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Posts Tagged ‘Olivier Theatre’

I was wondering, not for the first time, why Shakespeare chose this title for his play. It seemed to me dismissive of the piece. Then I found out ‘nothing’ was a play on words with ‘noting’ meaning gossip, rumour, overheard discourse in Shakespeare’s day, which is of course the crux of the play. I was also wondering why it’s so long since I saw it last, fifteen years I think, in the Olivier with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker. I loved that production as I did this one in the Lyttelton by Simon Godwin.

They’ve chosen to set on the Italian Riviera in the Hotel Messina c.1920’s, which allows set designer Anna Fleischle and costume designer Evie Gurney to produce something visually sumptuous and gorgeous. I’d have been happy just looking at it. They’ve added music, with a live band playing in the style of the period from an upper balcony of the hotel. I don’t know the play well enough to know if it has been cut, but with the addition of music and dancing, coming in at 2.5 hours suggests it has.

Don Pedro and his soldiers have returned from the war, settling in at the hotel run by Leonato & Antonia. Claudio falls for their daughter Hero and the whirlwind romance leads to a wedding in next to no time, but enough time for Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John to spread rumours about Hero’s purity, resulting in her being dumped at the alter. The hilarity and jollity increases the gravity of this story and the malevolence of Don John’s plotting. In another plot, Antonia’s niece Beatrice and returning soldier Benedict continue their sniping, whilst ideas are planted in their respective heads that the other really loves them. In this production, their sniping seems more inferred than expressed (cuts?). Of course, it all ends happily.

Katherine Parkinson makes a fine Beatrice whilst John Heffernan, an unsung stage hero, gives a superb comic performance that makes Benedict a perfect match for her. Here, the relationship comes over more loving than spiky from the outset. Ashley Zhangazha has great presence as Don Pedro and there are delightful comic turns from David Fynn as a brilliant Dogberry and Phoebe Horn as Margaret the maid (a professional stage debut no less). I have to confess I was baffled by the decision to play Claudio with some sort of urban street dialect.

It worked brilliantly as a comedy, yet it brought out the underlying impact of gossip and rumour, which can be tragic (Hero & Claudio) or positive (Beatrice & Benedict). Another summer treat at the NT.

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I studied Sheridan’s The Rivals for something called ‘O level’ English Literature a lifetime ago. It was one of the first plays I ever saw, in a local school production. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since, and it’s one of only a few 18th Century comedies that is still regularly produced today, so there have been a number of opportunities to reacquaint myself with it, all of which I’ve enjoyed. The best was on the same stage as this, the NT’s Olivier, 39 years ago, where designer John Gunter built Bath’s Royal Crescent, individual houses coming out and revolving to reveal a variety of interiors, and Sir Michael Hordern getting more laughs just eating a boiled egg that many comedies get in a whole act. Then along comes Richard Bean & Oliver Chris to produce an adaptation set in the Second World War, specifically the Battle of Britain. As it is currently customary, it arrives on the NT’s Olivier stage two years later than planned.

Mrs Malaprop’s country estate has been requisitioned as an air base. The rivals in question are vying for the hand of her niece Lydia Languish. Mrs M. is promoting pilot Jack Absolute, whose father Sir Anthony owns a lot of land in Devon, well the whole county actually. Sikh airman Tony Khattri seeks to woo her with his dodgy poetry and Aussie pilot Bob Acres will do anything to win her hand. Lydia is obsessed by Dudley the aircraft mechanic, a bit of northern rough, but Mrs M’s maid Lucy is determined to see her off. The adaptation works brilliantly, bawdier, naughtier and funnier. It’s littered with both verbal and visual gags. I haven’t laughed so much since Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors eleven whole years ago.

There are so many star performances I’m not sure I know where to start. Caroline Quentin relishes every malapropism (the play coined the term) and there are way more than in Sheridan’s original, so many that it’s hard to keep up. Peter Forbes is simply terrific as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who eventually gets his girl too. We know how good Kerry Goddard is at comedy from a string of TV performances, well she’s just as good on stage. Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-at-the-knees turn has the same effect as Michael Hordern’s boiled egg. James Corrigan’s creation of Bob Acres from the outback is an absolute delight. Many of them break the fourth wall regularly to superb comic effect.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of director Emily Burns, who appears to have been learning her craft at the feet of masters like Nicholas Hytner and Simon Godwin. Her production is brilliant, and propels her into the directors premiere league in one move. Designer Mark Thompson fills the Olivier stage with the English countryside and a country house, with a nod to John Gunter (intentional or accidentally) when the interiors come out of the house. There’s even a thrilling dance scene choreographed by Lizzi Gee which gives former Strictly contestant Quentin and winner Kelvin Fletcher (playing mechanic Dudley) an opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is a joy from start to finish. I can’t wait to go back and see it all over again.

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I have to confess I knew next to nothing about the assassination of Gandhi, and not much more about post-war Indian history. What I knew about the partition I learnt from another play, Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line. When I was at school history studies focused on Europe and ended in 1939! So if nothing else, I learnt a lot from this play, and the excellent programme.

Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar chooses to tell the story through the eyes of the assassin, Nathuram Godse, interweaving his early life with key events in Gandhi’s life, plus the politics of colonialism, race and religion. He narrates his story, talking directly to the audience with an irreverence, and with contemporary references. This is audacious, but it works.

None of the interested parties come out of that period of history well, the British too focused on a quick fix and the regional players struggling to compromise. Any solution was going to upset someone and it was inevitable that implementation would be fraught and long. The revelation for me was that the love for Gandhi, the ‘father of the country’ wasn’t universal and it was the detractors who felt he was betraying the Hindu cause that dealt the fatal blow.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production has an organic flow, using the often problematic Olivier stage to great effect, with an impressionistic design by Rajha Shakiry, whose focal point is a giant partly woven cloth. Siddhartha Khosla’s music and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting add atmosphere. It’s a great ensemble of British Asian actors, with Paul Bazely embodying Gandhi and Shubham Saraf a defiant Godse, and a cheeky narrator. Marc Elliott was particularly good as Nehru, independent India’s first leader.

Good to see the NT’s main stage hosting some non-European history for a change, and on an epic scale like this.

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Rufus Norris & Katrina Lindsay have created a new musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which is visually stunning, often funny, gradually getting darker, with a terrific central performance by Rosalie Craig as Fairy. With all the Covid malarky, there’s only two weeks left, so they’ve already announced it’s return next Christmas / New Year, delaying the press night until then.

The King & Queen, Rex and Regina, can’t get their daughter Rose to sleep, so they send their steward Smith into the woods to find a fairy who can put a sleep spell on her. Fairy returns with him but is reluctant because it will require something strong that she doesn’t really do, a hex. She does, however, eventually comply, but loses her powers in the process.

Rose sleeps until she is sixteen, when a kiss from a prince will break the spell. Of the ten contenders, Fairy has brought Ben, the son of reformed ogre Queenie, and he successfully wakes her and takes her away to wedlock and children. A few years later, Fairy decides its time he reconnected with his mother so that she can meet his wife and her grandchildren, but she has reverted to type and it all turns dark, very dark.

It could do with a bit of trimming in the first half. Tanya Ronder’s book doesn’t really live up to Rufus Norris’ lyrics, which are left to carry the weight of the narrative more than the dialogue. Jim Fortune’s score is patchy, at it’s best in the opening and closing song Make It All Good and the two songs for the loser princes’ – One Of These Days and Mine Is The Kiss. It’s lowest point is Sixteen, which is like an X-factor contestant over-singing something from Wicked.

In addition to Rosalie Craig, there are excellent performances from Tamsin Carroll as Queenie and Michael Elcock as Ben and Kat Rooney’s turn as baby Rose was spookily brilliant. It’s full of invention, with the palace and a whole load of wheels and broomsticks hanging above the stage, with superb projections onto these and the characters by Ash J Woodward. Lindsay’s costumes are outstanding, with generic styles and colours for both the loser princes and the thorns. I loved the fact the Olivier revolve has its own manual operator!

There’s much to enjoy and they now have time to deal with its faults. Our first date was cancelled, but I’m glad I rearranged it. Above all, a visual treat.

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It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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I’m fond of a Greek tragedy and welcomed the opportunity to catch this rarely revived one. Kae Tempest has adapted Sophocles 2500-year-old play about warrior Philoctetes, stranded for ten years on an island after a dispute with fellow soldier Odysseus. Neoptolemus, son of Philoctetes’ friend Achilles, now dead, has been sent to bring him back to the war front. Tempest has been faithful to Sophocles in the first part, but makes a significant change to its conclusion, producing an interesting roundedness, if not a faithful retelling.

The Olivier is back in the round and the action takes place in a ‘bear pit’ with the playing area extended to replace the left side stalls and use the ‘shelf’ above the right side stalls. The chorus of nine women seem to be a refugee camp, onstage throughout. Sometimes a chorus seems incongruous in modern adaptations, but here they prove to be a key element of both the story and the staging. It’s a while before we meet our protagonist, out hunting as usual, but we are introduced to Neoptolemus soon after and the story of how Philoctetes got there, and Neoptolemus’ intentions, are revealed.

The arrival of Philoctetes’ nemesis Odysseus, at first hidden from Philoctetes, begins the twist in the tale, and what follows is both a battle over the moral high ground and over Philoctetes fate, with deceit and lies employed by Neoptolemus and Odysseus in an attempt to achieve their objectives. The chorus reveal where their sympathies lie and become involved rather than remain onlookers.

Ian Rickson’s taut, visceral production casts all three warriors as women playing men with Lesley Sharp, Gloria Obianyo and Anastasia Hille all investing their characters with deep passion and determination. All nine chorus members are terrific, both when reacting as one and when standing out individually. Rae Smith’s evocative design and Mark Henderson’s brilliant lighting create a compelling setting for this war of words.

A show which fits the Olivier perfectly, brilliantly staged and designed, with a fine set of performances. Proper drama.

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I haven’t really got back into the swing of blogging theatre yet. I’ve already seen 10 shows (one twice) but have only blogged one, the actor-less Flight at the Bridge Theatre, so I thought I’d catch up. I have an interest in three of the rest, so I’ll just cover the remaining six, in one blog.

Call Mr. Robeson – Greenwich Theatre

It was almost three weeks after Flight, the actor-less one, before this one-man show, for one night only. I have to confess that even though I knew who Paul Robeson was, and was well aware of his historical significance, I didn’t know much about the man and his life. Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and plays Robeson, redressed that with a 90-minute whistle-stop biography with songs, accompanied by Roland Perrin. The vocals were sometimes shaky, and barely audible in the lower register – it was his first live performance for over a year – but it was a comprehensive and captivating biography of a fascinating life.

Out West – Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

It was another two weeks before my next outing, to not one but three one-person plays in one evening, the first of six consecutive days at the theatre. Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student told the story of Gandhi’s period in London qualifying to be a lawyer, his first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of the West. Both the play and Esh Alladi’s performance were utterly charming. In Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, Tom Mothersdale’s Jack grapples with his relationship with his dad, whose racism comes to the surface when he embarks on a mixed race marriage which leads to a mixed race son, in a deeply moving tale. Favourite playwright Roy Williams completed the unrelated trio with Go, Girl, a lovely story of a single mum’s pride in her daughter, beautifully realised by Ayesha Antoine, an uplifting conclusion to the evening. Fine writing and fine performances all round.

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

By now it was time for a stage full of people, a cast of 14 led Michael Sheen, a real favourite of mine, in one of the greatest literary works of my homeland, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It wasn’t written for the stage of course, though I’ve seen it presented successfully as such twice before, once in this very theatre, the National’s Olivier. This version is ‘framed’ by scenes in an old peoples home written by Sian Owen,where Owain Jenkins, a writer, visits his dad, seemingly desperate for reconciliation. The ‘play for voices’ emerges organically as if from the memories of the home’s residents, who play all the characters. I wondered if Owain, who becomes our narrator, was meant to be Thomas. In any event, his words were beautifully spoken by an excellent cast that included Sian Phillips no less, playing three characters.

Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare’s Globe

This was less successful for me (so my search for a definitive R&J continues). Statements and facts about contemporary teenage mental health and suicide puncture the scenes of Shakespeare’s story of the star crossed lovers, underlined in neon above the stage. I felt it was aimed at a young audience, somewhat heavy-handed, and failed to engage me, despite some fine performances. It had its moments, but the choice of Juliet’s mode of despatch was the final straw for me, steering too far from Shakespeare for my liking. The ‘greatest love story ever told’ becomes a contemporary lecture on mental health.

Bach & Sons – Bridge Theatre

Nina Raine’s play focuses on Johann Sebastian’s family more than his music, as the title suggests, and in particular on the two sons who followed in his footsteps (of the 20 children he had with his two wives, only 10 of whom survived into adulthood). His favourite, Wilhelm, is a drunkard who lives with, and off, his dad. His younger brother Carl ends up working as a musician for Frederick the Great, with whom his relationship is somewhat ambiguous. A scene where JS visits Frederick only to be humiliated by him and his son for his obsession with counterpoint is the only time we see Bach away from home. Simon Russell Beale is perfect for the part and I enjoyed the play, though it was a bit slow and dark (lighting wise) in the first half. I felt it needed more than the 7 characters and more (live) music to animate it, in an Amadeus way, but Covid no doubt put paid to that.

Last Abbott of Reading – Reading Abbey Ruins

An outdoor treat from Rabble Theatre amidst the ruins of the abbey on the 900th anniversary of its founding. Staged very effectively in-the-round, it tells the story of Abbott Hugh Faringdon’s rise from nowhere to become a key religious figure and friend of Henry VIII, until the king, under Cromwell’s influence, closes the Abbey and has Hugh murdered. The Abbott’s mother Alice acts as a narrator, a device which worked really well. The costumes were excellent, the space atmospheric, the performances very good indeed; Beth Flintoff’s play was excellent storytelling. Well worth a trip to Reading.

It’s good to be back, and all venues took safety seriously and organised things well, but I can’t wait to be maskless, for me the one deterrent left to true enjoyment of theatre.

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Though it’s still set in the 50’s, but relocated to the US, the moral message of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play seem very now. Though it’s a long evening, I really enjoyed it.

The North Eastern US town of Slurry is down on its luck. Factories have closed, jobs are hard to get and no-one has money to spend, but the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, is about to return home, and expectations are high. She has a track record of philanthropy, traveling the world scattering money as she goes. She also seems to collects husbands along the way. Trains no longer stop at Slurry, but she makes sure hers does.

It isn’t long before she offers an extraordinary sum – one billion dollars – to the town and its people, but there are conditions. People start spending, running up credit with willing retailers, and the town makes expensive plans. There’s a sense of anticipation, even though the price would be very high indeed, particularly for her old flame Alfred. Finally a meeting is called where the residents will vote on whether to accept the money, and therefore accept and implement her demands. Claire looks on, in control, vengeance on her mind.

Director Jeremy Herrin has resources only the NT could provide – a cast of twenty-eight, five musicians, a choir, children and supernumeraries. Designer Vicki Mortimer conjures up a railway station, town hall, shops, homes and a forest, with excellent period costumes by Moritz Junge and superb lighting from Paule Constable. Paul Englishby’s jazz infused score adds much to the period feel and atmosphere.

Hugo Weaving is superb as Alfred, with a huge physical presence and a pitch perfect vocal tone and accent. Lesley Manville plays Claire brilliantly, ice cool, determined, vindictive and unforgiving. They are surrounded by a terrific ensemble that includes luxury casting like Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, Sara Kestelman as the school principal and Joseph Mydell as the church minister.

They seem to have cut it considerably during previews, but it’s still too long at 3.5 hours, albeit with two intervals. That said, it’s a wonderful production which in my view has to be seen. The story of a town that sells its soul to the devil in a Faustian pact with the richest woman in the world proves timeless. As it is, was and forever will be, there’s nothing people won’t do for money.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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It seems to me that adapting Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels for the stage is hugely ambitious, not that I’ve read them, and though there’s much to enjoy in Melly Stills’ terrific production of April De Angelis’ adaptation, it didn’t quite come off for me.

It has an epic span of sixty years, with forty-six characters, combining the personal story of two women with the concurrent history of a city and the socio-political history of a country. Lenu and Lila are working class Naples girls, who we first meet when they are eight as they become best friends. Their lives diverge when Lila’s very traditional parents force her to leave school, whilst Lenu continues at school, then becomes one of the first in their neighbourhood to go to University.

Lenu moves into academia and becomes a writer, marries a professor, moves to Florence and has two children, but struggles to remain a successful author. Feisty Lila is much more of a rebel and leaves her marriage to ‘the boy next door’, a puppet of gangsters, for a rather wild life that starts with factory work but leads her to fighting for workers and women’s rights and brushes with terrorists and gangsters before she marries a local boy again and sets up a business. Their lives converge again when Lenu leaves her husband for a old flame, returning to Naples.

They’ve captured the edginess of Naples very well and Soutra Gilmor’s set of four movable steps with projections, shadows and silhouettes is impressionistic and very evocative. There’s so much story that it is inevitably episodic, but the staging is very inventive, using every trick in the book, including puppetry and stylised movement; the fights, riots, killings and an earthquake (!) are particularly well staged, some gruesomely. You have to keep your wits about you to keep up, though, as it occasionally fails to signpost something that can derail you. An excellent cast of twenty-three actors play all forty-six roles, led by Niamh Cusack as Lenu and Catherine McCormack as Lila.

I admired the production and performances more than I liked the storytelling. I’m not sure they could have done a better job, except perhaps lengthening it and turning it from two parts into three. I’m glad I went, though. I admired the ambition and the inventiveness.

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