The Encounter

The following article was first published in the May 2016 edition of Viva Brighton magazine:

An Amazonian adventure in Falmer

The London-based Complicite touring theatre company launched in 1983 and gained a reputation for producing “the most imaginative theatre to be found anywhere”, according to David Lister of The Independent. This month they’re bringing an already sold-out show called The Encounter to the recently-refurbished Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, which is on the University of Sussex campus at Falmer. Now named after the work of Lord (Richard) Attenborough and his family, the building was previously known as the Gardner Arts Centre.

Kirsty Housley, who’s co-directing The Encounter, thought she’d only be involved for a few weeks of research when she joined the production team in 2010. “That couple of weeks turned into a few months… and then the project kind-of continued, really”, she tells me. It’s part of the distinctive way Complicite operates. “Each time a project is created, a company is built around that project. There’s a genuine ‘not knowing’ at the beginning of the process. You relinquish an element of control, which is quite scary.” In addition, the work they do is never seen as finished. “You never lock something down and say ‘that’s it, keep it exactly as it is now, repeat what you’re doing’. So there’s always a sense of evolution in the performance as well.”

Performing in The Encounter is Complicite co-founder Simon McBurney, who’s known to many as the sinister MI6 man in last year’s Mission: Impossible film and as the often unsympathetic Archbishop Robert in TV sitcom Rev. The story is adapted from a book called Amazon Beaming, which tells the adventures of photojournalist Loren McIntyre. In 1969, McIntyre went looking for the elusive Mayoruna tribe in South America. Also known as the Matsés, they were popularly referred to as ‘cat people’ because of their facial tattoos and the whisker-like spines they wore in their noses. He found them – but, as he followed a group into the rainforest, he lost track of his original route. McIntyre’s planned three-day trip turned into weeks spent with people who shared no common language with him. Yet much to the photographer’s surprise, he seemed to develop a wordless way of communicating with the tribe’s elderly leader.

Which helps to explain why The Encounter doesn’t tell McIntyre’s story with conventional imagery. Simon McBurney performs it as a one-man show, assisted by binaural headsets that blend his performance with sound effects to put the audience in the heart of the jungle. “A lot of the technology had to be custom-built”, says Kirsty Housley. “We create the feeling of being somewhere rather than trying to visually represent what that place looks like. You don’t see any creepers or any green leaves. Like all theatre, it really takes place in your imagination rather than on the stage.”

The Encounter runs from Wednesday 11 until Sunday 15. brightonfestival.org

William the Conqueror

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

In 2007, Atlantic Records released Tales of Grime and Grit, the debut album by a young man called Ruarri Joseph. Reviewers made favourable comparisons with Bob Dylan. But working with a major record label didn’t suit Ruarri, so he set up his own label instead. The emotional intensity of his 2012 album Brother, “a love letter to the death of a friend”, led to another big change in direction. “I felt like I needed a break from those songs. I’d sung them so many times over the course of three years and I didn’t want them to lose meaning.”

And so William the Conqueror was born; a pseudonym that allowed Ruarri to perform secret gigs of new material whilst still touring under his real name. “William the Conqueror was the kind of name I probably would have given myself as a kid; that insane confidence that you can do anything, go anywhere, the world is your oyster.” So is William a man or a band? “I like the ambiguity”, he tells me. “Sometimes it’s appropriate for it to be me and sometimes it’s appropriate for it to be the band. When I first started performing, I was William but then other people joined.” Those other people are currently drummer Harry Harding and bass player Naomi Holmes, who’d previously been in Ruarri’s backing band. “I feel like I’ve found my voice since becoming William. The songwriting process makes much more sense to me now; it’s like a faucet that’s opened up.”

These days the secret is out, which is why Ruarri’s happy to announce William the Conqueror’s planned visit to Union Music Store on Record Store Day this month. The band’s also just released their first EP on CD, as a digital download and on a 10-inch vinyl record. “It’s a really lovely idea, to think that somebody is going to take a physical copy of your record and go to the trouble of putting it on. You want people to listen to it properly.” The music on Ruarri’s own turntable at the moment includes Tom Waits, JJ Cale, Willie Dixon, Bill Withers and David Bowie’s Blackstar: “a phenomenal record”.

Yet despite his striving for the perfectly-crafted song and the perfectly-produced album, Ruarri remains a big fan of live music. “There’s no better way to figure out whether a song is working. It’s like a comedian trying out a joke. Playing live is absolutely essential to figuring out who you are as an artist.” And the current incarnation of that artist is undoubtedly more self-assured than the man he used to be. “I never really found my feet with it all. This time round I feel like I know what I’m doing and what I want. I’m really enjoying it. The gigs feel really fresh. I’ve kind-of forgotten the Ruarri Joseph songs.”

Record Store Day is on Sat 16; live performances at Union Music Store from midday. unionmusicstore.com

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

Website creation

When I worked at Vodafone in the late 1990s, I was part of the team that developed and launched the company intranet. Since then, I’ve created my own websites and have also worked on sites for clients.

I built The Friends of Sompting Church website based on a CSS template and wrote/edited all the main content. I’ve also created a WordPress.org website for the LoveLewes.com events podcast.

Friends of Sompting Church website

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!