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‘I don’t want realism! I want magic! Yes magic!’

Isn’t that why we all go to the theatre? Escapism with a touch of magic. Well perhaps A Streetcar Named Desire wasn’t the ideal play for my Friday night escapism. Having been some years since I studied the play at university, I was vaguely familiar with the plot but the modern day production by ETT at Theatre Clwyd added a fresh new take Tennessee Williams’ classic play. Theatrical magic, yes, but a darker and more disturbing magic than I anticipated. The twisted story of desperation, pretence and vulnerability left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and provided plenty to think about well into the weekend.

Image result for a streetcar named desire theatre clwydStreetcar is the story of troubled southern belle Blanche Dubois who wrestles with her past and insecurities as she stays with her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley. It’s clear from Blanche’s arrival that she is running away from trouble but as the events catch up with her, and she is confronted by Stanley, the plot takes a sinister turn, leading to the productions most uncomfortable sequence. The brutality of Stanley’s actions left the audience numb and it was hard to sit and watch as the set was stripped bare to reveal Blanche screaming under a burning hot shower.

Patrick Knowles plays Blanche’s attacker, Stanley. A beer-swigging lads-lad who is desperate to state his masculinity over his wife and sister-in-law. In this production, there is no sympathy for Stanley. The Brando charm has well and truly gone, and Knowles plays Stanley with an arrogance and childishness that could be found at many local boozers.Image result for a streetcar named desire theatre clwyd

The set design for this production is basic but effective. The two rooms that we see on stage provide a claustrophobic pressure-cooker for the action to unfold. The use of music is extremely effective, as distorted versions of ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie provide a soundtrack to Blanche’s unravelling and Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ injects a small moment of fun before Stanley literally pulls the plug on it.

The relationship between Stella and Blanche, played by Amber James and Gough respectively, seems slightly forced initially but becomes more believable as the play grows. Blanche’s fierce protectiveness over Stella is evident as she tries to convince her to leave Stanley, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Stella by the end of the play, as she loses her sister and finds herself trapped with a violent lover.

The stand out performance comes from Gough though. The final sequence of her leaving the shower and breaking down in the apartment makes for very uncomfortable viewing and it must have been a tough place for Gough to visit night after night. As Blanche is taken away, the distorted, hazy mindset of Blanche is portrayed well by the staggered blocking of the cast and sharp bursts of disjointed dialogue. Gough plays her vulnerability and raw fear in this sequence in a way that haunts you well after the lights have faded.Related image

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Image result for the assassination of katie hopkinsThe provocative title alone suggests that this new musical aims to stoke discussion and reaction, and it offers up a plethora of issues for debate. Centred around the hypothetical murder of famous loud-mouth Katie Hopkins, Assassination boldly explores the nations’ reaction to the death of the divisive public figure. The sensational title itself is a reflection of the controversial columnist’s style. You would be forgiven for initially expecting this play to be an attack on Hopkins, with the storyline perhaps acting as a dark fantasy for those against her outlandish and often offensive views. However, this is not the case. This is a clever, well-thought-out production. Assassination is by no means a love-letter to Katie Hopkins, but it is also not afraid to defend her.

The play actually does not feature Katie Hopkins as a character, but uses her controversial persona to explore what she stands for. Essentially, Assassination is about free speech. Through a mash-up of vox pops, ‘live’ interviews, CCTV footage and voicemails (all performed by a highly skilled cast), we hear the stories of Kayleigh and Shayma. Young journalist Kayleigh is tasked with the tough job of composing a dossier of good deeds carried out by Hopkins, following her death.  Through her investigations she begins to see Hopkins as a strong, confident woman who had a firm grasp of her own views and wasn’t afraid to share them. Though Kayleigh makes it clear she doesn’t agree with some of the opinions Hopkins expressed, she begins a campaign to remember Hopkins for who she was and not what she said. Alongside this, we see the story of Shayma, a trainee Lawyer who is frustrated by the media coverage for Hopkins’ death, which completely overshadows a tragic chain of events that led to the death of 13 migrant workers on the same night. Both narratives weave seamlessly around each other and against a backdrop of venom from those who hated and supported Hopkins.

Assassination is a refreshing, original production. The set consists of two screens which present the live TV interviews, CCTV footage, transcripts of phonecalls and singing emojis. For a show with such a huge concept, the set and staging is all very minimal. With just these screens and a handful of props, the cast and crew manage to recreate the hi-tech world of the internet where the story can unfold.

The complex strands of the plot are pulled tightly together by an incredible cast. Each actor takes on multiple roles with ease and, amazingly, makes each one easily identifiable just through their performance. Amy Booth-Steele is instantly recognisable as Theresa May despite not looking anything like her or even mentioning her name. Kirby Hughes also deserves recognition for her excellent performance as she was a late addition to the cast, taking over part way through the run. Hughes’ performance was slick and finely tuned, the only the clue to her joining the cast during later stages being the insert in the programme. As a small ensemble, the cast worked perfectly together to bring this story to life. The natural delivery of the lines, with actors talking over each other and self-correcting, really stood out and provided some very genuine moments.

Despite the click-bait title, The Assassination of Katie Hopkins is not what it might seem. It is not just a retaliation by offended lefties. This is an intelligent discussion, an exploration of free speech that covers all bases. We experience the fallout of Hopkins’ death from the perspective of the perpetually furious, the seemingly mild-mannered but secretly-smug liberal, those who form an opinion just to plaster it across Twitter, and those too terrified to comprehend what Hopkins’ death means for them.

In world where hate can be spread at the touch of a button, this is a vibrant, modern production with an important message, that deserves a wider platform.

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On the surface, Hairspray is a vibrant shot of colourful campery. But after my trip to Venue Cymru on the weekend, I found myself delving a little deeper into a musical that provided the soundtrack to my later teens.

After first seeing Hairspray in London in 2007, thoughts of comparing that wonderful production to the latest tour scratched at my mind from the moment ‘Goodmorning Baltimore’ began. Although this production was a fine incarnation of the bouncy,  but far-from-fluffy musical, it paled slightly in comparison to the original London run. It felt like I was watching a watered down version. However, there were still plenty of gems to enjoy.

Whilst Rebecca Mendoza gave a comedic, gurning take on Tracey Turnblad, her portrayal erred on the side of panto. The clearly rehearsed ‘spontaneous laughter’ between Norman Pace and Matt Rixon as Wilbur and Edna added to the pantomime taste that wasn’t so apparent in the original London production. Though they were both excellent in their roles, but the panto-banter sort of let their big duet down.

I felt Brenda Edwards should have been perfect casting for the role of Motormouth Maybelle, but although she blew the audiences socks off every time she sang (hitting each note with pitch-perfect ease), she chose to portray a gentler, simpering side to Maybelle that I didn’t expect. Maybelle is a strong and confident woman. Queen Latifah played her! Her name is ‘Motormouth’ for God’s sake! Edwards seemed to lack bolshiness to really deliver in her role. This only really shone through when she sang.

Layton Williams was a delight as Seaweed, slaying ‘Run and Tell That’ with his trademark backflips and mid-air splits. Gina Murray also wowed as Velma Von Tussle, giving new depths to the campy villain. Having seen Tracy Bennett play Velma perfectly in London (and of course the wonderful K-Cheno in Hairspray: Live), I was skeptical about whether Murray would be able to bring anything new to Velma, but she added a new confidence and sexiness to the character. She didn’t hit one wrong note during any of her songs.

Don’t get me wrong, this was a big bundle of fabulous fun, great family entertainment for a Saturday night, but the production fell foul to the increasing trend of projected set pieces. I can see how it lowers and eases production costs but to me it just waters down the whole production and, unfortunately, cheapens it. Perhaps I’m being unfair by comparing it to a previous production. In it’s own right, this is an excellent performance but it’s only when looking at previous incarnations that the cracks begin to appear.

Finally, let’s talk about the ending. I’m sure before the 2007 movie everyone was thrilled that Tracey wins Miss Teenage Hairspray. But surely anyone watching the stage version post-movie will be more than disappointed that it’s not Inez who takes the crown. Many noticeable additions from the movie appear in the stage show but the ending remains unchanged. After listening to the strong messages of the show for two hours, it just doesn’t sit right that the white girl gets the glory.

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‘If you’re in the Maldives but all you can think about is the office, you might as well save your money.’

Ruby Wax dropped into Theatre Clwyd last week. We went expecting comedy, and Ruby provided plenty of that, but we also left bolstered by a great sense of positivity, support and intelligent discussion.

The focus of Wax’s latest tour is her most recent book, ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’. Ruby’s story is an inspiring one. Years of depressive episodes lead to a breakdown several years ago which spurred Ruby on to investigate what makes her brain tick. Having successfully acquired a masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University, Ruby has begun spreading the word of her recovery (though she makes it clear it is very much still a work in progress) and coming to the aid of others.

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As someone who has experienced anxiety since a child, a lot of messages from Wax’s tour (and book) seem to finally put my own frustrating feelings into words. For example, Wax talks about how our brains haven’t caught up with our bodies when it comes to our evolution, and our minds simply can’t cope with the hectic lifestyles we live today. On some level, our minds still work in a primitive state, constantly attending to our survival. She talks about how the endless lists and information from our complex lives clog up our brains, which are exhausted from sorting the useful information from the trivial. As someone who is constantly feeling like they are sprinting on life’s treadmill, sweating away and about to fall off, this makes a lot of sense.

‘We are dropping from exhaustion from no other reason than we are trying to keep up with next guy…..who’s keeping up with the next guy, who’s heading toward a full nervous breakdown.’

Wax talks about social media and its impact on our wellbeing. Though she is openly pro-technology, she emphasises the stress social media puts on our relationships and need to be ‘successful’.

The main message of Wax’s tour and book is to be present. To take time out from our busy schedules to stop and fully experience what is going on around us. At the theatre, Wax gave us some handy tips to help slow our minds down and tune ourselves in to the present moment. Although the Antony Hopkins theatre is quite large, Ruby created an intimate and relaxed atmosphere, openly taking questions form the audience and not being afraid to digress into an anecdote. Ruby likens mindfulness to a muscle in the brain which must be exercised each day in order to reap the benefits. As we left the theatre, there was a feeling of hope and positivity, as many of the audience admitted to experiencing some level of mental illness. Through her unique charisma and personal experiences, Ruby had gently encouraged the audience to keep going and understand that they are not alone. This was more than a comedy show, as we left armed with plenty of food for thought and a clearer idea of what mindfulness is all about.

It’s Wales Comic Con season – one of my favourite times of year. Unusually for Wales, it’s a glorious day, which makes the always-cheery Comic Con atmosphere even more potent.

We’re lucky to have such a positive event in Wrexham, especially one that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. For such a special occasion the organisers had pulled out all the stops to attract some huge names (Val Kilmer, Hayley Atwell, Sylvester McCoy to name three). The unfortunate last-minute cancellations which often blight this kind of event did nothing to dampen spirits, and when I arrived on Saturday the excitement was palpable.

When I first started coming to Comic Con about six years ago, I remember I had to queue for 3 hours just to get inside. I’d since become savvy to this and made it a tradition to arrive extra early and enjoy the parade of cosplayers from a spot near the front of the queue. This year I was naively relaxed about the need to queue and, after arriving just after 11am, I joined a queue so long it showed me parts of the Glyndwr Campus I’d never seen before (and I studied there for three years). Despite the mega-queue, there were very few complaints and organisers worked super-hard to get everyone inside in just over an hour. Shout out to all the cosplayers who must have been absolutely sweltering in their heavy costumes (Stormtroopers, Lady Olena Tyrell, Marvin the Martian and Catwoman to name a few!)

The main hall was packed to bursting and I fought my way past superheroes and the odd villain to get to my favourite stall, Goblin Dreams. This is a real gem of a stall which has some truly gorgeous things to offer, especially the handmade mini costumed dragons. This year I bought a beautiful Phantom of the Opera dragon to add to my collection.

One thing that I did notice this year was that due to the huge crowds within the main hall the access for wheelchair users was poor. There may not be much the organisers of WCC can do about this but I did notice a lot of people struggling to move through the hall. It did make me think whether WCC need to reconsider their venue. Glyndwr University is a perfect spot for this event so I wouldn’t suggest moving but perhaps expanding across the campus. Although Welsh weather is never reliable, it was a beautiful day so it would have been nice to see more outdoor events. The heat was so stifling inside the main hall and the vendors tent that it became uncomfortable to stay indoors for too long. It would have been good to see organisers think on their feet and expand into the outdoor spaces.

The crowds and queues, however, just go to show the success and growth of the event over the last ten years. People are travelling from all over the country to Wrexham and that is fantastic. However, it is sad to see the guests capitalising on that growth, as I couldn’t help recalling my first visit, when selfies were free and autographs were averaging at £15. This weekend some guests were charging fans £20 for selfies and £30 for autographs. I suppose they have to make their money somehow! Some of the guests were sat alone when I wandered through, which did make me wonder if people were too scared to talk to them through fear of being charged per word.

Cynical gripes aside, I do really love this event and I am being very picky. I always take away from Comic Con a feeling of safety and community. In recent years there has been a notable increase in police presence but, in my opinion, that is unnecessary as there is never any noticeable trouble (besides with all those Stormtroopers strutting round, there’s no need for police). It’s not just physical safety, but the safety to be whoever the hell you want. You could rock up dressed as a Pikachu and no one would judge. Everyone is welcome and it’s just what our town needs.

 

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A last minute dash to the West End resulted in Saturday night at the Prince Edward Theatre. Disney’s Aladdin was spectacular – a bouncy, vibrant musical and a special treat for any fan of the Disney film.

Everything from the set pieces to the costumes is big, bold, and classic Disney, screaming Disney from the moment the curtain rises. The decision to add extra characters, such as Aladdin’s friends, does sit a bit oddly at first but his pals prove their likeability during the second act.

This script fizzes with wit in moments, mostly during the Genie’s scenes, however it does feel slightly panto in parts, particularly during Jafar and Iago’s front of curtain scenes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially given the shows target audience are children, but it does seem a bit unexpected,  when compared to Disney’s other hit, The Lion King.

Aladdin was played with heroic charm by Antony Hewitt and Jade Ewan was perfect as Princess Jasmine. Admittedly, the Genie is the star of the show. Just as the first act is starting to dip, the lamp is rubbed and out pops Trevor Dion Nicholas with his fast-firing jokes and impressive magic tricks. ‘Never Had A Friend Like Me’ is the definition of a show-stopper with an extended arrangement, extravagant tap routine, vanishing male lead, and appearing showgirls, all accompanied by a riffing genie. It’s enough to leave even the Disney-adverse humming the chorus days later.

It’s not just the Genie’s magic that adds an extra special charm to the production. There were ooohs and aaaahs a plenty when the magic carpet actually floated around the stage with not a string in sight. It took a bit of googling to discover how it’s done, but the clever use of modern tech adds a whole new world of magic to the show.

Overall, Aladdin is a dazzling diamond in the West End. A real cave of wonders.

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Image result for miss saigon I walked into the Palace theatre knowing nothing about Miss Saigon, but I left with a haunting soundtrack flickering through my mind. Whilst the story of Miss Saigon is simple, Sooha Kim and Ashley Gilmour make stunning work of captivating the audience as Kim and Chris. I was struck by how quickly the audience cared about them, particularly Kim, whose naivety and innocence is performed beautifully by Sooha Kim. Whilst the doomed romance between Kim and Chris makes for plenty of drama, it’s the score that gives Miss Saigon its real power. From the dramatic opening as Kim’s village is attacked to the thunderous rumblings of the finale, each song whips up the tragedy and emotion perfectly. ‘The Last Night of the World’ was the only song I was familiar with prior to watching, but the intense crescendo of the song wasn’t the only musical piece that left me with goosebumps. Gilmour gave a vulnerable performance during ‘Why God Why?’ and Kim’s ‘I Still Believe’ was pitch perfect in every way.  But it wasn’t all drama – thankfully Red Concepcion was on hand to provide some light relief as the sleazy Engineer, delivering every vulgar comment with extra grease. This was a production where every cast member was giving their all – even the helicopter earned a round of applause!

The most poignant theme of Miss Saigon isn’t the heart-breaking relationship between Chris and Kim, but the desperate lengths Kim will go to in order to protect her son, Tam. It’s a story about the strength of love, but not necessarily the story you were expecting.

 

A miracle has happened. We were plagued with the familiar panic-stricken reports of impending snowmaggedon but, as usual, we took notice and prepared for normal, dreary British weather. On Friday morning, I arrived to work with a just a small enough dusting of the white stuff to inconvenience my school shoes but by 8.15am the Head was flapping around the school spreading news of a possible closure. The yard was blanketed, teachers and pupils were stranded in their homes and the I ended up with a small handful of breakfast club children taking shelter in my classroom.

Everyone was home by 11am and, as is procedure, staff were encouraged to take work home. It was a nice change to catch up with my incerts and mark my books in front of the TV with the heating on full blast and a cup of hot chocolate on the table.

Our school doesn’t close easily, but we were one of 56 schools in the area to close Friday and Monday. I’ve seen and heard a lot of grumbling online about it being ‘pathetic’ that the schools chose to close up. I don’t envy Heads who have to make that decision. At 8.15am on Friday the snow was coming thick and fast but by 9am, when parents were leaving with their children, it had typically stopped. The Headteacher had to trust the forecasts and think ahead to later heavy flurries (which continued not only throughout Friday but across the weekend). Many cynical comments followed the school closures in our area, with one person asking me ‘Is it a safety thing, or something?’.

Well….of course it is! Believe it or not, the snow isn’t some conspiracy theory constructed by teachers so they can have a sneaky day off (we all took work home and were told not to go out!). Many factors contribute towards a school closure but the main focus of whole decision is obviously pupil safety. The Head not only had to consider staff ratios but judge whether it was worth asking parents to make the treacherous journey to school along icy roads with their children in the car.

Thankfully our parents were very understanding but online comments afterwards did bug me. I remember several snow days when I was younger. They’re memory makers. It might be a pain for adults who need to get to work but, remember, for a child it’s exciting! Going out and sledging with the family or even just staying inside and keeping cosy. It all adds a little bit of magic to the impending festive season.

To put my teacher hat on – think of the learning! Measuring the snow, discussing temperature, forming shapes and letters in the snow, the melting process – the list is endless!

Despite the temptation to cling to the central heating with a cup of tea, I forced myself to venture to the shop yesterday with my friend. It took us way longer than usual but it was hilarious. And it made the warm flat and hot mulled wine even more luxurious. Yes, it’s a bit of an inconvenience, but if you’re able to enjoy it then do so! We rarely get snow days so my advice is to just make the most of it, stop complaining and take a leave out of the childrens’ book – be excited!

Christmas has arrived in Blwyddyn Un.

On the first of December, our elf arrived with instructions to ‘Christmas-up’ the classroom, and the festive season erupted into our classroom.

So far, we’ve built a toy workshop in the role play, rescued snowmen from a tuff spot and written letters for Father Christmas. It feels like Christmas has been a long time coming, with concert rehearsals being in full swing for three or four weeks now.

Speaking of concerts, we had our first full run through today. The children are working hard at learning their lines and remembering where they need to stand but I think we’ll all be breathing a sigh of relief next Monday after the final performance. I think that is when the Christmas fun will really begin, when all the official business is done and the concerts have finished and we can all relax.

I was thinking about a very special part of the job. It’s lovely to spend Christmas with children. It’s easy to forget how magical Christmas is for children and seeing their excitement every day is bringing back memories from my own childhood. I think that being in the classroom, no matter how rubbish your feeling, can have such an uplifting effect, especially at Christmas. The children’s excitement and wonder at Christmas is infectious. It’s lovely to share their joy when they come in to see which challenge the elf has set them, or listen to their questions for Father Christmas.

No matter how stressful it gets, how exhausted we are or how much we complain, it’s definitely a perk of the job to share the children’s magical memories of the season.

Bleak November

 

Tis the season to be…utterly miserable!

I bloody love Christmas. It’s one of my favourite times of the year and getting to experience it in a school adds something extra special.

However, this time of year I get faced with the same old barrier. It’s bleak November. On the precipice of Christmas season, I just can’t help getting anxious and miserable. I know I’m not alone but for some reason my body just decides it hates this time of year and goes into over-drive. I’m over-anxious, restless, tired and I end up dealing with the same horrible symptoms no matter how much I prepare. I tried to write about it last year, but once I’d finally hauled myself out of the pit I found revisiting it too upsetting. After a tough weekend, I was close to finishing the post I started twelve months ago but, I’ve had a word with myself, and I’m not prepared to dwell. Perhaps one day I’ll publish it but for now I’m off to get cosy, eat chocolate and watch Ab Fab. Message of the week – Put self-care at the top of the list.