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. leweslight.uk

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 lewesoctoberfeast.com

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. glyndebourne.com

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