Archive for November, 2007

HMRC Apology

Like the other 24,999,999 people who have their account details lost by HMRC, we received a letter of apology this week.    I am still not sure whether to be worried about this, or not, although I probably should be I suppose.

Whatever – that’s still a huge postage bill for HMRC (paid by us taxpayers).    Think of the logistics of ordering a cool 25 million envelopes and 50,000 reams of paper, never mind the cost of the post to go on top.    It a is pretty mind-boggling exercise, particularly when you consider that all the letters were personalised – no general circular this.

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Edinburgh Inspires 

The logo and brand for Edinburgh called “Edinburgh Inspires” which is basically three curvy lines is being “quietly dropped”.     It cost £800,000 to create and the project has had a further £120,000 spent on it.

While I realise that a brand is much more than the logo we see, to scrap it so early looks a hideous waste of scarce public funds at somewhere over £300,000 per wavy line.

There is probably an element of the “New Council” inheriting the brand from the “Old Council”.    General Elections have more cost implications than are immediately apparent.   And remember too that since May “The Scottish Executive” has become “The Scottish Government”.

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The Soldier’s Tale

We were really excited about The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky at the Tron in Glasgow, and were not disappointed.    

The Tale is a straightforward Russian folktale about a soldier who makes a pact with the devil and and who discovers that riches alone don’t bring the happiness that love brings.    You would think that once he discovered that, he and his Princess (this is a folktale) would live happily ever after, but Stravinsky does not let it lie there, and the piece ends darkly.

Written towards the end of the First World War, Stravinsky scored the work for a tiny orchestra of 7 players and four actors, who normally tell the tale.     But in this version, the Soldier was played by top violinist Anthony Marwood, assisted by two dancers:  Agnes Vandrepote as the Princess and Iain Woodhouse as the Devil, with Walter Van Dyk playing the Narrator.

It was in the way all the separate parts came together that made this a wonderful evening to remember.    The orchestra from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields were led by Jonathan Morton who also leads the Scottish Ensemble, and I realised at the end that hiding in the back was Alison Balsom, the award winning trumpet player – no wonder they were simply excellent.

The orchestration was unusual:   Violin, Double Bass, Clarinet, Trumpet, Trombone, Bassoon and percussion.   the music was thrilling and ranged from folk dances to chorale – it was complicated but perfectly accessible, and really suited the subject.    In the wedding scene, there was a hymn tune – it was all there, but in shattered bits.    This was written in 1918 after all.

But Anthony Marwood’s performance was breathtaking:   not only was his violin playing stunningly good, particularly when he and his Princess have a long awakening dance, but his acting was mesmerising to watch.    He went from innocent delight to crumpled and broken in an instant.   He kissed his Princess towards the end, and was elated, but as his face came over her shoulder it turned to a haunted man as he realised the full implications of returning to his home.     The ending was dark – with all but the Princess following the devil out and across the back of the set.   This also included the barefooted orchestra who left one by one and formed a memorable closing tableau in red silhouette with their instruments.

We were in the front row and felt the wind from the dancers as they passed by, and also got covered in confetti.    We had two 16 year olds with us who were seriously impressed.    

This performance was so mesmerising that at successive curtain calls (there were deservedly three) the applause increased each time and we finally got cheering and whistling as we all realised that we had just witnessed something really special.   

I  recommended this production to Statler and Waldorf over at View From the Stalls, perhaps with a little trepidation as classical music is a little off their radar, but am delighted to report that they really enjoyed it.

Only an hour long, and completely haunting.    Still time to catch it on the short UK tour.   

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Just had a hassle-free trip from Edinburgh to London and back on GNER.    Love them, or hate them, GNER have lost the franchise to run trains on the East Coast Main Line, and National express takes over in a few weeks time.

I wonder what it will all mean?    Higher fares above inflation have already been flagged as likely – probably to pay for the paint to cover up the GNER colour scheme on all the train sets.

The East Coast Main Line is busy and crowded, and when things go wrong, they really go wrong.   The old diesel 125s on the London-Aberdeen and London-Inverness routes are actually pretty reliable, but the electric 225s are prone to be affected by windspeeds which wobble the overhead cables, resulting in speed restrictions being applied.

I actually like GNER.   They train their staff really well, and I always get the impression that they are really trying to do their best for the passenger.    OK, so some days things don’t go well, but that will be the same for the new franchisee.    But careful investment in people is important.

I am just not sure that the passengers (remember them?) will benefit from this changeover.    Presumably GNER will have stalled on investment in the run-up to the franchise decision being made, so that will have to be made up by National Express.    Perhaps it will be the same people in new uniforms in repainted trains doing the same jobs – at least initially.

I just don’t happen to think GNER were doing a bad job.   Far from it, in fact.

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At school in the 1970s, I was involved in the stagecrew for an Ionesco double bill of “Exit the King” and “The Bald Prima Donna” – we were involved in rehearsals and all the performances, and I came to realise that Ionesco plays were indeed something very strange, different and absolutely intriguing.    We had fun things to do with a complicated set, and at one stage had to make the roof fall in, but in the end the plays really got under the skin.    Certainly very different from Shakespeare and Restoration Comedy which was the staple diet of many school productions then – nothing wrong with either genre of course – I remember that Ionesco perplexed many of the parents for sure, but delighted this particular young stage hand.

Ionesco interest was re-kindled after seeing a really memorable performance of The Chairs with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney , with a translation also by Martin Crimp.

So, Rhinoceros at the Royal Court did not disappoint – we enjoyed every aspect of the play.   There simply wasn’t a weak link.

When a Rhinoceros charges near a town square on a sleepy Sunday morning, everyone except hung-over Berenger becomes very agitated.   But when the residents start turning into rhinoceroses, then there is something sinister going on.   Can Berenger resist the urge to join them?

All performances were great, but Benedict Cumberbatch as Berenger was quite outstanding.    Jasper Britton was wonderful too, turning into a rhinoceros before our very eyes.      Domenic Cooke’s production was witty, fast paced and really clever.    And Anthony Ward has designed a set which gradually falls to bits as the rhinos get used to urban living.

Translator Martin Crimp has come up trumps with a modern version of this satire on conformity making it just as relevant now as in the 1950s when it was written.   

Not many performances left.   Go see.    That faint rumble from the tube trains you get in some London Theatres will never be the same again.

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We went to the excellent Millais exhibition at Tate Britain.   It was Saturday morning, and really pretty busy to begin with, but crowds thinned out as we went on.   I did find taking the big print pamphlet for each room was very useful, as it saved having to get close enough to the wall read the captions for each picture.

The famous pictures were there, like Bubbles, which was used for Pear’s Soap, and Ophelia.    But the breadth and depth of his work was amazing, and the detail in some paintings breathtaking.     I learnt a lot, including that Millais was instrumental in setting up the Portrait Gallery in London, and he persuaded Henry Tate (of Tate and Lyall fame) to found the Tate Gallery.

I also had not appreciated the Scottish connection.   Millais used to rent property round Dunkeld every autumn and paint, as well as hunt and shoot.    The final room of the exhibition was of Perthshire landscapes – mostly round Dunkeld.   

The final picture of the show is called “Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind” – it is a bleak wintry scene near Perth.   In the foreground is a woman sitting on the ground cradling her baby wrapped against the cold.    Her bundle of clothes is beside her.     In the background, a man is walking away into the sleet, flat cap turned against the wind:   he has abandoned them.   In the middle, between the man and the woman, a collie dog points its muzzle to the sky and howls.    The rest of the quotation, which comes from “As You Like It” is  “Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”.   It was one of my favourite paintings there, and is on loan from Auckland.

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Sweeney Todd

The latest production at Perth Theatre is a version of Sweeney Todd written, designed and directed by Graham McLaren.   

It starts off well enough with a fabulously thin tenament set, with Michael Marra‘s trio of musicians in the attic of the barbershop – itself above the pie shop.    And the script goes well at first too, but for a number of reasons, this production literally fizzles out.    For no good reason, halfway through we suddenly get lots of swearing, and then a bit of slapstick thrown in.    Graham McLaren cannot decide where to pitch this melodramatic tale – is it comic or gruesome?    It is not enough of either.

Kevin McMonagle as Todd and Gabriel Quigley as Mrs Lovett of the pie shop make a good fist of the material they have been given to work with.   The supporting cast do a reasonable job too.   But it just does not quite add up the way it should.

Best part of the night were the new Michael Marra songs to accompany the show, but even they needed the sound balance adjusted, as the clever words were a bit lost by the time they reached the audience.

The language is a tad strong for taking children along on the free ticket, I think.

I also think it is time for Graham McLaren to bring a team together to work on his productions.    I have now seen far too many poor efforts where he has done ‘everything’, and where a second or third brain would have possibly resulted in a more disciplined and focussed approach.

Verdict – wait for the Panto.     Sondheim did Sweeney Todd better, and there was a really good version with Alan Lydiard at Dundee Rep in the 1980s.     This is not a patch on either of those.

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Carbon Offsetting is a murky world, and a tricky concept to grasp.       Every week the Sunday Times Travel section sends its journalists all over the place, but every week, they print how much they have paid to offset their carbon use.     There is a certain smugness to all of this which I find distasteful.

Many businesses are aspiring to become Carbon Neutral.    Apart from “saving the planet”, it is a great marketing tool.

So that’s OK then?

No, I don’t think so really.   On a number of counts.      Firstly, carbon offsetting should be a last resort.    Businesses should have reduced their carbon footprint to as low as possible before offsetting the rest, and I am not sure this happens.    Secondly, who regulates the projects which benefit from the carbon offsetting money?   Nobody, it seems.   Stories of treadmills in India and the rest make for a deep uneasiness in the whole concept.    Thirdly, and linked to this, is how can businesses, organisations and individuals making carbon offsetting payments be certain that their cash is being used efficiently and in genuinely carbon-beneficial ways?

In Scotland, a new scheme is being launched in November for tourism businesses called Climate Change Scotland where projects are Scottish and vetted for suitability.    Evidence of carbon reduction by businesses intersted in contributing is required.     Perhaps this is a good way forward.

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Elton John is playing Perth next July.    It will be a football stadium gig, and a first major concert like this for the Fair City.

Great excitement and anticipation.    Box office opens today.   Only Scottish date.

Tickets from £40.    Booking fee £4 a ticket.    Booking fees should be banned.   This is a 18,000 seat concert, and I make that a cool £72,000 that someone is pocketing over and above the ticket prices.    I really would not mind if the tickets were priced at £44 with no booking fee.    

But booking fees are wrong, wrong, wrong.

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Coming Soon ….

We have booked to see Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco at the Royal Court.    It looks interesting and unusual.

A few years back, we saw Ionesco’s The Chairs with Richard Briers and Geraldine MacEwan – also translated by Martin Crimp, and hugely enjoyed it.

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