Wednesday, 30 December 2009

THE EMPTY CHAIR

There’s usually no shortage of company for breakfast or lunch, and there’s always the optional madness of the random seating assignment at a shared table, but once or twice I’ve asked for a window seat and a table to myself.

I might catch up with some reading, but mostly I find my thoughts drifting and occasionally focus on the chair opposite and wonder who, in my ideal world, might fill it. This is infinitely harder than knowing who you’d like on the other side of the bed, because it’s assumed that the person opposite is your long-term partner and, at my age, one might say ‘for life’ which is a challenge both to the potential holder of the position, and to oneself.

I can’t do it.

I’ve combed through the various lists of people I keep filed in the dusty card index of my cerebellum and no obvious candidate from either current friends, past lovers, facebook, the dead, or even fantasy fucks makes it to the short list.

Hugh Jackman, at a pinch, but I’m sure we’d get bored of each other eventually. Deefa, my late cocker spaniel, runs him a close second.

I guess Deefa with his characteristics of constantly looking adoringly at you, and being willing to lick you almost anywhere is a better qualification for the other side of the bed than for the table where you’d like at least a bit of unstrained conversation beyond the one-sided ‘sit’ and ‘get down’.

So I look around the restaurant and see how other tables are faring. The couples (male and female mostly of course) divide into two types: those who maintain a low-voltage constant bickering, he trying to make conversation by discussing the itinerary for the day, she using it as a chance to deal the low blow of reprimand that ‘we’ve been through this already in the cabin’ and building up a store of resentment to use as a sexual fire-blanket for later, and those for whom silence is the safer option, each focusing fifteen degrees to port or starboard to avoid the other’s direct gaze over eggs and cold toast.

That’s no way to live. Most of them stay cemented for the practicalities of house, children and suburban respectability, but none seem to be actively enjoying each other’s company. Women form instant bonds at shared tables through their mutual eye-rolling at the perceived behaviour of their respective husbands. Why is it considered so normal to complain about your partner on first meeting another’s? If you don’t like him, divorce him, or chuck the sad bastard over the side – but I think there’s an element of reverse psychology in operation here, that (some) married women maintain a steady trickle of criticism of their husbands as a barrage to resist any questioning of their own role.

Even when ballroom dancing, surely one of the best ways for a couple to express their mutual affection and synchronicity, the men stare over the women’s heads and pilot them round the floor like they were steering a particularly recalcitrant shopping trolley round Asda.

Where are the intelligent, angular, lively alpha-couples you’d find on stage or screen? A sharp-witted Harvard professor and his publisher partner, such as you’d get in a Neil Simon comedy? A successful Cotswolds businessman and his Aga-fiddling wife from a Joanna Trollope novel? Not on this ship, over-run as it is with peevish lower-middle-class English readers of the Daily Mail, rounding the final bend in a lifetime’s marital toleration.

I wonder what happens when they retire to their cabins, he reaching for his Dick Francis and she for her P D James as they seek escape from reality into the pages of a thick novel from the ship’s Library. These people are mostly no older than me, so how did their sexuality die so much earlier?

So on balance, I wouldn’t thank you for many of the men on board, attached or single. And I’m becoming less and less convinced that there’s ‘someone’ for each of us.

I have a lot of friends, and I could fill the Albert Hall with acquaintances, but whilst I think I’m blessed to be so readily surrounded with amiable people, sometimes the emotional loneliness is painful.

And on warm nights when the full moon climbs ever higher in the inky sky over the Caribbean and the breeze and the scent of the sea sweeps over me, it’s all but unbearable that there’s no-one to share this.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Oh Island in the Sun, Willed to me by my father’s hand ...

Good old Harry Belafonte. I think that was one of the first records I ever owned.

I was quite looking forward to our visit to Barbados, having heard so much about it from my father who used to visit frequently both for the Test Matches, and for Sharon the Bajan cocktail waitress he was knocking off in the hotel where he regularly stayed. When he was terminally ill, I had to phone her to see how serious was the relationship from her side, in case she wanted to see him, or come to the funeral. She sounded like Bob Marley on the phone.

It wasn’t serious and even though just before we had him sectioned under the Mental Health Act my father was changing his Will in her favour, I’ll never know for sure whether Sharon’s then seven-year old daughter Chantelle is actually my half-caste half-sister. She must be 21 now, funny if I’ve seen her walking about and not known it.

We took a touted tour from the dockside, but it was a desultory experience and at least a couple of the people on the bus were deeply strange, including a very very elderly, very infirm German Jewish gent with the dirtiest crocheted yarmulke I’ve ever seen pinned to his greasy pate with rusting clips. He clamped David into a window seat and was stubbornly reluctant to move when we got to photo stops so after the first we squeezed ourself three to a seat to avoid moving him. He exhibited almost no signs of life until the allotted two hours of the tour was over when he began to punch and kick at the side of the bus to attract the driver’s attention that he wanted to get back to his ship, cleverly titled ‘Mein Schiff’. It’s a low-budget German cut-and-shut made from a converted car ferry with bolted-on balconies and which seems to be following us around from port to port sniffing our sternpipe like a lost Schnauzer.

Also in the back seats were a couple from Massachusetts who seemed educationally sub normal despite being about to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary. He read aloud every sign we passed, however banal, including ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ which seemed to crop up half a dozen times. Perhaps she was illiterate. He also had completely evenly brown teeth which is something you don’t see often, certainly not in States where they put fluoride in the water.

What we saw of Barbados, at least as guided by our driver, was a series of houses built for low-income workers, a glimpse of the deserted Sandy Lane Hotel and Country Club where a pugnacious waitress tried to throw us out, a couple of distant views of coastline, and a ride through the scary downtown centre of Bridgetown where I would certainly not want to stroll after nightfall. Although we’d been offered the option of visiting the beach, we all came back to the ship for lunch and a bit of less traumatic sunbathing.

St. Lucia tomorrow. Must get up and just go to beach, bugger the tours of the island.

RUBBER RING

SUNDAY DECEMBER 28, St. George’s, Grenada

I sleep VERY badly. Something ‘important’ keeps waking me and I have the overwhelming impression I have forgotten to do something vital, something for which a large number of other people are also depending on me. This happens three or four times and in the middle of the night I even find a pen and paper to write down what I think is the solution to this pressing problem. In the morning I find I’ve written ‘Griffin’ and ‘McGiffen’ which makes no sense whatever.

So I’m fairly thick-headed when I drag myself out of bed at 8am and open the curtains to see Grenada where I’m scheduled to go River Tubing. Actually, it’s a lot of fun if not very challenging as we are bussed to one of the highest points of the island and a dozen funny and friendly local guys load us into our bright yellow inflated inner-tubes for a sort of theme park ride down the very gentle bubbles of the local Balthazar River. The water’s quite low, and most of us are above average weight, so there’s a lot of chances for them to dislodge us from the rocks. One suburnt tattooed and fat idiot from the Midwest keeps falling in but as the river’s barely three feet deep there’s unfortunately no damage apart from the sight of his flabby white butt cleft when at one moment he loses his baggy shorts.

Grenada’s much nicer than I remember it from seven years ago when I stayed for two weeks. For a country of only 300,000 population, independent from Britain now for 35 years, I’m surprised how it survives and maintains a sizeable international airport, three hospitals and a University with medical, veterinary and academic faculties - and has managed to rebuild substantially after the 2004 Hurricane Ivan devastated much of the island. I’m puzzled how many students the University can have, even if 5% of the total population go that would only be about 500 eligible 18-21 year olds at any one time.

Again, the soft option is an afternoon on deck and in the best sunshine we’ve had so far I take advantage of it including a bit of swimming but my shoulder (what I think is a rotator cuff injury, but only from internet diagnosis rather than seeing a real doctor) is a bit painful and I have to float instead.

To ease my shoulder a bit I use one of the Jacuzzis at the back of deck 8, and am soon joined my another man about my age wearing what look like swim shorts but as he squats on the edge of the tub, I see it’s actually constructed like a skirt with no divider or leg holes and I therefore have a clear view of his personal equipment aimed at me like a small, but visibly loaded, cannon. I get out.

This evening 16 of us are booked in the ‘posh’ a la carte restaurant Todd English, apparently a famous chef in his native Boston and popular on US television, but I can see why Cunard are romancing Gordon Ramsay to give his global branded blessing to the signature restaurant on their newest ship.

David does the dividing of the group and claims for his table the three ‘birthday boys’ from Philadelphia, dapper and totally lovely Hal who is amazingly 83 but looks about 60. Fred, the elder of the ‘couple’ who turns 59 today and his puckish partner Chris who will be 36 in two days. Akjan and I are at the ‘other’ table but are delighted because we’ve got the naughtier group including the wickedly sardonic ‘Jersey Boys’ Louis and George, and the fun couple from Le Meridien in Montreal, Daniel and Marc, as well as the power lesbians.

Fred and Chris disturb me. Anyone who knows me will be aware I have had no fear of cross-generational relationships since there’s more than thirty years between me and Sam, but the body language and actual language between these two is unnerving. I’m pleased to learn from power lesbian psychologist Bianca that it disturbs her, too.

Whenever you have a conversation with Chris, say mentioning what a pleasant day it is, he’ll involve the topic of his partnership, as in “yes, what a lovely day to spend ashore with my gorgeous husband”. They are forever touching and kissing each other like newlyweds, or at least Chris is since it’s 90% his initiation and Fred, I think, indulges him. I’m sure he’s a product of a broken or abused home and is overcompensating with the need for constant reassurance and validation, but he’d be a happier homo if he could just relax and enjoy what seems a stable and mutually committed relationship approaching its third anniversary, rather than make such a twitchy feature of his attachment.

There's conjecture about which came first, Chris’s constant reiterations of his devotion to Fred, or Fred’s multi-million dollar sale of the ambulance business he used to own, but that’s just me being a cynical old witch. Well, me, David, Akjan, George, Louis, Bianca, Sue, Daniel and at least a couple of the Bobs so that’s a cynical old coven really.

Apparently it happened long before they met, but that doesn't spoil a good gossip.

In the champagne bar afterwards Mel, the elderly Jewish yenta, flirts with the undeniably gorgeous and totally fey gay Hungarian barman Csada, whom he has apparently also waylaid on the streets of Brooklyn during Csada’s days off ashore. I make a mental note to talk to Mel some time about what fills his life apart from cruising, booking cruises and mentally undressing the hired help.

I have the recurrent bad dream again, waking several times with the pressure of the uncompleted task. The third time is about 5.30 when I’m so convinced I’ve remembered accurately what it is and what I have to do about it in the morning that I go calmly back to sleep.

Of course when I wake for real at 8, I’ve completely forgotten it.

BOXING DAY

Saturday December 26, Willemstad

We park, or moor, or whatever it’s called in Curacao on the Southern edge of the Caribbean and barely 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. I’m quite early off the ship, again hoping for an internet cafe but the one I find is locked and barred and, bizarrely, also labelled the Colombian Embassy.

Instead I take a sightseeing tour being touted for $15 (and therefore about a quarter what the ship charges for something similar) and several of our gang are also signed up so it’s a nice ride round the colourful Dutch houses of Willemstad, and on to the highlands and a view of the ‘other’ side of the island known as Spanish Water. Our guide is informative and we get lots of facts and figures about the Curacao taxation, education, judicial, government and political system none of which I retained long enough to repeat here except that tax is a flat 5%, so heaven knows how they run a country on it – must be subsidies from the Dutch government keep it afloat.

There’s a little sales break at a Curacao liqueur distillery (although with just one stainless steel vat it’s about as much a working distillery as my back bedroom) and a couple of photo opportunities before I’m happy to return to the ship and an afternoon in the sun. We weigh anchor (see, I’m picking up the jargon) about 2pm and it’s just so pleasant to sit by the rail and hear the sea splosh past and feel the breeze from the movement of the ship.

To be honest, I don’t need ports.

THE QUEEN’S SPEECH

CHRISTMAS DAY

Friday 25 December, at sea

Up quite early and down to help marshal the group for our big breakfast – we’ve managed to gather 28 participants and I need to do quite a bit of traffic management to ensure that people sit at tables where they’ll get along with their neighbours, for example ensuring the Chinese guys who speak little English get some Canadians with whom they can chat in French. Only about four of us opt for a glass of champagne but my morning is considerably brightened by the Perrier Jouet and the fact that we have our two favourite serving staff – Giorgy and the very beautiful Maya who everyone keeps saying should be promoted from stewardess to waitress. It’s a terribly layered hierarchy in the restaurant, there seem to be about seven tiers of job title.

A few circuits of the walking deck and it’s time for the Queen’s Christmas Message, scheduled for 12.20pm. The start of the broadcast is badly damaged by the clod who is the captain of this tugboat broadcasting his position and weather announcements over the first few minutes of the Queen. He cuts off very abruptly, presumably because someone got to to him to tell him there’d be a mutiny if he didn’t shut the fuck up. He’s arse-numbingly boring at the best of times, but this gaffe could have got him lynched.

Actually, Her Maj wasn’t on top form and I didn’t think it was one of her greatest hits. Lots about the Commonwealth as usual, including how she’s convinced it’s so relevant to young people. Perhaps she should chat a bit more to those in the UK rather than the lickspittles she’s introduced to in staged walkabouts on a state visit to Umbongo.

We have to bring forward our nightly cocktail party to 6pm because at 7 it’s the ‘spectactular’ Christmas Concert in the Royal Court Theatre. Perhaps because I’ve performed in quite a few Christmas Concerts, I can see the cracks in this one and whilst the costumes and production values are good, the singing’s a bit ragged and the programme has a hastily-assembled end-of-term feel about it combining some performed items with the audience standing to sing O Come All Ye Faithful, Edwina Currie fluffing her lines in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and an absolutely excruciating downshifted and high-note-excised version of ‘O Holy Night’ on dry ice and hydraulic platforms.

The Entertainments Director introduces the “orchestra” for instrumental variations on ‘We Three Kings’ but it’s so brassy, discordant and out of time that it’s obvious these are random musicians culled from pit bands rather than the Royal Philharmonic, and most of them peer so desperately at the sheet music it’s clear they’ve had insufficient rehearsal together. Having a conductor might have helped, too.

But again the audience love it, so it must be just me.

And so to Christmas Dinner, where the options of course include Turkey and Christmas Pudding which are banqueting-standard but at least I didn’t have to make them myself. No sprouts, though, shame. Our ‘Secret Santa’ presents are distributed and everyone’s made a great effort. There are some hilarious but tacky t-shirts with slogans, a pack of pornographic playing cards, and a mint-chocolate flavour oral anaesthetic for people who have difficulty deep-throating, although no-one at the table admits to needing it. I’m relieved and pleased to get a rather lovely mug with maps and motifs of the Caribbean which I’ll certainly carry home. But it was all good fun, and the surrounding tables look a bit envious which is always a bonus.

As usual, we’re among the last to leave the Britannia Restaurant and emerge to find the corridors choked with people, as the chefs unveil their massive midnight buffet featuring ice sculptures and vegetables, fruit, fish and cake which have been carved, teased and tweaked into semblances of flowers, birds and cornucopia. Can’t see the point, really, since the second sitting has just eaten, so only the terminally greedy and those who dined at 6pm are even remotely hungry. But there are plenty of people piling their plates as I pass by on my way to bed.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

CHRISTMAS EVE, ST MAARTEN

Thursday 24 December

I don’t sleep too well and am awoken just after 7 for the second time by small children in the neighbouring cabin clanging about on their balcony. I know it’s Christmas, and small children are excitable but this is Deck 12 not the playroom and I call the Purser’s office who promptly send someone to remonstrate with the parents.

It’s been quiet since.

We moor in half-Dutch half-French territory of St. Maarten at the northern end of the Windward Islands at about 8 and from my side of the ship it’s a picture postcard of blue skies, fluffy white cloud, a green mountain and a turquoise sea. From the other, it looks like a car-park as there are five cruise ships in town for the day.
I’m posting this in a sweet upstairs internet cafe above the predictable tourist shops in Phillipsburg the capital of the Dutch side of the island, and where the overhead fans, rickety furniture and kindly gossiping local staff feel much more genuinely Carib than anything I've experienced so far.

I do my best to look around the town, but it’s all jewellery shops and tourist tat and the nearby beach is narrow and crowded, plus it’s not sunny. I consider taking a cab to Sunset Beach where the airport runway is so close to the sand you can almost reach up from your sunbed to touch the Boeings as they land, but www.flightstats.com tells me the only ‘interesting’ arrival is a Corsair A330 due in less than an hour, and the taxi drivers say it could take 45 minutes or more in traffic, so I give up and head back to the ship just as it starts to rain.

Because it’s too late for proper lunch, I venture into the hideous ‘King’s Court’ self-service restaurant. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect to pay thousands of dollars for a cruise and then queue up with a tray for cafeteria meals like a motorway service area – but a surprising number of people do. Among them are Jody and Mr. Jody (someone has reminded me his name is Brian) who I don’t recognise because (a) she’s been in the rain and her formerly-straightened hair is a nest of ratty corkscrews and (b) she’s wearing what looks like a brown baby doll nightdress over sagging swimwear. We chat whilst passing along the servery and I am so unnerved by their proximity that I put tomato soup on my vegetables instead of gravy. They move off, but with what I can only think is a pang of guilt she returns to ask if I would like to sit with them.

I’d rather read my biography of Julie Walters, and say so.

Julie keeps me amused most of the afternoon, then it’s time to glam up for dinner. I go to the Christmas Carols in the grand lobby and join in the community singing which is feeble but greatly enlivened by seeing so many carefully coiffed and dressed dowagers caught out by the fake snow machine. I predict a lot of claims for dry cleaning bills in the morning.

Pre-dinner drinks are lively, our gay social group has swollen to almost thirty and the banter sharpens as we get to know each other. Dinner itself is a bit flat by comparison, no-one’s really had a good time ashore, but after confirming our arrangements for the Big Gay Breakfast tomorrow with Yolanta the lovely Polish deputy Maitre ‘D, David and I have a nightcap in the Chart Room where he flirts pretty hard with the head barman who’s pleasant but unresponsive. And straight, so something of a wasted effort.

OLA, TORTOLA

Wednesday 23 December

We anchor in a wide bay off Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands but still barely the size of Malta and with only 17,000 population. I’ve booked a tour but it’s not till afternoon so I don’t take the tender ashore till about 11 when I hope to find an internet cafe. I walk the scruffy streets of the capital Road Town for a hot hour without finding one, and with little else on offer - the cruise staff let me take a slightly earlier excursion.

We start with a boat ride out to the smaller islands surrounding, and it’s nice to be on the waves at a level you can feel you’re on a boat. The young Tortolan ‘captain’ and his assistant are funny and charming and they keep up a jolly commentary about the islands we pass, but nothing’s really close enough to see in detail and once the rum punch comes out, it’s just a pleasant trip round the bay. About 3pm we disembark at the western end of the island in a yacht marina called Soper’s Hole (I have to tell you also that the suburbs of Road Town are called John’s Hole and Free Bottom but I don’t manage to photograph the signs) and are somewhat abandoned there for an hour before open-sided island buses arrive to take us on the land part of the trip.

By this time it’s overcast and hazy and I’m bored so the journey back is dreary, and not improved by the fact the woman next to me, from Aberdeen, is sneezing and wheezing into an increasingly wet clump of tissue. I hope it’s hay fever rather than a cold, but I spend the journey with my head out of the window inhaling diesel fumes rather than her germs. It takes forever and we only just make it back for the last tender to the ship.

It’s probably a taste of things to come, and inescapable that sleepy Caribbean islands aren’t really very interesting unless they have great beaches or natural features like rainforest. I resolve to re-examine the tickets I’ve booked for future excursions and cancel the ones which are just coach tours of the island.
I have a pre-dinner drink with Jeff and Canadian David in a high-ceilinged bar called the Chart Room where they are hugely excited to spot Helen Mirren at an adjacent table.

After quite a bit of ‘no, don’t turn round’ I get a chance to see the lady herself and have to disappoint them by confirming it’s not Dame Helen. Unless she’s put on twenty pounds and rinsed her blonde hair in a mop bucket.

At dinner, I organise ‘Secret Santa’ and hope I’ve rigged it so someone with a bit of imagination gets my name.

HERE COMES THE SUN

Tuesday 22 December

At breakfast this morning I’m appalled at the manners of some of the passengers on neighbouring tables and grateful at least that among our group there’s absolutely no issues of questionable dress, manners or personal hygiene.

Some people have no idea how to speak to the staff. The Welshman at the table behind me, his voice roughened with cigarettes and coal dust at the dog-end of a lifetime of hard physical work raises his voice to mineshaft drilling levels but throughout the meal never uses the word ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’ and expresses his every requirement in the ‘I want’ phrasing. The people at the next table over are self-proclaimedly ‘from the Midlands’ which you know means somewhere desperate like Walsall or Smethwick because if they were from anywhere with less knife-crime they’d boast about it, and I’d wager their last upscale dining experience was probably in the local equivalent of the Crossroads Motel.

Their Malaysian server is polite and listens carefully, but with such strong regional accents and idioms even I have difficulty making out everything they say, and it’s understandable if sometimes the staff don’t get the food orders exactly right.

I think there’s a bit of an undeclared hierarchy operating in the dining room because this less-popular area under the sweeping staircase - where I’ve deliberately chosen to have breakfast today because there’s a Russian/Indonesian tag team of waiters who I like because they’re unfailingly helpful, friendly and efficient – seems to be filled mainly with the sort of people who bought their cruises from advertisements in the Daily Express. It’s quite different in the wing where our group is allocated for dinner, we’re surrounded by a more international clientele, and people who don’t necessarily look like they need a wash.

I have to compact this, otherwise we’ll all get bored and in fact after such a busy day on Monday I’m glad to scan the ship’s programme and find there’s very little I want to do, except I need some exercise so I make several circuits of the walking deck, interestingly during the crew’s boat drill where they spend a lot of time standing about being counted, so I use Volodymir as a handy lap-counter (three times past him makes a mile) and suitably warmed-up by the walking go to a simple line dancing class. This is far more enjoyable than I expected it to be, and I remember groups I joined in London and wonder if it’s time to have another go. Makes my legs ache, though, which is probably a good thing.

But otherwise, it’s a quiet day, catching up with the blogging and - oh the bliss – enjoying a first hour in the sun.

After dinner we meet some of the other ‘Friends of Dorothy’ for the cabaret show in the theatre, a song-and-dance spectacular featuring everything from the tango to the Charleston. The dancers work extremely hard and whilst most of the team is Ukranian and the girls look like they chose this career as a fallback alternative to mail-order bride, it’s slick, colourful and engaging and Akjan as a professional dancer is particularly impressed. The four singers are English, and average, but the audience seems to love it.

Still not Shirley Bassey, though.

ALL AT SEA

Monday 21 December

With the balcony door propped open and the sound of the sea roaring beneath, I sleep perfectly and am only woken at 8.30 by Volodymir, the tallest waiter on the ship and surely the product of a Transylvanian laboratory experiment, demanding entry with a tray of tea.

This is the first of two full days at sea and the ship’s programme is rammed with appointments every half-hour like a dentist’s but most of which are of the bridge and dancing varieties. However there’s more than enough to fill the day and I start with a seminar on getting the most out of your digital camera. Like so much organised on cruise ships this is a thinly disguised sales pitch and the ‘lecturer’ is the young German manager of the camera shop. I don’t learn much and slip away before the end to get a seat in the Royal Court Theatre for the principal guest lecturer.

I have to say that as cruise ship entertainment headliners go, Edwina Currie is no Shirley Bassey but she does give a funny and candid talk about politicians and the way they lie for a living. Her husband, a swarthy former Scotland Yard detective, sits across the aisle from me in cheap shoes and overcast eyebrows. I can see now why she slept with John Major.

Next, I do something really brave and go to the "Solo Travellers’Get-together with Social Hostess Freda". Freda’s a toughie, but I guess you need to be in that job, and the free champagne has made the solos vociferous. They are uniformly over sixty, all but three are women and I’d say one of the other two men is gay, so the remaining one’s in for a busy fortnight. I don’t see a kindred spirit among them and then it turns out that two of the men are the ‘Gentleman Host’ dance partners. One is so especially vile I can’t stand closer than two yards from him for fear of contamination from his breath, and the other is the dark side of seventy and not particularly steady on his feet so I’m not sure how he’ll fare in the rumba.

Lunch seating is not pre-assigned and you can opt to have a table to yourself or share a larger one. I choose conviviality and am the eighth person at a table containing three residents of a retirement home in New Jersey, two Germans who claim to have lived in Surrey but clearly didn’t pick up the language during their time, and a couple from Scotland of which the wife is pleasant but the tattooed husband prefers to trade football team names with the man from Hamburg.

It’s not a conversation in which I can really participate but that’s irrelevant because the table is dominated by the woman from the mental, sorry, retirement home (the other two are men, one of whom doesn’t speak and the other who is very elderly, badly shaven by a third party with a very unsteady hand, and drooling threatens to rest his head on my shoulder) who keeps up a bright patter about the quality of the soup, the lightness of the batter on her seafood plate and her experiences at theatre in her locality where the tickets for seniors are $8 and the performances so much better than Broadway. She looks and sounds exactly like Roseanne’s mother from the sitcom. Bev, I knew I’d get the name eventually.

I have a very nice boeuf bourguignon but honestly I could cut my wrists with the butter knife. When I share this thought sotto voce with the Scots lady she tells me the most effective method is to slice along the vein rather than to hack laterally across the wrist which is how I would have planned it. So at least I learned something useful and possibly gained a co-conspirator in a suicide pact.

Straight after lunch it’s in to the world’s only Planetarium-at-sea (yes, I can hear you ask ‘why’ but I don’t know the answer either) where Robert Redford, when I can hear him over the whining of American geriatrics who can’t operate the lever which reclines their seats, tells me how our moon was formed in a week from what was basically clusters of boiling spatial waste. When I think of the romantic evenings I’ve seen it hanging low over the river, or one spectacular summer night in Cardiff Bay, I’m sure he’s wrong.

Outside the overheated Planetarium where I had sat next to a woman with asphyxiating perfume, I cool down and ponder my fate in a corridor lounge when I am scooped up by Akjan and David to go to afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room. It’s quite lovely, and we continue together to the meeting of ‘Friends of Dorothy’ in the Commodore Club.

This daily open-to-all meeting for gay travellers is held immediately outside the private room we had our cocktail on the first night, this room now being occupied by the ‘Friends of Bill W’, the recovering alcoholics and members of AA. As each group eyes its neighbour through the glass, it’s unclear which thinks the other is more strange.

About 20 people arrive during the half-hour assigned for mingling, and again they are mostly couples but among them an attractive and outgoing pair of women from Provincetown on Cape Cod, Bianca is a Psychology academic and Sue a real estate broker, and as they travelled on the identical cruise last Christmas (and have already booked for next) they’re helpful authorities on where to go and what to do. The other couples, they’re almost all paired off, are too similar to pick out individuals but I did like Bob who’s a head teacher from a high school outside Toronto, although his partner bears a striking resemblance to Liberace, and there’s a sweet motherly Jewish guy with bright bridgework and rainbow-coloured jewellery who works so hard to bring people together I thought at first he might be on the ship’s social staff but it’s just his personality. He’s also a loyal Cunard customer with lots of ideas on how to get a bargain for repeated bookings, although as this seems to involve selecting a cabin whose view is obscured by a lifeboat, I’m not totally focused on the objectives.

Apart from a weasel type who works the room promoting his own travel company, everyone plays nice and the average age is about 10% younger than the median for the ship. When David and I compare notes later it’s clear we’ve spotted the same people who are lively enough to join for drinks so our 7.30pm cocktails in Commodore Club become a chummy landmark in the cruising days ahead.

At dinner we meet our new waiter, a handsome Goan called Eugene who proves to be much more efficient and engaging than the first girl, and our table visibly relaxes.

Cocktails and dinner were very social, it’s the first dress-up night, and perhaps we have a bit more to drink than previously. As we’re now level with Florida, it’s warm enough to stroll outside afterwards and since we’re on the same deck, Kiwi David walks me back to my cabin door where we kiss goodnight.

This is so sweetly old-fashioned I don’t quite realise what’s happened until I’m inside and getting ready for bed. Suffice it to say that I like him a lot, but I know it won’t go down the romantic road. I think it’s one of those occasions where you have to decide if someone should be a one-night stand or a potential longer-lasting friend, and I think we could be good friends.

But it was nice to be asked.

SNOW PATROL

Sunday 20 December

I wake hoping for a white-out but although more snow fell in the night it’s a white shawl over midtown’s grey stone shoulders, not a wedding cake. In the deep blue dawn light an early taxi blinks along Lexington Avenue so I see the city’s up and moving and worry less about getting to the pier. A last breakfast with Curt in Oscar’s at the Waldorf – overpriced at nearly $50 a head – then I bundle up and head for Brooklyn where the Queen Mary is berthed. It’s quite difficult to get a cab, most have their off-duty lights on, and I notice while waiting as a limo is loaded with a desiccated Jewish couple and sixteen pieces of luggage that their labels reveal a cabin assignment seven decks below mine. I feel smug but also apprehensive as the bellman also commented that it was amazing I was travelling for sixteen days with only two cases. Do I have enough clothes, or the right ones?

My taxi driver has been in the city only a week, from Pakistan, but hopefully he has some experience of Himalayan snow conditions as we slither towards the FDR drive from which it’s a clearer run to Brooklyn. Cunard have abandoned the traditional piers in the Hudson in favour of a ‘cruise terminal’ across from Governors Island but the run-down warehouses and businesses which fringe the streets of the district of Red Hook confirm that this is still the working freight and trawler port, and whilst the shed through which we are processed in long tedious lines is not quite scented with fish, it’s only an air-freshener away from Cannery Row.

It’s an opportunity to size up the passenger contingent, and I’m not overly impressed. Immediately around me are lots of low-rent Brits disgruntled that their flights out of the UK have been delayed and they lost opportunities for shopping in Manhattan. One was particularly aggrieved not to have been able to get some item from the Harley-Davidson store in Times Square. I don’t tell her it closed. The nicest person I meet in the terminal is the check-in clerk, a smartly made-up black woman in her early sixties, from Aruba, who tells me her life history including living in London where her landlady was Hattie Jacques. She flirts shamelessly and holds my hand a long time when returning my passport. Unfortunately, she’s a contractor and not working on board and I feel I’ve lost a friend as I head for more and emptier corridors and on to the ship.

No band, no fanfares, but Asian stewards in Santa hats point the way to the lifts and a Brooklyn glee club trills piercing carols in the stairwell. From the outside the ship seemed huge but streamlined – this is a transatlantic liner rather than a cruise ship and the structure’s slimmer and deeper than those floating barges, and it doesn’t look – quite –like a block of council flats resting on its side. Inside, the designers have clearly been ‘inspired’ by the art deco motifs of the first Queen Mary, but the execution’s radically vulgar. Sure, there are brass rails and marine wood panelling but it’s all lacquered like a Korean piano and the too-bright carpets, theatrical lighting, high-reflectance gloss surfaces and plastic laminate artwork make the overall effect just Vegas.

I like my cabin, which I learn to call ‘stateroom’ – about 250 square feet so a bit bigger than my bedroom at home with blond wood fittings in what I first think is anigre veneer till I touch it, but it has pleasing lines and I particularly appreciate the design of the closets into which everything fits with room to spare. The bathroom’s small with the shower moulded into a curved wall and the shower head’s not powerful, but the view over the water to Manhattan and the statue of Liberty is stunning from my 12-th deck balcony, which has the advantage of being so far forward you can also check out the officers on the bridge.

I decide to be uncharacteristically diligent and put everything away with some sense of order and precision, but as one of my cases is among the last to arrive, this takes quite a lot of the afternoon and I’m still in mid-unpacking when it’s time for compulsory boat drill. I’ve gathered my overcoat, head covering, and life-jacket but not the enthusiasm for standing by a lifeboat whilst it’s ten below zero. My sweet cabin steward, from Luzon in the Philippines and who rejoices in the name of Elgin (or possibly that’s the badge they had available when he joined the crew) is cosily conspiratorial and tells me I could just watch it on TV instead.

He gives me a tour of the cabin’s facilities including how to use the phone to summon him by bleeper when ‘I come running’. He also tells me that if there’s anything I need during the voyage, specifically “if anything pops out” I’m to send for him. I think he means pops up, but he has a sideways glance which makes it teasingly ambiguous.

I give him my shoes to clean as a test of his devotion.

About 6.30 the phone rings and a deep deep voice announces itself as Jody, representing the gay tour company which assembled this onboard group, confirming my invitation to its initial cocktail party. There are eight people in the private room when I arrive sat around a long thin table on which you might place a coffin, but it turns out I’m the last – and further that the agency lied to us all about the numbers they had booked.

Jody, I’m amazed to discover, is a woman. At least now. But possibly always because she has with her a central-casting Midwestern-dullard husband in blue blazer, evvaprest slacks and a thin grey moustache. Whilst I think that on her own she’d be raucous with a bunch of gay men, together they lead us in a weepingly pedestrian conversation about the cities we come from and the ships we’ve sailed. No future activities, excursions, parties or adventures are discussed and as the dinner hour approaches Jody and Mr. Jody make a pretty speech that there will be another cocktail on the last night of the cruise, meanwhile they’re off to dine in a different restaurant from us for the duration of the voyage. Thank you and good night.

In a way, this welds the remaining not-so-magnificent seven into a self-supporting group and we further introduce ourselves at our nice round table by the windows in a pleasant side section of the Britannia Restaurant. We are two couples and three singles. Ages seem to range from 45 to 65 but all are sound in wind and limb and no-one’s conversationally shy. The singles have a bit more about them than the couples and I sense we will perhaps as a trio look out for each other. I particularly like David, a tanned fiftysomething New Zealander who’s an airline marketing manager which might one day be useful and whom I suspect despite his Gucci exterior has a dark side. This is later confirmed when he tells me the clubs he’s visited in London. Akjan, a tall elegant Uzbek now living in Toronto is a former ballet dancer turned hairdresser so has great posture and a superb dress sense with a clever range of designer spectacles which match his outfits and provide a notable feature on his smooth oval face.

The couples are older, and more conventional. And Canadian, there seems to be a lot of it about. Jeff is the most outgoing: tall, lean and white-haired with dancing, and possibly roving, Paul Newman blue eyes, he must have been devastatingly handsome when young. Since he also has the drier sense of humour, and is currently a substitute teacher he’s obviously channelling Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls. His partner David is harder to pigeon-hole, he’s much quieter, and I suspect a little deaf: when he speaks it’s mainly about their cosy domestic life in Nova Scotia which he constantly describes as ‘really quite interesting’ as though it needs the reassurance.

The other pair are also fairly reserved, Paul doesn’t even mention it’s his 60th birthday until a waiter arrives with a cake and a raw vocal quartet. His partner Eric is originally Danish and still has a strong accent which makes some of his jokes hard to appreciate, but he’s certainly trying to join in and twinkles in his Jutlandish way. Although a long-standing couple, they live separately in New York.

We discuss the snow and tell banal stories about how we got to the ship – the Canadians drove taking three days, isn’t that interesting – and since several of them have been on the boat before, in this sort of group, I ask how we manage things like buying wine each night and a discussion ensues which separates the moderate-drinking retired couples from the working singles who are clearly keen on a glass or three, but the majority verdict driven by the couples is that everyone buys his own. We’ll see.

David and I try to collaborate on a bottle but our tastes are different and he chooses a Chianti whilst I’m pleased to find Frog’s Leap, a plummy Californian Zinfandel, on the wine list and order that. Apparently they’ll keep it for subsequent nights but I’ll have to neck it in two otherwise it will only be fit for salad dressing. It’s not until I get back to the cabin I reflect that $52 + 15% service + tip isn’t exactly a duty free bargain for something I used to buy for $18 when I lived in New York.

It’s OK but not a great night. The food is very average, plated like school dinners – if you went to a good enough school – and our waitress is flat-footed, charmless, slow and can only parrot the information she’s been trained to give us, she won’t engage in conversation. David and I are delegated (I see a pattern forming here) to represent the table’s complaints to management.

Which we do, and to his great credit Jamie the youngish English Maitre’D takes it all on the chin and promises us either a new location or at least new waiting staff for the morrow.

The ship’s clock moves forward an hour tonight so it’s now nearly 12 and we head separately to our beds.

It’s a start.

NEW YORK NEW YORK

Saturday 19 December

In the New York Times at breakfast I spot an advert for a smart gents’ clothing chain having a one-day sale on the basis of ‘buy one get 2 free’ across its range. So guided by the hotel’s concierge I quickly locate the Madison Avenue branch and select some pairs of trousers to try on. Returning from the briefest foray out of a changing room to pick a different size, I find the door locked and an elderly Puerto Rican man inside with my coat, shoes, bag and belongings. I bang on the door and order him out and, in a line which is pure Karen Walker from Will and Grace, instruct him not to leave the store till I’ve checked my wallet.

I then neatly fold the stuff HE’s left in there and put it outside the door, finish my trying on and when I take my selection to the till am met by his lumpen wife, scowling and muttering disapproval at the way I evicted him. The attitude of native New Yorkers is quite infectious and I’m not sure if I’m surprised or faintly proud to hear myself ask her in a Bronx accent if one of the things she’s wanting for Christmas is a fat lip.

I meet my Baltimore friends Curt, Tom and Steve for lunch, and we’re joined by their friends Tim, Troy and Zach for our outing to A Little Night Music – sadly David was deterred by the snows, so we have a spare eighth ticket and there is a momentary frisson when we learn that Zach, who is an opera singer, has offered it to Renee Fleming.

Renee, it turns out, can’t make it and Curt sells the spare ticket to someone in the queue. There’s quite an air of ‘perpetual anticipation’ in the theatre, and for once even I feel it. The staging is the same as the production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London and even the transition from a 200-seat initimate basement to the 1800-seat Walter Kerr theatre hasn’t damaged it. If anything, the sound’s better and the balance between the small orchestra and the cast has improved. The entrances of Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones are applauded, but not so much as to unbalance the piece.

Lansbury is outstanding, playing Madame Armfeldt as a richly alert observer of the ways of the world, and entirely credible as a past consort of dukes and princes. She finds all the comedy in the role but also the pathos at the end when she realises the significance of what she lost by abandoning her first love is very warm and real. She outshines Maureen Lipman as daylight doth a lamp.

Catherine Z-J isn’t half bad, either. She looks stunning, the high-waisted gowns and piled chestnut chignon suiting both her newly toned figure and her heart-shaped face, she has almost regained some of the wistful beauty of her early days in ‘The Darling Buds of May’. Like Lansbury, she’s far better at the comedy than the singing: her Desiree is coarser and less ladylike than Hannah Waddingham’s and she’s more believable as an old mate of Fredrik’s rather than as the love of his life. Although she sings carefully, she’s not fully in control and loses many of the word endings.

This is quite a gay audience – at interval, the queue for the men’s room is actually longer than the ladies’ - and there’s a real theatrical moment in the second half. The orchestra plays the first bars of ‘Send in the Clowns’ a few lines before she sings it, and there’s a ripple of anticipation as people think ‘here it comes ...’. At that exact moment, a woman about eight rows up in the Mezzanine unwraps a boiled sweet and with the most perfectly executed snap head-turn Broadway has ever seen, two hundred gay men swivel to stare at her as if to say ‘Of all the times you could do this ...’

The rest of the cast are more than adequate with the exception of a new-to-Broadway actress playing the virginal Anne who just isn’t up to standard. Leigh-Ann Larkin, so good as June in the Patti LuPone ‘Gypsy’ is outstanding as the provocative maid Petra, and her version of ‘I Shall Marry The Miller’s Son’ gets thunderous applause. We come out in high spirits, and celebrate variously with cocktails in Blue Fin, a brief chat with Catherine as she comes out of the stage door to welcome some cousin of hers from back home, and taking excited photographs of each other as the snow starts to fall. Sometimes, New York really is magical.



We’re invited to a drinks party at the Chelsea apartment of former TV anchorman Chris O’Donoghue who accompanies us to dinner in his wheelchair, an adventure in itself in the whirling snow, but a positive Winter Olympics event when we emerge from the restaurant into a full-on blizzard. Abandoning plans to meet friends in yet another bar in Chelsea because of the weather, Tim, Troy and I share a hilarious ride up an un-gritted Park Avenue in a yellow cab whose windows are totally iced over and no-one, not even the driver, can see where we are going. If we’d been sober, I think we’d have been genuinely scared but I am immensely relieved to reach the entrance of the hotel.

I do a bit of re-packing and start feeling genuinely excited about tomorrow. I may delete this later but the truth is I even did a little happy dance before going to bed.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Long Haul

Usually calm and empty London City Airport is a zoo, with people encamped in the terminal like a casualty dressing station on the Somme.

Because of the early morning snow, most flights cancelled and the air's filled with announcements like "would passengers who WERE flying to Amsterdam please come to the desk behind the escalators to collect their luggage". Among this chaos, though, was a beacon: they had kerbside checkin for BA 001 to Noo Yoik and so I have been frisked and whisked to airside lounge where the snow's piled up against the windows but there does seem to be cleaning and fuelling activity going on around the BA plane although apart from a clapped out old Fokker (no, not me) it seems to be the only one on the tarmac.



It's a bright clear day so I'm not sure why a little white surface dusting has caused such meltdown. London City is quite a simple shed but BA have tricked out one gate-room to look like their classier lounges at Heathrow, although even without my interior design hat on I can see a lot wrong with it. For example there are exactly 32 armchairs which matches them one to a passenger and could be uncomfortable when everyone arrives. I think we're 28 booked today, so four spares one of which I am already defending with two bags and several magazines.

There are no desks or upright tables so everyone's using his or her laptop actually on his or her lap, as designed I guess. At least it keeps our knees warm in the cold. Having almost a master's degree in reading upside down I've already scanned the passenger list printed out on the counter to confirm there's no-one famous on boardm and certainly the dozen already assembled have no star status, although there ios a woman who looks a bit like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, but not very and she isn't barking Devil Wears Prada instructions to a cowering entourage so it can't be she.

Amazingly, there are children. I know BA have discounted this route massively from its headline £4,000 a ticket price but they don't look like a spectacularly wealthy family so I'm guessing it's an off-duty Captain and his brood. Another example, if any were needed, of how British Airways chucks money down the tubes. Must be BA staff, though, because the kids know how to behave, the approximately ten year old is now pouring Daddy a glass of champagne. He didn't learn that at state school.

Announcement: delayed to 2pm. Aircraft diverted to Heathrow early this morning and now being ferried over to City. Stupidly, they aren't planning to use the one already on the tarmac which is scheduled for the same route at 4.30pm. The boy in charge of the lounge says it's undergoing maintenance but since it's got the cleaners on board, seems unlikely. Have sent for management to explain itself.

Management turns out to be one middle-aged man in a bright yellow safety jerkin who won't expand any further on what 'maintenance' is required to the first plane, but his arrival coincides with that of the second A318 so we've now two to play with. As this one's been at Heathrow since 07.30 this morning you kind of wonder why they didn't clean and cater it before now, but with a skill borne of long experience BA staff are immune to rhetoric and sarcasm so there's no point in either and I begin to concentrate instead on the fact I'd quite like the toilet but it's upstairs the other side of security.

Captain arrives for reassuring chat/announcement and the delay is compacted to 45 minutes as we're shephereded on board. It really is a lovely plane, obviously everything is brand new but the seats are very nattily kitted out in dark brownish-black herringbone and encased in smooth white lacquer pods like something out of a John Wyndham novel, I feel as if I am being incubated for something. They're also much more adjustable than the conventional BA seats and it's easy to find a relaxing setting.



Like all BA flights, service is drink-led but since I'm peckish I'm more pleased to see the 'appetiser' served on this first sector to Ireland, which sounds delightful on the menu - sliced duck breast with celeriac, fig confit and something or other but which is frozen solid, I can barely get a fork into it and nor can the bony but smartly-dressed older lady the other side of the aisle who shouts at the crew 'it's like a fuckin' popsicle'.

Mine is replaced from one higher up the permafrost layer in the trolley and I quite enjoy it.

Flying low and slow over the brown wasteland of the West of Ireland it's easy to see why people refer to it as 'going back to the bog' and when we touch down at Shannon, I recall that this is an airport built for political reasons rather than because it's somewhere people want to fly to, or has a large catchment area of people who'd want to fly from it. Historically, it was a staging post between Europe and the oceanic crossing to Newfoundland which became redundant when aircraft developed range over 2000 miles, but why it's still in business is a mystery known only to the Irish Government and, I believe, the Russians who still use it substantially.

It's deserted. We small but intrepid band snake our way round its fourteen-foot wide corridors to a holding pen whilst our luggage is notionally cleared by customs and then through an empty hangar to the cheerful team of US Immigration officers who process us merrily but thoroughly before allowing us back on board. As we waited, the two pilots who had brought us on the one-hour flight from London passed through the terminal with a cheery wave - ready for a three-day layover on full pay and with access to Ireland's finest golf courses, before they resume duty for another flight to New York. Apparently this is because union rules prevent them from flying the whole nine and a half hour service without crew rest bunks in the aircraft.

We're so quickly back on board that the delay has almost evaporated and are further surprised when the new captain tells us by flying higher and faster we'll land almost an hour ahead of schedule. So much tutting and fuming wasted, then.

I fall asleep after take-off and am awakened by the scents of overcooked root vegetables ... I could be at home. The meals on this service are designed by TV-popular chef Laurence Keogh of 'Roast' restaurant in Borough Market but they're clearly produced in the same kitchens as the standard stuff and my dish is a typical BA two-ounce beef fillet with a nasty feathered cap of blue cheese, cooked-to-fluff mashed potato studded with gobbets of bacon, and the aforementioned dice of veg which combine the school-corridor stench of boiled swede with a layer of singeing. Purser (do they call BA ladies of a certain age that because of what they do with their lips) Sandra is apologetic but unsurprised and the lemon cream dessert is actually lovely.



Fast forward - including fast forwarding the movie I had to speed-watch to finish it in time for landing - and we're on the ground at JFK and despite a circuitous route to the exit and a long wait for luggage, my driver's already there and we're quickly our of the airport and into the stalled Friday evening traffic on the mis-named Long Island Expressway.

As we're ahead of schedule and I make it to the hotel by 6, I claim my lovely and heavily-discounted top-floor corner room at the Waldorf Towers although with its high ceilings, cornices, crested carpets, gilt mirrors and pastoral scene curtains so heavily fringed and swagged they could have come straight from La Scala, it's clearly the kind of room some American decorator thinks the Queen Mother would sleep in. There are three huge windows including one in the ornate bathroom with its fancy vanity, ruched blinds, bevelled mirrors and definitely the only gold-plated U-bend I have ever seen.





I walk the half dozen blocks to Times Square as briskly as possible in the sharpening cold, but hampered by the huge crowd at Rockerfeller Center where the gawkers and out-of-towners are queuing for Radio City Music Hall or to see the Christmas tree. At every avenue our way is hindered by New York’s finest controlling the pedestrian flow and I worry I won’t make it before the discount TKTS booth closes.

At the booth there are still plenty of choices of drama and musicals, and figuring a loud musical will keep me awake better than a play, I dicker between two or three and have my choice made easier by two knowledgeable theatre students offering free advice. Not only do they know the plots, cast, running times and review details of everything I ask about, they’re also up on row and seat numbers and when I buy a ticket for Ragtime from an elderly female scalper bundled up like a Russian street-sweeper, for $50, the students reassure me the tickets are genuine and the view is a good one. Which it is, right in the centre of the front mezzanine and ideal for this gig which is played out on three tiers of scenic gantries.
It’s an easy show and both the melodies and the staging are very fluid, blending the stories of Jewish, Irish and black migrants to New York State at the turn of the last century. The Irish hate the blacks, and the blacks all hate the whites, the whites look down on the poor and, in Tom Lehrer’s phrase, everybody hates the Jews. The music’s a bit repetitive and my attention drifts in the second half but is fully reclaimed when Christiane Noll delivers a pitch-perfect ‘Back To Before’, the quite literally eleven o’clock number.

Back at the hotel, I’m thinking of a hot bath and bed when the phone rings with an invitation to a nightcap with a friend from J P Morgan so I dash down to the ‘W’ hotel for a couple of cocktails and when I finally get back about 1.15am, I realise I’ve been up for 22 hours. It’s enough, and I sleep like a babe.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Shipping Forecast



This is me taking up the baton, or possibly the cudgels, of a friend from the States who has just blogged thirty-odd (some very odd) days at sea as a 'Gentleman Host' on a cruise liner from South Africa to Fort Lauderdale bearing, in Masefield's metre,

a cargo of Old Bags, Face-Lifts,
Deadwood, Bad-Hair and Cheap-Gin Gays.

Check him out at www.travelingwithphil.blogspot.com

As my sailing date is almost contiguous with the end of Phil's, I'm setting out with the best of intentions to chronicle the activities aboard the Queen Mary 2 in the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year. Although a paying passenger and without Phil's responsibilities of hosting the professionally difficult at dinner or being a taxi-dancer for geriatric corn-treaders, it could still be grim: I'm dreading the decorations and any forced festive jollity.

Currently the contents of my wardrobe are spread out on the bed, like a patient etherised upon a table (thank you T S Eliot) as I try to determine which of my threads can be successfully combined into 5 x black tie, 4 x semi-formal and 6 x elegant casual dinner outfits, the dragon-encrusted dinner jacket I had made overnight in Singapore in 2004 and which I am amazed to discover I can still wear without popping its buttons, a Venetian mask and enough cufflinks and baubles to barter with the Indians for another Manhattan, sufficient daywear to cover sightseeing, sailing, off-roading and whitewater tubing in various tropical locales where the 90% humidity can reduce a linen shirt to a rag in seconds.



There's fancy dress too: I had to pop out yesterday to buy a rhinestone eypatch for the Buccaneer Ball. I'm sure I'll be less Captain Blood and more like Bette Davis in The Anniversary.

It's further complicated by the fact my trip is preceded by two nights in New York, temperature minus 10 Celsius, and for the first day-and-two-nights aboard, the water surrounding the ship may be quite cold. Whilst I'm not expecting a Titanic-meets-iceberg re-enactment, I also need a warm coat and some jumpers.

Fortunately luggage may not be much of a problem since, despite its current disarray due to the threat of strike action, I'm on British Airways' pioneering new service from London City Airport five minutes from my house, direct to JFK. I am really looking forward to this, they use the smallest Airbus A318 and have installed just 32 sleeper seats instead of the 110 they normally ram inside the tube so there should be ample room for my steamer trunks, portmanteaux and hat boxes.

I fly tomorrow. More from the airport.

spare 1

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Play What I Wrote ... part 1


me hiding behind a double bass and trying to look happy.
And, yes, they are both men.

I don’t keep a lot of alcohol in the house. In fact, if I didn’t have a cold occasionally that required the addition of Irish whiskey to a hot Lemsip, I’d be almost teetotal. So why the other night was I sitting at the computer at two in the morning swigging a bottle of cooking sherry by the neck?

Trauma-induced memory loss: because after the disastrous panto dress rehearsal I had such an urgent desire to get instantly shitfaced that I downed a whole bottle of wine before going to the pub and knocking back pints. By the time I got home in a taxi, I’d forgotten that part of the evening.

Let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews – whose shadow has rather dogged my year thus far – was wont to trill. I sing with the London Gay Men’s Chorus. Mostly, I love it. Musically, they improve year on year and now are a really solid male voice choir which can put over a merry show tune with gusto but also turn its three hundred tonsils (they do come in pairs, don’t they?) to Verdi, Rutter and the odd madrigal or chunk of early music. And something in Welsh. Or Finnish. I am not exaggerating.

It’s this very virtuosity that makes it hard to present a thematic concert – they always want to show diversity of musical genres, so every production has to include jazz, blues, madrigal, pop and show tune. Several years ago a couple of members had the idea of wrapping the usual package with a pantomime as a Christmas theme. Since it’s hard to mix ‘It’s Behind You’ with the Coventry Carol, this was rejected at least twice - before, in the absence of any better idea, it failed to go down for the third time and was adopted as the 2009 Christmas show and scheduled for three 900-seat sellouts at Cadogan Hall this week.

Now this might have been OK had it not come with a draft script bereft of a single laugh, ill-fitted to the chosen music with a sixteenth century motet set as background to a scrum in a shopping mall, requiring multiple sets and umpteen characters including Jane Russell and ‘the most gorgeous man the world has ever seen’ which is challenging enough in real life, but beyond impossible in the predominantly adipose LGMC. Someone once asked me if the G in its acronym stood for ‘Gunt’. A covert focus group had apparently reviewed the script and considered it unusable, so in October when choir rehearsals were already under way my writing partner PK and I were given two weeks for a complete re-hash.

One of the first things we needed to do was reduce the cast, since Cinderella’s normally performed with about twelve actors so we sacrificed Dandini, the Lord Chamberlain, white mice, pumpkins and the Wicked Stepmother on the altar of practicality, and cut it down to a half-dozen on the grounds that surely the LGMC had six members who could act. This may have been our first mistake.

So far we have the original concept by Team A, the selection of music by Team B, the re-write by our two-man Team C, the musical arrangement by our own MD and his cohorts as Team D – but none of us were allowed to share information in the creative process. The rewrite had to be kept secret from the original conceputalisers, because the committee was afraid to confront them and once formulated the song list couldn’t be altered. It included six carols and a hymn, a Zulu tribal anthem, the children’s song from 'The Sound of Music', a hauntingly lovely early melody about underage forced marriage, Abba, The Hollies, a bit of ‘The King and I’ and the Shoop Shoop Song.

Pick the bones out of that and wrap it around Cinderella.

In no more than four three-minute scenes.

This somewhat charged situation was crowned with the appointment of a 22-year old director whose haircut and general demeanour instantly identified him as Jedward’s missing triplet, fresh out of the kind of college where you might as well get your drama degree from the paper towel dispenser in the Gents.

I’m sure if he ever becomes famous, we’ll all boast of having worked with him but some of his naiveté was breathtaking. He didn’t understand many words in the script, references to Danny La Rue, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Branson went way over his oddly-tonsured head and in a joke about crystal chandeliers he had to ask what ‘Versailles’ meant.

We told him it was a fetish club in Vauxhall.

I’ve learned a new word recently: Twunt. I think I have the etymology correct.

The Play What I Wrote ... part deux

Now I’m not claiming the script was Stoppard, but it did have quite a light word-driven touch, aimed at conversational stand-up delivery in plain English for audibility.

So I was surprised when at the auditions our director asked everyone to do every part in a different accent, all at the same time. He cast two sweet guys as the Ugly Sisters, but encouraged them to exaggerate their native Australian and Glaswegian to a point at which they probably wouldn’t have been understood in either Greenock or Geelong, and the Fairy Godmother role I’d written as wry and observationally sardonic with myself in mind went to another experienced actor, but one whose house style tends to channel Brian Blessed with a rather hefty and bombastic delivery.

At first I was disappointed, but then amused that I must have been so crap an actor I couldn’t even get a part in “the play what I wrote” but once I’d seen the crude way it was elevated from page to stage, relieved.

I’ve written several scripts over the years, and remember the first time one was professionally directed (thanks, Ken Parrott, if you’re still alive) when I got quite a thrill from seeing how an experienced director’s interpretation could improve and extend the comic effect of my crumpled sheaf of A4.



editing on vacation in North Carolina

I think there was one person who’d actually done a panto, and since the director preferred to work on dance routines with a group of four imported girls from his personal entourage, the cast were left rudderless and under-rehearsed.

So last Wednesday when the whole thing was conjoined (music, dancing and acting) it was a car-crash in which the first scene ran twelve minutes instead of four. Our MD had his head in his hands for a lot of it.

It was their first time with costumes, and doing it cold in front of a hundred and fifty highly critical gay men is not a gauntlet many would choose to run if the alternative was, say, self-impaling on sharpened bamboo in a Japanese prison camp.

The costumes were surprisingly good, devised by a Filipino member whose natural predilection for All Things Bling and Shoeshopful could run Imelda Marcos a pretty close second. However, after six weeks rehearsal you’d think they would have known the lines.

Panic set in, and in the Chorus's by now traditional pre-show hysteria a number of spiteful and accusatory emails were allegedly exchanged. On Thursday our MD called me about 10.30pm to ask me to come in at 9 the next morning – opening night – for an emergency rehearsal to work with the actors on picking up their cues and cutting any superfluous material to bring the running time down.

We did that, and managed to trim a few minutes but then there was a meltdown as too much interference was applied and the cast were laden with multiple and conflicting changes and cuts, up to a few minutes before showtime. What made me especially furious was the apparent intervention of ‘committee members’ demanding changes on the day to a script they’d had every opportunity to peruse six weeks earlier.

Of course, every cut was a good joke discarded and every new move separated a set-up from its punchline as the baby-faced director struggled to accommodate their demands.

When it got to the stage it was a cut-and-shut Arthur Daley would have resisted selling, the welds were still warm. At least audience feedback was consistent: bewildered.

My personal pain was compounded by the difficulties of getting to Chelsea, from a part of Docklands consistently isolated from the known world by closures on the DLR and Jubilee Line, and for which I would gleefully erect a gibbet to hang the politicians and contractors who bought two new train lines that needed perpetual mending within two years of completion. What happened to warranties?

So on Saturday, despite an incipient cold and premonitions of doom, to be on time for the matinee I jumped in a taxi. Thanks to Westminster Council’s brain-dead idea of closing all roads to traffic in its special brand of rationally politicised support of the Copenhagen climate change conference that involves a lot of free balloons and face-painting, £43 later he had to drop me at Vauxhall to get on the tube. I’ll consider that my carbon-offsetting contribution, shall I ?

On the way home, a combination of District Line and DLR got me to, er, Blackwall – surely a fistula on the arsehole of London that is the Isle of Dogs, certainly one where taxis never prowl and where I – and an interesting assortment of drunks - were deposited to wait 40 minutes for the first of the two rail-replacement bus services that might take me home.

I live six miles from the centre of London. It took over two hours, I could literally have walked it faster.

Sometimes I need to be reminded this is what I do for a hobby.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Annie, Get Your Coat

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‘The best thing for YOU ...’ sings Annie Oakley in the rootin' shootin' tuner Annie Get Your Gun ‘... would be ME.’ The best thing for YOU, dear reader, would be to stay away from this terrible production.

Written in 1946 by the great Irving Berlin and specifically for its star Ethel Merman, it chronicles the 1880’s rivalry-then-love-affair between Ohio amateur sharpshooter Annie Oakley and champion Frank Butler.

In the Young Vic’s bizarre production, by opera director Richard Jones, it’s somehow transposed to a formica-and-vinyl Midwest diner like a leftover set from ‘Happy Days’, although in a hallucinogenic second-act opener Annie is shown in jerky 8mm footage on a kind of Evita-esque Rainbow Tour meeting Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle.

Featuring showtune standards like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ and ‘The Girl That I Marry’ the lush, broad, inventive Berlin score is - literally - hammered into submission by the substitution of an orchestra with four upright saloon-bar pianos built into the front of the stage.

The plot carries us across the sweeping Ohio prairies and on a tour of most of the Wild West. The Young Vic is a large and flexible space, but ludicriously-monickered designer Ultz (real name: David Fisher) reduces this to an extraordinary horizontal slit in what looks like Portakabin siding, with the movement cramped into about ten feet depth of stage. The sight lines are so appalling that the final clinch between Annie and Frank, in an upstairs room the size of a broom cupboard, is invisible to more than half the audience.

Merman's voice famously filled theatres without a microphone and she was known as "leather lungs", but by comparison Horrocks has a couple of Tesco teabags flapping inside her puny chest, and her singing is criminally underpowered for the belted standards, nor is it any more appealing in the ballads.

She seems beyond uncomfortable. Pitching the role as a scruffy waif in an early Pauline Fowler wig, she’s barely as tall as her Remington rifle which she wields like it was a caber in the Highland Games rather than an extension of her own right arm. She also has a tendency to compensate for her one-dimensional acting by gurning at the audience, most of whom seemed to know her only as ‘Bubble’ from AbFab.

Julian Ovenden looks charming as Frank Butler, and his fluting tenor carries the tunes beautifully. Too beautifully, perhaps, since Frank’s a rawer and more rambunctious character than this rather polite performance suggests.

There’s a willing and capable ensemble, too few in number for the size of the show, but good contributions from Liza Sadovy as a particularly grim circus harpy, and John Marquez as a Brooklyn showman out of his comfort zone in the wild West.

It’s such a waste. This is a show so ripe for revival, with tunes you could actually go IN to the theatre humming, they are so well-loved, and it deserves the kind of treatment Trevor Nunn gave ‘Oklahoma’ at the National, not this clapboarded ham-fisted high-school rendition.


Production photo by Keith Pattinson for the Young Vic

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Low Calorie Breakfast at Tiffany's

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What can you remember of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ - Mickey Rooney with an unconvincing set of false teeth and a cringingly awful Chinese accent? Audrey Hepburn cool as a January cucumber in her swept-up chignon, tiara, pearls and yard-long cigarette holder? The gamine, twittery but ultimately loveable party girl around whom New York whirls like snowflakes in a lightweight comedy?

Ain’t none of that here at the Haymarket where undeniably beautiful Anna Friel plays Holly Golightly far closer to Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Brightly peroxide (collar and cuffs, apparently, from the fleeting glimpse in the nude scene) and occasionally in a picture hat that makes her look disconcertingly like a shiitake mushroom, she may be closer to Truman Capote’s vision of Marilyn Monroe for the party, but captures only some of Holly’s mercurial quality.

To misquote Portia, the quality of mercury has become strained and in 2009 it doesn’t seem quite so ‘appropriate’ for attractive but insubstantial waifs to make a living from merely flirting with middle-aged suitors. Not that this is a morality play about prostitution, or, indeed, about anything apart from the characters who surround Holly, all of them ciphers.

Coming in at a butt-numbing two and three-quarter hours, the play is a succession of quick-change vignette scenes, using what look like two fire-escape staircases left over from a low-budget tour of ‘West Side Story’: there’s no depth, there’s no engagement - in Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of the original Truman Capote novella, it’s simply too hard to care about the characters.

Perhaps appropriately for Ms. Golightly, Friel looks everything but delivers nothing. Style over substance would be fine but she lacks the vital edge which makes Holly emotionally dangerous.

The production’s further damaged by the dismal performance of James Dreyfus, bad enough in Cabaret but here attempting the role of a cigar-chomping movie mogul and still coming out as Tom in Gimme Gimme Gimme. Suzanne Bertish has a better go at the vampish Italian neighbour Madame Spanella, although in a fringed gypsy skirt and paso doble gesturings, she seems to pitch it closer to Madrid than Milan. She’s meant to be an opera singer but mimes her arias, couldn’t they cast someone who could sing?

Capote once said the film was ‘a mawkish Valentine to New York City’ - here it’s more like a Tesco Value birthday card with the Manhattan skyline reduced to a few cheap cutouts against a backcloth lit variously in turquoise and magenta.

At the end, the loose ends of Holly’s story are all tied up, but you’ll yearn for the syrupy closing shots of Audrey and the strains of ‘Moon River’.

Production photo by Johan Persson

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Fine Execution at the Tower



Purism is not the issue here.

The evening started stately enough with Nigel Kennedy, still sporting his Gary-Rhodes-on-steroids butchered pineapple haircut, leading the Philharmonia orchestra through two melodious movements of Bach. So far, so dignified, so what.

What the audience had come for - and got in spades - was a hefty dose of Nige’s blokeish irreverence: chatting to the band, blagging half-finished glasses of champagne from the corporate stiffies in the front row, and generally parading his hallmark punch-drunk staggering routine like a pub comedian on a slow night in his native Brighton.

But when the man picks up a fiddle, and saws in to Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Jam’ it blows away every preconception, and his virtuosity is undoubted.

Perhaps sensing the audience’s preference for the more modern material, he confused the band by changing the running order - as he said ‘you don’t want to work up a sweat with this big band shit and then stop’. Some of the pieces were world premieres, of original 30’s Ellington arrangements re-worked by Kennedy to put more of the emphasis into the strings, and it’s a whole new sound.

It’s a whole new audience, too - many of whom don’t know how to behave in concerts, perhaps the idea that it’s in the open air makes them forget to stop chatting, particularly the chav in row P who answered his phone during the elegant and complex Bach Interventions in which Kennedy sparred electrically with cellist Karen Stephenson, before returning enthusiastically to the Swing era.

And then, just for a moment, with the lush big band sound washing over you, the first stars of the evening appearing over the battlements of the 900-year old White Tower, and the planes lining up for their descent into London City Airport, you begin to appreciate that setting this clumsily brilliant musical anarchist on a vulgar red gash of a stage against the stones of the Tower, in the historical, cultural and commercial heart of the city is what living in London is all about.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Blown by the 'Wind'

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Kevin Spacey’s timing is exemplary.

Not just in his personal performance but in bringing to the Old Vic such a dynamic production of the 1955 American war horse ‘Inherit The Wind’ - a courtroom drama based on the true-life story of a young Tennessee school teacher arraigned for promoting the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin against the orders of a Christian fundamentalist school board.

Written in the shadow of the McCarthy trials it is topical today because of the ongoing battle between religious right-wingers in the US who have repackaged their anti-Darwinist stance into a fresh campaign to coerce schools into teaching ‘Intelligent Design’ (by the hand of God) instead of evolution as an approved scientific theory of the origin of man.

It makes Madonna’s Kabbalist babbling look almost rational by comparison, and it’s coming to a courtroom near you pretty soon as they extend their campaign into the UK.

This play has a special resonance for me because, in my tortured youth wrangling with my parents about whether I should be allowed to 'go on the stage' or press on to University, 'Inherit the Wind' marked my 17-year old professional debut in the Harrogate Repertory Company's production. It's perhaps the phase that taught me there was no money in acting, since whatever I earned barely covered the fares for the last bus home each night.

I was pleasantly surprised how much of the dialogue I remembered, and the gospel songs, as taught to us by our unofficial chorus-mistress Zara Nutley, later language school owner Mrs Courtenay in the popular TV rubbish 'Mind Your Language'. I tried to Google some of the other actors from the show, Adam Kuryakin (possibly the first 'out gay man' I'd encountered in Harrogate) and Peter Codyre, or director Barry Howard, but I guess they're all dead.

In the meantime, enjoy the bareknuckle bout in 20’s Tennessee where Spacey is impeccable as the veteran lawyer Henry Drummond (real life Clarence Darrow) twanging his suspenders and twisting the witnesses’ words to barnstorming effect. He’s much shoutier than Spencer Tracy in the Oscar-winning 1960 movie, the internalised anger contorting his already hunched body into a shape that may physically recall Charles Laughton, but continuously commands the stage.

It’s possible Spacey was impressed by the 2007 Broadway production in which Christopher Plummer finally threw off the mantle of Captain von Trapp and won plaudits for his portrayal of Drummond.

For Drummond to have the audience on side is an easy win, you could argue, since the lawyer is fighting for the rights of the common man and the free thinker, but to succeed at this he needs a credible opposition.

In the real story, three-times failed presidential candidate, and tub-thumping bible-basher William Jennings Bryan came to Tennessee as the prosecuting counsel. The character’s called Matthew Harrison Brady and in David Troughton’s strong performance he’s also a lurchingly crippled titan, matching Spacey barb for barb in the war of the words over bible passages and driving himself to a personal resurrection of his political career. If he’s ultimately weakened by the fight, the fault’s in the script rather than the performance. This man’s on his way to King Lear.

Half ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ half ‘Gone With the Wind’, the design whips up a confectionery vignette of the Old South. Director Trevor Nunn punctuates the court action with gospel singing and torchlight processions lovingly dressed in shades of sepia like the Kansas scenes in ‘Wizard of Oz’. Given the script is by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence - authors of ‘Mame’ - it’s clear Sir Trevor is desperate to turn it in to a musical.

Outstanding among the 40-strong cast, something not usually seen outside the National, Mark Dexter plays the visiting cynical journalist who orchestrates the defence, based on Baltimore satirist H L Mencken, with a handsomely attractive oily charm - as he says ‘I may be rancid butter but I’m on your side of the bread’, and Ian Cunningham adds convincing value as the banjo-twangling court supervisor Ralph Meeker.

An old-fashioned ‘well made play’ but an excellent production. Go.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The sound of one hand Clapham



As I've said before, it's 21 years since Stephen Sondheim took panto by the throat and throttled it into a self-styled morality play called ‘Into the Woods’.

If nothing else, the current production at the Landor theatre highlights the age of the material, and the bum-numbingly lengthy exposition necessary to tell the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk before the interval - after which the plot thickens and the cast thins as many of them are picked off by a marauding giant whilst blaming each other for collective and individual misfortunes.

It’s intended as a metaphor for the disintegration of society, but the jury’s out on whether Sondheim was presenting an original metaphysical deconstruction of America at the end of the 20th century, or smoking crack.

The tedious first half needs pace which the cast couldn’t deliver on Friday since they were struggling with too-recently-arrived costumes and a clever oversized bookshelf of a set which demanded mountaineering feats whilst singing in a hoop skirt and minor key.

An announcement asked the audience to treat it as an open dress rehearsal and on that basis, it was just about OK. It also started over half an hour late which allowed us the opportunity to appreciate what a scrofulous pub the Landor really is, perched on the edge of an edgy housing estate. It’s a shame, because the theatre upstairs has a great reputation which doesn’t percolate down to the bar, and at closing time we had to shoulder our way through a number of chavs in what looked like pyjamas, and endure some colouful (I use the word advisedly) banter from dusky youths lounging about on a street corner.

The lead characer of the Witch is in disguise for the first half - and Lori Haley Fox was the only cast member to use a strong American accent so she appeared initially to be Ruby Wax in a burka (not in itself an unattractive prospect) but after the ‘transformation’ revealed blonde streaks and an overbite unfortunately reminiscent of Julia Davis in Nighty Night.

Others were more promising including Ryan Forde Iosco and particularly Luke Fredericks as the swashbuckling but shallow Princes, the latter clearly relishing a second outing in knee-length boots after his stint as Rolf the boy Nazi in Sound of Music, and with a lovely voice.

It’s notoriously hard to sing Sondheim because the lyrics are so often truncated or interrupted, but Sue Appleby as Cinderella and Leo Andrew as the Baker overcame this particularly well, and Andrew‘s ‘No One Is Alone’ had great resonance.

One of the best quotes from Into the Woods is ‘nice is different than good’.

This is a nice production.

A Talent not to amuse



Back in the days when boys became bands without the unwelcome attentions of Louis Walsh, or girls sang aloud without a televised vote - young Victoria Wood penned a simple, funny and sweet piece for the Sheffield Crucible based on her own experiences backstage in a provincial talent show.

Revisiting it thirty years later, she freely admits she had to explain a lot of the references to the cast, so it's not surprising many of the jokes had to be audibly elaborated by the older audience to its younger boyfriends during last Thursday's first performance at the Menier. There is hardly a gay bar in London in which you couldn't hear someone 'doing' a Victoria Wood sketch, and for the previews they were out in force, and lapping up the familiar comic lines.

Asked to comment on her friend Julie Walters' appearance in "Mamma Mia", Wood explained to the Daily Mail that musicals 'really weren't her thing' - which may have been tact as Walters was uncharacteristically dire, but also disingenuous since Wood recently wrote 'Acorn Antiques the Musical' with a swathe of pastiched production numbers. For 'Talent', the musical additions are modest parodies of cheesy cabaret songs which mostly serve to give the male cast members an opportunity to perspire copiously in velour suits with polyester ruffles.

Wood appears to have cast this production with a number of old friends - Jeffrey Holland, once the comedian Spike in Hi-de-Hi is amusing as a pensioner magician, but former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry rather less convincing as the randy compere of the rotting Bunters night club.

It's like an explosion in the comedy section of the BBC archives, or at least in the skip where they throw the stuff they don't use any more.

The stronger casting is in Suzy Toase playing the role created by Wood, and the ever reliable Mark Hadfield doubling a magician's assistant and the night club's catering manageress in the funniest segment of the show when she organises the table allocations. Both these actors excel at deadpanning the flat northern inflections of Wood's material and illustrate both her easy facility with the language, and its ultimate failure to satisfy.

To genuine Lancastrians, the camp non-sequiturs of Wood's dialogue "she was going to be a nun but they kept having tomato soup and she lost her vocation" are routine, being heard on the bus from Bury to Bolton every day of the week, and Wood's skill was to spot the patterns and write it down. Custard creams aren't inherently funny, but when suggested by a northern housewife as a more palatable alternative to oral sex, it gets a laugh.

Whilst she has undoubtedly become a 'national treasure' through sketches and sitcom, comparison with more structurally capable dramatists like Alan Bennett are inevitably disappointing. In fact, the way Christopher Luscombe's recent production of Bennett's 'Enjoy' outshines 'Talent' despite the fact they were written at similar times, reflect on both Wood's script-updating and directing skills.

Sometimes, Talent alone is not enough.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Captive Audience


Banged up in a US prison two inmates from opposite sides of the tracks forge an unlikely friendship against a background of corrupt wardens, wisecracking murderers and a hanging. The stage version of 'Shawshank Redemption' is ‘Chicago’ for straight men.

Whilst not actually channelling Renee Zellweger and Catherine Z. Jones, leads Kevin Anderson and ‘The Wire’ star Reg E. Cathey draw parallels as Anderson’s innocent-behind-bars learns quickly who not to trust and how to manipulate the corrupt system, while Cathey’s persistent recidivist tries to distance himself from the morality but eventually succumbs.

Like most current screen-to-stage adaptations (Sister Act, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) legal ownership of the movie rights prevented a direct adaptation from the filmscript and the source material reverts to a less sparkling original novel or treatment.

The dialogue’s too fluent for movie realism but works well enough on stage where the supporting cast turn in sharp characterisations, notably Ryan McCluskey’s engaging performance as the cheerful gambler Heywood. McCluskey is billed as first cover for Anderson’s lead role and it would be interesting to see him play it.

Equally outstanding is the least sympathetic character, the violent sodomite Bogs played with utter conviction by Joe Hanley whose priapic readiness to exact the ultimate rite of passage on new inmates gives new meaning to the phrase ‘hardened criminal’.

Ferdia Murphy’s two-tier set of prison bars is simple to the point of emptiness, and bizarre when placed in the blue white and gold cherub-studded proscenium of Wyndham’s Theatre. Lighting Designer Kevin Treacy could have worked harder to reduce the spill on to the auditorium and focus more harshly on the prison.

An interesting echo on the sound system actively suggests the hard surfaces, but otherwise there's little to indicate place, the passing of time or seasons, or to convince us that this is a real penitentiary.

There’s plenty of shouting and banging, and a lot of booted stomping in the fight scenes but ultimately this Shawshank is hollow. As Roxie says - it’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl, and All That Jazz.