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I appear to have taken a year off blogging my travels; I’m not sure why. There was the wonderful five-week trip to South Africa & Namibia in October / November (with a stopover in Dubai), a superb trio of safari’s in Kenya in February, lovely island hopping to seven of the Greek Cyclades in May, and weekends in Hannover / Bremen, Luxembourg and Liege, one pre-Brexit and two more embarassing post-Brexit visits. This is a 5-week 4-5000 mile road-trip, so a travelogue is compulsory to avoid excommunication from the Wanderlust Association, and this is the first of three parts, two in the four Atlantic provinces of Canada and one in four New England states at Fall.  Here goes……

The first astonishing fact is that it is only 4h30m flying time from London to St. Johns. It’s probably the best entry point into the North American continent – it took one hour from landing to downtown, including immigration, baggage claim, customs, car hire collection, and driving to my destination! All very civilised. The second astonishing fact is that the province has only been part of Canada since 1949, until then a colony, then an autonomous Dominion of the British Commonwealth. The province consists of the island of Newfoundland and Labrador, the earternmost part of the North American continent, in total 50% bigger than the British Isles but with less than 1% of the population – 500,000 people (90% in Newfoundland and just 10% in the remote and sparcely populated Labrador).

I started with a couple of days in the capital, St. Johns, a busy working harbour entered through a narrow channel. There’s no gentrified waterside, but more bars and restaurants per square foot or per person than just about anywhere else, and colourful terraces of wooden houses on steep hills leading down to the port. Amongst its attractions is a unique museum / gallery /archives called The Rooms, with great harbour views, and a geological museum cut into one of the oldest hills on the planet, with the rock itself as its walls. It was a nice couple of days aclimatising before I set off on my first long drive NW to the opposite coast, a 7-hour 450-mile journey which I broke overnight in Grand Falls, which weren’t. More conifers than you normally see in a lifetime, littered with many lakes and rivers (many of which were called ‘ponds’ and ‘brooks’ in a somewhat understated way). An attractive landscape, until I got close to my destination of Rocky Harbour, when it suddenly became spectacular.

Gros Morne National Park is an extraordinary combination of geological phenomena, diversity of vegetation and an awful lot of water. On the first afternoon and the following morning, the overcast skies didn’t do it justice, but when the sun shone it was a real treat. It’s highlight was The Tablelands, the mantle of the earth thrust to the surface by continental drift. Amazing. Then there was the lovely fishing port of Trout River, the many waterfalls, the lighthouse at Lobster Cove and extraordinary rock formations at Green Point. I had to drag myself out.

The journey to my next destination was a return to the landscape of the St Johns – Deer Lake road, until it got close to my destination, the Northern tip, when things again looked up. L’Anse aux Meadows is where the Vikings first landed in North America, 500 years before the other Europeans credited with ‘discovering’ it. Though there is little visible evidence, as the digs have been covered with sod, there are lots of artifacts and faithful recreations of buildings (based on Icelandic ones buried in volcanic ash) and a palpable sense of awe at their achievement in crossing the North Atlantic in small boats. They first encountered The Labrador coast, naming it Markland, and then Newfoundland, which they appeared to call Vinland, though this was probably after the vines which they saw on their sorties to what is now New Brunswick. Butternut stones from there were found at L’Anse, which seems to confirm this theory. L’Anse also had one of Newfoundland’s finest restaurants which I dined at on my first night. I tried to book to return on the second evening, but was told they were closing for the season that evening, which left me with a combination of feelings – disappointment that I couldn’t experience it again coupled with delight that I’d experienced it at all.

In nearby St Anthony, I immersed myself in the life of Wilfred Grenfell, a British doctor-missionary who brought medicine to the poverty-striken Labrador people and went on to provide hospitals, nursing stations (one of which, now a B&B, I stayed in on my next stop), childrens homes and dietary help, eventually virtually running healthcare for Labrador and the North-west of Newfoundland based on donations, whose facilities were only recently handed over to the state. I visited his home and museum and in the now enormous hospital, some stunning ceramic murals.

I’d been becoming increasingly nervous about my visit to Labrador, with tales of the treacherous straits to cross and cancelled feries because of 90km winds, risking being stranded and causing havoc to the subsequent itinerary. The crossing over was a bit choppy, but the return was like glass, and it was well worth it. There’s only 50 miles of paved road, so I was relieved my original plan of driving the 100 miles to stay at Battle Harbour was scuppered by their season closure. It was worth the trip for the climb into the light of the 18th century lighthouse at Point Amour and even more so for the visit to the 16th century Basque whaling station at Red Bay. You don’t associate North America with fascinating history, but their story was as captivating as the Vikings, making an annual trip across the Atlantic, catching whales and turning them into oil to take back to light Europe’s lamps and keep the gentry clean! Labrador was a bit like stepping back in time – the B&B used one of those sliding credit card machines that takes an impression of your card and the Ferry Office printed tickets on paper with those punch-hole margins!

I broke the journey east in Rocky Harbour again and was greeted by my B&B hosts like a long lost friend, all very welcoming, as have all six B&B’s on this leg. Almost as soon as I got to my final stop, Trinity, in the north-east, I regretted I was only staying one night. It’s a delightful fishing village, seeped in well preserved history (including a Victorian post-box still in use!) and I had a room at a lovely inn which had another of Newfoundland’s best restaurants where I was invited to join a couple (both Vets) from Ontario for dinner. The Canadian’s really are welcoming and genuinely friendly, but the Newfie accent can be very strong, particularly in the west and north. I had one ‘conversation’ with a filling station attendant where neither of us understood a word the other was saying, and I was baffled at breakfast one morning by a safety trainer; when he left I told a Toronto couple that I didn’t understand a word he said and they responded ‘us too’!

A lovely start. Two thousand miles behind me and it’s on to Halifax, Nova Scotia (by air), a new car and my second adventure. I’ve already decided it will start with a driving-free Friday tomorrow…….

 

 

Torn

Well, you certainly have to put in some work with this play by Nathanial Martello-White. It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. My brain was hurting trying to work out who was who, the time and sequence of scenes and what was and wasn’t true. It wasn’t completely rewarding, though I admired it’s cleverness and all of the performances.

When you enter the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs you seem to be in some sort of public hall. There’s a circle of those dreadful grey plastic chairs and we surround them sitting on similar ones. At first it seems like a family therapy session, with the focus on Angel, who may or may not have been abused. Eventually we work out that the others are her mother and stepfather, her brother, her mum’s three sisters, one a twin, with her son, Angel’s cousin. Angel’s biological dad comes in later. It moves back and forth in time and we learn the views of the various family members on the alleged abuse, together with much family history and some actual history. Doubts emerge about the truthfulness of Angel’s claims. Sometimes characters are talking about others not there, though they are looking on and acknowledged with eye contact.

It instantly grabbed my attention and held me throughout, partly because I was working hard on the jigsaw and partly because of the compelling performances, particularly from Adelle Leonce as Angel. It’s miraculous that the actors don’t lose their way given the staccato nature of the dialogue, sometimes overlapping. It wasn’t entirely conclusive and I didn’t engage with it emotionally much of the time, probably because my brain was working too hard for my heart to click in, which is why it wasn’t entirely satisfying. Still, it’s an original piece, clever, intellectually engaging and beautifully performed, and I would recommend seeing it.

Home Chat

Collecting rare plays by 20th British playwrights again, this time an oddly named Noel Coward that hasn’t been staged for 89 years (during which time, there have probably been thousands of Hay Fever’s and Private Lives’) at the Finborough Theatre. They’re really good at this here, and this is no exception.

Janet and Peter, very good friends, end up sharing a sleeper cabin through overcrowding on the train from the South of France. It crashes, though they survive unscathed, but the knowledge that they were together is interpreted by Janet’s husband Paul, mother and mother-in-law and Peter’s fiancé Mavis as adultery. Deeply offended, Janet & Peter play along and invent an affair which they keep running until other truths are revealed.   

With it’s theme of adultery, it must have been quite shocking in its time, but to a modern audience it’s much less  so, and comes over as a delightful, cheeky comedy unlike any other Coward play I’ve seen. Martin Parr’s beautiful traverse staging has so much attention to detail and sensitivity to the material and the period. I loved the Noel Coward songs between scenes, very well sung by Robert Hazie as Pallett the Butler, which fade into authentic radio versions. Rebecca Brewer’s excellent design transforms from Janet & Paul’s living room to Peter’s bedroom and back and Charlotte Espiner’s costumes are superb.

There isn’t a fault in the casting, with eight other fine performances. Janet and Peter are both feisty and cheeky, brilliantly played by Zoe Waites and Richard Dempsey. I loved the mothers, Polly Adams and Joanna David, and Claire Lawrence Moody was outstanding, particularly good at love-struck, mock shock and indignant. 

It may feel like a period piece, but I doubt it could get a better production, and I’m again thrilled to have caught up with a rarity by an important 20th century playwright. The fringe at its best. Catch it while you can.

The Emperor

I first saw this piece by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in Jonathan Miller’s production for the Royal Court Theatre 28 years ago, though this appears to be a fresh adaptation by Colin Teevan. It featured Nabil Shaban, but I can’t remember whether he played all of the characters, as Kathryn Hunter does here – well, apart from a few mute or non-English speaking parts given to the onstage musician, whose wonderful music is one of the best things about this lovely production.

The play tells the story of the downfall of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled from 1930 to 1974, following a 14-year period as Regent. He was idiosyncratic, with a dubious human rights record, but was revered by many, including millions of Rastafarians who saw him as the new Messiah, a direct descendant from the bible’s King Solomon. Kapuscinski interviewed many of his retinue and interweaves their testimony to create an evocative picture of his despotic rule. Those interviewed include his valet, chauffeur & Minister of Information and more bizarre roles like keeper of his private zoo, pillow bearer and wiper of his lapdog’s urine!

Kathryn Hunter is mesmerising as she switches roles by moving to another part of the stage and adding a hat or epaulets or a cigarette. Temesgen Zeleke’s musical accompaniment is gorgeous, totally complimentary to the testimonies. In 65 minutes, you really do begin to understand the man, his power and his downfall.

A little gem you shouldn’t miss.

Labyrinth

It’s easy to think that the economic crisis we’ve lived through in the last eight years is unique. As this play shows us, by explaining the Latin American Debt Crisis of the early 80’s, a prequel to the latest one, everything that has and is happening to Greece happened to Mexico, and other Latin American countries, more than thirty years before. History repeats itself and we just never learn.

In Beth Steel’s brilliant play we follow the career of John. He’s not your usual highly driven Ivy League Long Island banking type, but top banker Howard sees something in him and takes him on, to be groomed by high-flier Charlie in the macho world of international lending. As Charlie rises in the Latin American department, so does John. They loan money for projects that will never come to fruition, with money that won’t, because it can’t, be repaid. We learn of John’s troubled childhood, with his small-time fraudster father in prison while his mother loses everything. His dad comes back into his life and is a ghostly presence during the rest of the play, his dishonesty compared and contrasted with the monumentally bigger stunts being pulled by John and Charlie for their bank. John is a clever guy and by putting forward the idea that gets the banks off the hook, overtakes his mentor.

It’s an intelligent, well researched and superbly written play which manages to make the complex comprehensible. It builds, slowly at first, like all the best thrillers, except this isn’t fiction. It’s traverse staging has a clever, clinical, uncluttered design by Andrew D Edwards, with brilliant lighting and light effects by Richard Howell and a soundscape by Max Pappenheim. I haven’t seen any of director Anna Ledwich’s work before but I was really impressed by this. John is a big role and the character has an extraordinary journey and Sean Delaney, a 2015 RADA graduate, is stunning. Tom Weston Jones is outstanding as Charlie, as is Martin McDougall as Howard and Philip Bird as John’s dad Frank.

It owes something to Enron in terms of subject and style, but it’s its own thing, telling a different story brilliantly. I much admired Beth Steel’s previous play Wonderland, about the miners strike, but this couldn’t be more different, and it confirms her as an exciting new playwriting talent. A must see, and a candidate for Best New Play. What are you doing reading this when you should be booking tickets?!

 

A very early revival for this 2014 show, a new smaller scale actor-musician production, is showing at the nearest producing theatre to the Ford Dagenham plant, just five miles away. You could hear and feel the connection the audience made with the story. I’d loved the show in the West End and couldn’t resist seeing it again. One of my better decisions as it turns out; it’s an excellent production. 

The 1968 strike by the Dagenham machinists started as a dispute about down-grading through job evaluation but became a key moment in the campaign for equal pay, a battle which in truth continues to this day. They had to win over their own union reps, their male colleagues (many their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers) and the TUC before the government would intervene. It’s largely told through Rita, their unlikely and reluctant leader, whose relationship with her husband Eddie comes under great strain. She finds an unlikely ally in the Ford site manager’s posh wife and a powerful enemy in the parent company’s hit man (who seemed very Trump-like last night!).

The show works well because it presents us with important social history in a very entertaining way. Richard Bean’s book and Richard Thomas’ lyrics are very funny and very authentic. As Mark Shenton says in his programme note, there have been a few of musicals revolving around strikes – Billy Elliott, The Pajama Game, The Cradle Will Rock – but surely this is the funniest and the edgiest. I will forever be puzzled why it had such a mixed reception and a ridiculously short life in the West End, as this lovely revival reminds me.

The musical standards are very high with 20 of the 21 cast contributing instrumentation. Daniella Bowen and Alex Tomkins were excellent as Rita and Eddie O’Grady. Foul-mouthed Beryl is a peach of a part and Angela Bain was terrific. The always wonderful Claire Machin made a great job of Barbara Castle, clearly relishing the role. The rest of the ensemble, half of them doubling or tripling, was first class. I don’t think I’ve seen the work of director Douglas Rintoul, the Queens newly appointed AD, but on this showing I’d very much like to see more.

The show was 45 minutes shorter than my round-trip to Hornchurch, but it was well worth going. Head East, folks.

Britten in Brooklyn

This play is about the period during the first half of the Second World War when Benjamin Britten was in exile in New York City, staying with his friend W H Auden in a sort of up-market arty commune in a Brooklyn brownstone, with the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar as their mentor.  Gypsy Rose Lee and novelist Carson McCullers also stayed there, and people like Picasso and Dali regularly dropped in. The parties were renowned and the lifestyle hedonistic. During their time there, Britten and Auden wrote the ground-breaking but poorly received American folk operetta Paul Bunyan. Playwright Zoe Lewis and director Oli Rose have turned this fascinating situation into a deeply dull play.

It starts with a flash forward to Britten’s tribunal (on his return) as a conscientious objector. Much is made, in flashbacks, of his mother’s recent death. A British Naval Officer comes to make the British exiles situation clear, though on what authority, in a foreign land, is unclear. Other than that, it’s mostly dull conversations, excessive drinking and the on-off lesbian relationship between Lee & McCullers. It doesn’t really go anywhere and the journey is very dull. 

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to convey such an interesting situation with just four main characters. The absence of Britten’s partner Peter Pears in particular is mystifying; they were virtually inseparable. The characters are merely sketched and both the structure and dialogue are weak. Ryan Sampson and John Hollingsworth do the best they can with the material they’re given to create Britten and Auden respectively. Ruby Bentall tries too hard and seems uncomfortable conveying McCullers masculinity. Sadie Frost doesn’t really act, she poses.

A big disappointment.