The Elephant Man

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

“I think audiences will be surprised”, Alison Grant tells me. She’s directing the forthcoming production of Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man at Lewes Little Theatre. “It’s very fast paced, with wit and humour.” The play is a dramatised biography of Joseph Merrick, whose bone deformities and skin disorder led to him joining a Victorian ‘freak show’, until a chance encounter with surgeon Frederick Treves transformed his life.

“What drew me to this play is how people judge and misunderstand”, explains Alison. She first joined Lewes Theatre Club as a teenager in 1967 “to get away from my parents on a Tuesday evening”. Later, whilst living in America, she was responsible for one of the first amateur productions of the play. “Unlike the film with John Hurt, this play is very much about what’s going on inside Merrick. Because of his appearance, people expected him to be an imbecile. He was, in fact, very intelligent and sensitive.”

Philip Dunn as John Merrick
Philip Dunn in character as John Merrick. (Photo by Mark Bridge.)

The actor playing the Elephant Man – referred to as John Merrick in the play – is Philip Dunn. Opposite him, as Frederick Treves, is Chris Parke. “Treves is almost the main character. His character arc is really rather intense. Then we’ve got Emily Lassalle, who’s playing Mrs Kendall, a high-society actress. She relates to the wounded soul in John Merrick… and he falls in love with her.”

Instead of using prosthetics and make-up, the Elephant Man’s appearance is suggested through Philip Dunn’s performance. “A lot of the play’s theme is about illusion and mirroring”, Alison tells me. “I think John Merrick mirrored back to people what they liked about themselves, or, in the case of Treves, what they didn’t like about themselves, which is why he succeeded so well in society. And that’s what happens with an audience: people receive whatever the play is reflecting back to them.”

I ask Alison if the play is a tragedy. “It’s tragic, in that Merrick’s inner life doesn’t match his exterior life. And the other side of the story is the surgeon, Mr Treves. He starts off in control, very sure of himself, but starts to question all his values. So it’s a little tragic for him, too.”

Behind the production is one further heartbreak that’s not in any script. Last July, Alison’s grandson Tyler died at the age of three, his life shortened by a medical condition that prevented him from moving at all. “He didn’t cry. On the outside he was a perfect child, this little locked-in boy. But we didn’t know what he was thinking. In an age where we’re so image-conscious, with people having facial surgery to look ‘more perfect’, this seemed a good topic to be exploring. And that’s why I particularly wanted to put the play on here, in Lewes, at this time.”

Performances Mon 21 to Sat 26 at 7.45pm, plus Saturday matinee 2.45pm. Tickets £10 from 01273 474826 lewestheatre.org

Interview with Philip Ayckbourn

Philip Ayckbourn
Philip Ayckbourn. (Photo by Mark Bridge.)

The following interview was first published in the February 2016​ edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

I’ve been writing plays ever since I was a youngster. The family name was definitely a weight upon my shoulders, especially going into the same line of work as my father [Sir Alan Ayckbourn]. I went off to catering college to try and be a chef but was drawn back into acting and playwriting. You can’t hide from what’s really inside you. Since I was young, people have said “are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps and be as successful as he is?” I think that’s pushed me to find my own way.

For 13 years I ran a touring theatre company that travelled around France. In a way, I felt I had to get away from Britain to develop my craft. It was a good place to practise without the comparisons and the obvious associations that people would make if I was doing it in this country.

I like to begin writing my plays with a theme or an idea that I want to explore, then I try to link all the elements in the play to that particular theme. And then I tend to play with it in my mind. The story comes out of that, really. It develops organically. Part of the fun is allowing the story to tell itself.

Everybody has their own story and their own way of telling their story. A lot of people just say “I can’t do it”, so I run playwriting courses to help them. To begin with, we need to deal with our own self-censoring and judgements on what we’re writing. After that, you can look at the finer details of shaping the play: motivations, sub-text, structure and story. So I find ways of encouraging people to take little steps and write without thinking about it too much.

If you think you’ve got a play within you but don’t know what to do about it, I suggest going to a writing group or to someone who knows about playwriting. Otherwise you can take a very long way round it, hitting your head against a lot of brick walls. That was my path. At first I didn’t know how to shape my ideas but I was determined and stubborn. It took me quite a while to realise that a writing group was probably a better way to do it. But you have to find the right people to talk to. If you talk to the wrong person, they’ll take your idea and change it by saying “what about this instead?”

I moved to Lewes early last year. I’d had enough of London. I wanted to find somewhere that I could connect to. My ideal is to set up a creative hub, where we can learn writing, acting and other aspects of theatre, and then put on productions. That’s the dream, really.

Philip’s ten-week playwriting course starts Mon 1 Feb; details from philipayckbourn.com

Design Specific

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

On a small industrial estate at the edge of Ringmer is a company that proudly claims to produce the widest range of wheelchair platforms and recliners in the world. For example, they make a portable device that tilts a patient in a wheelchair, enabling that person to receive dental treatment without being transferred onto a dentist’s couch. And there are motorised chairs that’ll adjust to fit bariatric patients weighing over 50 stone, making it easier for medical staff to transfer and treat people on a single piece of equipment. It means undignified and potentially dangerous hoists can be confined to the past.

The company was born from a project at the University of Brighton. Richard Fletcher was leading the MSc Product Innovation and Design course when a London hospital asked for help designing a wheelchair recliner platform. Not only did Richard’s solution win an award, it led to the creation of his own business almost 16 years ago. He’s CEO of Design Specific Ltd, working with a dedicated staff of five who cover all technical aspects as well as marketing and support.

Richard Fletcher and John Walters of Design Specific
Richard Fletcher and John Walters of Design Specific. (Photo by Mark Bridge.)

In its way, Design Specific is a very traditional firm. Every new product starts with a pencil-drawn sketch. Components are ordered from local suppliers where possible, with all assembly – including circuit boards – taking place on site. Yet the results are perfectly suited to 21st-century medicine. Instead of inconvenient cables and noisy motors, there are silky-smooth castors, rechargeable batteries and quiet hydraulic lifts. What’s most notable about the products is how attractive they are. “We like to make things that look good”, Richard explains. “You can have style as well as function.” Meanwhile John Walters, Design and International Marketing Manager, talks about a compliment he was paid at a European trade show. “The Germans said ‘It looks German’. That was high praise, as far as I was concerned.”

Last year, Design Specific won the coveted Award for Business Innovation during the Lewes District Business Awards. The company sells its products around the world, so why did it enter a local competition? “I don’t chase awards”, Richard tells us. “It was for everyone here. These guys work hard, they put a lot in. I wanted to give their efforts an airing.”

“Some people who look at our chairs wouldn’t say that’s innovation. I think it’s innovation because it’s a development of something that’s never existed before in that form.”

And what’s planned for 2016? Richard points to the motorised ‘fifth wheel’ hidden underneath their latest bariatric conveyance chair. At the moment it’s ordered from Germany but will soon be replaced with a home-grown design. “They use cams; we’ll be using linear drives. We’ve done a lot of sketches.”

Design Specific, Caburn Enterprise Park, The Broyle, Ringmer BN8 5NP
01273 813904

Tablets without a headache

An excerpt from ‘The future at your fingertips’, which I wrote for My Weekly magazine. It was first published in the 22 March 2014 issue.

The notion of a computer you can carry around is nothing new. Back in the 1960s, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was rarely seen without some kind of electronic notepad. Today, science-fiction has become science fact. But what exactly can these handy new devices do?

My WeeklyFirst, let’s look at the difference between tablets and eBook readers. A tablet is simply a computer that’s small enough to hold. It’ll have a touch-sensitive screen instead of a keyboard and will let you browse the web, check your email, read books, download recipes, play games and much more. Apple’s iPad is undoubtedly the best-known tablet, although there are many other companies producing rival devices. They run on rechargeable batteries and connect to the internet by using WiFi: either through your home broadband or at many libraries, coffee shops and other public buildings.

Buying a tablet also gives you access to downloadable ‘apps’. These are the equivalent of software programs on a computer but are much easier to install. You could download the BBC iPlayer to catch up on your favourite TV soaps, shop from the comfort of your armchair, send messages on Facebook or read the latest edition of My Weekly without a trip to the newsagent. Getting started can sometimes seem a bit daunting, so ask at your local library about classes if you’re not sure where to begin.

If tablets can do all this, why bother with an eBook reader? Well, if you just want to read electronic books, an eBook reader is likely to be lighter than a tablet and easier to use. They’ll probably have a monochrome ‘black and white’ screen, which keeps the price down and means the batteries will last for much longer. It’s easy to change the size of the text, too. The model you choose will influence the books you can read, so decide carefully. Amazon’s Kindle readers are great all-round products for buying books and magazines, including many of today’s best sellers. However, if you’re more interested in the classics – which can be free to download – a lower-priced Kobo eReader could suit you very nicely. Either way, you can get rid of that pile of paperbacks next to your bed!

Restaurant review: Ganges

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

There’s only one sure-fire way to deal with a cold winter’s evening. “I’m wearing my curry dress tonight”, says my wife. “It’s stretchy”. And I’m wearing my curry shirt, which contains an explosion of colours guaranteed to hide any spilled sauce. Suitably attired, we’re going out for a meal in Ringmer. When it comes to food, the village is surprisingly well catered for… if you’ll forgive the pun. All three pubs serve meals, there’s a fish & chip shop, a pizza franchise, an excellent butcher and a brewery as well as tonight’s destination: the Ganges restaurant.

We’ve not booked but things are relatively quiet on this particular Sunday night. Greeted like long-lost VIP visitors and seated at the back of the restaurant near the bar, we notice the tablecloths are also dressed for curry. They’re fashionably black, contrasting with the pale walls and contemporary décor. Our charming waiter offers poppadoms (60p each) and chutneys (60p per person) while we read through the two menus. Yes, two. There’s an entire menu of ‘specials’ alongside the regular dishes. We still haven’t chosen when the poppadoms arrive but, by the time we’ve demolished them and inadvertently tested the tablecloth with each of the three chutneys, we’re ready to decide. I’m curious about the Vegetable Paneer roll – something I’ve never seen nor heard of – while Mrs B is intrigued by the Duck Tikka. We’re following this with a Chicken Chettinad for me (£7.95; ‘full of South Indian spices’) and a Chilli Masala Lamb Shank (£8.95) for her, plus saag rice (£2.95) and a plain naan (£1.95) to share. Oh, and two pints of Cobra beer (£4.50 each). Just for authenticity, of course.

Duck Tikka was exactly as my wife had hoped: marinated duck breast served with a small salad. Gently spiced and not too much to ruin an appetite. My roll was also gently spiced – paneer cheese wrapped in a flatbread with onions and peas – although it would have made a perfectly acceptable lunchtime dish on its own. Perhaps I should have worn my curry trousers with their elasticated belt. Our main courses arrive on the wheeled trolley beloved by most Indian restaurants, accompanied by an impressively puffy naan. I load my plate with the chicken and some of the spinach-enhanced rice before digging in. There’s something fruity in there, a hint of coconut I think, some heat and then – woah – more heat. Not excessive but certainly very warm. Apparently that’s the Chettinad tradition. Time for another pint. Later we swap plates, allowing us both to marvel at how easily the lamb fell off the bone and how non-greasy our food was. As traditional music played in the background – mainly love songs and wedding tunes, the waiter told us – we finished our meals with a coffee (£1.50 each) and prepared to head home. It was still chilly outside but the warmth of the restaurant’s welcome and the heat of its food had more than compensated.

Ganges, 72 Springett Avenue, Ringmer, 01273 812003.

Band interview: Der Joshi und Seine Crew

This article was first published in the October 2013 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

“Most stereotypes about Germany are true. We eat Black Forest gateau at every rehearsal. And in our new video we’re all wearing moustaches.”

Bass guitarist Christian ‘Rombini’ Rombach from German pop/rock group Der Joshi und Seine Crew doesn’t always take interviews seriously. The four-piece band – Joshi, Rombini, Mag and Tomtom – are playing a special gig at the All Saints Centre this month. They’re from Waldshut-Tiengen, which is twinned with Lewes, and will be performing with local musicians The Ouse Valley Collective on Fri 4. They’ve also been involved in the WTpur multimedia show that’ll present a cinematic look around Lewes and its German sibling on the following night.

But Rombini becomes much more earnest when he starts to describe his home. “It’s a beautiful little town in the very south of Germany”, he tells me. “There’s no Autobahn and you have to drive really slowly through the Black Forest”. While we have Harveys beer, he sings the praises of the nearby Rothaus brewery and Schwarzwälder Schnäpse (think ‘fruit brandy’ and you won’t be far wrong). And although there’s nothing quite like Bonfire Night, locals enjoy a festival known as Chilbi in the old city of Waldshut during August and another called Schwyzertag in the Tiengen area during July. “Both celebrate not being destroyed by the Swiss in medieval times” is my brief history lesson from Rombini.

Having talked about German delights, I wondered what Rombini expected from English cuisine. “Well, I googled ‘Englisches Essen’ and the first article was about English food being greasy and boring. That sounded great because it reminded me of our band.”

Ah yes, the band – which is far from greasy or boring in reality, as various online videos demonstrate. They’ve been together since 2008, which makes this a 5th anniversary tour. The account of their initial meeting (according to Rombini) is prosaic to the point of unbelievability. “Der Joshi is a guy from Waldshut-Tiengen who was wandering around with his guitar and his really big nose. He was playing solo and found himself a new backing band for every gig… but got tired of looking for musicians and now he’s stuck with us. Or we’re stuck with him.” I imagine Joshi tells a very different story.

On the subject of talking, I can’t help but notice Rombini has a considerably better grasp of English than my command of his native language. “I learned English at school and try to improve it by watching movies and TV series in English”, he explains. So if you want to return the favour by brushing up on your German or simply fancy dancing the night away, I can suggest no better opportunity than Friday evening with Joshi and his Crew. Alles klar?

Der Joshi und Seine Crew and The Ouse Valley Collective, All Saints Centre, Fri 4, 7.30pm. facebook.com/djusc