White Horse Opera; Spring Concert 2019

The Assembly Room in Devizes Town Hall, with its sparkling chandeliers and grand paintings, was the perfect venue for White Horse Opera’s glamorous Spring Concert on Friday.

Musical Director Ronald Melia and pianist Tony James took the company through a programme comprised of songs from Carmen and The Mikado, White Horse Opera’s forthcoming November show and touring opera respectively, with additional pieces by Puccini, Dvorak, Gounod, Mozart, and Flanders and Swann, and renditions of ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Santa Lucia’ from guest tenor and clarinetist Sebastiano Cipolla.

The show started in lively fashion with two duets from The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, performed with delightful delicacy and chemistry by Jessica Phillips and Jon Paget; followed by Barbara Gompels soaring through Donde Lieta from La Bohème; Paula Boyagis singing Seguidilla and Card Aria from Carmen; and Charles Leeming singing The Sentry’s Song from Iolanthe (‘When in that house MPs divide…they’ve got to leave that brain outside’) with topical tweaks.  The first half concluded with a selection of pieces from the Mikado including the Willow Song and Three Little Maids.

The second half contained an ensemble from The Magic Flute (Chrissie Higgs, Louise Surowiec, Paula Boyagis, and Lisa House); Cherubino’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro (a ‘breeches’ song, as in a boy’s song performed by a girl, well done by Chrissie Higgs); Paula again singing A Word on My Ear, a funny Flanders and Swann song about a tone deaf singer which perversely showcases a whole range of musical tricks; Barbara singing the heart rending Song to the Moon by Dvorak beautifully (reminiscent of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, methinks); Sebastiano Cipolla and his clarinet; Lisa House’s pure voice powering through The Jewel Song from Faust; and then the entire company singing a medley from Carmen ending with the rousing March of the Toreadors.

There was much to like and admire in this show.  I enjoyed Graham Billing’s bashful and witty Ko-Ko, and his Little List song.  Being somewhat surprised to hear Ant and Dec and Boris mentioned in a White Horse Opera show I wondered whether it was traditional to update the references (it is, but it seems to have become more usual to do so since Eric Idle performed the song in the 80s).

It’s hard to say just how magnificent and moving some of these singers’ voices are, and impossible not to be impressed by the vocal acrobatics that opera demands.  Barbara Gompels and Lisa House produced some notes that thrilled me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, and there were many other technical excellences and moving musical moments in the show from individual singers and the company as a whole.

But what impressed me most was the acting, particularly in the first duets, Jon Paget’s assertive and impressive Escamillo, and Paula Boyagis in everything she did.

One got the impression that Paula was in her element given the Flanders and Swann number, the Card Aria, and the passionate Carmen to get her teeth into.  She glittered, smouldered, flirted, pouted, sashayed up and down the aisle swirling her red skirts, seduced the audience and sang her wild gypsy heart out.  She’s a superb Carmen and a versatile singer and actress and I look forward to seeing her play the role in November.

Last but by no means least – Sebastiano Cipolla and his mellifluous voice and clarinet.  His lovely liquid jazz interpretation of Danny Boy was like nothing I have ever heard before, and his use of the clarinet as a prop in Santa Lucia was hilarious.  It’s good to be surprised by things, and Sebastian’s performance left me feeling that I had experienced something unusual and delicious.

I have to say that I found the whole night rather lively and surprising.  I’ve enjoyed White Horse Opera’s shows before but this one knocked spots off the rest and I think that’s for two reasons; one, that the shape of the Town Hall stage suits a static chorus with room for only a few actors, and two, that the energy levels and confidence of the entire company appeared to be sky high.

I thought White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert was wonderful, and afterwards people who know far more than me about opera agreed.

© Gail Foster 30th March 2019

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‘As You Like It’ at The Wharf Theatre

 

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I went to the dress rehearsal for the Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’, directed by Liz Sharman, on Sunday.

Described as a pastoral comedy, ‘As You Like It’ is thought to have been written in 1599 and would have been played to an audience of mixed social status and varying degrees of education.  Not being familiar with the play I did some reading before I went, and not for the first time was amazed at the extraordinary level of analysis that has been applied to it over the years.

What if sometimes Shakespeare just wrote stuff for fun?

‘As You Like It’ is a story of lovers and fools, relationships and rivalry, romance and reconciliation.

Duke Senior, having been deposed by his brother Duke Frederick, has set up camp in the Forest of Arden.  Back in the court his daughter Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, the son of one of Duke Frederick’s enemies, during a wrestling match arranged by Orlando’s brother Oliver in order to get rid of him.

Asa result of the wrestling match both Rosalind and Orlando are separately cast out of the court.  Rosalind dresses as a man and takes to the forest with Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter, who disguises herself as Rosalind’s sister, and Touchstone, a jester.  Orlando, accompanied by his elderly servant Adam, also takes to the forest, and occupies himself looking for Rosalind and leaving appalling poetry in trees.

Other characters of note are Jacques, a fool/traveller/hermit, shepherds Corin, Silvius and Phoebe, and Audrey, a goatherd, and smaller parts include a vicar, the Spirit of Summer, singers and minor lords.

The set was simple and effective, with a plain white backdrop and flowers, and trees indicated by struts of wood and subtle coloured shadows.  Characters were dressed in a combination of Victorian and present-day dress, and the songs (there are more songs in this than in any other Shakespeare play) were folky and traditional with hey nonny nos and contemporary overtones.

Actors, then; what struck me most was the different ways they handled the complex script.  There are two ways to read Shakespeare, full on theatrical and naturalistic, and both styles were mingled here with good results.  Whilst it was easy to spot the trained actors in this show everyone delivered their lines well and there were very few hiccups.

Helen Langford played a feisty and modern Rosalind (the largest female part in Shakespeare) with admirable principal boy verve and mischief, and Lucy Upward gave a fine performance as her cousin and confidante, Celia.  Lewis Cowen was suitably regal and wise as Duke Senior, and Phil Greenaway (in his first Shakespeare role), and Duncan Delmar played Orlando and Silvius respectively in endearingly hapless and lovelorn fashion.

But it was the fools who stole the show for me.  There’s a lot about foolishness and wisdom in this play, and it is the fools and the folk of the fields who have the best lines.

‘All the world’s a stage’ muses the melancholy and world-weary Jacques, played by Oli Beech with glorious floridity, and ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’ says Touchstone, played as a charismatic Northern lad by Daz Beatson.

‘As You Like It’ is full of sage advice on love and life, comedy moments, and fine little intricate speeches.  I enjoyed Touchstone’s explanation of the seven causes and Jacques’ performance of the seven ages of man; I laughed at the vicar on the scooter and the phrases ‘country copulatives’ and ‘the horn, the horn, the lusty horn’, at Abigail Newton’s hilarious portrayal of Audrey the clumsy goatherd, at the sheep noises (not sure I was supposed to laugh at that bit), and at Orlando’s terrible poetry; I thought the wrestling was exciting, and the music wistful (credit to Stuart Mayling for his musical and wrestling skills), and I liked the wordplay.

And I looked for the grand themes referred to in my researches on Google.

Echoes of Ecclesiastes, echoes of Arcadia – oh it’s deep enough in places, and the more intellectual types in Shakespeare’s audience would have found plenty to delight them. You could analyse this play till the sheep come home (four centuries of analysis, for goodness’ sake!) but it is predominantly a wild and witty romp, and I think Liz Sharman’s wonderfully lively and watchable production hit exactly the right note.

Shakespeare wrote this for fun, and The Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’ is a fun show.

Shakespeare, fun?  Yes, really!

Well done.

*

© Gail Foster 11th March 2019

(review and photographs)

Health Thai Massage, Chippenham; a review

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have walked past the new Thai Massage place on Station Hill in Chippenham and made certain sniggery presumptions about seedy and stereotypical ‘happy endings’.

This isn’t that sort of place at all, and those in need of sexual relief would be best advised to walk on by.   What goes on here is authentic Thai and oil massage, delivered in a clean, safe, and comfortable environment by professional masseuses Nui, the proprietor, and Kadek, her experienced colleague.

Massage is a fascinating and intimate thing to photograph.

I would describe Sue as an advanced customer.  She’d been to yoga before coming in and is very flexible.  I watch in awe as Nui, the proprietor, bends her into shapes I didn’t know were possible, throws her around, treads all over her, pummels her, and pulls her about.  ‘It’s all about energy’ says Nui, ‘I give my energy to her’.  I watch Nui’s face as she thoughtfully considers her next move, feeling her way on Sue’s body with feet, hands, and elbows, rolling on her and pressing on particular points (‘Who does that?’ says Sue, her face a picture of radiant delight as Nui finds just the right place on her inner arm to apply pressure).

Whilst the acrobatics are interesting to watch, it’s the hands that get me.  The hands and the feet and the head.  Knots and pools of tension we don’t realise we have released from places we are rarely touched.  It’s so moving watching the effect that the massage has on Sue, and how she responds to Nui’s alternately firm and gentle manipulations.

‘Oooo!’ says Sue, as yet again Nui hits the spot, ‘Ah’ and ‘Mmm’ and ‘Oh!’.

The massage lasts an hour, during which time Sue, who had been bendy and cheerful enough when she came in, is reduced to a profoundly relaxed and blissed out jelly.

As she is leaving a Mum comes in with her little girl, and Nui agrees a half an hour session with her, and twenty minutes with her daughter.  Not everyone is as used to long vigorous massage as Sue is, and Nui will be careful to ask about health conditions and take it gently with novice customers.   They had a lady of eighty in the other day, men are booking their partners in for sessions, and couples can be booked in at the same time.

Word is clearly getting around that Thai Massage Chippenham is not just for men.

When you have a Thai massage you keep your clothes on, and when you have the oil massage, in which only pure coconut oils are used, the body is covered with towels to preserve modesty should that be required.

Security cameras are installed on the premises for everyone’s safety.

This isn’t a whore house.

Nor is it Champneys.

It’s a respectable no frills establishment in the centre of Chippenham where you can go and get a deep and powerful, or soft and sensuous (that’s sensuous, not sexual), Thai massage and know that you are in good hands.

What a wonderful thing to photograph.

Look at Sue’s face!

Health Thai Massage Chippenham.

Give it a go.

© Gail Foster 16th February 2019

(click on this link for more information)

 

White Horse Opera do ‘The Magic Flute’

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On Wednesday I went to the opening night of White Horse Opera’s much anticipated run of ‘The Magic Flute’, directed by Chrissie Higgs, at Lavington School.

Mozart’s ‘singspiel’ style opera, with libretto by his friend Emanuel Shikaneder, was first performed in Vienna in 1791.  It’s a classic fairy tale and love story in which boy gets girl, baddies get their comeuppance, and everyone else lives happily ever after.  It is also a profound and potted lesson in the initiatory processes and philosopy of the Freemasons, the brotherhood to which both Mozart and his librettist belonged, and the symbols of which permeate the work.

Prince Tamino, a fine upstanding lad of good character, and his flighty friend Papageno, the bird-catcher, having escaped the clutches of a serpent, are given a flute and a set of magical bells by three strange ladies and guided by three spirits (threes being a recurring theme throughout) to the castle and temples of Sarastro, High Priest of the Sun, in order to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina, with whom Tamino has fallen in love.  Along the way it becomes clear that all is not as it appears to be, and that they and the wholesome Pamina will have to undergo certain trials (of silence, fire, and water) in order to achieve (with differing degrees of success) true love and enlightenment.

‘The Magic Flute’ has a complex and varied musical score that showcases the genius of Mozart himself and the ability of any orchestra or company that performs it.  Musical Director Roland Melia’s superb nine-piece orchestra handled the material faultlessly from the wonderful overture (with all its hints of things to come) through numerous changes of mood and musical style to the end.  There’s real talent among the singers in this company, and great praises on this occasion are certainly due to the imperious Queen of the Night, Barbara Gompels, who hit the high Fs in her challenging coloratura soprano aria without a hint of screech; also to Lisa House as Pamina, for the consistent quality of her sweet and powerful voice in her duets and aria; talented young tenor Matthew Bawden (especially in the light of the fact that he only stepped in to Tamino’s shoes a couple of weeks ago); the ever-reliable Jonathan Paget for his feckless but loveable Papageno; and Charles Leeming as Mayor and High Priest Sarastro, for his imposing presence, low F, and booming bass.

The whole cast stepped up to the mark vocally, individually and in chorus (if there was a bum note I certainly didn’t hear it), and in the main (wake up a bit, you lads at the back!) the acting was good.   The trios of ladies and spirits were lively and amusing (great character acting from Chrissie Higgs and others), good support was given by ‘Councillor’ Ian Diddams, Stephen Grimshaw as the dodgy Monostratos was suitably creepy, and Papagena (Bryony Cox) and Papageno’s vibrant and unexpected little duet at the end of Act Two was a sheer delight.

Also to be commended was the use of lighting (Simon Stockley) with simple backdrops to create a variety of (at times genuinely spooky) atmospheres and surprises.

‘The Magic Flute’ is a peculiar thing.  The more you look at it the deeper and more uncomfortable and controversial it gets, and the more you try to place it in the present day the less it belongs here.  I’ve never seen it before, but I suspect that White Horse Opera’s quality production was an excellent introduction to its peculiar mysteries.  It certainly went down well with the audience, and whilst the subject matter left me feeling a bit disconcerted (‘It’s not a feminist opera’ someone remarked in the interval) and wondering whether Mozart got so carried away that he forgot or didn’t think it necessary to veil his allegory, the music is undeniably sublime and I enjoyed the performance very much.

‘Outstanding!’ someone else said afterwards, and I, albeit from a layman’s viewpoint, can only agree.

Well done, White Horse Opera!

Jolly good show.

© Gail Foster 13th October

‘The Blacksmith’s Craft’; John Girvan at Wiltshire Museum

 

‘The Blacksmith’s Craft’ exhibition; a review

John Girvan.  He’s the ghost walk guy, the man who has the Canal Forge, the bloke who writes about the dungeons, prisons, and tunnels of Devizes.  He might have made your gate.  You might have been to his forge with your school.  You might have spotted him dressed as a Norman and wielding his massive weapon on the Market Cross.  You might have seen him on the telly with Derek Acorah.  You might have one of his books on your shelf.

What you may not know about him is that he once worked for Burtons, that he trained as a blacksmith under Laurence Love, that he has been a member of The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society since he was a boy, and that until September 23rd you can see a selection of his work in ‘The Blacksmith’s Craft’ exhibition at Wiltshire Museum on Long Street, Devizes.

I went to a short talk that John gave before looking at his pieces.  He’s full of quips and anecdotes, and his delivery is gently camp and self-deprecating.  He showed some old photos of himself at work in the forge (he had that Angela Rippon in there once, don’t you know).  He taught us why a blacksmith’s apron has a fringe at the bottom (it’s for sweeping the anvil).  He showed a video of himself hot forging a scroll.   He told us that he made the bunker door at Browfort, the gates of St. Andrew’s, and the seat above the White Horse, and that he’s made a handful of chastity belts, and more weather-vanes than you can shake one of his finely forged pokers at.  He spoke animatedly about his workshops with children over the years, and enthusiastically about repoussé.  ‘Strike while the iron’s hot!’ he said, sparkily.

The Wiltshire Museum describes his exhibition as ‘rural traditional art’.  To me John’s work falls in to four categories; practical objects / folk art (pokers, gates, metal flowers), fun stuff for kids (what child doesn’t like a cheerful robot or a cheeky spider?), experimental works, and Very Beautiful Things.

Recent experimental works include various ladies made out of chicken wire, ‘The Three Graces’ (mixed metals), and ‘Aphrodite’, the face of a woman made of mesh with metal eyes and lips.  I could take or leave the lively chicken wire ladies, but ‘Aphrodite’ got better the longer you looked at her (many people did, and it was The Mayor’s favourite piece), ‘The Three Graces’ had a certain elegance to them, and the shadows cast by the sculptures on the wall greatly enhanced the effect of both works.

By Very Beautiful Things I mean the glorious sconces, the acanthus leaf, the flora and flourishes, the ‘King’s Chair’ with its delicate ironwork, the beaten copper leaves, ‘The Hand of the Smith’, the hot forged horses’ heads, the tiny fronds and spirals spinning from things, the witty little metal snakes and snails.

I’m not sure all these things belong in the same room in an ideal world, but the juxtaposition of the ‘Iron Mask’, one of the few nods to John’s interest in the macabre, with the humorous robot was interesting.

I asked John about his favourite piece.  ‘You’ll laugh’ he said.  Bet I don’t, I thought.  ‘It’s this’ he said, and pointed to ‘Juncture’, which is ‘two dissimilar weights of steel requiring different temperatures of heat to bring them together, set in oak’.

It’s heavy.  It’s light.  It’s simple, complex, angular, fluid, and stark.  And Very Beautiful.

John is winding down the Canal Forge these days.  He’s been there since 1980.  I asked him why.  ‘You can’t go on forever’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye.  He has a forge in his garden now, and you just know that he is going to carry on making beautiful interesting humorous things and striking while the iron’s hot until the day his fire goes out.

‘I’ve had to show people what I can do’ he said in his talk earlier.

John Girvan.  Blacksmith, artist, historian, humorist.

Go and see what he can do.

© Gail Foster 30th July 2018

TITCO does Queen

A review of The Invitation Theatre Company and Full Tone Orchestra’s Queen show in the Corn Exchange, Devizes

‘It’ll be alright on the night’ is a phrase often said following a dress rehearsal of dubious quality.  As I watched TITCO perform their Queen medley prior to their sell out show I wondered if this would prove true on this occasion.  Seems like a big ask, I thought as I watched the cast fumbling through the numbers and trudging round the stage with what seemed to be very little direction or enthusiasm.  It’s rock, I thought, for goodness sake give it some welly!  ‘Another one bites the dust’ it said on the back of someone’s tee-shirt.  Indeed.  It was so bad that I didn’t feel I could review it, so I decided to go back on the first night to see if it was any better. TITCO have produced some great shows in the past few years, and the Full Tone Orchestra are a class act.  Both have reputations to keep up and fans to please, and both take pride in their work.  A fail at this stage would not be good for either. What if, heavens forbid, TITCO didn’t pull it off…?

From the moment I walked into the Ceres Hall on Friday it was abundantly clear that TITCO had been on the glitter, and that all would be well.  Energy levels on the stage and in Antony Brown’s orchestra were through the roof, and the audience were buzzing with excitement.

The format of Chris Worthy and Jemma Brown’s production was simple.  A programme of iconic songs alternated with less well known tunes and short audio clips of interviews with Queen members, the entire cast dressed in black Queen tee-shirts in front of a plain black backdrop, a thirty piece orchestra and four guitarists to do justice to the music, solos and duets from Sean Andrews, Will Sexton, Chris Worthy, Simon Hoy, Paul Morgan, Lottie Diddams, Jemma Brown, Naomi Ibbetson, Mari Webster and Lucy Burgess, rousing altogether-now ensemble numbers by the whole company, and more glow sticks than you could shake a glow stick at.

The usual suspects gave good song, as is to be expected given their wealth of experience, but Will Sexton’s Mercurial ‘I Want To Be Free’, Jemma Brown and Mari Webster’s mellow and melancholy ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’, and Chris Worthy’s delightfully raunchy interpretation of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ were the performances that did it for me on this occasion.  And everyone loves ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘We Will Rock You’, and (it was acceptable in the 70s, really it was) ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’…

The show wasn’t perfect, but on the Friday night the cast brought just the right amount of attitude and anarchy to the show to make any little slips irrelevant and unnoticeable, and their obvious enjoyment in delivering the songs and interacting with the audience was infectious.  The choreography was a bit dodgy, but there had been no opportunity to rehearse in the performance space prior to the dress rehearsal, so I might let them off that one.  And anyway, nobody cared…

Because on the night the Full Tone Orchestra upped the pace and TITCO upped their game, and between them they totally smashed it.

I’ve not seen an audience react quite that strongly to a musical show.  They sang, they waved their arms, they clapped their hands (‘Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise’ etc), they stood up and whooped in appreciation.  Maybe it was something in the beer.  Maybe they were blinded by the glitter.  Maybe the dream combination of TITCO, Queen, and the Full Tone Orchestra tipped them over the edge.  I know that people love TITCO, but I didn’t realise anyone still loved Queen quite so much.  Maybe there is a little bit of Freddie or a Killer Queen inside us all.

By the end of the show the entire audience was up on its feet, singing and swaying and waving their glow sticks wildly to ‘We Are The Champions’, and demanding an encore.

Brilliant.

So what happened between the frankly dire dress rehearsal and the show, I wonder?

Someone really needs to check that glitter.

© Gail Foster 1st July 2018

Dirty Dusting at Devizes Arts Festival

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Dirty Dusting, a tale of three elderly cleaners threatened with redundancy who start up a sex chat line, hit the stage at the Corn Exchange on Wednesday night.  The play premiered in South Shields in 2003, and is currently performed by Crissy Rock, of Benidorm fame, Leah Bell, Dolores Porretta, and Andrew Green.

The audience were vociferously amused from the outset, and by the end were overtaken with mirth.  After all, sex is funny, and we British do like our innuendo.  Think seaside postcards and Carry On.  Think Les Dawson and Mrs. Brown’s Boys.  Toss in a bit of slapstick and stick slapping and more references to coming than in the Festival publicity, and there have you have it.  Dirty Dusting.  A riotous smut fest.

Leah Bell as Glad (‘all over’) aka Madonna is the star of the show, and it is the late flowering of her sexuality and physical comedy that provides the most laughs.  Crissy Rock is the worldly wise and weary Elsie (Kylie), Dolores Porretta plays Olive (Marilyn), whose sexless marriage was once punctuated by an affair with a Scoutmaster called Arthur, and Andrew Green is the arrogant boss with a furtive secret.

It’s a whole new world (hole, even) for the Telephone Belles from the minute the phone rings.  There are misunderstandings about water sports, references to hand puppets, and revelations relating to crotchless panties.  It’s a steep learning curve.  Good times for Glad, as she and the previously disappointing (‘You could time an egg by him’) Billy reap the rewards of her re-energised libido, but bad times for the boss (domestic suction devices; don’t do this at home, kids) as his unusual fetish is exposed.  The story ends with the ladies emerging victorious and the whole cast appearing in comedy S&M gear.

I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much and so often in the Corn Exchange.   People absolutely loved it.  They spilled out of the Ceres Hall with happy smiles, saying things like ‘Brilliant, really clever’, ‘A laugh’, and ‘Best thing I’ve seen for a long time’.  To see that people enjoyed our Festival event so much was wonderful.

I laughed twice.  Something just didn’t sit right for me.  In the interval I talked to Lesley Mills, who voiced her concerns about the clichéd negative portrayal of older women and their sexuality in the show.  We both found a couple of the jokes a bit gross, particularly the one about things dangling out of the aforesaid crotchless thingies.  Which surprises me because neither of us are prudes, and I have a reputation for mildly vulgar poetry.  We also struggled to place the play in a particular time.  The characters seemed to come from the 70s, but even though the phones were old fashioned there were references to Google, credit card payments, and the odious Trump.

‘You realise it was written by men’ said a gentleman from the Festival committee, quietly.

Get over yourself, some might say.  It’s just a bit of fun.  There’s nothing serious about it.  Lighten up a bit, for goodness sake!  Fair enough, but this is 2018, and we are currently revising our view on what is and isn’t acceptable regarding what and how things are said about whom.  If this play had been written in, or firmly set in, the 70s, I would have understood it as being of its time and enjoyed it more.  But it wasn’t.  And it wasn’t ironic either.  Which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable and confused.

Sorry to be a party pooper, people.

But I never did like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

© Gail Foster 17th June 2018