Planet Earth

Run Iguana run,

Dance the tango with devils

Over hot sand,

Sprint with lightning Bolt speed,

Swerve and sway like Ronaldo,

Keep ballerina balance

As death slithers and slides

In awful choreographed symmetry,

Wrestle and writhe,

Strive against  mortal foes

With head aloft,

Never lose sight of your goal

Until you reach higher ground.

 

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Holding Baby – Birmingham University

holding baby.png

This production, on the afternoon of 15th October, was part of the University of Birmingham’s, “Book to the future” festival. Its milieu, the swathe of middle aged, and pensionable aged, folk, increasingly responsible for raising children cross-generationally.

Ostensibly, that  might be regarded as dry, its appeal niche, and those present overwhelmingly reflected those most likely to be left “Holding Baby”. But Director, and author, Jan Watts’ piece, has loftier ambitions, and those ambitions are emphatically realised. 

 

jan-watts

Jan Watts

 

It is estimated that some 300,000 children are being raised by grandparents, close family members, or friends, a tenth of whom are in the West Midlands. If you then allow for the immediate families of those “kinship parents”, who might typically number around ten, the target audience of those directly affected grows to some three million. Niche? Maybe. Significant and under-represented? Certainly.

Watts is smarter than to restrict herself to a single issue polemic. Instead she weaves a tale incorporating, dementia, immigration, serious illness, the NHS, social services, drug addiction, painful choices – and how annoying doctor’s receptionists can be.

Yes, the focus is serious, but  the treatment is deft, pacey, and tinged with laugh out loud  moments.

The two acts are presented on  a single stage set at the Mandela Surgery, Balaclava Rd, in Birmingham, an address fellow playwright John Sullivan would have approved of. In the first Act, Barbara (Diane Ellis) is there for her flu jab , Gracie (Jenny Stokes) , her mother, is there because carer DG  (Toni Midlane) is awaiting a diagnosis and has had to bring her along, Dr Abdullah (Elaine Ward) is present because it is her surgery, receptionist Maeve  (Laura Judges) is there to confront the rabble who have the effrontery to want to see a doctor, and Tia Maria , a new born baby ( a roll of carpet), is there because she has been abandoned by her junkie mother Eva ( Ashleigh Aston).

The set is minimalistic, one table, enough chairs, two spotlights and sound effects, with all other props improvised. This places a disproportionate burden on the actors. Fortunately, they rise to the occasion magnificently. Each one has minimal formal costume, but do sport a tee shirt with their first name emblazoned on it. Superficially this is initially useful to ascertain who is who, but as the play progresses, a more subtle message of identity emerges.

What delights throughout is the dialogue. Easy on the ear, sharp in observation, and softened by gentle humour.

Diane Ellis plays a bewildered, confused, and overwhelmed  grandmother, admirably, as her trip  to a doctors surgery for a flu jab unravels into a choice between taking in her granddaughter, or condemning her to care. Notwithstanding the life changing consequences of her decision, the minutiae of life is not overlooked. As any grandparent undertaking emergency babysitting duties will testify, the question of what formula  a new born baby takes is not easily answered.  Those same grandparents will also  instantly recognise the references to the ubiquitous Silver Cross pram.

 

 Dramatic serendipity demands that her mother in turn also turns up. The vastly experienced Jenny Stokes delivers a masterclass in characterisation, in turns lucid, confused, warm and detached, a tender exploration of dementia. Her carer DG is no less warm and caring, working for the “Comfort at Sunset” care home. Prepared to “deal with shit”, Toni Midlane’s Latin timbre is mellifluous,  her acting energetic, and nuanced, hiding her own health and family secrets, working in a job below her capability, to finance her own children far away. It is a powerful, and poignant exposition of the motivation of immigrants working in this country.

Doctor’s receptionists are a safe target for public opprobrium. Initially, Maura Judges is happy to portray Maeve as a pantomime villain with some great lines; “ Don’t take any notice of the shouty woman- she’s just the baby’s grandmother”. Yet as the plot unfolds, it transpires that she too has home care arrangements to keep, and plays a key role in  defusing an incendiary situation utilising the same skills which originally seemed so irksome.

Even Elaine Ward’s Dr Abdullah, a vision of calm amidst the emotional mayhem, has her own family time  to protect, but  author Watts doesn’t fawn unreservedly at the altar of hard-pressed GP’s. Whilst happy to make an easy gag at  the expense of social workers :  “You know they’re social workers because of their silly earrings”, she also shines a light on Surgery hierarchy as the doctor bales out some patients by ordering taxis on the surgery account ,leaving the equally deserving receptionist to catch the bus home.

In Act two, the versatile Toni Midlane reappears as DG’s daughter, this time sporting a less soothing, but character differentiating American accent, playing a pivotal and heart wrenching part in an unexpected, and powerful, plot twist. However, for me, the defining performance comes from Ashleigh Aston as junkie mother Eva. She blasts in , supercharged, into the deceptively languid first scene of the second Act. Frenetic, irrational, and disruptive, she careers, through the second half, spitting venom and lies everywhere, in thrall to her all -consuming drug addiction.

There is not a weak link in the cast in this vibrant, poignant, drama. Although the characters are all female, there is not a feminist diatribe to be heard, indeed there is barely a reference made to men at all.  What makes this play so satisfying is Watts’ versatile writing. Eva’s  visceral, venal despair, labelling her mother  Barbara as “the baby snatcher”, combines vulnerability with casual spite. By contrast Barbara, confronted by a situation which she neither welcomes nor particularly enjoys , approaches her own lot with a quiet stoicism and whimsical reflections – why do people abuse parent and child parking spaces? “If parking is that important to you why don’t you get yourself a child.”

A fundamental response to any drama should be “why?” In this instance the answer is a fine piece of writing on a largely untouched subject, with contemporary relevance, which illuminates, entertains and engages in equal measure. This performance in the round added to the intimacy and emotional intensity of the occasion. Although the events of this drama are extraordinary, whilst mingling with members of the audience, I heard stories even more extraordinary, all welcoming the chance to see something which spoke to them.

 

Gary Longden

 

The following link may help those who are, or who are affected by, kinship caring.

http://www.corambaaf.org.uk/info/kinship-care-and-special-guardianship

 

 

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A Poem for Aberfan

aberfan

The Ballad of the Aberfan Disaster

 

A junior school called Pantglas

Where miners’ children went to class

Learning sums, and history, and English lit

Then you headed on down to the pit

 

Where all the men toiled underground

That was where the work was to be  found

Digging and sweating their daily toil

With coal the prize, and slurry the spoil

 

A man’s work, then home to welcome instant slumber

Producing the tonnage, it all  was  but a number

Day shifts, night shifts, relentless, you see

To meet the targets of the NCB

 

And as the coal flowed out, so the slag heap high grew

Towering over the hillside, a part of the view

Buts as the spoil burgeoned, as the edifice soared

Warnings of danger were resolutely ignored

 

For underneath the slopes, their sides strangely bowed

Underwater springs burrowed and  trickled and flowed

Eating away at man’s unnatural dump

To undermine this transient hump

 

Such that on the day of 21st of October ninty sixty six

The dice fell just wrong for this noxious mix

Just as the children had morning enrolled

The deadly consequences of negligence would unfold

 

With a roar that dwarfed a jet engines’s sound

The water shook loose the unstable ground

Becoming slurry all dirty and pungent and brown

The viscous gurgling load unburdened itself down

 

Into the valley a devils morass

Hurtling, inexorable towards Pantglas

Spitting, and spewing and venting its wrath

With hundreds of children in its monstrous path

 

Growling and scouring, roaring like thunder

Everything in its path disintegrating asunder

Relentless, and blind, all about, it devours

Including one hundred and sixteen young flowers

 

A further twenty six felt its dull blow

A forty foot torrent , with nowhere to go

News of the massacre spread just as fast

With all converging on the school at Panglas

 

They came from Metrhyr,  the Taffs and the Deep

To dig them out to awaken their sleep

With axes and shovels and pick axes too

To do whatever it was possible to do

 

Yet nature is savage, even when you do what you oughta

Nothing can temper a natural slaughter

And although they dug fast, they did what they could

Almost all of the victims died where they stood

 

A village, a nation, a country assembled

In grief, while the NCB lied and dissembled

As children’s bodies were prepared for cold ground

Chairman Robben stayed away to take a silk gown

The honour of Chancellor of Surrey University

As a hundred and forty- four lay still, for the world to see.

 

He claimed he knew nothing, that nought could have been foreseen

The reports saying different simply could not have been

A human disaster, an apocalyptic catastrophe

Of which men in striped suits denied all responsibility

 

But the world rallied around donating in hoards

To lighten the load of the devils rewards

The Coal Board gave nothing, conceding no ground

Yet took from the fund 150,000 pounds

 

To level the heap, to make good their mistakes

Stolen from money donated for wakes

Resenting the intrusion, regretting the fuss

No lives on their conscience- “our fault ? No, not us”

 

And for months after, young children could not play outside

Instead being forced indoors to stay and hide

By parents not wishing to pain the other bereaved

Who  suffered such anguish and silently grieved

 

Fifty years on, an entire generation is missing

Oblivious to today’s mournful reminiscing

But remembering still, from where the death poured

T’was from the offices, of Roben’s National Coal Board

 

 

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Books

books

I love books. I also have far too many. School books, student books, novels, poetry, travel, biographies, histories, historical fiction, sports and sundry unclassified, or unclassifiable.

Far too many lie unread. Some are on display for effect, some have been on display for effect for so long that their effect is the opposite of what was originally intended – see Tony Blair’s biography.

I tend to go on book reading binges, Tom Sharpe, Evelyn Waugh, Tom Clancy, Tony Parsons, Simon Scarrow, then starve for several months despite the plethora of reading options available to me.

So, confession now committed, I shall henceforth publicly commit to the books I shall now commit to read, or give to charity shops, in a determined effort to denude my collection of the unread by reading or disposal

My first public oath? To consume “SPQR” Mary Beard, history of Rome.

Meanwhile, I wrote a poem about this once:

 

J’Accuse

 

You fancied me once

Fingering me lovingly

Running your hands down my spine

Stroking me

You wanted me so much

That you bought me

Now I lie discarded

Your interest has moved on

Abandoned amongst the rest

Your expressions of intent unfulfilled

Left on the shelf

Sometimes you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

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Simon Scarrow

scarrow-three

As a schoolboy I was very fortunate to study Latin to O level. Even then, in the 1970’s, as a subject it was on the edge of the curriculum, with a reputation for being arcane, and dry. The caricature of a Latin teacher was of  an old man, with grey hair, a bit batty, as marginally relevant as the subject he was teaching. Fortunately, our Latin teacher was nothing like that.

Dennis Dunkley  (Double D to his students) was a big, burly, good looking man, who had served in the British Army in the  intelligence corps as an officer. Not only was he a Classics linguist, he also lived and breathed Roman history. He had an all -consuming interest in the Emperors, and the Roman army. With some teachers, you could have a laugh and a joke, with others you could play them up. Not DD. He welcomed his fledgling Latin scholars as a Centurion would have greeted new recruits. Discipline, and instant obedience came first. Summary justice (often injustice) ensured compliance. And once his recruits were broken, then the learning began.

Although strict and uncompromising, his passion for Latin, and Rome, was infectious. His admiration for Domitian was voluble, and he aped the Emperor’s contradictory attributes of tyrant, and intellectual aesthete. When in his lessons, the sense of Rome as a place, society and civilization was as important as the language. As you learned the grammar and syntax of Latin, so you learned the culture of Rome and the Roman army.

That lingering interest in the Classics has endured in  working out Latin inscriptions on monuments, and visits to Italy. Then one day I chanced upon a Simon Scarrow novel in a bookstore, “Gladiator”, lured by the prospect of revisiting my student studies. I took a chance and bought it. I have never looked back, and am busy devouring his published works.

The settings are authentic in terms of place and known historical events, the detail is faction, as Scarrow weaves his fiction within that framework. Dialogue however is coarse, and contemporary, no attempt is made at cod classicization  of the way the characters, mainly soldiers, speak. Therein lies some of the appeal. Scarrow’s picture  of the life of a Roman soldier is also the universal, timeless reality of foot soldiering.

The scale of the Roman Empire provides plenty of opportunity for the protagonists, the cerebral young Cato, and the gnarled visceral veteran Macro. Predominantly the action takes place in Britain, affording many opportunities to reconcile landscapes, places, and ruins with the action. It is here that Scarrow is at his best, as the noble sophisticated brutal Empire subjugates the brave , less sophisticated, less organised, British tribesman. Being British myself, there are plenty of moments of emotional conflict. Should I be cheering on Cato and Macro as they cut the British  tribesmen  down to size, both literally, and figuratively? Scarrow offers us little opportunity to cheer on the underdog.

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 Which is not to say that the locals don’t have their moments. Tribal King Caratacus leads a pretty charmed life, however his character is developed only enough to advance the plot, his lieutenants are anonymous factotums, which is a symptom of the only real weakness in the series. The concentration on Macro and Cato is so great that the drama of worthy, fully written, adversaries is largely absent. Emperors’ advisor and fixer Narcissus is the most prominent figure in the series after  Macro and Cato, but still, outside of his interaction with our protagonists, we know little, which is both a shame, and an opportunity.

 

The series opens in Germany with “Under the Eagle” but moves to England before the book ends. Not only is it a convincing scene setter, it also only touches on the opportunities offered by the province, a matter which Scarrow will surely redress in the future. And so for five sequential books the British campaign is covered with Boudica and Caratacus prominent in a land of conflicting loyalties, and shifting alliances. The sixth “Eagles Prophecy” has our boys in the navy, and is amongst the least convincing in the series. Although the detail of Roman naval warfare is scrupulously covered, the premise of recovering some prophetic scrolls at all costs feel artificial and forced.

Thereafter we move to the Eastern Provinces. “The Eagle in the Sand” varies wildly from unconvincing sketches of early Christianity to powerful and compelling raiders on caravan routes, but in the following “Centurion” Scarrow finds his groove, set in Syria around Palmyra, in a tale of geographical influence and conflict which is still being played out today. In the Parthians there are worthy, and skilful adversaries. The geo-political stakes are stark. “Centurion” is amongst the very best in the series, rivalled by the following “Gladiator” in which a slave rebellion, led by Ajax, has to be crushed. From the drama of an opening ship wreck , to the uncertainties of incarceration in the hands of the enemy, the story never lets up.

Unsurprisingly, Scarrow finds the drama of Ajax too good to leave and in the following “Legion” Ajax has to be hunted down in Egypt as he terrorises the province on land and sea. Scarrow’s skill lies in battle scenes and a fast moving narrative, so when he sets an entire novel in Rome, in “Praetorian”, the proposition is somewhat different.

 The intrigue and duplicity weaves and winds admirably, but as in the “Eagles Prophecy” which Scarrow uses as a platform to write about the navy, so this sometimes feels as though his desire to impart his knowledge of ancient Rome is greater than his desire for a convincing story as Macro and Cato become involved in action which seems above their station, joining the Praetorian Guard as spies. His description of a Naumachia is panoramic and informative but feels artificially bolted on to add zest to a story which otherwise is one of Court intrigue.

Having deserted our shores, Scarrow returns to Britain for three instalments, with the first the  best book of the series, “Blood Crows”. Its plot echoes  Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and  Coppola’s  “Apocalypse Now” as a Legion and its commander go native in Wales, trading excess with excess, creating their own fiefdom. Heading north in “Blood Brothers” the pursuit of Caratacus engages, the associated intrigue annoys.

Ending the series as of the summer of 2016 is “Britannia”, a tale of a vainglorious attempt by the Romans to eliminate the Druids in mountainous North Wales and Anglesea, the story works well, the campaign doesn’t!

“Invictus” is due out in November 2016 , finding our heroes in Spain.

Why has Scarrow been so successful? His books revel in battle, blood, guts and glory. Heroism reigns, the weak are crushed, but not without reflection. Empire might wins, but the price is acknowledged. The poor bloody infantry pay whether doing their duty for a noble cause, or acting as the fall guys for the ambition of their officers. Battle and death are forensically pored over, torture is touched upon, sexual violence largely ignored. As Sven Hassell exploited the Third Reich and Nazi’s in the 1970’s, so Scarrow explores the base reality of Roman conquest, with the sophistication and skill that makes it possible, but in slightly more sanitised form. The voyeuristic violence is always tempered by an objectivity, enabled  through  the character of Cato, which seeks to offer something greater than the transient impact of blood.

The adverse impact of invasion and colony is not ignored. The problems of conquest and occupation exposing lines of communication were as problematic in Britain for the Romans as they were for the Americans in Vietnam. Asymmetric warfare  guerrilla  style has been the response to superior forces ever since. The British paid the local militia not to attack them and protect them in Mosul, Iraq as the Romans did in England to loyal tribes. Scarrow’s understanding of both the historic practices and mores of the Roman military is matched by a sound sense of the broader truths of military strategy which transcend the ages seamlessly combining meticulous, authoritative research with rip-roaring adventure.

 

scarrow

Author Simon Scarrow

 

Simon is touring bookshops to promote “Invictus” in Novemeber including an appearance at Waterstones in Birmingham on Friday 18th – see you there.

 

http://simonscarrow.co.uk/book/invictus/

 

 

 

 

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Smelling a Rat – Grange Players, Walsall

rat

 

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.

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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

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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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