Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Sports feature: Durham University Kendo Club

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Palatinate

Ken you kick it? Of course you ken…

‘To you guys it’s a stick, in the kendo world it’s a shinai.’ And so our sensei Graham Dockwray initiates the lesson on basic swordsmanship crucial to the ancient Japanese martial art of kendo, or ‘the way of the sword’.

Like many martial arts, kendo is extremely proud of its origins and, in fact, the Japanese language is crucial to the sport. The sensei is our teacher who practices in the dojo or arena (which to you and me is better known as Bede Gym in Hild & Bede College), but it goes much deeper than this as you are also expected to shout the Japanese term for each body part struck.

The club is keen to encourage new members though and so fluent Japanese is not a starting requirement – and thankfully neither is owning your own shinai! While dedicated kendokas can find the expenses accumulate rapidly – upgrading from the traditional £25 bamboo sword to a carbon-fibre version can cost around £150 – kendo freshers at Durham University Kendo Club will be loaned a shinai in the first week and gain access to all the basic equipment upon joining.

So as I practise head strikes with my borrowed shinai alongside a class of over 20 students, I can’t help but feel that this is a truly unique way to spend a Friday night. Escaping the college bar for an hour could be the start of some amazing experiences: our sensei proudly recalls that two of his students are currently kendo-fencing for Great Britain over in Sweden, whilst he competes throughout the country as a recognised 4th Dan.

Kendo practice with shinai and body armour at Durham University Kendo Club

Not the movies
However, the sport won’t be to everybody’s taste – banish any idea of kendo as The Karate Kid with sticks! It’s actually a rigidly formalised sport which only allows strikes on certain parts of the body – the head, the wrist, around the body armour and later the throat – with the very tip of the shinai. Also, the fact that in Japan kendokas don’t actually fight for three years emphasises that kendo itself is focused less around creating a practical, competitive sport than emphasising the spiritual disciplining of the mind.

As one onlooker noted, ‘if you’re caught in a fight, chances are they’re not going to let you find a stick and then only hit your wrists.’ So avoid it if you’re looking for a real-life martial art to beat the school bullies like Daniel-san!

Still, it’s a fun and singular niche sport in Durham and, when you do graduate to live fighting after a few weeks, promises to be a great way to release some post-lecture stress at the end of each week. And as long as you can cope with noise from the ear-splitting shinai clashes and the guttural screams of psyched-up warriors, kendo really is open to everybody. You try not to smile as you watch our sensei’s 3-foot son in combat, whilst his father recounts how some Geordie bouncers recently slinked off home early, unable to cope with the mask vibrations from a well-aimed head shot!

If you fancy an unusual night out and kendo sounds tempting, then why not visit Bede Gym for the beginner’s session at 8pm every Friday? You can try the first couple of sessions for free and, if you do decide to pay the £25 membership fee, you’ll have access to all the basic equipment as well as your very own shinai.

For more details, contact Acting President Michael Brown or visit the kendo club’s official page on the Durham University website.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 4 Apr 2020

English Touring Theatre: Twelfth Night review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost finds English Touring Theatre have done a good job of recreating the comic in Shakespeare’s comedy

Some things in this world will never convince me. George Bush as an internationally respected war hero, John Kerry’s face as a 3-dimensional non-cardboard cut-out, Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming a credible political figure; like The Sex Pistols releasing a best-of album, it just doesn’t quite add up.

Beating the Amateurs
And whilst I anticipate a barrage of abuse for this, I reluctantly have to put amateur productions of Shakespeare into the same boat – generally they just don’t work.

Ridiculously brief and intense rehearsal schedules, hurried lines which the speakers don’t quite understand, overzealous directors imprinting oversized egos onto their one big show – all are commonplace in the immensely tricky world of amateur Shakespeare. And top of the problem pile is Shakespearean comedies – how to make 400-year-old jokes funny?

By contrast, stopping in at Gala Theatre on their nationwide tour of Twelfth Night, professional outfit English Touring Theatre (ETT) make an excellent stab at keeping Shakespeare’s light-hearted tone, without a sense that they’ve sacrificed his original intentions.

Refreshingly, we’re treated here to a director in Stephen Unwin who avoids overwhelming his production with a host of flashy ideas. And whilst it can sometimes be revealing to see Shakespeare relocated to a new setting, this production sensibly keeps to authentic period dress and minimises onstage clutter so that we focus on the brilliant wittiness of Twelfth Night’s dialogue.

Applaud the Belch
So we see the subtle interplay behind the love triangle of Viola, Olivia and Orsino alongside the unusually well-developed subplot of the riotous underclasses and their cruel love trick on Malvolio. The subplot in particular is brilliantly realised, with Michael Cronin stealing the show as the hard-living Sir Toby Belch with more than a hint of Falstaff.

Brilliantly cast with his rich, gravely voice and arrogant, portly demeanour, you truly believe every word as he roars ‘Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in’. A truly dominating presence on the stage, there wasn’t a spectator in the packed auditorium who wasn’t drawn to his lifestyle by the play’s conclusion.

Promotional poster for English Touring Theatre's version of Twelfth Night

This magnetic appeal is admirably enhanced by the impossibly stupid Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Geoffrey Beevers, whose dopey stare makes him perfectly suited to the role of doting understudy. The duo form a genuinely believable comic pairing, bringing the audience to hysterics as they drunkenly burst into dance or endearingly outrageous chauvinist rants.

Admittedly, there is far less scope for farcical debauchery in the main plot. However, these actors are again well-cast as they successfully bring a more refined comedy of manners to the play, an approach that is much better suited to their contrastingly elevated status in society.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Orsino defies an unpromising CV (which records a minor role in TV series The Demon Headmaster – hmmm…) with a charismatic portrayal of Orsino; and there is even an admirable effort to coordinate the appearances of the separated twins Viola and Sebastian. In particular, Georgina Rich, playing Viola in her first professional role, gives an excellent account of herself in what is an extremely demanding setup. The recent RADA graduate visibly grows in confidence throughout the performance as she balances her role as the object of both unrequited and undesired love, whilst remaining consistent to Gareth David-Lloyd’s characterisation of her twin Sebastian.

Let’s get Physical
Perhaps the most impressive of the lot though is Olivia who believably transforms herself from an embittered mourner to a giddy lover and beyond. This was intelligently signified by the bold costume designs of Mark Bouman as she moves from an austere black mourning bodice to a free-flowing natural pastel dress.

Still more impressively though is the clever manner in which this transformation is also signified by actress Catherine Walker’s subtle hand gestures. From withering looks and severe posturing to bubbly, nervous energy following the onset of her lovesickness, Walker gives a masterclass in understated physical theatre.

However, the show has some fairly glaring weaknesses too, which can ironically be summed up in the play’s legendary opening line “If music be the food of love, play on”. More than any Shakespearean play beforehand, this script centralises the importance of the fool’s musicianship, as Shakespeare aimed to cater for the arrival of the more musically minded fool actor Robert Armin.

A Fool’s Performance
Taking on the fool’s role Feste for ETT is Alan Williams, although he seemed strangely ill-cast with a singing voice that failed to adequately pronounce the deeply symbolic words. Of the play’s many unaccompanied songs, probably the concluding 20-line song stands out as one of ETT’s major disappointments. Allowing the increasingly restless audience to be so underwhelmed by a play’s climax is a cardinal sin, leaving me with the distinct impression that the director should have severely cut the play’s musical content.

It was also notable that Williams played a peculiarly listless fool, seemingly borrowing the Shakespearean concept of a wise and melancholy fool from plays like King Lear and taking it to an extreme that proved inappropriate for comedy. Whether the decision of the actor or the director, the onstage Feste seemed oddly lacking in the qualities of quick-wittedness and verbal dexterity called for by the scripted dialogue.

What must not be overlooked though is that these flaws were more than compensated for by a generally outstanding production. ETT boast a standard of performance that justifies the director’s decision to focus on the actors and speeches – surely the best way to approach Shakespeare’s richly symbolic language.

These actors make this term’s showpiece play at the Gala a real triumph, entertaining audiences through some uncommonly good character acting alongside a genuinely comic delivery. Whether in the amateur Shakespeare productions, or in the stage-managed set of Predator and the Californian elections, these are things that a certain Mr Schwarzenegger and his ilk will sadly never rival!

Posted by: Richard Frost | 4 Apr 2020

Gomez: Split the Difference album review

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: May 2004
Outlet: Palatinate

You either love it or you hate it. If Marmite ever needed a band to support its slogan, then traditional thinking has it they could do far worse than choose Gomez.

The mellow, stoner, blues-rock of their Mercury Music Prize-winning debut Bring it On has always split opinion and consigned them to dreaded cult band status. Now though, the pop sensibilities evidenced in their 2002 LP In Our Gun have been confirmed as Split the Difference makes a bid for the masses.

I must admit to adoring the ‘old’ Gomez, the only good blues band not in your grandad’s collection. However, I appreciate many will be glad to see this act disappear as the blues is forced out in favour of guitar-driven indie-rock.

Album artwork for Split the Difference by Southport indie-rock band Gomez

Thankfully, Gomez continue to stand out from this overcrowded market through their intelligent, densely layered instrumentals and vocal harmonies, which abound in hook-laden new single Silence. But it’s their catchy rhythms that now drive the music, as the electronica and shuffling rhythm-guitar loops finally streamline the songs rather than just supplying fancy ornamentation.

The more approachable formula does come at a price though, as the increasingly up-tempo tracks squeeze out their trademark freeform blues singing. This is Gomez’s first album in which Ben Ottewell’s smoky growl fails to provide the best songs, as he suffers in the regulated verse-chorus format. Ian Ball’s rawer vocals now best fit the bill as the band come teasingly close to emulating the popular sounds of oddball indie classic Whippin’ Piccadilly.

If they’re not careful, Gomez could soon become regulars in the top 10, and Marmite will have to find themselves a new soundtrack.

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: April 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Two years into his degree, Richard Frost finally finds English Literature coming into its own as the Reduced Shakespeare Company thrills Durham

For those of you who like your theatre grand, complicated and challenging, the Royal Shakespeare Company is probably the best group around. But whilst a good drama or tragedy can last for centuries, comedies date notoriously quickly, leaving future generations to puzzle over bizarre cultural references and contemporary in-jokes. Somehow as you precariously balance the ‘comedy’, a history text-book and the ever-reliable York notes, the joke seems to get lost.

So if like me you need a fun, stress-free night out as you rapidly sink underneath looming exams and missed essay deadlines (damn, there goes another one), you could do far worse than track down the thoroughly modern comedy of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

90 Minutes – Considerably Quicker than a Degree
It was indeed a fantastic coup for Gala Theatre to persuade the original American Reduced Shakespeare Company to stop off at Durham on their brief UK tour to perform All the Great Books (Abridged!).

Set in an American high school, their 5th original play transforms the audience into ‘Remedial Literature Class 101’. It’s the job of the wannabe thespian Drama Teacher (Graham Vick), the hyperactive and distinctly weasley US Kid (Matt Blair) and “just call me Coach” Coach (Tim Beckmann) to teach us the history of literature as we cram for the all-too-familiar exams.

Just 90 minutes to teach us 90 books ranging from Homer’s Illiad to Harry Potter. Or to put it another way, 90 minutes of the funniest stage script I’ve ever heard, creating almost constant laughter for a fantastic 90 minutes.

Promotional material for All The Great Books (Abridged!) show by Reduced Shakespeare Company

This play is truly built on the tremendous script of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Although admittedly launching into an unspectacular opening with the combined works of Dickens into the Great Expecterations soap opera, the 1st Act exploded emphatically with the Greek epic The Idiottity (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey handily combined).

Obviously, with a play built on playful mocking of literature, your enjoyment will depend to some extent on how many books you’ve read. It’s true that literary in-jokes from squashing Kafka’s beetle in The Metamorphoses to the fluent (apparently, so I’m told) Spanish mocking of Don Quixote won’t be recognized by everyone; however, there are still more than enough jokes to entertain those of us who would struggle in a literacy battle with a monkey.

So whilst Achilles’ precise motivations in The Illiad may not exactly be common knowledge, everybody can enjoy the brilliant slapstick choreography of the 2-man Trojan Horse dance as it waltzes across stage whilst barely avoiding pursuers, and the snotty kid screaming “I’m invisible!” when told he’s invincible.

Join the Fun
By the interval, the audience had already been converted to the irresistible RSC staples of energy and light-hearted comedy. Act 2 then saw an unprecedented amount of audience participation in the Gala, with the chaotic inflatable football battle between Coach and the audience and the roar of fake sneezes accompanying every mention of Plato to infuriate Coach.

The division between actors and audience was emphatically subverted and truly helped the crowd to feel part of the performance. We were even treated to the sight of an unwitting audience member dressed in drag and becoming Virginia Woolf in a literary Blind Date stand-off with George Eliot and Jane Austen. “Kevin from the audience”, we salute you!

Arguably equaling the achievements of the script was the stunning energy and comic timing of its three actors. “All of our energy comes from bottles” explained Graham Vick with a knowing wink, after being remorselessly involved onstage for almost the whole duration of the show. Possible Rio Ferdinand-esque drug scandals aside, it’s a true testament to the acting ability and sheer endurance of the three that they can remain in character and maintain such radically different onstage personas for the whole night.

Beckhams, Russians and Riotous Applause
It helps that they can rely on such a hilarious script, but it’s also important that they clearly exercise an unrivalled freedom in adapting it to respond to particular audiences. The American group clearly took the pains to accommodate the English obsession with ‘soccer’ and taunted us with the transfer of Beckham to Madrid before playfully confessing ‘I’m an American, I don’t even know what that means’.

Soon after, they were using the opportunity of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to take a sideswipe at Russia’s ongoing attempts to take over Europe through Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. Just two of many instances of the effort the RSC have taken to keep the play topical with this their 15th UK tour, and they fully deserved the accompanying audience laughter and applause.

However, some of the show’s most memorable moments came from ad-libbing. Whilst a shattered Matt Blair joked that “maybe these costume changes are just a real bitch”, the fully armoured Greek hero Achilles was mocked with “you look just like Russell Crowe”, and Matt Blair responded to calls to stop hiding behind an American flag with “Why not? George Bush does it”.

Even the actors were reduced to hysterics as these impromptu one-liners caught them off-guard and led a real sense of individuality to the show, and it was impossible not to believe Graham Vick as he enthusiastically admitted afterwards that “It’s like a party out there!”

Really by normal standards of theatre, this play should fall completely flat. With just one loosely developed location, three actors who remain almost constantly onstage without any character development, and only the occasional use of lighting and sound (notably in the brilliant, heated arguments of James Joyce’s interior monologues), the audience should be bored senseless.

However, this is anything but a normal production and plays unashamedly to the RSC’s strengths, with the comic brilliance of both the writing and performing consistently shining through. It may not be highbrow theatre but this was indisputably the most entertaining stage performance I’ve ever seen, suggesting that this company deserve every bit as much credit as their critically acclaimed namesakes.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Review of H-Bam, Cambridge Footlights and The Durham Revue

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: March 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost discovers that political correctness has yet to reach the Comedy Festival. But controversial doesn’t always mean funny…

Student comedy is famous for being a bit daring and controversial. Perhaps more than ever before in Durham though, the comedy served up in this year’s Comedy Festival was aimed at a very liberal (and at an excessive £7, a decidedly rich) audience.

Pretty much every group in Durham could expect to be targeted at some point in the night – Christians, Jews, Germans, Africans, homosexuals, the infirm, the rich, feminists, artists, actors – even the tooth fairy couldn’t avoid the biting satire! The love child of abusive comic Bernard Manning and cringeworthy king of tasteless remarks Prince Philip himself could hardly produce a less politically correct three hours.

Dublin: a good craic
The tone for the night was instantly set by the gross-out sketches of Dublin’s H-Bam.

Often this was done to brilliant effect, such as the S.T.D. sketch where a concerned father tells his randy daughter that he “has brought a few friends to help him out”, before unveiling a series of people parading as syphilis, herpes and of course genital warts. At other times though, such as during the graphic comparison of a sweaty scrotum to a stingray, the attempts to shock just felt forced and were sickening without being funny.

Dublin's H-Bam comedy troupe in action

H-Bam also used satirical sketches to shock, such as in the mocking of Adolf Hitler, incessantly screaming out a desire to serve his beloved schnitzel whilst friends discuss the need for a new German leader. This had more than a hint of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and the group would be well-advised to be a bit more creative and progressive if they truly want to do shock-humour. But the sketch did improve with the visitor from the future, and featured some great one liners such as “oh yeah, and don’t forget Poland’s fucking cold in winter”, before becoming truly hilarious as it introduced topicality with the summary of Iraq as “there’s a Bush, a Dick and someone gets fucked up the ass”.

This crude language was at the heart of many Dublin sketches, such as Captain Cook’s catchphrase of “what the fuck is that?” and the closing song “who gives a fuck about Easter” (hello DICCU!). What actually did happen to the agreement with DUCK about not excessively using abusive language is a mystery, but it was important in maintaining the shock value of the sketches (although at times it did fell like the language was used to cover up weaker material). Altogether a really good set from Dublin though, with the often excellent material being supported by consistently brilliant performances.

Cambridge: make a song and dance about it!
From the star performers, we were then subjected to the biggest disappointments.

Most of the Cambridge Footlights failed to recognise the importance of performing to the audience, merely delivering their lines with little expression and relying on the comic value of their intermittently funny material. The majority of sketches though, such as the Python-esque peace negotiations where the parties tried to decide whether peace or war was better, weren’t funny because they were irrelevant to the audience and were performed without conviction.

The exceptions to the deadpan delivery were the most successful performances, notably the crazed father demanding that his son make a computer from cookery ingredients and then ordering him on a holy crusade. Accidentally dropping a memo, his son picks it up to reveal the full-page message “Note to self: if the boy refuses, kill him with fire”. This combination of brilliant material and a brilliant performance by the crazed father had the audience in hysterics and clearly showed the group the most rewarding direction for future sketches.

The famous Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe

The oddball humour of the Weight and Mass Song was another highlight as a crazed girl played a pleasant ditty on piano whilst aggressively shouting “you’re wrong” as she angrily notes Einstein’s contributions to physics.

The Footlights must also be commended for featuring the one piece of stand-up in the Comedy Festival, with the mocking of a tin of mackerel’s declaration that “it’s like tuna”. The argument was carefully developed into the wittily surreal suggestion that the tin was made by a group of tuna intent on annihilating all mackerel. This variety was very welcome after 90 minutes of sketches and the positive audience responses reflected this.

Generally though, the set felt tame and unfocused as it lacked the biting satire and mockery of Dublin and Durham and was merely a set of strange or unexpected sketches without the performances to support them. The main exception was the extremely funny sketch showing the repressed Christians who obviously lust for one another but must constantly check themselves because of their Christian ideals. By actually having a target, this sketch featured a relevancy that was sorely lacking elsewhere and, whilst some Christians may disapprove of the unflattering stereotypes, the crowd loved it.

Durham: hit and miss
The crowd may have been split over the previous comedy groups, but they were all united in a celebratory mood as The Durham Revue came on for the headlining slot. All credit must go to the group’s creativity for completely renewing their set and although this inevitably meant a sizeable portion of weak material, they also came out with some brilliant sketches.

They provided what for me was the night’s standout sketch with the ever-satisfying Dave Critchley as a distinctly vicious tooth fairy, complete with ballerina’s outfit. The concept of the sketch was fantastic with the new tooth fairy justifying his methods of hitting kids to get all of the teeth in one go and declaring “Who gets you more teeth per hour than anyone else? Me”. The sketch was then brilliantly given a political twist with the fairy fighting to prove his efficiency in the newly privatised tooth-fairy industry and mocking the laziness of the fairies back in the pre-Thatcher days. The role of a violent, slightly unhinged working-class psychotic was tailor-made for Critchley, and he played it to perfection.

Naked Woody…?
The group proved it could do gross-out humour too with the (frankly nauseating) spectacle of a nude Woody prancing around stage in a sadly unsubstantial and all-too-revealing moon costume as a lunatic.

The audience were again laughing at the shock sketches as the know-it-all baby tells his mum that his dad keeps a plug in his sphincter muscle “to make it easier for men to anally penetrate him” (complete with the father’s brilliantly guilty bulging eyes), before departing to clean his soiled pants. There was also the mock advertisement for a new tampon as one girl demonstrated the new tampon while Owen Mason – as another, less convincing ‘girl’ – reluctantly proved that it was better than using a brick. Whether this stepped over the boundary into bad taste is, of course, up for debate.

Members of The Durham Revue onstage

Lobster love
Durham admirably tried to mix this shock comedy with surreal sketches too. In particular, the homosexual love story featuring a man with a fetish for dressing as lobsters was a really funny concept even if it felt slightly drawn out, perhaps due to the pressures of constantly producing new material. The same could be said of the Vac Robot sketch, which could fulfil all a housewife’s cleaning ambitions, since it was quite funny but couldn’t justify the lengthy time and multiple scenes devoted to it.

By contrast, the excruciating mockery of the elderly was comic genius precisely because it was so drawn out. The sight of an infirm couple slowly crossing stage to join hands and then agonisingly turn around and leave again was funny in itself, and became hilarious as a voice announced “meanwhile, in a distinct galaxy, exactly the same thing was happening” only to subject the audience to the same again. The onstage piano accompaniment was a brilliant touch with the player performing a small interlude song and then becoming increasingly exasperated as he was obliged to play it over and over again as the characters inched across stage.

However, it has to be said that the standard of comedy was extremely patchy, with too many sketches feeling like time fillers, such as the pointless, undeveloped sketch of a very small whore and the predictable mocking of modern art sketch.

Ultimately then a mixed set for the Durham Revue that showed some brilliant ideas and a good degree of variation, but had too many sketches that just weren’t sufficiently thought out. As is normal for the group, the acting itself was excellent, and they certainly showed intelligence in playing to their audience through the psychotic tutor who impulsively shoots students that fail to do the set reading and the priest who, inevitably, is called Reverend John.

There is no doubt then that Durham Revue had the lion’s share of the best sketches and demonstrated the most adaptable and varied comic ability, but for greater consistency H-Bam probably just shaded this year’s Comedy Festival.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company: Titus Andronicus review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: March 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost finds that Shakespeare has some serious issues

The Renaissance Scream?
Titus Andronicus. The name itself is enough to send shivers down the spine of any theatre director.

A grand total of 14 killings, 6 severed limbs, 1 rape, 1 live burial and 1 mother unwittingly eating her own children make this a nightmare to stage and far from palatable for conservative audiences. Its sensationalism and bloodthirstiness – S. Clarke Hulse gleefully points out its “average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines” – has seen it described as a slasher movie for the Renaissance, and led to many critics attempting to deny Shakespeare’s involvement.

Unsurprisingly, most theatre groups tend to stick to Romeo and Juliet. However, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has now risen to the challenge, with an engaging new production that will surely revive interest in this forgotten play.

Being such a well-funded company and performed in the stunning Theatre Royal, elaborate stage designs were to be expected. Stage manager Paul Sawtell didn’t disappoint with his use of the trapdoor and variation in the distance of the backdrops particularly good in making each location feel unique. Meanwhile, props were sensibly kept to the bare minimum to focus the audience on the complex and twisting plot.

But it was director Bill Alexander’s macabre vision of a disturbing world of vengeance that really grabbed the attention. The rare previous performances of this play have tended to emphasise the characters’ histrionics and Shakespeare’s often far-fetched plot twists, directing the play towards farce. By contrast, the terrifying intensity of Alexander’s production focuses on psychology and successfully shows the realistic effects on characters of these far-fetched events.

For the first time, Titus Andronicus is treated as a proper Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and it proves itself equal to the challenge.

William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus book cover

© The Arden Shakespeare

Hail to the Cast
Much of the credit for this success must go to the casting.

As arguably the world’s leading theatre company, their fame allows them to select the very best actors from film and theatre. Collectively, this cast can boast theatre performances of the entire Shakespearean back catalogue, as well as more contemporary roles in Coronation Street and seemingly every emergency-service drama ever made from The Bill to Taggart. David Bradley can also boast of participating in 3 Harry Potter films, although Daniel Brocklebank must cringe at the mention of his role in dire thriller The Hole.

All excellent actors then, and thankfully the vast majority treated Titus Andronicus as a serious, psychology-driven play. Bradley in the title role was a real success as he successfully showed the mounting horrors of his situation with the murders and mutilations of his children. He even excelled in the minefield situation of faking madness as he tried to revenge himself upon the bitter and immoral Goth Queen Tamora, which climaxed in serving her a pie made of her own children.

Tamora herself, played by Maureen Beattie, was perhaps less successful though as her thick brogue made her difficult to understand and rapidly became irritating.

Joe Dixon made the most of the sadistic Moor Aron and was truly shocking in his delight at other characters’ sufferings, before growing dangerously attached to his bastard son. Eve Myles also grew into her role of Lavinia as the play progressed, although initially she seemed to struggle to find anything of interest in her early scenes as a pleasant, dutiful daughter. Later though, her distress and anguish upon being raped and having her arms and tongue sliced off were brilliantly moving.

At this point, a special mention must be made of the special effects department and fight director Malcolm Ranson who can rarely have been challenged so much by a play. Depicting so many live mutilations, murders and battles is a potentially disastrous situation with any slips unintentionally turning the play into farce. However each of the effects worked perfectly, allowing the audience to suspend disbelief and accept the actions depicted as all-too-real.

If I was a Rich Man
All in all then, a fantastically dark and sinister version of Titus Andronicus, which makes a strong claim for a more accepting view of the story. As probably Shakespeare’s most difficult play to stage, it may well prove too tricky for Durham to reproduce, but RSC have proven that it can be done given the best facilities and crews.

This performance can only add to the Stratford-based company’s excellent reputation, and the only blot is that they won’t now return to the North East for their annual residency until next autumn.

The programme has yet to be announced, but two things are already certain. Firstly, it’s going to be a massive challenge to try and surpass this production and, secondly, it’ll be impossible to find a more savage and downright brutal Shakespearean play to perform.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Durham 2-3 York St John match report

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: November 2003
Outlet: Palatinate

The Durham University Men’s 1sts football team came up slightly short at the Racecourse in a defeat that severely threatens their title ambitions for this season. In truth though, their counterparts at York St John University probably edged this closely fought contest in a defeat which leaves the hosts six points behind leaders Sheffield with just four games remaining.

Strangely for an away side, York dominated the early possession and created several good openings as Durham struggled to find their feet. Durham’s midfield often played too deep and so the team was forced to rely on long balls upfront to the pacy Neil Goodman and towering Andy Burns.

York’s one-touch passing often exposed the defence’s poor positioning and Durham should have been behind when a deflected shot and subsequent strike by forward Andy Sherlock rattled off the crossbar and upright. Rather than regrouping, this led to the first of several aggressive accusations of blame during the match, which can’t have helped Durham’s team spirit.

With York pressing, it was a slight surprise to see the impressive Burns nudge Durham ahead when his looping header found the far corner of York’s net after 30 minutes. At an immense 6’6, he was a clear head taller than any defender, and his height advantage helped him to become Durham’s outstanding performer – his flick-ons and sheer presence on the ball were a constant menace to the visitors.

The shock lead didn’t go unnoticed by York’s colourful substitutes who instantly screamed ‘they don’t deserve it!’, albeit with slightly more x-rated language. They almost had a bizarre goal to shout about soon after though as a weak kick by keeper Dave Irish flew directly onto bemused York striker Sherlock’s head, although the goalie then recovered well to save. York did ultimately draw level, however, and in one of the last touches of the first half, as Sherlock this time converted his header to record a deserved equaliser.

Durham responded to the challenge as captain Andy Murdoch put Durham ahead again from a free-kick straight after the restart. His whipped cross eluded everyone and left York’s goalkeeper to choose between the ball and the onrushing strikers. In the end he panicked, stood stationary and watched the ball fly in.

Shortly afterwards, Burns should really have given Durham some breathing space when presented with the ball after a shocking York clearance. As his tame shot struck the goalkeeper, the tide seemed to be turning in favour of Durham’s hard-working team. Then disaster struck.

First off, a York free-kick caused panic in the box leaving defender Nick Shepherd to head home unchallenged. Unforgivably, the game’s decisive goal came straight from the following kick-off as York’s Sherlock stole the ball and ran from the halfway line to slot home with Durham’s sloppy defence outnumbered. As captain Murdoch later admitted, ‘it was those two defensive mistakes which cost us’.

Perhaps mindful of those clangers, Durham seemed reluctant to commit numbers upfront as the second half progressed, and York looked the more likely scorers, with the excellent Sherlock unlucky not to complete his hat-trick.

Clearly, Durham need to develop a more attack-minded midfield when they fall behind in future, whilst those costly defensive lapses must be minimised. If they don’t improve, the signs for the top-of-the-table showdown with Sheffield in January look ominous.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 2 Apr 2020

Electric Six gig review

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: November 2003
Outlet: Palatinate

Danger! Danger! High Voltage! The band with the best videos around light up Newcastle University with a suitably electric performance (sorry for all the puns, it’s just too tempting)

I’ll admit I was slightly worried that Electric Six’s comic-genius videos for Danger! High Voltage, new single Dance Commander and of course Gay Bar (Gay Bar! Gay Bar!) would fall flat live. Could they really cope without the flashing pelvic lights and the gay gymnasts? Would the mysterious summer walk-out of half the band ruin their euphoric dirty disco vibes? And why has some drunken 14-year-old just poured my mate’s pint down my (deliberately!) camp clothes?

But we start with the support acts. First up were Surferosa – if you’re named after a Pixies album in my world, you must be good. And they were, despite sounding nothing like The Pixies. A girl-fronted punk band that couldn’t help but remind audience members of The Distillers, though not quite as bad (attitude) and not quite as good (songs). Enough to suggest they can headline and become a cult hit though.

Next up, Kid Symphony. Am I the only one who thinks you can spot a good band from their name alone? This lot were completely anonymous, apart from the aforementioned drunk kid who followed the pint spilling by asking if this MOR rock was in fact the disco-stomping Electric Six.

It’s said that a good crowd makes a good gig and, if true, this was a sensational show. A full 20 minutes before the band arrived onstage, the crowd were swaying and surging so much that I somehow ended up on the third row without even trying. Crowd surfing (aka getting repeatedly kicked in the head) was also a constant throughout, whilst I even saw a few mosh pits springing from the Geordie hordes.

Original artwork for Electric Six's debut LP Fire

A personal favourite came at the start of the performance, with the 1,200-strong capacity crowd chanting in unison ‘We want Dick!’ Mr Dick Valentine duly appeared and promptly sank from view again as the charged crowd surged (no more, I promise).

The good news for fans is that Dick is as funny live as he is in the videos and on the storming debut album Fire. Tongue-in-cheek songs Nuclear War (on the Dancefloor) and Naked Pictures (of your Mother) were a huge success, with their gift for a catchy chorus obliging everyone to sing along. Sadly, Danger! High Voltage was sung without the aid of the Jack White sound-a-like (allegedly an Ohio car mechanic), but Improper Dancing with the line ‘Stop!…Continue!’ proved a brilliant way to lead into the encore.

What’s more, the crowd hit fever pitch when our ‘Gay Bar’ chant was answered with the song’s opening guitar hook for the finale (though Dick never donned the Abraham Lincoln beard, sadly). My aching, sweaty and frankly unattractive body somehow managed to jump with the masses for three more minutes in an ecstatic finale that even seemed to surprise the band. Dick genuinely seemed to enjoy himself and this was confirmed afterwards when he repeatedly returned to the stage to humbly thank the audience – a far cry from his cocksure stage persona.

So a fantastic performance whose only downside is that it’s hard to see how Electric Six might be able to improve on all this in future. Can they possibly follow up Fire with another song as catchy or a video as funny as Danger! High Voltage or Gay Bar? Maybe not, but for tonight at least Electric Six’s star shined brightly (sorry).

Posted by: Richard Frost | 1 Apr 2020

Super Furry Animals interview

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: October 2003
Outlet: Palatinate

Super Furry Animals are back.

Their sold-out gig at Newcastle University comes in support of their deliberately acoustic sixth studio album Phantom Power. Contemporaries may struggle, but how do they continually escape the Britpop curse? For lead singer Gruff Rhys, the answer is simple – ‘by not being rubbish’. And how are relations between the five band-members after eight years together? ‘It’s like being married…but without the sex.’ The reassuring news for fans is that SFA are still great fun.

However, they reject accusations of being a comedy band, despite surreal lyrics in recent singles Hello Sunshine and Golden Retriever. ‘You can’t be depressed all the time. Besides, we’ve travelled the bars of the world – we have a great job but you can’t take it too seriously.’ And they aren’t afraid to voice their political opinions when for example dedicating The Man Don’t Give a F*ck to President Bush whilst touring America. Gruff cheekily attributes their success there to the fact that ‘they hate Bush too’.

Cover for Super Furry Animals' acoustic album Phantom Power

Bizarrely, three of the five members are former drummers, prompting the band to proclaim ‘they’re great – every band should have one!’ It’s surely nothing short of amazing then that the band possess such a clear plan as to their direction and continuing their recent resurgence – ‘There was more of a plan this time than ever before’.

Providing an insight into Phantom Power’s creation, they reveal that ‘before recording we had about 60 of our songs up on the wall. Then we chose the acoustic songs as the base’. Although this mellow album is far from the Radiator Part 2 that some fans still want, the band are determined to ‘develop and change’ and vow never to simply ‘rehash an album’.

The band is also honest about past failures. ‘The last time we played in Newcastle, we got booed off. We sounded sh*t.’ Recalling the chant of ‘what a waste of money’ with a shudder, they accept that they’ve previously struggled to realise their studio sound live: ‘We were always frustrated with what we could achieve on tour. Now though we have the technology to succeed.’

Perhaps the Welshmen are overly critical though as they’ve grown famous for producing surreal live shows packed with cacti, inflatable bears and nuclear bunkers. Can we expect an appearance of the legendary yetis tonight? ‘People say they’re costumes,’ moans Gruff, ‘but really it’s more of an Incredible Hulk-style transition based on love instead of hate. We’re unable to transform unless there’s love from the audience.’

Posted by: Richard Frost | 31 Mar 2020

You know when you’ve been furloughed

Tango advert with the slogan 'you know when you've been tango'd'

© Tango

I’ve been furloughed.

Now I appreciate I’m not the only one in this position – it feels like every company in the country is furloughing staff (aka giving them a temporary leave of absence) as the realities of fighting coronavirus hit home – and plenty of people are having to deal with far more challenging circumstances than me at the moment. Still, I enjoy what I do for a living, whether that’s improving Sleeper Media’s online offering or interviewing leading lights in the hospitality world, and I’ll miss wandering round Strawberry Studios on my lunchbreak.

Nevertheless, every cloud has a silver lining and all that, and in this case the silver lining is that I suddenly find myself with *a lot* of free time to finally do all those things I’d never quite managed to get round to before. What sort of things?

Well for starters, I’ve written tens of thousands of articles down the years covering everything from Heinz Beck’s take on Italian cuisine and Gary Neville’s plans to launch a university to a bunch of volunteers dressing in pink and dancing the conga. You can still read most of them by visiting the websites of Supper, North West Business Insider, Time Out, the Liverpool Echo, the Southport Visiter, the Watford Observer and so on.

Supper website alongside the Starboard, Sleeper and Supper magazines

But many of my pieces have long since disappeared into the ether – either the websites I created them for have been taken down, or they were never online in the first place. Currently, the only place you’ll find these articles is languishing on my hard drive.

So starting tomorrow, and continuing throughout April, I’ll be posting a selection of articles on here spanning the arts, sport, travel, history and politics that haven’t seen the light of day for quite some time – over 15 years in some cases! My plan is to work through them chronologically, beginning with an exclusive interview with Super Furry Animals in Newcastle.

Hope you enjoy reading them and I’d love to hear from you if you like what you see, or just want to know what Gruff Rhys is like in person.

Stay safe everyone…

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