Different Stages: Or Good Things Come to Those Who Bake (Apparently)

Musical theatre is not for everyone, but I confess a weakness for it. Possibly this was inherited from my Mother’s love of film musicals (what you are marinated in as a child does seem to influence later likes, one way or another). Having easy access to the West End helps; and being short enough to fit into the tiny seats at the back of the balcony in the cheapest seats available also helps make it affordable (usually the train into London costs more that the theatre tickets if you can cope with a restricted view and are prepared to book well in advance). Unless you really hate the form most of the productions we’ve seen have been at least diverting for a couple of hours; most are instantly forgettable. But that’s entertainment, I could say that about many books or films. Yes, enjoyed that, but unlikely to be front of mind in a week. Then again, sometimes you get something a little more interesting, which provokes some conversation after the final curtain call and has you playing the original cast soundtrack in the car.

 The two most recent musicals we have seen could not be more different (although oddly they are connected as a young friend of ours is credited on both). The first one was the transfer from Sheffield Crucible of ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ based on the music of the musician Richard Hawley. It was about as gritty as musicals get, with loss and death as well as laughs (that’s not a spoiler as you are warned about the themes when booking!). But in the main it is love letter to Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield and the people and that is what shines through. It is also beautifully and innovatively staged and cleverly put together narratively to tell three stories in three time zones in a way that connects them satisfyingly like a good whodunnit. We thought it was brilliant and well worth its standing ovation from the packed National Theatre audience. It’s finished now, but its too good not to get a staging again somewhere so catch it if you can.

 Still going on at the time of writing, although possibly a more acquired taste (pun intended) is The Great British Bakeoff: The Musical. I will admit that when this was announced I was a little skeptical. The Lovely Wife had somehow managed to get me addicted to the TV show (normally I hate these things) but I did not think it was something that cried out for musical. And yet; the reason that GBBO is not as excruciatingly embarrassing to watch as some of its ilk is that it is unashamedly, joyously positive. Everyone is trying their best, there is no attempt to make anyone look a fool and as each series progresses the camaraderie on screen means you end up rooting for everyone. And this is basically what the musical version has captured; they have sat down and written down every Bakeoff cliché and distilled the basic DNA of the TV show, and then dramatized it – albeit in caricature. It works to some extent although it is no classic. The songs are only variably catchy (and often extremely corny), and the production uses every trick in the book to manipulate your emotions, often in a completely unsubtle way – for example, a song about the sadness of childlessness is immediately followed (just in case you are not already suffering from damp eyes) by another character talking to their (generic stage school acted, just the right side of annoying thankfully!) cute ‘daughter’ about how much they both miss the now dead mother – but the cast are likeable and are treating it seriously and deserve respect for that. In the end you know where it is all going to pan out but you do not really care, because its all about wish fulfilment and a statement of humanity as you wish it was, but know it isn’t. If ‘Standing’ is a hymn to the resilience of real people through hardship and heartache, the GBBO musical is fantasy escapism for a world that can only exist within a tent (or in this case the theatre stage) and when a lot of the auditorium got to their feet to applaud and cheer, I think it was saying thanks for making them feel good for a few hours rather than recognition of quality. And that is just fine to me. Sometimes it is good to have something to chew on, sometimes you just want to go for the cake. I think a balanced diet can be heartily recommended.


Rest in Peace, Rat

So, in the last few weeks there has been some excitement and concern with an unwelcome visitor. We are about a street away from a large primary school which itself backs onto a disused railway line. As well as the people and bird life that use that right of way inevitably there are rats. In fact, this year I’ve seen them extremely regularly as they seem to have developed a sense of boldness that I would have said came from the lack of human traffic during the pandemic lockdowns, had it not been that the footfall on this track had been so high with daily exercise takers that the Lovely Wife had largely avoided it for the best part of two years in the interests of social distancing. Anyway, there is plenty of cover for these rodents and ample food, as even if people did not litter as much as they do, I expect around the primary school bins there are plenty of picking, and the main risk might be to end up as lunch from the urban foxes (although I suspect they are also keener to scavenge as it is a lot less effort).

 But normally we do not see rats in gardens or in out street. Usually, the only grey furry pest we have are the squirrels (and their insistence on digging up any bulbs I try and plant in the garden, but that is a moan for another day). But, as anyone who has read any of these rambles will know, we’re avid bird feeders, and this means that non intended guest might decide to partake at the table. There has only been a problem once in the twenty-so years we have been here when a pair of rats nested under a neighbors decking – which itself was not a problem until they were joined by their multiple offspring. In the end, our neighbors at the time had the pest control out and the rats were poisoned with warfarin. The next day I found one of the adults in the garden, still alive but obviously in some suffering. Naively I assumed it would be dead soon and left it, intending to clear it into a bin later. When, two hours later I returned to find it still (just) alive I realised just how unpleasant a death this was and finished it off with a shovel. Anybody who knows me will realize that even as a mercy, I did not find this easy.

 So, when a large rat started appearing recently and eating under the bird feeders, I could see history repeating itself. Indeed, when startled the rat vanished exactly where its forbears had some years ago. But right from the start I was a little suspicious. Although it was a large rat, it did not look in the best of condition – almost mangy in appearance. And I am used to rats heading for cover with assurance and at pace – and this one seemed slow and almost uncertain about where cover was.

 Over the next few days, the rat was seen in several gardens and one of our neighbors indicated they were calling in the pest control. I had flashbacks to the previous occasion’s horror and was not looking forward to a repeat performance.

 The weather was very cold last week with some snow and sleet, and I did not see the rat much. Then the day when the pest control was due to visit arrived. The next day, the weather had improved, and the snow gone so with some trepidation and a feeling that history was going to repeat itself I scoured the garden. The dead rat – for this time it was definitely dead – was easy enough to find and was duly escorted in its impromptu shroud (an old Dixons bag – remember them?) to the refuse bin.

 I was glad I’d not had to deliver the coup de grâce this time, but still felt a little sad. Most wild animals we seem able to tolerate in our local vicinity, but the poor old rat is always going to be exterminated if it gets too close. Even people who normally would be extremely tolerant and generous towards wildlife feel the need to draw the line at this particular rodent. And I do not think this will ever change. And to be clear, I am not judging others here as I think I’d also probably get the pest control in like everyone else, while feeling bad about it at the same time.

 But this time there was a twist. I found out a few days later that the pest control folks had not come out after all, because of the harsh weather. So, the rat had come to die in our garden, and died of natural causes – disease, old age or both, most likely. Suddenly my earlier suspicions on its condition made sense and while I do not want to advertise my garden as a place old rats can come to have a final meal and wait for the Death of Rats* to pick them up, this one made me feel just a little bit better that at least this one left the word peacefully.

*Fellow Terry Pratchett lovers will of course know him also as ‘The Grim Squeaker’

Techno Ballet

I never really thought that I’d come out of a ballet performance with a head full of ideas and the need to talk them out with the Lovely Wife over some drinks, but that was last Saturday. Even more so, the ballet was one I had seen performed several times, one that usually I would have described as being slight, sweet and a bit silly and mercifully short.

 Let me clarify – I never went to see a ballet before being married to the Lovely Wife, and largely we started going because she loves dance and form. I’ve since become a bit of a convert as what the dancers can do on stage is extremely impressive – I am hugely impressed by the combination of strength and grace that is needed and the patterns formed on stage are something beautiful to behold. But most ballets don’t have anything to engage you emotionally beyond the beauty of the spectacle and some are ridiculously long – e.g., The Sleeping Beauty, where the last act is just a series of dances where all the wedding guests get to dance – at least once – with at every other guest long after the ‘plot’ has long since been resolved. I was bored stiff by the time it finished and the experience wasn’t improved when I found out that the version, we had seen was the short version, over an hour shorter than the original which is over 4 hours long.

 So, the ballet last Saturday was Copelia. Usually is a period piece where a somewhat sinister doll maker makes the eponymous doll which bewitches the somewhat useless boyfriend of the female principal, who later must pretend to be the doll come to life to hoodwink the Doll maker and rescue the aforementioned pathetic paramour for the inevitable if a little unrealistic happy ending. But it has its laughs and allows for plenty of folk dances to fill in the meagre plot.

But this version was very, very different. It is a production by Scottish Ballet that was on a brief visit (only 4 performances) at Saddler’s Wells in North London. Instead of dolls we are looking NuLife Corporation, a shady technology company dealing in AI and intent on creating a ‘better than life’ range of automatons under the overpowering influence of its technically brilliant – and massively egotistical – CEO, the dance artist dressed all in black and a weird mixture of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk; our heroine is the reporter who is there to get an exclusive interview and gets far more than she bargained for, while accompanied by her sweet but ineffectual fiancé.

 I have to say, that it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. The dancing was superb and expressive (in particular the initial pas a deux between our heroine and her lover, where the fact they were wearing business attire somehow made the dancing much more intimate in tone, beautifully establishing their romantic bond); the designs simple and stark and mixed clever set design with integrated live and recorded film sequences giving a feel of a huge research facility beyond the limitations of the stage itself and best of all it was an intense 80 minutes or so, straight through and hardly giving you a chance to catch breath. The updating of the story worked well and felt very current, albeit sometimes a little obvious (e.g., the Musk references).

 But it is also a joy to see a strong female lead in a ballet that you can actually care about and root for – as well as enjoying the beauty of the dancing. I was not expecting a tense and satisfying SF adventure and the experience was all the better for it.

 I cannot recommend this production enough, and if it comes anywhere near you, please go – and it would be a great production to take someone to who has never seen a ballet or thinks they wouldn’t like it – because there is so much more to enjoy. Hopefully there will be a filmed version to enjoy at some point because I would happily watch this again and again – and I never thought I would every react that way to a ballet.

The ballet in question:


Back to Blog, with Black Caps

Well, on the day that septuagenarian Ken Bruce bows out from Radio 2 here in the UK before wandering off to Greatest Hits Radio where he won’t be forced to play any music released after 1999, here I am back on the blog for the first time in about 4 years. It is a surprise really to me as I look in retrospect as during the pandemic, I would have thought it the perfect time to waffle along on the internet about whatever comes to mind that week since we were all staying in as much as we could; but apparently not. I had to wait until things are – more or less – back to pre-COVID busy levels – or indeed higher – to start off again. And not for any deep reason, although I think recent (thankfully largely unrealised) concerns about my personal health may have given me pause for thought again about what I want to do with my life and what I enjoy – and, yes, one of those things is pontificating on what has distracted me from the words like ‘Regulation’, ‘Priorities’ and ‘European Greed Deal’ which is pretty much my work life at the moment.

 So, what has been exciting me recently? Spring, mostly. The frogs have started to breed in the pond although I think they have again gone to early as the forecast suggests more frosts to come and will probably kill all the spawn for the third year running (I even tried covering the pond overnight to try and protect them but to no avail). Meanwhile, the bird related excitement in our garden has been the consistent presence of a Jay. This is such a beautiful bird species and hilarious to watch the standoff between it with the Grey Squirrels – the bushy tailed rats are not the brightest but even they understand that the wily pink and blue corvid is carefully noting where it’s caching the food ready to steal it at the first opportunity and does its best to scare it off. With truly negligible effect of course, as the Jay has an excellent memory so once it has seen where the cache is, it just has to wait for the squirrel to leave and pop back later to steal and re-cache somewhere else. They are rather good at this too; I remember what one Jay deliberately trying to hoodwink another one by pretending to cache its goodies in one place and then hiding them elsewhere once the other bird was not looking. Sneaky.

 The big excitement this winter has been a small bird, a Black Cap, which is a small warbler. In a perfect case of misogynism, only the male has a dark black ‘cap’ on the top of his head – the female has a chestnut/brown top. The male turned up early in the winter and seems to be visiting the feeders every day, several times a day – pretty much any opportunity he gets when the larger birds (especially a raucous mob of starlings who alternate pecking the fat balls with pecking each other’s heads – they are probably siblings from a late brood last year we suspect) are absent. We’ve also had a female, which is exciting, although not as frequently as the male, although to be fair he is becoming dangerously bold.

The interest in a little bird like this may not be obvious. However, we have not had a black cap in the garden for years and at this time of year it is an occurrence that the British Trust for Ornithology wants you to report (duly done, of course). Because it should not be here at the moment – should instead be in parts of Germany or Spain, where historically they migrate to during our winter and return to us a summer visitor. Increasingly, though, they are hanging around and not bothering to migrate which is why the BTO is particularly interested in this species as it one that seems to be in transition from being a summer visitor to being resident. As with most animal behaviour, the reasons are probably a mixture of things, but one of them is climate change and the mild winters we have had in the South of England recently; also thanks to suckers like me, there is ample food available all year round on multiple feeders, and possibly even a recent increase in recent years due to more people feeding during the pandemic and the relative quiet of urban areas when we not able to move around – while that has gone, I suspect some of our wildlife – once they have tasted the good life – maybe trying to put up with the increase in noise and human traffic.

 Anyway, we are delighted with our (currently still) unusual winter guest and hope he avoids late frosts, the local sparrowhawk (we might return to him in future weeks) and any cats that slip through my spited defence of my garden territory (I’m winning – the local toms transit but rarely dare to hang around long in case the giant lumbering bipedal cat launches itself out of the patio doors hissing and bearing its fangs… Ahem, I do wonder what our long suffering neighbours make of that). And if he should get together with a young lady to generate a few baby black caps this summer we’ll be even more delighted. And ready to feed them next winter should they also decide to stay.

 I probably should order more fat balls now.