Smelling a Rat – Grange Players, Walsall



Playwright  Mike Leigh is best known for the television production of his play “ Abigail’s Party” and the film “Secrets and Lies”. His oeuvre is of making an art form out of the ordinary, ordinary conversations from ordinary people, and creating something extraordinary from them.

“Smelling a Rat” is not one of the better known of Leigh’s pieces and the decision to stage it almost thirty years after its 1988 debut was bold and brave by Director David Stone.

A five hander, the cast comprises Rex Weasel, owner of the Vermination Pest Control in whose flat events unfold, his employees Vic and Charmane Weasel, and his estranged son, Rock and his girlfriend  Melanie -Jane.

A single bedroom set painfully accurate in its depiction of a gauche, expensive apartment neatly offers the doors essential to farce via wardrobe doors, the musical overture of “Rat in the Kitchen” neatly captures the spirit of the age, and the play.

Rarely have I heard an audience as stirred, and divided, by a play as I did on Monday night. Some hated it, dismissing it as lightweight nonsense, others defended its surreal use of language and satire of English customs.


Liz Webster ( Charmane), Rod Bissett ( Vic) and David Waller ( Rex) engage in a little pillow talk.


Weasel, confidently played by David Weller, is a neurotic failed husband and failed father, good at bedroom putting, hopeless as a parent to his son, Rock. Rod Bissett’s Vic is energetic, dynamic, streetwise, wise cracking and happy go lucky, Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” with a fit bird. Opposite him, Liz Webster as his wife, is a joy, mouthy, tipsy, and a specialist in saying a lot of not very much. For much of the production, emotionally damaged Rock, the brooding Sam Evans, stares as blankly as some members of the audience stared back. Repressed Melanie-Jane, played by Rachel Homes, spends much of her time either locked away in the bathroom, or unleashing her sexual frustrations on her boyfriend. All the characters share a struggle to express inexpressible feelings. Their words are important, but rarely enough. They evade, they hide rather than properly communicate.

The cast is excellent, the direction adroit, the material teeters on simply being banal, rather than banal to illustrate a point. Weasel’s gun seems like a forced device to inject dramatic tension rather than a bona fide plot development.

The device of one bedroom, five characters and six wardrobes is set up to taunt the audience into expecting something that never happens. Everybody keeps their clothes on, the doors stay shut tight, there is no reveal, no shock denouement. Unsurprisingly this is not to everyone’s taste. Aficionados of Leigh’s work will leave satisfied, fulfilled, and intrigued, casual theatre goers less so. a production and play which polarises opinion – Mike Leigh would approve.

“Smelling a Rat” runs until 24th September.

PS. How I would have loved it if, when Rod hides in a wardrobe, Rex had wandered round to the soundtrack of Department S performing “Is Vic there?”

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BBC Bowie at the Proms


John Cale (skirt) and Andre Rider (bow) mid concert

I was, and am, a huge David Bowie fan. I caught the sound of  Mick Ronson ’s guitar solo on “Moonage Daydream” drifting from my friend’s bedroom window in the summer of 73, had to find out who it was, and was hooked. Subsequently I have acquired pretty much everything he recorded.

Bowie’s recorded output spans six decades, that is a lot of chunks of teenage years. I am always struck how fandom can take different forms depending on the age the fan was when the music was first heard, and what stage of career was accessed. For me Bowie WAS Ziggy when I discovered him, Hunky Dory seemed a bit of a patchwork, The Man Who Sold The World was  inaccessible, Space Oddity, apart from the title track, was lightweight, and the Deram Years could have been recorded by another artist. How those assessments have changed over the years!

Immediately after an artist’s death hyperbole is in overdrive. Inevitably some assessments are overblown. Everything he touched did not turn to gold. The 70’s were an astonishing blast of diverse musical delight. “Let’s Dance” was a commercial cross over monster which broadened his appeal, but blunted his critical edge. Beyond that his output was patchy, some strong songs and albums  (Thursdays Child, Heathen), a lot of ordinariness. Live, his shows reflected that. Patches of brilliance counterbalanced by moments of odd curiosity. That was Bowie. He liked to unsettle and provide the unexpected.

When I heard that the BBC proms were featuring a concert of his music I was delighted. His songs are strong. They bear reinterpretation, and re-evaluation. An orchestra was the ideal mechanism to deconstruct, and reconstruct. We were not being offered a greatest hits concert, nor a host of stars to cover them. Listen to Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” and Bowie’s cover. Listen to “China Girl” on “The Idiot” juxtaposed with the “Let’s Dance” version. That revisiting was the spirit of this prom.

So how did it go?

Warszawa – already an instrumental, quasi instrumental piece, a safe, and pretty faithful to the original opening. As a first bite of the sandwich it offered a satisfying taste.

Station to Station– the staccato first movement worked very well, the rock out second movement less so, its exuberance lost. Neil Hannon sang well, but could not inject the energy required to lift it. “Drink, drink raise your glass raise your glass high” he exhorted, as if to someone who on their ninetieth birthday was already having a snooze.

The Man Who Sold The World – Connor O’Brien sang beautifully and sensitively  to a familiar accompaniment, perhaps a little twee, stripped of menace.

This is not America – Neil Hannon was strangely tentative against an arrangement which was simply slowed down. Not one of Bowie’s finest – why?

Life on Mars – this should have marked lift off point for the evening. Instead it was a car crash. Marc Almond is a fine singer who sings Bowie well. But the arrangement was awful, Almonds singing was hesitant and uncertain with some of the early lyrics, as the changed timing tripped him , and some of the orchestra, up. Despite Marc’s big finishes, nothing could save it. It was as if he had strapped on a musical suicide vest and conductor Andre Ridder detonated it onstage.

Lady Grinning Soul – from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Calvi Bischoff sang a dramatically rearranged reading, less the Spanish guitar, but with fluttering strings and woodwind, driving the song to a thunderous climax. The highlight of the night.


Ashes to Ashes – a beautiful arrangement, pleasingly sung by Paul Buchanan, but stripped of all of its melancholia.

Fame – Laura Mvula provided a spirited and jaunty version.

Girl Loves Me, I Cant Give Everything Away, Blackstar– a trilogy from Bowie’s last album. Competent enough, but the songs are too recent to breathe new life into.

 Heroes  – Amanda Palmer struggled with a re-arrangement, bereft of romance, which the audience desperately wanted to join in with. A strong string refrain gave the song the tempo of an Irish Jig. Worthy. Odd.

   Always Crashing in the same car – Astonishing reimagining  with Classical soprano Philippe Jarousski. Very left field.

Starman – with Marc Almond again. A better arrangement, and performance from Marc, but again arranged in a slow tempo which prevented the sing a long everyone wanted.

Rebel Rebel– unrecognisable instrumental

Valentine’s Day/ Sorrow/ Space Oddity – John Cale, odd obviously. Valentines day was a bit routine with touches of Roxy Music’s “Chance Meeting”, Sorrow, a cover anyway, was unnecessary while being enjoyable in the style of Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up”. Space Oddity was mad, and great fun, a vamped up dirge, I loved it. Amanda Palmer bringing on her toddler for the finale past midnight was bizarre- everyone silently yelled” That child should be in bed”.

Let’s Dance – instrumental outro, lots of fun, generating the first real sing a long. The only time the audience really had fun, rather than enjoyment.

In summary, a stimulating, worthy and worthwhile exercise with a fair few hits ( Lady Grinning Soul) a few turkeys ( Life on Mars) and some glorious oddities ( Always Crashing and Space Oddity). The night never really took off, but neither did it fail, a one off, worth doing, always engaging, never boring.


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Top Twenty Symphonies


My relationship with classical music has been erratic. As a young child I was aware of the textural glories of the sound, but the burgeoning, accessible, immediate pop sounds all around me resulted in my abandoning any interest. As adulthood progressed into impending approaching old age, with children grown up, time, tolerance, and an inquisitive taste, I had cause  to reassess, with the inevitable delights that has brought. My only test of music now is, “Is it any good”? Tribal loyalties long since abandoned. I also became aware of how many pop favourites were lifted from the classics. Compare Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no 2, Adagio Sostenuto with Eric Carmen’s power ballad “All By Myself”.

I am awful at remembering my favourites. So here follows my  twenty symphonic favourites, in no particular order. The Germans, as well as being good at football also seem to be good at this classical stuff too.

Dvorjak- new world

Shostakovich – Leningrad

Prokofiev – Fifth

Beethoven – no 3

Beethoven – 9th

Mozart – 41st

Mahler- No 9

Mahler -No 2

Brahms No 4

Berlioz- Fantastique

Brahms -1st

Mahler -3rd

Tchaikovsky -6th

Elgar – 2nd

Sibelius- 2nd

Stravinsky- Symphony of Psalms

Shostakovich – 5th

Rachmaninov -2nd

Mozart -40th

Bruckner -5th

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Inspirational Writing Workshop – Longton Church



I have run writing and poetry workshops in a wide variety of venues to a wide variety of audiences, including children,  prisoners, and pensioners, to the committed, and curious. This was my first workshop at Longton, it was open to Church members, and those who had never visited the Church before. People with Faith often enjoy the language of scripture, the lyrics of songs and hymns. Yet the nature of Faith is intensely personal, and is rarely bounded by a belief in a single religious group. Expressing ourselves, rather than just absorbing teaching, can be a liberating experience.

The group that assembled for the day was enthusiastic and attentive. As the day wore on their latent talents emerged and shone. My method was simple. Engage everyone in a discussion about the possibilities of poetry and writing, enthuse and inspire with a rhyming and word association exercise, and then put what had been gleaned to the test by listening to a guided meditation by co-workshop leader Jane Osborne, and then writing about it.

In the afternoon we had fun, and surprised ourselves, with list poems, then explored two short poetic forms, Haikus, and Cinquaines. The former is a traditional three line Japanese form with nature its usual milieu, the latter a five line form, useful for nature and place, created by American writer Adelaide Crapsey in the early 20th century.

Haiku  are short poems that use sensory language to capture a feeling or image. They are often inspired by an element of nature, a moment of beauty, or another poignant experience. Haiku poetry was originally developed by Japanese poets, and the form was adopted (and adapted) by virtually every modern language, including English. The secret to writing great haiku is to be observant and appreciate nature. The form is three lines, seventeen syllables, split 5/7/5.

Fan Piece- Ezra Pound

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.


A Cinquain  poem consists of five lines and one topic. Its invention is often attributed to the early 20th-century American poet Adelaide Crapsey.   But Crapsey’s Cinquain is a variation on similar, previous Italian, English, Spanish, and Japanese structures. Those few extra lines and syllables make all the difference, and  Cinquaines on a topic can be linked in multiples, classically as a Cinq Cinquaine. Her form comprises five lines, twenty two syllables, split, 2/4/6/8/2.

Niagra – Adelaide Crapsey

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.


Lichfield– the Lichfield Poets

A cinq cinquaine

Doomed Dominion
Prey to Viking plunder
Loyal to the King in time of War


Fine square
Market Bustle
Martyrs scream for mercy
Punters pause and procrastinate
No sale

Tribute on land
The wand’rer lost at sea
So far from home missed from his hearth

Upon water
Under the world where
Shadows are playing at the art of

Three Spires
Reaching skywards
Grey Stone fingers grasping
The heavens seeking salvation
Kings sleep


Both forms were largely new to the group, but all workshoppers were soon producing multiple examples of a very high standard. It did not matter if the forms were going to be widely used in the future. What did matter is that everyone became aware of what they were, and how they could be used, if needed. They are ideal when time is short, and a writer has a single idea, or emotion, they wish to express.

We then closed the session with another guided meditation from Jane Osborne to inspire further writing.

The objective of any writing workshop is for the participants to write, and write they did, here is a selection of poems by course members during the day, in random order



Jane Osborne


Blossom sings from Rose

Melody measured by love

Mood altering essence



Dewdrops whole and fresh

Before day break’s rise

Sun glow warms heart’s rise



Sense your fear friend

Heart racing, wide eyed, no run

Blacksmith grips the hoof


Rob Stevens


Wedding bells peeling

Vows cut across summer sky

Confetti dissolves



A new silent pond

A second frog springs forwards

Splat! Winter ice.


Fay Smallman

The  silent sun rays

Closed briefly by a shuttered cloud

Once passed, shine again


Nathan Smallman


Belching pottery

How silent under blue sky

Weeds sprout from the bricks




Jane Osborne


The boy

A man to be

More lessons, joy, growth

Boy man


Rob Stevens

For Cathy Grindy


With the whole world

Or the badly parked car

Measures out my humanity

And fails

Paris 1983


and Bateaux Mouche

Red wine with water flows

Leaving two tipsy travellers


Fay Smallman

In to

The sunlit sea

Flies the dark shadow of

A feeding bird, long beak agape

And strikes


Nathan Smallman

Victoria Pot Bank


Morning Chaos

New day starts in earnest

The clatter of the steam engine





List Poems

Jane Osborne

The beating heart, affirming all is well inside, even when outside rains

The breeze, profound, gentle, yet powerful enough to force nature forward.

Jasmine sweetened by the sun

The ugly criticism of others from an insecure voice

Reach within me to allow creativity to flow

Thanks for the love you gave me to grow wise

My son, daughter, mother, father, particles of the universe

Great bear, for presence, silence and wisdom

Victorian ways of structure, culture and fear.


Rob Stevens


The space between heartbeats

Melted butterscotch

Eventual success

A rebellious pen

The tv remote

You here now

The first spring lamb

The birth of two sons

Listen more, talk less.


Fay Smallman


Kaikoura, where the mountains meet the sea

The flutter of a butterfly’s wings’ The scent of a rose

Good choclate

The silky fur of my cat


My mother

A mongrel dog

The day of my wedding

To listen more, work less, enjoy life.


Nathan Smallman

Only place where you can see the wonder of the milky way galaxy on a clear night.

The brush of your feet when walking thro grass covered in morning dew.

Freshly made coffee.

Marmite spread thinly over toast.

A soft silk robe

My light weight bicycle

Sydney harbour


Dawn O Connell

Touch the sky

Touch the trees

Push the trees

Feel the wind

See the path

See the bees

Mother nature, mother earth

The path strewn with bracken and sawdust

Push the trees, feel the trees

Feel the strength, the energy

From the soil feel the earth

Connected, united as one

Black and white, young and old

se before you as life unfolds

Like a new life as it fits into the world



Dawn O Connell – List Poem

In a group  of spiritually minded people

My grandchildren running, playing barefoot

Sweet peas

A banana pancake

Flowers with perfect petals

My knowledge

My son and mum


My 40th birthday

Don’t be so serious- enjoy life

Diane Blundell – List Poem

Clearwater beach when the sun goes down

Wind chimes in the gentle breeze

Rose garden in the summer sun

A fresh fruit smoothie chilled

My family and grandchildren

My notebook and pen

My Dad’s Dad, never met him, lovely man

My dog  Lola

Native America in the last century

Relax and don’t stress about anything

Diane Blundell – Haiku

Radiant light shines

An angel appears in view

Peace knows no limits

Diane Blundell – cinquaine


Appears in view

Shadows steal the skyline

Daisies raise their sleepy heads



Gary Longden

Made here

Pots and porc’lain

Fashioned by nimble hands

Wedgewood found fame amongst the smoke

In Stoke


Bright glare blazed outside

Patio bricks oozing heat

Our Saturday treat


Bob Stanley’s Poems


Home at the end of the day

A baby gently snoring

Rain caressing a lavender plant

My wife’s cooking

My dog curled up on my lap

Nothing – I eagerly await the adventure

The Pope to discuss the futility of his calling


The Elizabethan era

Go   with your dreams- some will come true


Calming chants

Soft disguised colours



No thoughts of the here and now

No space

No time






the still cool calm

of a cold winter’s night

Broken by the hoot of an owl



The old oak tree stump

Rotted, ravaged by weather

Home to creatures small



Is it green, purple

Does it linger

change shape



does it drift in the ether

soar to the heights

fall to the depths




sanity or insanity





unseeing yes

guardian of us all

spirit is

what was- but

Where is your spirit?

Seven Stages of Victorian Pottery Making- Nathan Smallman
The average life expectancy of a Victorian Pottery worker was 46 years.
Poems written in the Cinquaine form
Throwing and Turning
Throw down
Centre the clay
Knuckle up grows taller
Woman on one legged dancer
Moulds filled
Wait for a while
Skin to form, moulds to tip
Sponging and fettling pots on shelf
Kiln fired
Saggar Making
Tap, tap
Knocking, knocking
Roll the jig, cut the clay
Saggar maker’s  bottom knocker
Glaze mixed
Thimbles to dip
Held with finger and thumb
Shake of the arm, swish of the wrist
Colours mixed
With oil of cloves
Squirrel hair cut liner
Lithographs to print and apply
Fired low
Flat cap
Climb the ladder
Saggars stacked, ware inside
Shovel the coal and light the fire
Oven bricked
Ware count
Fill box with straw
Be careful not to chip
Otherwise will end up on tip
No pay!
Victorian Pot Bank
Morning chaos
New day starts in earnest
The clatter of the steam engine
The Water Closet
Garde d’leau
Thomas Tywford
Disease no longer spreads
Through water like the plague of old
Loo flushed
The Potteries Cat
Curled up by bottle oven
Creamy milk lapped up
Belching Pottery
Now silent under blue sky
Weeds sprout from the bricks
©Nathan Smallman


The Bird
The sunlit sea
Dives the dark shadow of
A feeding bird, long beak agape,
And strikes
© Fay Smallman
The Kiln
Curved kiln,
Glowing embers
Conjuring pots from clay,
Magic fire now extinguished and
Grown cold.
© Fay Smallman
Golden heart
Gold heart yours
Gold heart mine
Gold heart for all to shine
Share the love of God divine
And give the love to yours and mine.
© Fay Smallman
The pots workers’ ‘whites’,
Blanched whiter still by clay dust,
Like clouds, now gone by.
© Fay Smallman
The silent sun’s rays
Shuttered briefly by a cloud,
Once passed, shine again.
© Fay Smallman














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Back to Bacharach – Lichfield Garrick Theatre


Jukebox musicals have become increasingly popular in theatres around the country, presented in a variety of guises. Some construct a biographical narrative (Buddy), others a story (Mama Mia), some eschew all peripheral options and go for a straight concert style performance (like Let it Be), the route chosen by the Back to Bacharach company for their presentation of the Burt Bacharach songbook.

Born in 1928, Bacharach  has written over 70 top 40 hits in America, over 50 in the UK,  5 of them No1’s, all of which enjoyed worldwide chart success. The majority of his songs  were written with Hal David. Their trademark sound comprises mellifluous melody, intricate arrangement, intelligent lyrics, a full band including brass and piano, and instantly accessible and memorable songs. So the musical raw materials for a successful show are undoubtedly present, the question was whether they could be performed in a way  that did justice to their heritage.

Wisely, the production values are in the musicians and vocalists. The stage set is concert style, a backdrop projector provides period images of both music and place, the lighting effective but unobtrusive. A big advantage in presenting this show is that the majority of the songs have been successfully covered by several artists obviating the need for any physical or costume impersonation. The musicians are dressed in black and white, the vocalists suitably attired for a night out. As much effort has been put into appearance as for the music.

Lead vocalist and MC for the evening was Martin Neeley, a seasoned West End performer with, amongst others, Les Miserables to his credits. That experience showed, as he skilfully eased the evening along with his charm and patter, sharing with us that Lichfield was the birthplace of his mother, so this was a “back to his roots” show. An assured and versatile singer and performer, his high point of the evening was “24 hours from Tulsa”, vocally powerful, he told the story in a way that Gene Pitney would have admired. We felt your dilemma Martin!

For the women, Rietta Austin anchored proceedings. Her professionalism oozed from every note and move. She smiled, she emoted, she made us feel that she didn’t want to be anywhere else but singing that song with us in that moment. Her astonishing four octave range was on show with her tour de force, “Anyone Who Had A Heart” which deservedly drew the warmest applause of the evening.

Melone M’Kenzy largely took “Dionne Warwick” duties, her statuesque beauty and long evening gown making her an imposing figure. Her enthusiasm was palpable, and best deployed during the terrific “ I  Say A Little Prayer For You” which she sang, and led, impeccably, supported admirably by the other female singers on backing vocals, with the call and response sections immaculately despatched.


Chloe Dupree and Arabella Rodrigo provided backing vocals, and took some leads, shimmying as if their lives depended upon it. Often the role can be mundane. Not with Bacharach’s music. The harmonies are complex, and a vital part of the songs, get them wrong and the lead vocalist will not be happy. Both Chloe and Arabella never missed a note, physically performed each song as though it was their lead, and were an integral part of the success of each song. On their leads, Chloe performed with effervescence and gusto, while Arabella was so hot I feared she might implode into a black hole.

The band, led by pianist David Foster, comprising drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and three piece brass section, were superb, ably complementing the talented vocalists with arrangements which were demanding to perform as well as sing. Credit should also be given to the uncredited sound engineer who had the daunting task of mixing eleven sound sources and balancing them so well, loud enough to stir, soft enough to stroke.

By chance, I had occasion to chat with the production’s Tour Manager Sue Howell pre show, she enthusiastically declared her passion for the production, a passion which was evident from everyone who took the stage. We started with “Magic Moments”, where it all started, cried a little during “Close to You” sang along during “ What’s new Pussycat?” and gave a standing ovation for the ensemble finale of “That’s What Friends Are For”.


The Company Pre-show, from the front Arabella Rodrigo, Chloe Dupree, Martin Neely, Melone M’Kenzy,         David Foster and band. I suspect that Rietta Austin took the photo!


A fabulous night, from a richly talented company, who generously came front of stage at the end to meet and greet. They were greeted without exception with expressions of gratitude for a memorable night. Back to Bacharach tours nationally, dates from their website:


Gary Longden

This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.

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Stornowords – Artizan Cafe, Stornoway

artizan cafe

The Artizan Café, Church Street, home to Stornowords

I have been to, and continue to attend, many poetry events. When I started out, I wanted to read as many of my poems as possible. As time wore on I wanted to listen to as many poems, and poets, as possible. How can you write great poetry without hearing and reading it? On one level, poetry events can be very similar, on another, the mysterious alchemy of place, performer and subject matter make them all unique.


Almost exactly forty years ago, after sitting my O level examinations, I made my first, and until last weekend, only visit to Scotland. With the Schools Hebridean Expedition, I visited Harris for two weeks, under canvas. We stayed at Rhenigidale, before the road went in. By train from London to Inverness. By train again from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, by ferry to Kyleakin, by coach to Uig, by ferry to Tarbert, by coach along the road north to Lewis, and then a seven mile hike along the old postman’s track to Rhenigidale. It would be fair to describe it as some trek, and although it was August, it rained most days. A memorable adventure, my memories of magnificent scenery were tempered by the arduous journey and subsistence camping lifestyle, oh, and the rain.

Almost exactly forty years, and a couple of months ago, I also met Peter Kerr when we both attended the same sixth form in Bedford, England. We soon became friends, with a common interest in the Arts, and pop music in particular.

Sheila and Pete

Headliner Peter Kerr with my late first wife Sheila about thirty years ago


He was the best man at my wedding to my late first wife, and we have stayed in touch, on and off ever since. Latterly, Peter’s interest in the Arts has manifested itself in poetry dominated by the landscape that surrounds him on the islands. My interest in poetry has been shaped more by the seething cauldron of people and opinions that a big city like Birmingham produces.

And so fate drew us together once more. Peter was invited to be the headline poet at the inaugural Stornowords, in Stornoway, an event which he invited me to. By an odd combination of circumstance, I am sure to his surprise, it was an invitation I was able to accept. I could see an old friend who I had not seen for a decade, I could travel through a part of Great Britain unvisited by me, and I could catch and perform some poetry supporting a new venture. How could I say no?

The  journey by car was more straight forwards this time, the journey no less great. 501 miles from Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, to Ullapool, another fifty miles across the Minch to Stornoway. We drove through the night on Thursday up the M6, allowing the darkest hours to swallow up the drab Midlands and North Western conurbations, the Lake District slipped by unseen, as did Glasgow, until we stopped at Stirling at around 3.15am. My conversation with the petrol kiosk attendant was surreal. I had no idea what he was saying, but my educated guesses that they involved pin numbers and loyalty cards seemed to work. A common language maybe, but his words appeared to have been processed by the sort of voice distortion device usually used by the BBC to disguise the voice of malevolent terrorists.

From here, our hard yards were rewarded. Although dawn was not due for another hour, the light grew on the horizon an hour before. The lush countryside  past Perth, gave way to the grandeur of Inverness and the sparkling moonlit waters of the Moray Firth, then the rugged might of the Cairngorms. It was as if a film slowly changed from black and white to glorious technicolour as Ullapool drew closer.

That last fifty miles by sea is a reminder of how far north you really are, which is closer to the North Pole by latitude than Moscow. A calm crossing avoided the attention of the legendary Blue Men of the Minch.

The canvas of forty years ago was replaced by the somewhat more agreeable facilities of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, providing a convenient base for Stornoway Words at the Artizan Café, barely a mile away in Church Street where the staff made extraordinary efforts to make us welcome and ply me with Harris Gin ( highly recommended).


Organiser Mathew Nicholson


Arriving early with Peter I had the chance to become better acquainted with organiser Mathew Nicholson. I too run a poetry evening, so instinctively I knew what was going through his mind. Would the venue be open? Would the staff turn up? Would anyone turn up?  Would the headliner turn up? Would they be good? Would there be enough open – micers? Would there be too many open -micers? Would they over run their slots? Would they have enough poems? Would the open- micers be any good? Would anyone perform anything grossly inappropriate? Would it all finish too early? Would it all finish too late?  I felt your anguish Mathew!

But I knew the evening was in safe hands. Mathew’s easy going, but confident manner, combined with a good grasp of what poetry is about, is the perfect combination for a host, and the audience, and poets, duly rolled in at the appointed hour. His own poems , potent and contemporary, were offered sparingly, offering the limelight to the other poets. In turn their poems, uniformly of a high standard, delighted and impressed. My partner Jane was also pleased to be given the opportunity to share her meditative poem “Pathway”, but was less than pleased when she discovered she was first out of the hat to read!

stornowords 2

Magz McLeod


What struck me was how the landscape and geography of the islands shaped so many of the open mic poems, from landscapes to the intensity of personal relationships in island communities. My favourite poem came from Magz Mcleod, “We are the Offspring of Warriors”. It combined a confidence of identity, a sense of place and history, and a bold premise which is absent from the more cosmopolitan, multicultural urban centres. A cracker which I wish I could hear and read again.

20160611_191314Headliner Peter Kerr with Jane (left) and Mairead (right)


Headliner Peter Kerr delivered a substantial set which focussed on the people, wildlife, landscape and practices of the Islands. His poems are short, sharp affairs. In wild juxtaposition to the panoramic sweep of the geography of the area, Peter takes poetic freeze frames, poems which may only be a handful of lines. In so doing he has to make every word count, but can examine his subjects in forensic detail. Confidently delivered, it was a performance which did the event, the subject matter, and himself, proud. The following illustrates his imaginative imagery:

Hourglass Grey

A day when if the ferry

Pulled too hard

On leaving Tarbert

It would unplug

The sky to drain into

The waiting loch below


Peter Kerr 171/16


Then, some three hours later it was over. Mathew had kindly offered me two slots in which to read, my decision to start with a Gaelic phrase was a wise one, and my quirky English offerings about  (amongst other things) adultery, pre decimal coinage and Cheryl Cole appeared to travel safely and soundly. Tapadh leibh.


Me, dressed to blend


The trip has inspired at least three poems, about my journey, the Blue Men of the Minch, and the Callanish Stones and taught me much, not least that the Outer Hebrides, far from being a population outpost was in Viking times a communications hub. Whilst debate and discourse is meat and drink to urban life, the towering silent mountains, the deep, eerie lochs, and the Atlantic weather are constant reminders that it is mother nature who always has the last word.

Mathew intends running this as an occasional event. If you are planning a visit to the islands do find out if it coincides with Stornowords, you will not be disappointed.

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Hairspray – Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre Company


Hairspray, Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre Company, Lichfield Garrick

Just occasionally, an amateur Musical Society can perfectly catch the zeitgeist of the spirit of a musical, injecting a zest and enthusiasm which breathes life into the original, taking it head to head with the best of professional productions. That is exactly what Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre Company have done with their presentation of “Hairspray”.


Serendipitously, the themes of casual racism and mistrust of immigrants are a feature of the UK EU referendum debate, and legislature corruption is prominent in the US presidential debate, capturing a contemporary dimension to the original screenplay. “Hairspray” focusses on the Integration debate in early 1960’s America, body image, and how outsiders fit into mainstream society. But this is no dour, didactic dirge. Instead it is a celebration of diversity, hope, and the talent that youth always has to offer both in the story, and in its physical manifestation on stage.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s adaptation of John Waters’ film for stage, first appearing on Brodway in 2002, is both glitzy and gutsy. Director Sally Baxter has managed to successfully tiptoe along the tightrope of delivering a show which musically fairly fizzles with high octane effervescence, whilst retaining the integrity of playing out a dramatization of the Civil Rights struggle in America. A brash, gaudy, set nicely reflects the time and place. Suzanne Harris and Tracey Firkins have had their work cut out as costume designers, and triumphed, to produce a riot of colour and flared dresses.

A large cast boasted twelve Society debutantes, in significant part, due to the need to secure an ethnically diverse cast. However no nervousness, or unfamiliarity, was evident, as one of those debutantes, Kitty Roberts, taking the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, blazed into the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore”, and never looked back. Kitty is superb in the role, offering a powerful vocal and a commanding stage presence. Yet she isn’t all front. Her love interest with Link Larkin is nuanced and believable, helped considerably by Adam Coulthards’ assured vocals and charisma.

Sally Jane Adams has the best dresses, and shows off the sharpest dance moves, as aspiring Miss Teenage Hairspray. Helen Gilfoyle, as her mother Velma Von Tussell, specialises in a withering glare that could turn milk sour, ostentatiously enjoying her role as villain of the show, and sings her solo with gusto too.

The musical score is fabulous featuring 1960s-style dance music and “downtown” rhythm and blues, played by a live ten piece band under the musical direction of Sheila Pearson. Not skimping on musicians by using a pre- recorded sound track makes such a difference. All the vocalists, without exception, rose to the occasion, none more so than Miss Motormouth (Marsha Webbe) whose spoken rhyming couplets morphed into a huge interpretation of signature ballad “ I Know Where I’ve Been”.

Tracy Turnblad’s parents have much fun as a comedy duo. Tony Orbell is all gangly arms and legs, while Mark Skett appears in drag. Both come together for a very well received duet, “You’re Timeless to Me”.

A compelling part of this show’s success is the choreography, by Maggie Doyle. There are no back line shirkers, the shapes and movement are a delight, and she shows commendable discipline in not flooding the stage with chorus unnecessarily. Inevitably, she works “You Can’t Stop the Beat” until it is wrung dry, and why not? It is a great song, with unusually satisfying lyrics, the performance of which demands, and receives, a deserved standing ovation at its close.

Delightful cameo’s abound. Anil Patel (Seaweed Stubbs) is a striking performer, as slender as a microphone stand, but with seemingly nuclear powered dancing energy. Playing opposite love interest , ugly duckling turned swan Chelsea Greathead ( Penny Pingleton), the two of them imbue their roles with comedy and poignancy. Little Inez (Equinana Givens) gives a big performance.

Amidst the infectious song and dance a witty, and occasionally risqué, script is brought to life by the cast. The didactic stays just the right side of cliché and platitude, “Follow your dreams” “The bigger your girth, the more you are worth”, the waspish amuses ,“ It pays to have a politician in your pocket and a polaroid in your safe”.

This is an ebullient slice of musical theatre, brim full of joie-de vivre, overflowing with ebullience, delivered with brio and elan guaranteed to entertain and delight all who wisely come to see the show which runs till Saturday 4th June.

Gary Longden

This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.

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