Moscow State Circus – Southsea, 24th May to 4th June 2017

Over the years I have come to realise that there are only three true art forms. These are Punch and Judy, pantomime and circus. Of these, the greatest is whichever I have most recently seen.

That said, Gostinitsa, the Hotel of Curiosities, currently showing on Southsea Common from the Moscow State Circus, is one of the most accomplished circus offers I have ever seen here – and I have seen many, many circuses over the years.

From the opening tableau, in which the performers arrive at the hotel and intrigue the audience with the promise of what’s to come conveyed with smiles, greasepaint and outlandish costumes, there is something eccentric, self-contained and artistically integral throughout. This is circus and Vaudeville and fantasy rolled into one heady mix.

Let’s start with those costumes. From steampunk kids to 1920s flappers, through comedy bellboys and Cossack bandits, to otherworldly tightrope walkers the colour of living air, there is something so perfect in the visual design that the aesthetic of the show actually at moments took my breath away.

Add to this perfect timing and extraordinary assuredness in the acts and the fact that each act brings with it a genuine surprise and you realise you are watching a show that is truly world class.  From skipping routine to highwire act, the show has an extraordinary energy and something way beyond that…

Many years ago, I realised that if I had my life again, I wouldn’t have wasted it in intellectual pursuits, but would instead make dreams happen, help embody the impossible and cause people to gasp at the potential in human beings. The hard work may not have suited me, I suppose, and may well have wrecked me – but it might also have been something that was an all-consuming passion that made my life whole. That is how it feels when I stand on the outside looking in. I am in love with the circus.

Whether that daydream is true or not, I will never know, of course. But when I watch shows the quality of Gostinitsa, I feel like I have opened a curtain not just on another way of life, but on a whole other world, an Oz, a Narnia, in which the normal rules of physics don’t apply any more.

I have often wept at the beauty of circuses. Tonight, the tightness came to my throat again – and for what? The sheer joy of seeing the absolute cream of acrobatic performers weave a dream before me.

I recommend this show with all my heart, and hope you get the same joyous, anarchic, erotic, crazy hit from it I do. Gostinitsa is a dream come to life.

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7 Random Reasons Why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Rocks

So, as a childhood Marvel and DC comics fan, over the last decade or so I’ve taken great delight in the fact that CGI in movies has progressed so far that you don’t actually have to suspend disbelief. I remember seeing the back projection outline when people were thrown off buildings, or the strings when The Invisible Man lifted things up. No wonder they didn’t make that many superhero movies back then. At least not convincing ones.

That it’s all possible to do seamlessly is old news, and the only thing that now holds writers and filmmakers back is their imagination and budget.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has both in full measure. Here are 7 things picked at random as to why it rocks:

1) Little Groot. Okay, so it’s a merchandiser’s dream, but supercute Groot is joyous to behold, with his big eyes, his innocence and joyful naivety, there is so much potential for the bundle of laughs here. He’s the wide-eyed fool, and he’s hilarious.

2) That opening sequence that subverts the heroic form sets the tone. The show starts with the Guardians protecting some super-duper batteries for a race of gold skinned Sovereign aliens from an interdimensional monster made entirely of teeth, blubber and super-thick skin. But instead of doing the usual thing and focusing on the fight, it focuses on Little Groot’s dance routine. The juxtaposition is hilarious.

3) Drax’s one-liners. Boy oh boy, the writing team have really gone out of their ways to work up the characters for best comic effect. Drax, the alien who doesn’t understand metaphor goes through the show offending, irritating and genuinely making comedy gold. The deadpan delivery adds to the effect. I haven’t been in a cinema for a long time in which the audience is howling with laughter. Drax does it.

4) Rocket, the trickster. Rocket the Raccoon (“I’m not a Raccoon!”) is as super-sneaky, clever and selfish as ever, but now you start to see his “human” side. For a writer, this archetype is a gift. He’s straight out of Carl Jung, and he adds an element of chaos to the whole show. The script, indeed, the whole story arc, starts with one transgression from him – but he’s not all selfishness, as later events show. He intrigues and delights and builds wonderful empathy.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..Nebula (Karen Gillan)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

5) Nebula. Ok, I’m going to make an admission. I got through the entire first Guardians without clocking that the blue-faced semi-robot alien with a psychotic streak was none other than Dr Who’s Amy Pond, aka Karen Gillan. It was only when the name jumped out at me on the credits that I clicked – and even then, I thought “Ah, maybe there’s a different actor with the same name, in the US”. Her American accent is pitch perfect, but more impressively, her angry, downtrodden, rage-filled character has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Amy Pond. I genuinely wouldn’t have picked these two characters out as the same person. That is a tribute not only to the make-up team, but to Gillan’s skill in acting.

6) The visuals are sumptuous (as the picture above attests). There are so many visual delights in this show, it’s difficult to know where to start. Apart from the extraordinarily lifelike cgi, which means you genuinely think you’re watching interactions with real talking trees and real talking raccoons, the part where the designers let themselves go is fabulous. That is on the planet Ego, in which we are treated to a massive vista of impossible things that are beautiful and straight out of dreams. From wonderful colour-popping bubbles that greet them as they leave the spaceship, through the incredible animated fountain to the sumptuously designed interiors of the palace, everything is designed to a “T”. This show should win awards simply for visualisation.

7) The plot is both taut and hilarious. It’s a fine balancing act to get a genuine sense of comedy in a script balanced against a driving plot. If you watch many tv comedy shows, you’ll see that the plot is paper thin, while the comedy simply comes from the characters rubbing together. This has both. Add in the asides with Stan Lee (which are outside the plot for sure) and the extra elements that feed in to future episodes, and it is a work of brilliance.

So, there it is. Needless to say, I’m going back to watch it again with a friend of mine who writes comic books. Discussions after that should be joyous!

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Not Waving But Drowning at the King’s Bar Loft, April 27th

I recently had the privilege of compering a night of Film Poetry Performance at the King’s Bar Loft, Albert Road, on April 27th. It was a fascinating night that showcased some extraordinary talent from Portsmouth and further afield. And it was an event, with wonderful projections provided by Dr Lighthouse and some great decor that gave the whole bar an unusual feel – as if we were descending into the dark depths.

The first act up was Elephant’s Footprint, a duo from Bristol, who gave a talk on Poetry Film and showcased one of their works. Poetry Film is pretty much what the label says – it can be a film with the poem integral to it, or, to give a frisson of live performance, the poet can deliver the poem on the night.

Next came Isabelle Bilton with a diary of an anorexic, and the night took an even darker turn with Jidos Reality performing a disturbing story of a psychopath, called The Hangman’s Many Souls. The first half was rounded of by Maggie Sawkins reading Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and then showing some of her short films from her award-winning show about addiction, Zones of Avoidance.

So, a sombre first half.

The second half took us into the light, with a crazy, eccentric and ear shattering performance by The Vulture Is A Patient Bird, that lampooned corporate speak with a wicked touch. Next came Richard Williams reading a poem to Jenna Lions’s accompanying film – the change of pace to something gentle being much needed after the frenetic energy of the opening. Craig Maskell had us all laughing out loud with his hilarious Laurie Anderson style loops and auto-tune antics, while he played along to a series of Lego animations. One could feel the mood in the room shifting upwards. Next came Elephant’s Footprint again, with some really uplifting and interesting poetry film from around the world.

Finally, Matt Parsons performed a hilarious and clever piece in which an uppity computer took issue with his nostalgic view of the decline of Shipbuilding in Portsmouth.

The night was organised by Johnny Sackett, whose Front Room happenings at Aurora and Hunter Gatherer showcase some extraordinary talent from near and far, with visuals provided by Dr Lighthouse and sound by Ken Devine.

It was a special night indeed, and two phrases have stayed with me:

1) Why are you dressed like Arthur Askey?

and

2) We’re all in this together.

If you were there, you’ll know why!

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The Snow Witch – Designing the Cover

Following on from my previous blog about using old pictures to illustrate your book, I finally came to designing the cover.

I’ve had various ideas for the cover for a while. A friend of mine is a model and I at first considered adapting a photograph of her, as follows:

Esme Shard, photograph (c) 2014 Steve Chatterton, SJC Photogpraphy www.chattertonphotography.co.uk

I finally came up with this.

However, I wasn’t convinced by this, and felt the image was in some way cluttered. What’s more, with the illustrations inside the book now decided upon, I wanted some drawn artwork.

I went back to the Bible I had been using earlier, but the Witch of Endor was portrayed as an old hag, not the young woman in my story.

So, back to the book collection, which includes a thick, heavy volume from 1894 called “PEN DRAWING AND PEN DRAUGHTSMEN: THEIR WORK AND THEIR METHODS A STUDY OF THE ART TO-DAY WITH TECHNICAL SUGGESTIONS”.

Leafing through the images, I found this:

The figure of the woman, drawn by A Montalti, was perfect, though there was a lot of image around her to lose.

Eventually, I got to this.

Still stark, I thought.

After some experiments with colour, I came to this:

This is the one. Subtle, mysterious and eyecatching. I now have my cover!

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The Snow Witch – finding those illustrations

Some of you may know that a little while ago I completed writing a novel called “The Snow Witch”. I’m currently in the throes of laying it out, and have been hoping to get some illustrations to head up each part of the book.

I was at something of a loss. The story is allegorical, quite beautiful (I think, anyway!) and tells the story of a young woman who comes from a mystery tradition separate from Judaeo-Christianity, and yet connected to it.

One of my other jobs is dealing in rare books. About 15 years ago I bought a pair of stunning, extremely heavy 18th Century volumes filled with luscious copperplate engravings. Last night, I decided to dig those books out from my collection. And, well, I think I have what I want.

Here are the images I’ve chosen.

This is for Part 1 – this section includes reminiscences of the central character’s childhood, in which she was trained in in herblore by her mother.

Part 2 includes a section in which a wild wolf runs loose. This image seemed appropriate:

Part 3 comes to the crux of the story, and includes a narrative about the ancient archetype Lilith, who in Jewish mythology was Adam’s first wife before the unfortunate Eve. This seemed perfect:

Finally, we have an Epilogue. The image of the Phoenix from the bible seemed appropriate enough!

Scanning the 250 year 0ld images has been quite an education. Only once you start to manipulate the image and blow it up, do you see the extraordinary detail of the original craftsman, who scratched the image in reverse on to a copper plate with a steel stylus. The physical strength, endurance and patience it took is humbling for a 21st Century man who often ends up cursing Adobe Photoshop.

We sit on the shoulders of giants.

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Jessica Alba – how little did I know?

One of the things the series of biographic articles I’ve written for The Best You magazine has done for me is make me see famous people in more depth. The most recent article was about Jessica Alba, the actress who plays the Invisible Woman in the dismal Fantastic Four series of movies, and a stripper in Sin City.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed. But it also turns out that she is the founder and brains behind The Honest Company, essentially an American version of The Body Shop, which in under 5 years has risen to a valuation of $1.7 billion from start-up.
She runs the company ethically, has an emphasis on employing the young, often straight out of college, and is involved in numerous charities involved in promoting and lobbying for safe and ethical household chemicals. In the US, the FDA has banned only around 12 chemicals for use in the home, whereas the EU has banned around 1300.

She herself suffered terrible allergies as a child… and when she fell pregnant realised that one of the “child safe” detergents she was recommended by her mother brought her out in a serious rash. That was when the penny dropped. And so she has thrown herself into her role as founder and CEO of a massive ethical business.

These revelations surprise me and make me reassess the woman I see on the screen. As Sue Storm, she is mediocre, in a mediocre movie. But this other side to her makes me realise the limits of my own judgements of people. How little we know.

So, this brief note is in praise of the real Jessica Alba. Thank you for your work.

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That Article 50 Letter In Full

That Article 50 Letter In Full.

Dear Europe, I thought I’d write a quick line
to say it was good fun, thanks for the stay,
the visit was lovely, but we’re off, today
so please – no more garlic, snails and fine wine.
About the war. When I said “thanks” are nice
– and you said “the EU is the thank you” –
how come? Strangers telling us what to do
is wrong… though, yes, the Empire was quite nice.
Brexit means Brexit, a red white and blue
one, let’s salute the flag, coz now we’re free
to climb into bed with Uncle Sam. See:
foreigners can’t shaft us! – Britannia rules!
So goodbye, toodle pip, we’ve seen the light,
who needs Puccini when we’ve got Marmite?

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Lyonesse – A Sonnet

Lyonesse

I was wrong about the blind right, thinking
them haters and racists. No, some believe
all will be well – we’ll have perpetual spring
– a world full of golden light. How naïve!
Though in some ways a relief, it is sad
to see these creatures crow about their mess
cheerily marching forward waving flags
to the sunny uplands of Lyonesse.
I wonder when they see our destiny’s
much more mundane, will they say “I was wrong” –
or “foreigners wrecked our identity” –
that wartime complaint that goes on and on?
And me, what to do? Should I pack my trunk?
– Get out of this country before it’s sunk?

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The Power of Stupid

“The Power of Stupid”

Have you seen the latest? Shocking! she says,
lifting a copy of the Daily Mail,
that collection of British fairytales
from the fifties, when darkies knew their place.
Did you see that old sod Junckers, saying
there’ll be a cost to Brexit. Excuse me!
Cheeky bastard! Over my dead body!
We’ll walk right out, we’re not bloody paying!
Oooh, Trump, I like his conviction! Classy!
just look at how he held Theresa’s hand –
that proves it – really, he’s a gentleman
– if she thinks he’s all right, then he must be.
Thus politics shrinks to banality
when dupes idolize personality.

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Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

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