Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Review of Noises Off at Keswick Theatre

Wicked fun from the cast of Noises Off

KESWICK'S Theatre by the Lake lifted the curtain on their summer season in fine style with a performance of the classic farce, Noises Off.

In some ways this classic of English theatre should be a safe bet but the obituaries of many an am dram company have been underscored by an attempt at farce. It's tempting to think that perfoming a play where everything goes wrong is going to be easy. After all, if anything goes wrong the cast can just pretend it's part of the show! The truth, of course, is that it's one of the hardest genres of theatre. Getting a laugh during a play is an art, getting an audience laughing all the way through is a devil's own job. 

Fortunately this production was in the safe hands of some Keswick stalwarts and laugh all the way through is precisely what the audience did. Noises Off is a play within a play - telling of a theatre troupe's performance of "Nothing On". The drama on stage is nothing compared with the drama going on behind the scenes and in Act II the stage revolves to reveal in all its horror the politics, bitchiness and confusion of what is happening back stage. Author Michael Frayn doffs his cap to the grand English tradition of farce by including lots of opening and shutting doors, dropping of trousers, mistaken identity and a tray or two of sardines. The audience can join in the jokes from the start but it's only when the director, Lloyd Dallas (Matthew Vaughan who appeared in Keswick's succesful run of Arsenic and Old Lace) chirps up from the audience stalls that they realise there's more to this farce than they might first think. Frayn says in the programme notes that "comedy is always funnier if you play it seriously" and as an oh-so-important director, Vaughan underlines the pomposity of a wannabe theatrical company which does indeed take itself seriously. There will no doubt be many members of drama groups chuckling away in the Keswick audience at the hissy-fits, mis-timed entrances and other in-jokes.

It's another Keswick faithful, Ben Ingles, playing the central role of Garry Lejeune who acts as the eye of the storm in the antics of Noises Off. Ingles brings his dancing skills to the fore as he runs, prances and falls around the stage - including a superb fall down a flight of stairs. The audience shares his exhaustion in the frantic scenes as much as they share his bewilderment at the play falling apart around him. Ingles portrays with delightful subtlety an actor facing the ultimate horror of actors going missing, others forgetting their lines and finally the whole script going out of the window.

Another welcome return to Keswick is actor Peter Macqueen (Scrooge of a previous Christmas production) who demonstrates his super comic talents. He has the audience laughing from the moment he walks on stage - indeed the manner of him getting on stage, or trying to get on stage, is usually enough to reduce the audience to tears of laughter. If any actors need a master class in how to make an entrance, just watch Macqueen at work in this production.

If Macqueen demonstrates how to walk on to stage and Ingles how to move around it, then Heather Saunders, playing blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton, shows how to teeter around the stage. Just a high-heeled shuffled across the boards was enough to get the audience giggling and frantic searches for lost contact lenses were enough to keep the laughs coming thick and fast.

Kate Layden as Dotty Otley, Fiona Drummond as Poppy, Jack Power as Frederick Fellowes, Benjamin Askew as Tim Allgood and Heather Phoenix as Belinda Blair complete the cast of this delightful production that will prove a memorable night out for every member of the family. This is a slick, fast-paced comedy where the laughs come fast and furious. 

Director Stefan Escreet and designer Martin Johns manage to work out the entrances, exits and who's-who in this maelstrom without a missed note. It is the first in the canon of Keswick's Summer Season and is Keswick theatre at its best. It bodes well for the other shows opening over the next few weeks.

Please note there is, unusually, two intervals during this show - more than one member of the audience were wrong-footed by the 'ending' at the end of Act II!

Noises Off runs until November 9 at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Box office: 017687 74411 or visit www.theatrebythelake.co.uk.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Paramedics of yesteryear

THIS blog is mainly devoted to extolling the beauties of the Lake District but I had no other place to post up this wonderful account of ambulance men of old which, I'm sure you will agree, deserves wider circulation. It's an angry letter from a Whitehaven resident to the editor of the Whitehaven News ranting about the drunken stretcher carriers transporting fever victims from Mount Pleasant (the poorest part of town) to the local hospital. Not only were the men drunk but they attempted to put two women on the same stretcher to save themselves a trip! And on a previous occasion set their patient down on the street while they popped into the pub for another drink! Wonderful stuff. My grateful thanks to Anne Cook of The Beacon museum for passing this on to me.

Whitehaven News, September 15th 1870


To the editor of the Whitehaven News

Sir,-As an interested townsman, I write to expose and protest against one of the most disgraceful and revolting scenes that it has been my misfortune to witness for many years; and I trust that such exposure will have the effect of arousing to immediate action all who may read it, and who may have any sympathy with the cause it advocates. I refer to the system of conveying to the infirmary the unfortunate victims of the fever epidemic, which is now assuming such alarming proportions in many parts of the town. Last Saturday evening, about half-past seven o'clock, while returning in company with two or three friends, from a visit to the wonderful ventilating fan at the top of Mount Pleasant, which may, perhaps not inaptly be termed the life-preserver of the Wellington Coal Pit,  I was perfectly horrified to behold a poor unfortunate female, who had been seized with the dangerous malady, and who was placed in the so-called sick bed, for the purpose of being taken to the hospital, committed to the care of two men who were so drunk as scarcely to be able to walk themselves, much less to bear the unhappy invalid carefully and safely to her destination. The consequence was the men went reeling and staggering from one side to the other as they descended the hill; and had it not been for the timely assistance rendered by two women who saw the perilous position of the helpless sufferer, she must inevitably have rudely fallen from their hands to the ground, or have been capsized and thrown out of the bed altogether. 

This is not all, however. To save themselves a journey, or to use the common adage, to "kill two birds with one stone," the men attempted to cram into the narrow portable bed another patient, who had been smitten with the disease; in doing which they dragged her into the open air, and after making several abortive, but shameful, efforts to squeeze her in beside her sister victim, relinquished their inhuman cruelty; and the girl, after having been thus exposed to the cold atmosphere for a considerable time, was conveyed back to her sick chamber, there to await the return of the besotted carriers.

Now, sir, I ask is not such an exhibition as the one I have described a disgrace to the authorities who permit it? However they may regard these remarks, the scene in question called forth a universal burst of indignation from the crowd who quickly collected together as they approached the principal thoroughfare, so that I am but expressing the feelings of all who witnessed the affair. I have been informed that the above is only one out of many similar sights. Only a few days ago, indeed, the men set their patient down on the street, while they coolly stepped into a public house close by for the purpose of regaling themselves once more with the "invigorating draught!"

Now, sir, with these facts before you, I ask, why allow men, in this drunken state to perform such important duties? Is it because the authorities cannot get anybody else? I think not. I am quite sure that the friends of the patients would a thousand times over prefer to take them to the hospital themselves, than give them in charge of men who are more like pitching them into the street than anything else. Or is it because the men need to be rendered stupid by intoxicating stimulants to avoid catching the contagion? Surely our medical advisers can administer some safer  and equally non-infecting prescription, or the query will arise, how do they themselves escape the various maladies with which they are brought in contact? Evidently these are the chief difficulties in the way, and both seem capable of easy solution; then, sir, for what other reason can such a state of things be tolerated in our midst? Can it be attributable to the fact that the subjects of the fever belong mainly to the poorest and lowest classes, and therefore unworthy of any better treatment? I would fain hope that such an imputation may be groundless, but it must certainly be obvious to every thoughtful and candid person that there is something seriously defective in this department of so useful an institution as the Whitehaven infirmary; and I feel assured that the attention of the governors is only required to be called to the matter to ensure an effectual remedy. 

- I am, &c., AN EYE WITNESS.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Old Flo is back

WHAT better way to spend your birthday than painting and decorating! But it was all in a good cause as I was helping the other volunteers at the Old Florence Mine, Egremont which is being converted into an arts centre. There are some exciting plans but I won't steal the thunder of the organisers. The mine used to extract iron ore so there was red dust absolutely everywhere - no matter how hard you tried to clean it up. I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that the new arts centre hopes to incorporate some aspect of the iron ore in its new plans.

In the evening, it was the preview evening of the Eskdale Art Fair which takes place all bank holiday weekend at St Bega's School, Eskdale Green. The quality of the work is stunning, with mostly local artists and many local views. The fair raises money for the school which has just 41 pupils. What a shame there aren't more events like this to show off the great talents of local artists.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Exploring Eskdale

ESKDALE is gearing up for the Eskdale Open Art event this weekend (Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday). It takes place at St Bega's School and they're normally very good at marshalling cars into the car park. But can I suggest a more pleasant way of getting there is via The Ratty steam engine. Either park at Eskdale and take the train to Eskdale Green (it's then a short walk to the school), or park at Dalegarth near Boot and it's a short hop on the Ratty to Eskdale Green. You could even walk from Dalegarth, calling in at the Japanese Garden above Giggle Alley. While in Eskdale, there are plenty of other places to explore. Top of my list would be a trip to the Woodland tea rooms at Santon Bridge for tea and cake. Next door to it is the gift shop which is crammed full with super gift ideas and local arts & crafts. Further down the valley is the village of Boot and the wondrous Eskdale Mill. Miller Dave King will give you a guided tour for the sake of a few pence and you can then wander round the mill garden - perhaps even meeting Stanley the mill cat. There's so much to see and do in Eskdale, you'll never tire of this idyllic valley.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Bank Holiday bonanza

Herons wait for feeding time at Muncaster Castle
THERE'S plenty going on in and around the Lake District this weekend - here are just a couple to give you a taste of what's available.

If you're looking for family fun then you'll do no better than to head to Muncaster Castle and join in the fun as they chose their new Tom Fool. The castle is home to the original 'Tom Fool' - Tom Skelton - but each year a new jester is selected. The tournament begins on Saturday (May 28)  and continues until the final being on Wednesday, June 1. That means five days of tomfoolery! In addition to the magnificent castle there are the superb grounds, the World Owl Trust is based there and at 4pm each day is the feeding of the herons - a most weird sight! (see picture)

And just up the road from Muncaster, you'll find the Eskdale Open Art weekend taking place at the tiny St Bega's School at Eskdale Green. This is the school's major fund-raising event for the year and attracts some of the best art, photography and crafts in the region. Some of my work will also be there! Lesley and I will be launching our latest booklet, Strange Eskdale, detailing the folklore and ghost stories from the valley. We'll also have a few photographs on display. The exhibition is open all day Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday. And there will also be tea and cakes available.

  • Check out GoLakes for other Cumbria events including the start of the summer season at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake, 3D films at Rheged and the chance to meet real owls at The Ratty steam train (Ravenglass).

Monday, 23 May 2011

Something of a rum do

ONE of my favourite haunts - perhaps because it is haunted! - is Whitehaven's Rum Story. The tiny entrance on Lowther Street, Whitehaven, belies the huge museum inside. The building was once the warehouse for Jeffersons' rum and it is now used to tell the story of the rum trade - and the less pleasant slave trade. But it's not the museum I visit week in and week out. It's the coffee shop and gift shop. You can sit and drink your latte while watching the famed Rum Story clock strike the hour and half hour (it tells the story of rum while 'chiming') in the pleasant courtyard. But the gift shop is the real treasure trove, crammed full with some of the best arts and crafts from West Cumbria. If you're ever short of an unusual birthday gift, just pop in here and you'll be sure to find something. What's more The Rum Story is open seven days a week. If you haven't visited recently, do pop in. Oh, and the ghost - that's Henry. You can some times join a ghost hunt at the Rum Story to watch out for him. See their website for details.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Apocalypse Wow

THE World was due to end last Saturday - at least according to some miscalculating religious mystic in America. You may have noticed that it didn't. But to be honest if the world was going to end you'd want it serenaded out with the likes of The Men They Couldn't Hang. This punk, rock, folk and many other genre band were at Cockermouth's Kirkgate for the potentially apocalyptic gig and I for one would have died happy at 6pm on Saturday, May 23rd. The arts centre was full to bursting  - with record online sales bringing in TMTCH fans from around the country. This was an end-of-the-world party to which everyone was invited and to which everyone was determined to have a good time.

From the moment they arrived on stage it was foot to the pedal, and high-energy punching music which was delivered with technical finesse and plenty of passion. The four guitars and one banjo providing the wall of sound to a driving drum beat. Most of the audience were happy to join in the singing and dancing. This is one band that knows how to entertain and although their lyrics can have a dark, political edge to them, it was a sense of humour that pervaded during the Kirkgate gig.

The audience would no doubt have been happy for the pace to be kept at full whack for the whole 90-minute seession but there was a chance for a breather and to hear solo works from TMTCH stalwarts Stefan Cush and Phil "Swill" Odgers. Phil Odgers in particular wowed everyone with a folk ballad from his forthcoming EP.

It's almost a pity the world didn't end the following day - this would have been one perfect way to see the end of the world. 

* Things calm down at Kirkgate next Saturday (June 4) when singer/songwriter Roddy Woomble will be performing. But watch out for Dead Cat Bounce on Saturday, June 18 - they're described as a "rock and roll comedy supergroup". I'm not sure what that means but it sounds fun!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Cockahoop Cockermouth

Cockermouth at night: Picture by Judpics
IT'S no surprise that Cockermouth has just won an award for the restoration of its town centre. This market town suffered horrendous floods just over a year ago but has bounced back to be on the must-visit list of any Lake District tourist. The pastel-shades of the shops and houses give a magical feel to this historic town. While there are some national-chain shops, you're going to find here those unique independent shops with home-grown goods. You'll find galleries featuring the best of local arts and crafts, as well as a bookshop that seems to go on forever - and tucked at the back it has its own coffee-shop. There are cafes and eating places galore - it's certainly the place to go for an evening meal but you'd be advised to book a table in advance. And there's the Kirkgate Arts Centre which hosts films and live acts. The Kirkgate hosts a range of music but has a national name for attracting the best of the folk world. Watch out for singer songwriter Roddy Woomble on June 4. And for serious music lovers, watch out for Cock Rock music festival in July.

Of course, you can't mention Cockermouth without mentioning Wordsworth. The great poet was  born at Wordsworth House which is open to the public. The building was damaged in the recent floods but has now been lovingly restored. You'll find it at the western end of the High Street. It is open from 10am to 5pm each day and is owned by the National Trust.

Finally, watch out for a host of stars appearing at the Cockermouth Midsummer Festival from June 17 to June 26. The annual Cockermouth Carnival on June 18 form parts of the festival.

TOURIST TIP: There's plenty of parking in Cockermouth but if you're staying less than an hour consider parking in the main high street. You'll need to display a parking disc and you'll get one of these (free) from any shop in the town. Set the time and leave it on your dashboard - just make sure you're back within an hour or you will get a ticket!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Aira Force - a place of legend

IF you are staying near Ullswater then you'll certainly want to visit Aira Force waterfall. This dramatic sight is at the end of a short but steep walk and has strong connections with the poet Wordsworth. To reach it, park in the National Trust car park and exit via the rear of the car park along the well-signposted route. Although the waterfall is a popular spot with tourists, not many are aware of the legend that goes with it. The poet Wordsworth revived the legend when he wrote about it in his poem, The Somnambulist (an old word for a sleepwalker). It tells of young Emma waiting anxiously for her knight Sir Eglamore to return from the crusades - but the stress leads to her regularly sleepwalking out of her hunting lodge home and along the edge of Aira Force. When Sir Eglamore returned one evening he evetually finds her sleepwalking by the waterfall and tries to wake her up. But the shock of waking up causes Emma to slip and fall to her death. Poor Sir Eglamore lives out the rest of his life as a hermit in a cave near to the spot. Wordsworth has many strong connections with the area - not least that the daffodils along Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater inspired him to write his most famous poem, I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud...

TOURIST TIP: Parking in the Lake District (or anywhere!) is not cheap these days. But become a member of the National Trust and you'll get free parking in their car parks anywhere in the country - and you'll be helping preserve Britain's heritage at the same time.

The first verse - just as a reminder:-

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host, of golden daffodils; 
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Ambleside's secret museum

IT'S one of Ambleside's hidden gems - and yet even some locals will admit they have never been to the Armitt Museum. Museums are usually saved for rainy days but this is one delight worth going to in any weather. The museum was founded in 1909 by Mary Louisa Armitt as a resource for the 'scholarly community' in Ambleside and beyond. It's still that but it's also a fun family trip.

Inside - and there's only a modest entrance fee - you'll find plenty on the history of Ambleside, art, archaeology, books, geology, photography and much more. For those scholarly folk there's also a library upstairs. And at the museum shop you'll find some unusual gifts.

There's always fascinating tit-bits in historical collections and I particularly like this featured on the Armitt's website. It's a list of suggested improvements made in The Ambleside Herald of April 3, 1880:

  • That the Bowder stone should be broken up to pave High Street: a similar use being made of the Kirkstone, in case material should run short.
  • That Brother's Water should be drained and an asphalt Skating Rink be erected in its place.
  • That Loughrigg should be adorned by a statue of Bodgers, the late eminent philanthropist.
  • That a People's Coffee-house be erected on Helvellyn.
  • That Scawfell should be made easily ascendable by means of a hydraulic lift.
  • That a merry-go-round, with fife and drum band, be placed within a convenient distance of Rydal Mount.
The museum is on the main Rydal Road in Ambleside and open from 10am to 4.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays.

* On June 23 2011 there will be a talk on "Ambleside and the Importance of Oral History" at the Armitt Library and Musuem. It starts at 6.30pm and admission is £3. Space is limited so contact the library on 015394 31212 to reserve a place.

TOURIST TIP: As you drive into Ambleside (from Keswick) ignore that giant sign which says "Main Car Park" and points to the right. Turn left instead and you'll drive into the public car park in front of the Armitt museum where parking fees are half the price!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Countdown to Keswick Theatre summer season

I POPPED in to Keswick Theatre this morning and discovered what delights are in store for the summer season. This beautiful theatre set by Derwentwater raises the bar each year with its popular productions in the main house and more cutting shows in the studio. The curtain goes up on the summer shows on May 28 with Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off. This is certain to be a crowd pleaser for tourists and locals alike. The main action takes place behind the scenes at an am-dram performance and we get to see the - worryingly all-too familiar - problems, politics and scandals that happen behind the scenes.

In the main house from June 10 will be another big smash, Noel Coward's Hay Fever. This is English comedy at its most traditional and its best with the mistaken identities, mix-ups and other ingredients which allow Coward's wit to shine through.

For those who like their theatre a bit more edgy watch out for The Blue Room (from May 28) and Someone Who'll Watch Over Me (from August 5). Also watch out for the black comedy Dumb Show from June 17.

And if all that wasn't enough there's another treat with the world premiere of Keep Smiling Through - a wander down nostalgia avenue with Lisa Evans looking at life in Keswick during World War II.

You'll find full details of the summer season on the theatre website or pop in to the theatre and pick up a brochure.

But before the summer season starts, it is time once again for the Keswick Mountain Festival which starts today and runs until May 22. See their website for full details of events.

* Start the perfect evening with a meal in Keswick (or in the theatre) and then a walk down to the lake before settling down for a night's quality theatre.