – the title role in Handel’s Saul last year. “It’s a wonderful thing to have your so-called art appreciated to such an extent”, he admits. “It was the best fun I’ve ever had.”

Christopher Purves has been singing since childhood. “I’m the youngest of four boys in the family. I think I had to fight for attention.” As a youngster, he was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. In his 20s, he spent several years as part of doo-wop band Harvey and the Wallbangers before heading into opera. But where does the acting come from? “I’ve got no idea”, he tells me. “If you talk to anyone and ask them what they’re doing, they’ll try and explain it to you in ways you can understand. I think opera is precisely that. We’re given scenarios that are rather weird and we have to explain them. It’s an extreme version of talking.”

His role as the Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen is “quite a soulful man”, Christopher says. “He’s not sad, he’s not desperately happy, but he’s normal. I think a lot of people can understand where his life is going. It’s very touchingly human.” And the internationally-travelled singer who portrays him is equally down-to-earth. “I love being at home. It’s an extraordinary thing but it’s true. I can take my dog for a walk, I can cook an evening meal, I can spend time talking to my sons – my daughter is away at the moment – you know, just normal life that people take for granted. For me it’s such a blessing. But I still enjoy the buzz; I still enjoy the excitement of starting up a new rehearsal period for a new opera. So, I think while that excitement still exists, I will carry on.”

Glyndebourne Festival 2016 runs until late August. The Cunning Little Vixen opens on Sunday 12 June.