Monthly Archives: November 2014

Unscorched – play review

I was intrigued that a provincial small amateur theatre had taken on a recent national prizewinning play on such a difficult subject. I was very proud of Norwich’s Sewell Barn for doing so, and for offering the amateur premiere after a 4 week run at London’s well regarded new writing theatre, the Finborough (close to Earl’s Court), only a year later.

On arriving at the difficult to access venue, 3 miles from the train station and with no pavements around the campus on which the barn is sited, I found out why SBT were especially interested. The writer, Luke Owen, has long been connected with them and lives in the city. But they have chosen challenging, award winning and fairly new plays before.

As a playwright who’d also entered the Papatango competition, I was interested to know what had won it. And for the first scene, I felt sadly disappointed. A man enters an office, makes tea, puts on music and wiggles his bum, to a few audience laughs (not shared by me). A second man, Simon, appears and after a dull and clunky exchange, soon goes into meltdown. It felt over egged and as if they were not quite comfortable on the stage. The first man (Nidge) is ridiculously distracting and almost afraid of his colleague’s grief.

But that was the only duff scene – I think the play would be stronger if it began with scene 2: a young, well turned out keen man in a interview, reeling off his computing prowess. As the ordinary sounding interview progresses, we begin to gather the nature of the job – this isn’t your average IT role. The nature of the work isn’t spelt out. As Tom tries to describe what he sees in the file he’s been handed, with the sense of threshold he is crossing, the play becomes excellent. I felt nervous with Tom about what he’d see and have to tell us – but the play manages to be powerful and uncomfortable without showing or saying anything explicit. I do think following Tom into the video room would have added to the story: not to learn what he saw but to see his reaction, his will to sit through it and to accept the job.

And then there’s a cut to the other story – Tom is dating. And immediately, the obvious “So what do you do?” seems set to squelch any romance with “Tinkerbelle…”- which is where the audience also learns that Tom spends his day looking at images of children being abused, to be passed to the police for action.

We see less of Nidge’s outside life, except the recurring cinematic wordless episodes where he crouches over his model plane to piano music – brave for theatre, but welcome and well used. Nitch has learned to cut out the emotional core of his work and lets daytime TV and X-boxes and absorb the horrors of the video and pictures he has to assess.

The characters’ awkwardness and naturalness was excellent, especially in the dating scenes, due to both acting and script. Emily’s rising end of sentences and trying too hard when not fully socially comfortable – as teens and twenties often do – are perfectly captured theatrically.  The office manager, Mark, could easily feel bland, but this is avoided as he is overly casual with but disconnected from his staff. Only Simon at the start was a problem, and apart from one later mention of his name (we could guess at what that meant) he is never needed or part of the story again.

There was a scene that I felt needed something before it. Tom is head in hands, talking to Mark, but we see no catalyst; it doesn’t follow from the last scene. And it didn’t work for me as a “come in late” and disorientate the audience kind of scene.

The meltdown scene was an uneven increase in the volume and drama; and the final arc, whilst neatly drawn, was to not where I’d hoped. Despite the first scene with Simon, colleagues Nidge and Tom are more articulate and open about feelings than Tom is with Emily. The latter relationship seems emotionally immature, based on only flirting and attraction, with sex being obligatory after their first ‘official’ date. Tom shuts Emily out when she triggers a reminder of his work with her childlike pyjamas and stuffed animals around the bedroom. I didn’t really invest in their relationship, because I could see little real affection or connection or openness.

There are many challenges to the nature of Tom and Nidge’s job: the intensity and boringness of it (ironic for an IT whizz), along with pressure of time and volume of work. It queries that images of adults being harmed are coolly written off as ‘not our remit’. It asks whether becoming inured to horror and tragedy is ever good – and that is a conundrum for all of us. It made me question if any job – including the counsellors with whom it is obligatory to speak  – ought to continually be around such disturbing material. The play asks if talking about the videos – and thus reliving them – helps. It led me to wonder what would alleviate, and also how to deal with the perpetrators, and questions of forgiveness and healing for those who do the ultimate crimes.

The arc of the story is ultimately a sad one. Apart from the scenes I mention, it is a well crafted one, but it’s hopeless and doesn’t go far enough in questioning the job description or letting anyone get to a better place.

I would still encourage people to see it for themselves and for a welcome change to the usual theatre we get in this region.

New Writing needs more platforms!

Unscorched is showing til Dec 6th 2014 at Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich NR3 3BB, and directed by Michelle Montague. or 01603 628319 (Prelude Records on St Giles St)


Filed under society, theatre

US Things To Give Thanks For

I’m not American, but I wanted to use today as an excuse to reflect on all the things I do like about America. So here’s my favourite exports:

Wonder Woman

Clearly a much delayed role model, I talk about her on here. My favourite superhero, making hawks doves, though a little underdressed for this time of year

Sesame Street

The subversive kid’s show I didn’t appreciate till I had come of age. Witty, surreal, clever and hilarious. Milllllk!

Neale Donald Walsch

I have to acknowledge his place on my spiritual journey, turning the boat from the Mayflower to…this is where my boat knowledge lets down the metaphor… Magical Mystery Tour? Rainbow Warrior?… not quite either of those… but a ship willing to include a new path and wider crew, and some radical thoughts about the captain

Jo Dunning

My favourite spiritual speaker and healer right now. I love to tune into her monthly Quick Pulse seminar, even though it involves staying up til 2am due to time differences. Jo’s voice is calm and truthful and I’ve been very impressed with her – I’d not normally believe some of the things she offers, but something in my gut says I can trust her

Elaine Aron

Elaine represents a whole load of things that would only come out of America, but the rest of the world needs. Normally I would resist such a statement, but I’m only doing grateful today. I’m glad that America has identified things that some other cultures would never name or explore and champion. Elaine has a trait she has called Highly Sensitive Person, which she sees as neutral-positive that explains why some people can be overwhelmed. There are many things implicit in this about growth and acceptance that I think some of American culture can be good at encouraging and addressing.

The Constitution

Sadly not what it’s living by, but a beautiful and inspiring piece to nations everywhere – and I like being built, like Camelot (as per recent post) on an idea

Sasha Cagen

She who founded the Quirkyalone movement whose blog posts are wise and inspiring, celebratory of full personhood, of sensuality, of singleness, and seeking the very best of relationships

My US friends

My life has been touched by various Americans, I have some in particular in mind at present. They’ll get personal messages.


I shall eat sweet potatoes tonight in your honor with and without a U!

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I’ll make you a bloody poppy!

After reading No Glory in War’s link to the Guardian piece on the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London for remembrance day, I felt I wanted to make my own response. You’ll know my thoughts on poppies from my previous year’s posts and they haven’t changed – save being all the more non red poppy due to hearing arms makers sponsor it. As ever, my two poppies did not feature the colour red (white for peace -jingoism; purple for animals).

Here is my freshly painted piece on war – it’s harsher in real life. Look hard. It’s visceral, violent, scarlet against sable, pink of flesh, black for the darkness of war, full of runs and clots, thorns and barbs, bile and blood.

But note the white…. I hear the Peace Pledge union ran out of white poppies this year! (alas I saw few on bosoms, except my own) and I was so pleased that anti war veterans had an alterative gathering at London’s cenotaph, just as my local Quakers popped a white wreath by the red military ones and wrote in big (so we could see, since it was placed at the back) for ALL victims of war – ie whatever country – not just ours.

Here’s the picture. Poppy

If you want to buy it in various forms, pop over here

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Mr Leigh: thanks for putting me off my favourite artist

A review of “Mr Turner” released last night

Salma Hayek’s drive to bring her fellow Mexican Frida Kahlo to the screen encouraged me to discover the highly original and sometimes surreal portrait artist and her world. Nightwatching gave an appreciation of Peter Greenaway’s work and his deep understanding behind what he calls “Rembrandt’s J’Acccuse”, a painting I’d have otherwise dismissed as a too dark old Master. Watching The Bridge made me go to Ipswich’s Christchurch Mansion to see Phillip Wilson Steer’s work and seek him out in the library. I saw all of these films more than once, two being important a decade or more later.

With Mr Turner, I was already familiar with the artist and consider him probably my favourite. Yet this film had the reverse affect, for it made me tempted to go off Mr T.

Since I sat in kicking distance of arrogant Mike Leigh at a so called masterclass, and found his next two films no less obnoxious, I vowed I would view no more. But I made an exception because of the subject matter.

It was, as I feared, a Mike Leigh view of JMW “Billy” Turner. The costumes and period setting disguised the work of Leigh only momentarily: the usual unscripted scenes that feel aimless and often extraneous were soon apparent. Leigh’s style to me is lack of craft, not originality. Does Leigh flatter himself that like his characters say of Turner, he has also taken leave of form? If so, he is unsuccessful. Leigh’s opus is rambling, long but many scenes are unneeded – where did two singing scenes in the country house go in terms of narrative or showing us anything about Turner? Or the one asking his landlady to knock flies from his gallery ceiling in front of his guests?

As played by Timothy Spall, Turner has the manner of a boar or worse (like the sofa bear advert that came on before). He is utterly rude to his housekeeper, often growling instructions but never thanking and often ignoring her questions. He twice sexually abuses her, and even the kiss with his long term mistress is rough wooing – a selfish, greedy, indexterous grope that asks no permission and makes no statements of affection. Despite what others have written, Spall as Turner is not compelling.

Was this really anything like the artist I admire?

The film is crowded like the walls of the oft viewed Victorian gallery, not just with scenes and bits of biography, but with familiar actors underused – eg the excellent Ruby (Minnie from Larkrise) Bendall who barely speaks. Lesley Manville was the film’s most magnetic actor in a short one off role as Mary Somerville, the natural philosopher, come to do experiments with colour. The scene sat alone as a piece from the wrong jigsaw. I kept expecting Mary to reappear, for her colour experiments to be linked to Turner’s world – for instance in my favourite painting that explicitly references Goethe’s theory of colour in its long title (the one about Moses, Genesis and the Deluge). But this film gives unequal weight to Turner’s seascape, only once showing a piece with social or political meaning (that of the slave ships). A glance though any Turner book reveals he spent much time on the land, with prominent castles and cathedrals, and that he went abroad – not just to Holland at the start of the film – and that he roved his own country widely – not just London and Margate. His works also focussed on classical and mystical themes, which is largely missed out of this biopic.

I wondered how the act of artistic creation would be depicted. Not very satisfyingly or originally. Nightwatching and The Bridge tell the story behind a specific painting, with matching cinematoghraphy – as this tried to do, but it didn’t go far enough; Turner’s later work is about brush strokes rendering indistinct and magical, sometimes with great movement, not just hazy fog over an off centre strong light. Frida lets us see the images, the events and emotions behind several of her works, fusing live action with the paintings. There’s shots of Turneresque views, but the Fighting Temeraire was really obviously spelt out as a potential subject in naff dialogue. And we rarely get Turner’s views on what he’s doing, though we do have the words of critics, and most analysis comes from the Ruskin family’s speils. There’s a lot of Turner pottering with a brush and sometimes spitting on works we’re likely to recognise, and some of his dad procuring and preparing the paints, but we don’t see what’s underneath Turner, man nor canvas.

And it ends with his death – not like Frida who utilises a painting to make it a moving joyful exit in her spirit – but just his physical passing game over; and then the despair of the abused housekeeper but no hint of his St Paul’s cathedral funeral (recalling a Mrs T I’m still sore over).

This is unfocussed, loose as Spall’s jowls [forgive me Tim] and missing the opportunity to paint with light on two levels.

But at least it got my own paint box out.

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