Clash of Empires- Ben Kane. Novel review

 

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This was my first introduction to Kane’s work I was disappointed. It was swamped by too much unnecessary detail, diluted by multiple sub plots which either went nowhere or added little, and was careless with character.

In one strand Felix and his brother Antonius stand in the Roman legions, ready to deliver the decisive blow against Hannibal Barca and establish Rome as the pre-eminent power in the ancient world. But they are no match for Simon Scarrow’s creations of Macro and Cato. I was not that bothered about them.

In another strand, young senator Flamininus is set on becoming one of the Republic’s greatest military commanders with his eyes on the as-yet-unconquered Macedon and Greece. Too much time is spent on politics in Rome. Once again, he is not drawn in such a way that we are particularly interested in whether he personally succeeds or fails. There is no jeopardy in his personal story.

In the north of Greece, Philip V of Macedon is determined to restore his kingdom to its former glory but needs a strong army to help him do it. Young Demetrios dreams of fighting in the phalanx but is just a poor oarsman. But he is given an opportunity, and seizes it, bringing him into the sphere of influence of Philip. It is broadly a rags to (relative) riches story, and by far the most satisfying.

 
Kane’s historical detail, and love for the period, is beyond reproach. But just because you know something does not mean you have to share it. The story is told from multiple viewpoints and loses focus, and reader empathy, as a result. He has epic ambitions, but falls well short. The ending itself is inconclusive and unsatisfying, the loose ends left being frustrating, rather than enticing, for the next book in the series.

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Traitors of Rome – Simon Scarrow, Novel Review

 

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The eighteenth instalment of the “Eagles of the Empire” series takes our leading protagonists to the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire, Parthia, for their latest adventure. Aficionados, of which I am one, will find it fits like a well- worn pair of slippers. Visceral Macro has plenty of opportunity to use his brawn, cerebral Cato finds his rational power tested to the limit.

 
Scarrow still finds new ingredients after all of these years, a training exercise attack, a river pirate raid, and Roman Army rebellion.

 
All the well fashioned elements are here. Atmospherically created battle scenes. A credible take on the soldier’s lot, and a narrative that skips along.

 
This story features a mysterious agent of Rome, and spy, Apollonius. He is an exceptionally promising character. In past books, Scarrow has drafted some memorable supporting cast, then abandoned them. Hopefully, Apollonius will be given more time to grow in future books. Cato still has plenty left in him as a Tribune and politician, Macro’s military career as a Centurion is inevitably time- bounded. At some point the dynamic of the brainy and brawny soldiers finishes.

 
Macro is now married to Petronella, if their ardour is anything to go by, children will be on the way soon. Cato has a young son Lucius. But something will need to happen before their offspring come of military age to change the established narrative.

 
The book itself is classic Scarrow, a formula which we know and love, which is not to say that it is beyond reproach. The ending is rushed. I physically checked the number of pages left when I realised that the book was drawing to a close and was alarmed at how much needed to be addressed.

 
Nevertheless, a fine read, as always, leaving us wanting more.

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The Book of Mormon – Birmingham Hippodrome

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I waited for curtain up with no preconceptions. I did not know the plot. I knew none of the songs. I did know that the show has been phenomenally successful on Broadway and the West End grossing over $500m since its premier in 2011. Theatreland is savage towards poor shows – quite clearly, this had passed the test of public approval.

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Awaiting Curtain Up

I know someone who had been to see it last year. She was obtuse about the plot and content. Maybe that is because superficially, a plot that centres around a mission of smug Mormons trying to convert a remote Ugandan village to their faith while paedophilia, female genital mutilation, summary execution, and sodomy abound, seems unlikely box office success. But it is. A delightful rich vein of sardonic wit is at the core of the show. Is life a bit shit? Well a trite saying will change all of that, as evidenced by the hilarious and  catchy “Hakuna Matata” send-up “Hasa Diga Eebowai” , a wicked alternate take on Disney’s “Lion King” from which there are several references.

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Because underneath the shock lines there is an old fashioned tale. One where the awkward, geeky, guy comes good, and gets the girl, and the vainglorious hero gets his comeuppance and eats humble pie. Also, in an era in which Theatre is trying to adjust to the ethnic demographic around it, a sizeable chunk of the cast is Black African. What you see on stage is reflected by the diversity that you experience as you leave the theatre and walk onto the street.

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All American Mission Hero Colvin

Three performers dominate the show. Robert Colvin is the tall, athletic, All American hero Elder Price, with the Colgate Dental Ring of Confidence, who is upstaged by his plucky, diminutive, rotund missionary companion Connor Peirson, as Elder Cunningham. It is a fabulous double act. Their physical tall and small / slim and fat juxtaposition makes for marvellous physical comedy, their nuanced performances as their roles change are subtle and heart-warming.

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Nicole Lily Baisden and Connor Peirson

However, the star of the show is Nicole-Lily Baisden as Nabulungi. Sassy and energetic, she sings powerfully, and beautifully, and supercharges proceedings whenever she is on stage. There are numerous outstanding supporting performances, not least from Ewen Cummins as village elder Mafala Hatimbi, and Thomas Vernal as General Butt Fucking Naked, delightfully demented as a psychotic militia leader.

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Anyone looking for a flavour of what to expect should reference the TV series South Park and the musical, Avenue Q. The music, lyrics and book of the show are by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone created the animated comedy South Park. Lopez co-wrote the music for the musical Avenue Q. The humour is left field, sexual and irreverent, the lyrics contemporary and caustic, but it is all done with a smile, not a sneer, and a twinkle in the eye.

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“Book of Mormon” runs until Saturday 28th March then continues on nationwide tour.

Gary Longden

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

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****
On a wet, windy, wintry Wolverhampton midweek evening, there has to be a very good reason to go out. Fortunately, this production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice, provides just that reason.

 
Its performed inception dates back to 1968, but debuted in its full format in 1974, almost half a century ago. It is broadly contemporaneous with “Jesus Christ Superstar”, first staged in 1971, with whom it shares numerous musical motifs, although the latter is strictly Rock, while “Joseph” is pop, with a bit of Calypso, French Balladry, Charleston, Country and Western, and 50’s Rock n Roll thrown in.

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Alexandra Doar and  Mark McMullan

It is not difficult to see why there have been well over 20,000 schools and amateur productions. The content is colourful, family friendly and upbeat, the music melodious, the lyrics nursery rhyme simple.

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Joseph and father Jacob

The trend of casting big names in lead roles, irrespective of talent, is thankfully waning.
The title role is played by Mark McMullan, a “Britain’s Got Talent” finalist. Popular appeal and a great voice is no guarantee of an ability to carry a flagship musical.

 

However Director Bill Kenwright knows a thing or two about spotting rising talent. That skill has not deserted him. McMullan is tremendous. He can sing, has presence, a powerful physique, and can wear tight trousers with a panache that would make Robert Plant blush.

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The Pharaoh showing Joseph how to rock n roll

His highlight comes in the penultimate number of the first Act, “Close Every Door”, beautifully performed, and delivered, a performance which will have had the casting scouts for “Les Miserables” twitching with excitement. So strong was the delivery, that the first Act finale, “Go, Go, Go Joseph”, a perfectly decent number, seemed routine and perfunctory by comparison.

 
Alexandra Doar co-stars as the narrator, telling the Biblical story of Joseph, from the Book of Genesis. The thirty plus children’s chorus is permanently seated on trestle perimeter terraced seating, serving as a stage audience for her tale, as well as vocal accompaniment. She is terrific, with a great voice, pizazz in abundance, and a cheery disposition which never fades.

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Astonishingly, both Doar and McMullan are making their professional Musical debuts with this production – both are assured of a long career if they can maintain the levels of performance they gave on this night’s show.

 
Unusually for a musical, the cast comprises significantly more men than women. Gary Lloyd has been brought in to provide new choreography and succeeds in producing numerous eye-catching set pieces and movement. Including children, there are frequently over forty people on stage, sometimes around fifty, keeping the stage sharp is no easy task, but he succeeds admirably. Although this is not a dance show, it is very pleasing on the eye with the three Handmaidens working overtime to provide a splash of glamour.

 
The title song is the one everyone knows, and Kenwright ensures that it is not wasted, as it appears four or five times in various guises throughout the evening. At two hours running time, including interval, the show is an object lesson in not overstaying its welcome. It makes no pretence of great meaning, grandeur, or depth. Instead it offers wholesome entertainment, with a light touch and a smile. It thoroughly deserved the rousing applause at the end from a very well attended opening night, with subsequent performances until Saturday 29th February.

 
Gary Longden

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Red Shoes – Birmingham Hippodrome

 

Red Shoes – Birmingham Hippodrome
*****

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I am slowly working my way through Mathew Bourne’s repertoire. Single-handedly, he has introduced me to ballet as an enjoyable art form. He seems to have had the same affect on others, the opening Tuesday night was packed.

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Awaiting Curtain up

“Red Shoes” is a visual extravaganza, culled from the eponymous Powell and Pressburger’s film which appeared in 1948 ,it tracks a young woman’s obsession with art which ends in spectacular tragedy. Victoria Page wants to be the greatest dancer in the world but is caught in a romantic and creative vice between two men who are pivotal to her aspirations.

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The ingredients are tried and trusted. A love triangle between veteran talent spotter and upcoming composer and ballerina, the subtly different pas de deux with her suitors are exhilarating. An aspiring soubrette seizes her chance from an injured seasoned prima ballerina, and a play within a play. The latter is delightfully subversive as house applause is mixed with pre-recorded applause at the shows end, blurring the edges between performance and reality.
Michela Meazza was suitably haughty and aloof as the Prima Ballerina, Irina Boronskaya, exuding Russian hauteur. Liam Mower’s Ivan Boleslawsky was riotously excessive.
Reece Causton as Boris Lermontov, the Ballet Impresario, was brooding and demanded the stage at every entrance, while Dominic North portrays Julian Kraster, Victoria’s love interest, with tenderness and drama and his solo performance at the piano in Act One is a highlight.
Physically, the set is dominated by a rotating proscenium arch which rotates to present the action as both front of stage, and backstage, it too appears to dance along with its human co -stars. Bernard Herrmann’s classic Hollywood style score , orchestrated by Terry Davies, beautifully underpins the action which offers numerous highlights. A glorious beach dance, a stunning storm scene, and a monochrome dance in front of a surreal white arches backdrop, the highlight of the cinematic designs by Lez Brotherston, lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Paul Groothuis and projection from Duncan McLean.

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Bourne has an instinct for the accessible, without dumbing down the dance content, although I did struggle with the narrative from time to time. Not that this made any difference, you do not have to understand what you are seeing, you are compelled to enjoy it.

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Ashley Shaw rests

Ashley Shaw is the staggeringly good principal ballerina, a blur of sharp feet, beguiling seductive shapes, and glorious movement, her skirt moving as if it were part of her body in spectacular choreographed fluidity.
An after show “audience with” Mathew Bourne revealed that he regularly rotates the cast to keep the show, and dancers, on their toes. It also serves to underline that the show is the star, which runs at the Hippodrome until Sat 15th February, and continues on national tour.

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Bohemian Rhapsody – the film

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I had been looking forwards to this. Queen were a great band, the reviews had been enthusiastic, but the experience of watching it fell short of my expectations.

 

The entire film felt contrived, a construct by Brian May and Roger Taylor. The pre Live Aid schism was inadequately explained, and flawed , the gratuitous multicultural crowd shots during Live Aid were historically inaccurate. The narrative a disjointed cut and paste.

 

Mercury’s compulsive sexual behaviour is awkwardly shown, as is his personal relationship with manager John Reid, whose character was poorly written, particularly in contrast to his portrayal in the Elton John biopic “Rocketman”. Aiden Gillen’s Reid here is insipid, and anonymous. There is no hint of his business or sexual prowess, Richard Madden’s portrayal in “Rocketman” smoulders.

 

The making of the film was disrupted by a false start with Sacha Baron Cohen dropping out as Freddie, and veteran Hollywood Producer Bryan Singer also leaving for Dexter Fletcher to complete the project. It shows. Current Queen manager Jim Beach is on the production team ensuring that the image is as favourable as possible. It feels like a feature length promo.

 

I found Rami Malek as Freddie irritating, superficial and lightweight. The dynamic of his relationship with Sarah Austin never worked, or was convincing. Lucy Boynton as Sarah Austin performs well, and looks good, yet she feels like a plot device, rather than a person. Malek is strong in being fey and affected, weak in demonstrating the force that Mercury was.

 

As a film, rather than documentary, it has clearly succeeded. The music is strong, memorable and well presented. But I found the work as a whole unsatisfying.

 

Comparisons with the contemporaneously released “Rocketman” are inevitable. The distinction is clear. “Bohemian Rhapsody” relies upon the personality of a dead man, and is produced by third parties with a personal interest in the favourable depiction of their supporting roles. “Rocketman” is an Elton John project in which he dares to bare his soul rather than rely upon the music to carry the day.

 

“Bohemian Rhapsody” taught me nothing. There were no facts or insights of which I was unaware as a music fan. Following the success of the musical “We will Rock You” the film was the logical last piece in the artistic Queen jigsaw. As a stand-` alone music film it is pretty good, but only because of the live music sequences, particularly Live Aid. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page must look on ruefully at the way in which Brian May has kept the money tree blossoming without Mercury.

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Aladdin – Town Hall, Sutton Coldfield

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*****

Pantomime at the revamped Town Hall is fast becoming an essential feature of the Sutton Coldfield Arts scene. This year it returns, courtesy of the Production Exchange, with a revamped “Aladdin”, amongst the most traditional of pantomime shows. An almost full house on a cold wet early December opening night augurs well for the success of the season. They were well rewarded for their fortitude.

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Seren Sandham – Davies as Jasmine

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Jasmine and Aladdin

This is a professional production, with the effort and money unashamedly in the cast and music. Brightly costumed, the evening opens by bursting into song and dance which drives the show to the finish. Star turn is Seren Sandham- Davies as Princess Jasmine. I last saw her in the best production of “Brassed Off” I have ever seen playing Gloria at Derby Theatre. She seems to make a habit of featuring in excellent shows. Here she is choreographer, leading lady and solo instrumentalist, most notably on clarinet during “I Will Survive”, of which more later. She sings confidently, beautifully, enthusiastically, and with a smile on her face, the focal point whenever she is on stage. Ben Boskovic is a skilled foil for her talents as Aladdin, looking good, but allowing girl power to shine.

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Ben Boskovic as Aladdin

 

Sam Pay is well cast as Abanazar the Baddie, laconic, relaxed and duplicitous, he laps up the boos and is an essential part of the stand -out double handed scene with Widow Twanky in the second Act.

 

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Sam Pay as Abanazar

Characterisation of the Widow is bold. In the first Act, Mathew Bugg plays her fiercely, she would easily be able to moonlight as an Erdington bouncer. In the second Act, she is transformed as femme fatale, seducing Abanazar to win back the stolen lamp. A wonderful pastiche of Dirty Dancing’s “Time of My Life” segueing into “I Will Survive” rightly had the audience howling for more. Physical comedy, great comic timing, and gutsy singing by Bugg, combined with multi-instrumental skills, was an absolute show-stopper.

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Mathew Bugg as Widow Twanky

Opposite Widow Twanky, Ruby Ablett plays Wishy Washy in an assured performance. She opens the show, sings and dances, and leads the audience participation sections admirably. How my heart went out to her when she had to turn away two angelic three year old girls who wanted to sneak onto stage, much to the dismay of the crowd.

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Ruby Ablett as Wishy Washy

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Wishy Washy and Widow Twanky calmly consider a problem

She was aided and abetted in her audience interaction by Jack Alexander, who plays both Hanky Panky and Gene the Genie, with a deft comic touch.

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Jack Alexander as Hanky Panky

The music and singing shines throughout, courtesy of Musical Director Sue Appleby who mainly plays keyboards, but also features as Princess Jasmine’s mother, Empress Double Chinn, in a great performance, stealing some moves and mannerisms from Cruella de Ville, and singing very well indeed. The pop songs were well chosen and well executed, with George Ezra’s “Shotgun” an unexpected delight, and highlight.

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Sue Appleby, MD and Empress Double Chinn

Director  Colin Blumenau conceived the original production some years ago in adversity, when circumstances forced him to put it on in a big top tent. As a consequence the set is functional, with no special effects or big cave scene. Instead he has created a show with heart and life where the stars are the performers, both principals and chorus. It is modern in its interpretation, but never too far from its traditional roots. The vibrant music is mainly performed live, on stage, by the versatile  cast, generating  intimacy, colour and connection .

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The evening runs for around two hours and twenty minutes. Children soon let you know if they are becoming bored by demands to go to the toilet. In the second half, no child or adult left their seats, so compelling was the wonderful entertainment put on by this talented cast. My expert assistant reviewers, Beau, aged seven and Sol, aged five, declared the evening to be “brilliant” and “amazing” respectively. “Aladdin” runs until the 31stDecember, with numerous matinee performances and some 6pm starts to ensure that young children do not have to stay up too long beyond their normal bedtimes. If you haven’t secured your tickets yet, I would hurry up, as many others have.

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“A Self Help Guide To Being In Love With Jeremy Corbyn” – An Evening with Jess Green at the Lichfield Hub

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I had heard much of Jess before, but never seen her perform. I have also lived around Lichfield for almost thirty years, but never seen St Mary’s Church upstairs used as a performance space. So I approached the performance, her final date on a thirty date tour with curiosity, as well as expectation.The venue itself, turns out to be excellent. Unsurprisingly, the acoustics are excellent, the setting grand, yet intimate, perfect for a spoken word performance.

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Jess performed to a good -sized crowd that was a little older in age profile than I had anticipated. I felt that her entrance could have been beefed up a little. An MC giving her an energetic welcome, and a prominent “Seven Nation Army” would have drawn the ubiquitous “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” chant from the audience, and started proceedings on a high, but she quickly won the crowd over by sheer force of personality.

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I was not entirely sure what to expect, what was performed was unashamedly political, polemical and on point for the largely Corbynista audience. There were extended periods when it felt like we were listening to a political speech, but was none the worse for that. Poetry can be accused of being anodyne, and this was anything but. In centuries gone, poets were often commissioned to produce extended poems about politics, heroes, and anti-heroes. Jess is tapping into that tradition but in a 21st century context.

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There is light and shade in her performance, with anecdotes providing between poem interludes. The story of how her Labour supporting family found a way to inflate LibDem election expenses, and the story and poem of her noisy neighbours delighted and entertained in equal measure. Delivering a one hour show, solo is no easy task. Jess succeeded with her BBC Slam Championship winning material, charm and verbal and textual dexterity.

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She closed with “Jeremy Corbyn is 68 going on Sexy” which is a tremendous performance piece, but as she reflected in her introduction can be dangerously misinterpreted if its tongue in cheek nature is taken out of context. The closing film clip of Corbyn meeting her and endorsing the book was perfect. You do not have to be a rabid Corbynista to enjoy the show, there was plenty of excellent merchandise, but no pamphlets on Soviet Tractor Production figures, pictures of Mao on the walls were notable by their absence. All you have to do is be prepared to listen to one of the best spoken word performers around right now.
A great show, a fine performer. As she gains traction production values will improve still further.

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A Day With the World’s Fastest Hypnotist

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Sean Andrews – The World’s Fastest Hypnotist

Jane Osborne’s  life is wonderfully full, and busy. Sometimes too busy. Last week she  had the pleasure of a day’s training with internationally renowned hypnotherapist Freddy Jacquin at the UK National Hypnotherapy Conference in London.

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Jane with Freddy Jacquin

Simultaneously, Sean Michael Andrews, the World’s Fastest Hypnotist was also offering a day’s training at the same venue. But she  could not be in two rooms at once. Fortunately, she had a solution. She deputised me  to attend, and report back. What a day I  had including teaming up with Sky TV’s Hypnotherapist Ali Campbell who was taking tips from Sean too.

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Celebrity Hypnotherapist Ali Campbell

The World’s Fastest Hypnotist Sean Michael Andrews has taught hundreds of hypnotists in seventeen countries how to perform hypnotic inductions skilfully, effectively, and most importantly, safely.  And now I know how to do it.

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Sean in action

Sean Michael Andrews is a graduate of Regents College. He is a Master Practitioner of NLP and a certified Instructor with IMDHA. Sean is the Supervising Instructor for the Dave Elman Hypnosis Institute and resides in Augusta, Georgia. He holds a black belt in Taijutsu Karate. 2013 MAHC and 2018 IACT Hypnotist of the Year, Sean is proclaimed the World’s Fastest Hypnotist and is performing on stage in Las Vegas later this year.

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In my group was Ali Campbell, hypnotherapist to the stars including Katie Price, Kelly Rowland and Mica Paris . before the day was out I was hypnotising him! Ali was kind, personable and incredibly generous with his time, telling me of celebrity clients which it would be indiscrete to repeat. However I can say that if you think of a glamorous singer, actress, or celebrity, Ali probably knows her.

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Me, Sean and the team, Ali is on my left, third from right

 

I came away with videos, books and techniques which have revolutionised my thinking – watch out!

http://www.alicampbell.com/

http://www.worldsfastesthypnotist.com/

 

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NEC – Well Being Show, 1st – 3rd Nov, 2019

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I have had numerous enquiries from within the MBS community about Jane Osborne’s experiences of exhibiting at the above event. Rather than reply individually I thought that I would do a blog to both reply to one and all, and, gather our own thoughts.

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Jane has been exhibiting seriously at MBS/ Well Being shows as a Past Life Regressionist for around three years now, although she has worked as a Regressionist for far longer. One of her earliest forays into the exhibition world was working with Paul Williamson, a Past life Regressionist, based in Australia, at Olympia, London, a show run by the same organisers as this event.

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The Well Being Exhibition market is certainly in a state of flux at the moment for reasons that are well documented. Amongst the foremost issues are online sales for retail goods, competition from associated fairs and festivals whose propositions overlay Well Being, and a rise in standards and customer expectations across the shows and festivals market.

 
It is expensive to exhibit. Just over £1000 for three days. It is exhausting, 10am – 6pm Friday and Saturday, 10am – 5pm Sunday. It is tiring. A chair is essential, as is comfortable footwear. Set up is on Thursday. We were lucky living just three quarters of an hour from the NEC. But for those based further afield, by far the majority, there is overnight accommodation to pay for, which including food is another £100 a night. Spiritual retreats were being sold for £2700 ( mine are a bargain £345 !), customised kettle drums for £1400. The stakes are high.

 
It is also expensive for visitors. £15 entry ( varies), £16 park ( on the day). A bit of petrol to travel there, and it is £50 for a couple just to go through the doors. This has two direct consequences. The clientele are affluent, you have to be to afford £50 just to arrive. They stay all day to squeeze full value out of their up- front investment.

 
Visitor traffic was measured in the several thousands a day. The seats and rest areas soon filled up. Pleasingly, the profile of visitor was noticeably younger than at normal Well Being shows. I would say that 40 % were under forty years old, with more men too than usual.

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There was much that I liked. The performance stage for music, mantra and song attracted big crowds. Bespoke marquees hosted Buddhist gatherings, Chill Out Zones, drumming and talks. There were hundreds of stalls offering variety to match. The idea of putting all the Mediums in one place, in one open marquee, with a central booking point, worked well. It was a delight to find old friends Kassee and Richard at their Shungite Jewellery stand, Stephanie King and Flavia Kate Peters and Barbara Micklejohn- Free, the latter of whom can be seen on stage below.nec4
Talks and workshops are a thorny subject at Well Being shows. Here, the numbers were dramatically pared back to around eight a day with a flat £15 a head charge from which the speaker took a cut. There were some free talks in performance tents, but not many, and with limited capacity, always full. The paid talks were well attended, the floor was not denuded of visitors by a plethora of talks, and the more popular speakers were handsomely rewarded.

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It was a delight to also have a decent range of food with juice bars, coffee bars, fresh pizza ovens, vegan, vegetarian, and fresh meat options, tellingly many retired to the on site pub with food too. Why so many other Well Being shows deny their customers a glass of wine, and restrict food choices, eludes me.

 
Downsides? The hall was by no means full of stalls, I estimate that around 20% was screened off. Although the standard of stalls was high, there was no anchor stall, no large sound bath, no large aura photography stand, which in the past have dominated this show.

 
Overall, it was a fine show, very well organised. Will we be back next year? Yes.

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