Monday, 10 December 2012

A Taste of Christmas

A Taste of Christmas with Taffy Thomas and John Crouch, Eaglesfield Village Hall.

Taffy Thomas (picture by Candy Schwartz)
The Bible neglects to mention that the Virgin Mary spoke in Cumbrian dialect. But it also forget to say about the 'clarty cat' that visited the stable on Christmas Eve.
Fortunately, the Grasmere storyteller Taffy Thomas was on hand at Eaglesfield village hall last Sunday to put the record straight and relate the almost forgotten tale. He did so with the usual twinkle in his eye and the expertise you would expect from Britain's first storyteller laureate.
The packed hall of children aged five to 95 were held entranced by his Christmas tales - and were delighted to join in when some audience participation was called for.
Between the tales, Cumbrian chef John Crouch entertained and educated the audience with some simple Christmas recipes. Cornflakes and marshmallows mixed together to make edible 'holly', turkey treats and cranberry syllabub were among the recipes that the audience also had a chance to taste. And John 'spiced up' the recipes by telling something of the history of the food stuff as well.
This was another of the Arts Out West events that are touring village halls, giving rural folk a chance to experience first-class arts and theatre.
Still to come is Carolling and Crumpets at Bassenthwaite Parish Hall on Sunday (December 16) at 7.30pm and A Victorian Christmas at the Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth on Thursday, December 20 at 1.45pm. For more details see
Taffy Thomas can be seen in the weekends running up to Christmas in the Studio at Keswick Theatre telling some more festive tales. See

Friday, 9 November 2012

Kate Dimbleby sings Dory Previn

Kate Dimbleby and Naadia Sheriff at Rosehill Theatre. Review by Alan Cleaver

Dory Previn
I’D not heard of Dory Previn before - and suspect most of the near-capacity audience at Rosehill Theatre, Whitehaven hadn’t heard of her either. But I’m very glad that singer Kate Dimbleby and accompaniest Naadia Sheriff brought her to my attention.
Sadly Dory - first wife of Andre Previn - died on Valentine’s Day this year but her music will undoubtedly live on. She did sing herself but it’s the astonishing lyrics and haunting melodies of her songs for which she will be remembered.
She was schizophrenic, suffered heartache (Andre ran off with Mia Farrow) and led the sort of angst-ridden life only heroines in musicals normally get to live.
She used her experience with schizophrenia and the pain of her emotional life as raw material for her songs - and did so with the brightness and contrast buttons full on. These are songs from the extremes of life and left the audience visibly shell-shocked – or laughing out loud.
Here are some of the titles of her songs to give you a flavour: The New Enzyme Detergent Demis of Ali Macgraw; The Final Flight of the Hindenburg, Aftershock, Scared To Be Alone, Did Jesus Have A Sister and The Midget’s Lament.
Kate and Naadia complemented the songs with biographical information on Dory (real name Dorothy) which only added to the full-on, smack-in-the-face, technicolor astonishment of it all.
Kate, for instance, sang a song called Mary C Brown and the Hollywood Sign, explaining it was based on the true story of a young English actress who failed to become a star and committed suicide by throwing herself off the famous Hollywood sign. It’s not the sort of material Barry Manilow is likely to use for his music any time soon.
And there was I Ain’t His Child in which Dory relived the terrible childhood memory of being told by her father that he didn’t think he was her father (he was).
But it would be wrong to give the impression this was all death and horror. Twenty-Mile Zone told of her delight at screaming her head off while driving at night – and then being stopped by the police for doing so! After the constant pap from the inane X Factor drivel of today it was a wonderful breath of fresh air to hear lyrics like 

Sometimes I have this dream
When the time comes for me to go
I will hang myself from the Hollywood sign
From the second or third letter 'O'

Dory had obviously led a troubled life but she died happy and at peace with her inner demons. She was able to show through her songs the best and the worst of the world around us.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Bane: An evening of theatrical magic

Review of Bane at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont

IN days to come, I suspect most of the audience who watched "Bane" will recall a show with at least half a dozen cast members, dramatic scenery and a plethora of costumes and props. In fact, it was a one-man show using no scenery, no costumes and no props.
But with just his voice and body, Joe Bone (playing confusingly Bruce Bane!) conveyed busy streets, car chases, fights and all the action from an American city rife with gangsters.
It was a feat of magic even Derren Brown would have been proud to have pulled off. And it showed just how great acting can stir the imagination of the audience.
Joe acted the roles of 7ft tall gangsters, five-year-old girls, mad scientists - even cats and dogs. His portrayal of the death of a canary and a dog from a poisoned dart was so convincing I almost expected the traditional "no animals were injured in the making of this play" at the end of the show!
In my mind now I still 'remember' watching a car being driven through rainy streets with sirens blaring in the background and headlights zooming past.  But the reality was just good acting by one remarkable man and a good dash of imagination. Joe even provided the slightly out of tune car radio.
I say one-man show but there was also musical accompaniment by Ben Roe which beautifully complemented the on-stage action.
Apparently this was the first in a trilogy of Bane shows. Let's hope we don't have to wait too long for conjuror Joe Bone to return.

- Alan Cleaver

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Political correctness and disabled people

Toilet sign at Lakes Alive event
THE Paralympics has transformed the way many people see disabilities – for the better.
The games have proved both  emotional and inspirational.
However, in this age of political correctness there’s still confusion and nervousness about what terms to use when referring to disabled people. 
Before the games, The British Paralympic Association published guidance for journalists.
A spokesman said: “We feel that educating the general public about Paralympic athletes and the Paralympic Games is an integral part of our messaging around 2012 and we hope the media will help us in this challenging task.
“Paralympics GB’s success in 2012 will be measured not just in gold medals and our final position on the medal table, but also be the effect that the Paralympic Games has on the general public and by the shift in perceptions of disability sport and disability that we can, and must, affect.”
Amen to that. But can ‘correct’ language be imposed on society? And it has to be said some of their guidance is disputed by the very people they are trying to support.
But how would you score in a political correctness disability quiz? Which of these terms is OK to use and which should be avoided?
1.  Paralympian Sophie Warner suffers from cerebral palsy.
2. Dave is disabled but his brother, Pete, is able-bodied.
3. Steve is a wheelchair user.
4. John is a paraplegic
5. The disabled, the blind...
6. Jane is a disabled athlete.

1. Incorrect; The guidance says “Make sure that some words and phrases are totally avoided. In particular ‘suffers from’, ‘sufferer’, ‘victim of’ and ‘normal’/’abnormal’ are still commonly used when they should not be.
2. Incorrect. It’s fine to say disabled person (not ‘person with a disability) but ‘able-bodied’ is incorrect. The guidance suggests using non-disabled person instead.
3. Correct. Wheelchair-bound  or ‘confined to a wheelchair’ should be avoided.
4. Incorrect. A person with a spinal cord injury should be described as a person ‘with paraplegia’.
5. Incorrect. The guidance says grouping disabled people by their disability encourages stereotyping.
6. Correct. But the guidance points out it is often unnecessary to mention someone’s disability.
 To download the guidance in full, visit

Friday, 27 July 2012

Great Expectations at Keswick Theatre

IT is Charles Dickens' 200th birthday this year so it's fitting that Theatre by the Lake at Keswick marks the event.
They've chosen to do so with a fresh and exciting adaptation of Great Expectations. Neil Bartlett is the contemporary writer who takes this much-loved book  and shows that it still has the ability to shock, amaze and entertain.
From the start, the audience is made aware this is going to be no poor photocopy of either the book or the David Lean film. A dramatic set consisting of seemingly endless doors fills the stage and a 'Greek chorus' of actors follow Pip (George Banks) on his adventures.
We begin, of course, with Pip's childhood encounter with escaped convict Magwitch - played magnificently by James Duke. And the other 'star' of the story is jilted bride, Miss Havisham - given a sharp portrayal by Maggie Tagney.
And throughout the rest of Pip's journey we renew our acquaintance with some of Dickens' most curious and most colourful characters.
Zoe Mills pitches the complex Estella just right and Chris Hannon (Joe Gargery), Nicholas Goode (Herbert Pocket) and Adrian Metcalfe (Pumblechook) ground the Dickensian cavalcade in enough realism to bring the characters back to life.
The script is also dusted off and made presentable for today's audiences. At times undeniably Dickens in sentiment and humour but also strikingly modern; some scenes are almost entirely acted out in the third person.
Minimalist lighting and staging courtesy of director Ian Forrest and lighting designer Nick Beadle leave the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
Theatre needs to challenge and this richly-coloured tale lends itself to being presented in many different ways. God forbid theatre simply re-tells the story without looking at the subject matter anew. This is a top-class production and a definite must-see for lovers of both Dickens and good theatre.
Great Expectations runs at Keswick's Theatre by The Lake until November 10. Box office: 017687 74411.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fairies left homeless by floods

One of the fairy houses at Gelt Woods
 - the sign says 'Home Sweet Home'
THE latest victims of this year's summer floods are the fairies of Gelt Woods. The woods near Brampton in Cumbria have been home to the fairies for at least four years when their houses were first spotted in the roots of trees and along the river bank (The precise location is kept secret to avoid human neighbours being disturbed by thousands of fairy-loving tourists). Each summer since 2009 the fairies have returned and this year was no exception. However, following the torrential rain of June the River Gelt burst its banks and has washed away at least two of the fairy houses. It's not believed any fairies lost their lives in the tragedy. Fairies, it seems, like to live by water but some just built their homes perilously close to the Gelt. Wiser fairies built further up the hillside and one enterprising fairy built her home in a tree.

There are some people - cynical unromantic humans - who suggest it is a local artist who puts the fairy houses there each summer. And removes them in the winter for fear of frost damaging them. Children and fairy lovers know better.

A fairy door to a fairy house
Whoever or whatever is responsible, they provide some simple pleasure to children (and adults) in an age where most children rely on TVs, Wiis, video games and other technology for their fun. Grandparents in particular are known to dare to turn off computers and take their grandchildren for a walk through the woods. And just as the kids are crying out 'Boring' or 'Can we go home now', have pointed out some brightly-coloured object in the distance. The children then discover for themselves the strange, mystical world of the Gelt Woods fairies.

There can be a dozen or more fairy houses in the woods but, to be honest, it's difficult to count because some of them are remarkably well camouflaged. Some of the houses have signs such as 'Home Sweet Home' above the door. And others have fairy boots placed on the doorstep. It's also possible to find tiny wheelbarrows, garden seats, baskets and other fairy furniture beside the houses.

Remarkably, the doors are never stolen or even damaged - even though they are visible all summer. Indeed, when a mischievous Jack Frost has broken off a door handle or letterbox, it's placed carefully beside the door for the fairies to find and hopefully repair.

Children have been known to leave gifts for the fairies: sweets, flowers and gold-paper stars seem to be the most well-received presents. And some children have even left letters for the fairies - though I'm not aware of anyone yet receiving a reply.

Hiker Lesley Park finds one fairy sensibly built her house
high up in a tree and so avoided the floods
Cumbria has always been a popular haunt for the little folk. In Coniston, the fairies helped the copper miners with their work. In Whitehaven, fairies lived on a rocky outcrop just south of the coastal town and danced at annual fair at Fleswick Bay. Fairies were also known to live beside Bassenthwaite Lake but their homes were sadly lost with the building of the A66. In Little Langdale the fairies have been happy to share the cottages owned by local people and pay their 'rent' by performing little duties around the house, or leaving fairy butter in the woods nearby. It's a county where humans and fairies have lived happily alongside each other for centuries so the news of the flooding is likely to be a cause of much concern. It's hoped the fairies soon rebuild their homes - but a little further away from the river this time.

  • Quick plug: My hand-bound book, Fairies of Cumbria, covers the Gelt Woods fairies and many other Cumbrian fairy legends. It is available for £4.99 as a 'real' book or £2.04 as an ebook (yes, sorry about that odd 4p - I'm not sure why that appeared!). See my online bookstore for more information.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

How to write a bloody amazing book review

The perfect review: A smile that tells you all you need to
know about the book
THE question of how to write a book review arose after I saw some advice on the internet. Advice that was followed by messages from many people who had obviously found the guidance useful. It consisted of such things as:
  • Sometimes you will need to include background to enable reader(s) to place the book into a specific context. For example, you might want to describe the general problem the book addresses or earlier work the author or others have done. 
  • For a nonfiction book, provide an overview, including paraphrases and quotations, of the book's thesis and primary supporting points.
  • For a work of fiction, briefly review the story line for readers, being careful not to give away anything that would lessen the suspense for readers. 
  • Describe the book: Is it interesting, memorable, entertaining, instructive? Why?
  • Respond to the author's opinions: What do you agree with? And why? What do you disagree with? And why?
And by this point I had nodded off. It struck me as tedious and as dull as the book reviews that would inevitably be produced by following such advice. So it got me thinking: How do you write a good book review and what's the purpose of a review anyway?

Bob Monkhouse's autobiography was reviewed in the East Anglian Daily Times in just four words: "Poor choice of subject".
"To tell people what you think of the book" I hear you say. But since most critics are unknown - and their opinion therefore worthless - that can't be a complete answer.

"To tell me briefly what the book is about so I can decide if I might buy it". But a synopsis (and now sample pages) are available on Amazon or the back cover of the book. 

So it still leaves that basic question unanswered: What is the point of a book review? It may remain unanswered for the moment but I'd suggest the review is more than just summarising the book and giving your views on it. For many critics a review is a 'clothes peg' on which personal views and thoughts can be hung - and for that reason knowing something about the critic and his background can be helpful.

Then I discovered - an American website with some radical book reviews. A breath of fresh air in a world full of mind-numbingly, boring book reviews. And they included their own advice on writing a review - advice which should be shared with a wider audience. Enjoy...

  • The text of the review should be written with simplicity and dignity, using the King's English. Avoid dangling participles, pretentious sentences, and show-off words. Be insightful, witty, reasoned, literate, and pithy. In all cases do not, repeat, do not put the editors to sleep with your words.
  • We cannot tell you how long to make your review...that has to be a matter between you and the page, if not god.
  • Our take on most book reviewers --- especially experienced ones --- is that they don't realize that the Standard, Reasoned, Thoughtful, Careful Book Review isn't worth reading; much less posting for the world to read.
  • We want reviews that expose pomposity and arrogance and foolish pride, that expose the lack of grand writing and great plotting. We want our writers to scorn predictability and ridicule the turgid and the bombastic.
  • At the same time, this is not a mere seek-and-destroy mission. We want reviews that praise the true artist --- lauding the known and the unknown with equal fervor. We want our reviewers to search out honest, rich and insightful literature --- to describe it with words that are, in themselves, art.
  • To see how not to write, study the book review sections of most U. S. dailies. After some time, you will see that their reviewers are scared of something: perhaps, of being original, or alive, or funny...or, at best, being smart-ass.
Amen to all that.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A surprising and astonishing book

Sold For A Farthing - Clare Kipps
Published 1953 by Frederick Muller Ltd

MY top ten books of all time include the predictable mix of the worthy (Plato's The Last Days of Socrates), the classic (Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit) and the personal (The Green Stone by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman). But following a discovery a few days ago I can now include the unexpected: Sold For A Farthing by Clare Kipps.

It is only 72 pages long. It was written by a non-professional writer. And it tells the story of a sparrow. 

Clare Kipps was an Air Raid Warden in London. In July 1940 she returned home to find on her doorstep a day-old sparrow which, miraculously, responded to her nursing. It had, however, a deformed wing which meant it stayed the rest of its life in Clare's home. The sparrow - Clarence - became tame. So tame, in fact, that Clare was able to take it on her rounds in London's East End. Children (and adults) sitting huddled together in fear of Hitler's bombing campaigns immediately burst into smiles when they realised their Air Raid Warden brought with her a pet sparrow - a sparrow happy to perform a programme of 'tricks'.

It is this backdrop of World War II which makes this story so poignant. While men were slaughtering each other by the millions, Clare and her friends do all they can to save, and care for, one sparrow. The title - Sold For A Farthing - is a Biblical reference: that if God cares for a sparrow that you can buy for a farthing, then how much more must he care for you. The irony isn't lost on Clare.

On its most basic level, this is a simple touching tale of a woman caring for a sick sparrow. And the book can be enjoyed if read only as that (there are even photos of Clarence performing some of his tricks). Just as you can enjoy Jonathan Livingstone Seagull as a story about a seagull. But there are deeper questions here for those who care to ask them.

For example, there's a quote at the start from CS Lewis about whether it is man's duty to tame animals, rather than leave them in a 'wild' state. Clare (a widow) says Clarence was not a pet. Rather that they shared an intimate friendship (he often 'nested' in her bed with her). By the end of the book she is writing "This little person - for it becomes increasingly difficult to me to think of him as a mere bird...". But does the sparrow become more human, or does she become more 'mother hen'.  What are we to make of this:

"After breakfast (if the siren allowed) came the morning scrap. The bed would be cleared for action and I would sit at one end and the sparrow, looking like a miniature eagle, at the other. Then he would rush at me, tail spread and wings outstretched, and hold down my hand with one tiny claw while he hammered it with his beak like a miner with a pickaxe. He would then retreat only to return in fury to the attack - pecking, pinching, tumbling and scolding as the wild sparrows do in the hedgerows. But when I said sternly 'Now, now! That's enough!" he would simmer down and flutter his fan until his fed."

To protect her eyes during these mock fights she took to wearing goggles.

Clarence and Clare have their share of adventures on the way. The house is bombed (he survives), they are caught in a bomb raid while out at night and on one occasion a cat gets into Clarence's room. Clare's inexperience as a writer does mean she glosses over these. So, infuriatingly she says at the start of Chapter Five: "There is little of interest to record in the life of my sparrow from the end of his sixth year until his serious illness and partial recovery in his twelfth."! But it is perhaps for the best that the publisher didn't rush round a ghost-writer and Clare's matter-of-fact style allows this story to be told simply and starkly. That said, you'll no doubt be shedding a tear or two at Clarence's death. He lived 12 years (most text books will tell you the life expectancy of a sparrow is three years) and the bird-lover/scientist will no doubt find much of interest in this diary.

The lover of mysticism or the supernatural may also find something in this book. Such as this throwaway line in the Prologue:

"When I was born, a magpie pecked three times on the window as the nurse announced that a puny and significant infant was a girl.  My mother took it as an ill omen - for she had a strange horror of magpies - and she died within three days. But neither magpie nor raven has ever been to me a harbinger of sorrow. I have had friends among the wild songsters and have been on nodding terms with a nightingale, but no bird has ever been so constant and beloved a companion as my little house sparrow."

And there's a spine-chilling coincidence towards the end of the sparrow's life when Clare asks a photographer to take some pictures of her feathered friend. She randomly pulls a book off the shelf and opens it for the sparrow to be pictured 'reading'. Only when the photo is developed and printed does she realise that the book (of religious scripture) is open at a page that says: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing?"

Make of that what you will.

Clare was a friend of the poet and author Walter de la Mare and he encouraged her to write an account of Clarence. It was published in 1953 and became a minor sensation. The book appears to have been rarely out of print until the Seventies. And while it may be out of print now, second-hand copies are easily obtained. I urge you to get hold of one. Dickens it ain't. But it is without doubt a most remarkable book.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Health and safety gone mad

Yes, they are full face goggles and hard hats the scouts are wearing!
I JUST had to share this picture from the front page of this week's Keswick Reminder. It shows scouts lighting a Jubilee Beacon but some buffoon in health and safety has insisted they wear hard hats and full-face goggles! Despite that it appears as if the boy's arm on the left is on fire. Somewhat unsurprisingly, The Keswick Reminder didn't think following up the 'health and safety angle' and ran the story straight.

A warm production of Colder Than Here

YES, it’s about dying. But no, it’s not a depressing night at the theatre.
Colder Than Here is a gentle, heart-warming look at a family struggling with the terminal cancer of their mother, Myra (Maggie Tagney).
Playwright Laura Wade was in the audience on the first night and I can’t believe she was anything but delighted by this first regional performance of her play.
Freelance director Abigail Anderson used the deftest of touches to show a natural and realistic portrayal of a family brought together by the impending death.
Daughters Jenna (Augustina Seymour) and Harriet (Joannah Tincey) rediscover their sibling love for each during the months of planning for a fitting funeral for their mother.
And ‘distant’ husband Alec (Philip Rham) finds some measure of reunion with his wife as well.
It’s through a mix of humour and pathos that Laura Wade keeps the audience intrigued and, at times, entertained by the progress towards Myra’s final days. A cardboard coffin is the focus for many giggles as Myra considers a natural burial. Just as the characters are forced to deal with the self-assembly coffin sat in the middle of the lounge so they are also forced to deal with the many issues that have pushed the family apart.
It’s a lovely and surprisingly reassuring night of theatre.
Colder Than Here runs at Keswick Theatre until November 9. Phone 017687 74411  to book or visit
Dry Rot  - Sadly, just not funny enough
COMEDY is difficult to pull-off on stage. Farce is darn near impossible. It’s the downfall of many an over-optimistic amateur theatre company and now even Keswick Theatre appears to be struggling with this genre. 
Dry Rot was written 60 years ago by John Chapman and a dated script proves a handicap for the players before they even start but it shouldn’t in itself prove fatal. 
Indeed, the actors give a slick and reasonably fast-moving performance. But the occasional chuckle was the best achieved during this performance 
The direction by Ian Forrest seemed unimaginative. The comic action (relying on characters getting their foot stuck in the dry rot of the staircase, trousers falling down and the usual misunderstandings) appeared as tired and dated as the script. 
It is at least tame enough to make it a family show, and there were plenty of younger audience-goers. But these are youngsters used to the sharp, edgy and sometimes vicious humour of CBBC – it was clear that getting a foot stuck in a floorboard was just not going to cut it. 
Mr Forrest and other directors at Keswick have often turned dull patches of script into something remarkable thanks to clever direction and novel bits of theatre but for the most part these are all missing in Dry Rot. And it’s not been that long since they turned the ‘dated’ script of Arsenic and Old Lace into a modern-day hit.
 Whole scenes (practising riding a horse on the back of a couch, drinking afternoon tea) ramble on for several minutes with every attempt at eliciting a laugh falling on deaf ears. 
At times the show did start to kick into action. When the Frenchman Polignac (Adrian Metcalfe) comes on stage the laughs start to flow. Perhaps it’s the natural delivery (as opposed to the over-the-top shouting the cast generally rely on) which makes it work. Similarly the genuine confusion between the landlord Colonel Wagstaff (Stephen Aintree) and landlady (Nicky Goldie) over a piano is delivered dead-pan and produces some good giggles. 
It’s hard as a reviewer to gauge whether it’s just you – the critic – having a bad night. And to be fair, there did seem to be some in the audience enjoying much of the show. But I suspect the majority were disappointed by this lack-lustre and often unfunny farce. 
Keswick Theatre aren’t afraid to change and adapt shows as they continue their run through the summer and I suspect  (and hope) that when others go to see the show it will have improved markedly (feel free to comment below and let me know). 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A Doll's House review

Augustina Seymour as Nora. Picture by Keith Pattison

KESWICK theatre-goers who thought the recent successful run of The History Boys would be a tough act to follow need have no worries. Ibsen's A Doll's House has just started in the studio and is going to blow your socks off.

It's hard to believe this was written in 1879 - the theme of female emancipation meant it could have been written in the  1920s, 1960s or even today. There's bankers, gutter-press reporters, evil money-lenders - and even an attempt to hack into someone's private correspondence. I had to check the cast list to make sure no-one called Leveson was going to turn up in the second act.

It says in the programme notes that this is currently the world's most performed play but Keswick director Mary Papadima has given it a fresh, exciting and gritty makeover which will make even those familiar with the play glad to see it again. For those who don't know the play, there's a real treat in store. Fear not that this is by some 20th century Norwegian playwright. Papadima and the cast make sure it's digested with ease as this gripping drama unfolds.

It is based on a true story. One of Ibsen's friends - Laura Kieler - took out a loan at a time when women just didn't do that sort of thing. When her husband found out he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Only Ibsen appears to have found anything wrong with this! We may laugh at the notion now and the play only gives a nod to the true origins, concentrating more on society's attitude to women in general and mothers in particular. More than that, it also asks both men and women to question their role in society.

Augustina Seymour is the wife and mother, Nora, who is hiding a dreadful secret. She pitches the performance perfectly as just another 'doll' in the doll's house before starting to wake up and determine her own destiny. Nicholas Goode is the bewildered husband Torvald and Philip Rham the slightly awkward 'third party' in the cosy marriage. But it's James Duke as the sinister money-lender who adds sizzle to the whole proceedings and cranks up the pressure to almost intolerable levels.

Papadima, however, steers well clear of black and white Victorian melodrama. The motives are all very believable and open to heated arguments among the audience on their way home.

A Doll's House is on one level, a gripping enough drama of deceit, blackmail and betrayal. But it's the play's central theme of a woman (and man's) role in society which ensure the play's relevance even today. And Papadima serves up a master stroke at the end to make sure the stunning ending is played out to its very best - not least thanks to a terrific performance from Augustina Seymour.

This will rank as one of Keswick's best productions and I for one can't wait to see it again.

* A Doll's House is currently being staged at Keswick Theatre

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bedroom Farce

Maggie Tagney in Bedroom Farce at Keswick Theatre

ANYONE who needs cheering up during these days of economic gloom should pop into Keswick Theatre.
Bedroom Farce is just one of the plays running at the theatre by the lake during their summer season and it’s guaranteed to make you forget about stocks, shares, the inflation index or quantative easing!
Instead you’ll be lost in a world where the Bedroom Index, Angst Count and Giggle-ometer are all you need to worry about.
Alan Ayckbourn’s farce is in the safe hands of Stefan Escreet and a talented cast. It’s a bit more considered than many English farces – this is a humorous but sometimes astute look at that most ghastly, hideous and comic world: Relationships.
Sex, of course, rears it’s ugly head but only to generate yet more laughs. For Delia (Maggie Tagney) and Ernest (Stephen Aintree), sex is only a happy memory – supplanted instead by a midnight treat of sardines on toast or hot cocoa. But while this older couple provide a calmer and dispassionate view of the chaos on stage, it’s their son Trevor (Chris Hannon) who is the centre of the storm.
He has destroyed the relationship with his psychosis-laden wife Susannah (Louise Yates) and now seems determined to destroy all those around him.
First in his sights are Malcolm (George Banks) and Kate (Jessica Ellis) who are holding a house-warming party. The lovey-dovey couple are soon reduced to screaming demons with only broken furniture left in their wake.
Trevor, of course, is blissfully unaware of the harm he’s doing and moves swiftly on to Jan (Zoe Mills) and Nick (Adrian Metcalfe). Nick manages to get some of the best laughs of the evening despite playing the role of someone stuck in bed all night with a bad back.
The performance got off to a slow start but by the second half the laughs were coming thick and fast. The play was written in 1975 and is set in the 70s – complete with garish wallpaper and haircuts. To be fair the humour seemed dated at times and I was left feeling some of the scenes needed as much a makeover as most of the bedrooms. 
But this certainly had plenty of good moments and an overall feel-good factor that will make for a super summer evening out.
Bedroom Farce is at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick until November 7. Box office: 017687 74411. Website:

Friday, 18 May 2012

Newtown Boggle

BOGGLE is the Cumbrian dialect term for a ghost - well, anything odd or unexplained. And the Newtown Boggle is one of the more famous supernatural visitors that is said to wander the streets of Whitehaven. Over the centuries the boggle has changed shape and form - probably due to two ghost stories being confused. In one form the boggle is a huge black dog that stands and howls outside a house the night before a death (or on the harbour when a ship has been lost at sea). In its other form, the boggle is described as an extremely tall lady with no head.

My partner, Lesley, has now stumbled across what is perhaps the oldest reference to the boggle - a report in The Cumberland Pacquet of October 1, 1793:

WHITEHAVEN: Whether on "the sensible and true avouch of their own eyes," we know not, but it is reported, that a very ancient and awful personage, commonly known by the title of The New-Town Boggle, has lately 'revisited the glimpses of the moon, making night hideous.' -- Nothing so much checks the general admission of the report, as the shape in which this well-known phantom now appears: - it is that of a huge swine: and some sceptics are of opinion, that so extraordinary a visitant should assume a form less common to our streets.

I am happy to be corrected, but what I think The Pacquet is saying towards the end is that the sceptics are suspicious that the creature should appear in such a common form as that of a pig - common, because at that time most households would have kept a pig in the backyard. 

If the boggle was a portent of disaster then its appearance in October 1793 was very timely. A couple of weeks later The Pacquet would report on the execution of Marie Antoinette.

The 'making night hideous' quote is from Hamlet.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Jo Caulfield on tour

COMEDIAN Jo Caulfield has just finished touring Cumbria with a show subtitled: "The Tour of Towns I've Heard Of But Never Been To". But even she had to admit she'd never really heard places like Egremont or Torpenhow.

And pronouncing places like Torpenhow had also proved a challenge to her. But hats off to Jo for daring to step outside the M25 and taking on an exhausting tour of those remote parts of Britain normally neglected by the showbiz set. To be fair, she's recently left London and moved to Scotland so she's probably used to rural Britain by now.

Gigs at Barrow, Millom, Thursby and the like gave Jo the chance to poke some gentle fun at the various Cumbrian towns - and even some of its residents. She's known for her acerbic wit and doesn't pull her punches but she appeared to warm to the good folk of Cumbria. At Egremont's Florence Mine (recently converted to an arts centre) she applauded the hard work which had gone into creating a new arts venue (particularly the colourful ladies loo seats!). "Even if you didn't like the show" she told the 40-strong audience "do support Florence mine in the future".

She struck a chord immediately with the audience by ranting about the stresses of modern life and those secret pet hates we all harbour: self-service checkouts at Tesco, young couples freshly in love - and other people's kids! Such topics are de rigueur with comedians today of course but Jo managed to make them  fresh and biting enough to produce plenty of laughter.

And for the second half she invited the audience to lower their stress levels by revealing what made them angry ("Everything" said one woman "I'm menopausal"!). It was a terrific evening's entertainment by a true professional and she'll no doubt be welcome if she ever wants to return to Cumbrian towns and villages - even those she can't pronounce.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Britain's nicest library?

The lending library inside Boot mill
 IS this the nicest lending library in Britain? It most certainly is!* It is located in a restored mill in the village of Boot in the valley of Eskdale on the western edge of the Lake District. And, if you'll forgive the pun, it's a library that certainly isn't run of the mill.

The best way to get to it is to drive to Ravenglass, then catch the 'Ratty' steam train to Dalegarth. Stop for their famous Cumberland sausage, egg and chips - then walk the quarter of a mile to Boot. At the end of Boot, you'll find the mill - probably with Dave King the miller sitting outside and Stanley the cat 'on guard' by the mill entrance. Inside you can enjoy a tour of the old mill and buy any number of items from ice creams to antiques dug up locally. And don't worry if Dave's not around - you'll find an honesty pot on the counter (it would be inconceivable that any money would be taken from the pot). The library has a hundred or so books and are borrowed by the 200 villagers or the tourists staying at the campsite down the road. 

Boot Mill, Eskdale

Originally, the mill was owned by the county council and was an 'official' library. But when the council sold the mill to a Trust, the new miller - Dave King - decided to keep the library going. He collects the out-of-date or remaindered library books from Whitehaven library and puts them in his mill. You can borrow them for as long as you like. I'd recommend sitting in the mill garden or by the river to read a good book on a summer's afternoon. To be honest, it's never very clear where the mill building ends and the surrounding mill garden starts. The two wonderfully merge into each other. If only every building was like that. I've been in the mill photographing before and seen a variety of wildlife wander in and out. 

Dave King in his 'office' at Boot mill
Libraries keep trying to reinvent themselves and coming up with digital this and digital that. If they only followed the example of Boot library, I'm sure they'd have no shortage of families visiting and hanging around for hours on end.

* Unless of course you know differently. If you know of a 'curious' library that's different from the crowd then please let me know.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

History Boys proves top class

The History Boys at Keswick Theatre (March  24 to April 21 2012)
Review by Alan Cleaver

Peter Rylands as Hector
IT must be frustrating for all concerned when Keswick Theatre schedule a play for a four-week run - but on the first night realise it's such an obvious smash hit that they should have left it running all summer!

So grab a ticket quick. History Boys is only at Keswick until April 21 and if you don't book quickly you'll miss out on a real treat.

The Alan Bennett play is directed by Ian Forrest and stars Peter Rylands as Hector the inspirational teacher  clashing with the grammar school's headmaster, a new teacher and changing times. Peter falls easily into the role, having played Alan Bennett in Keswick's production of Lady in the Van. At times he slips into 'Alan Bennett' mode but that's no bad thing. Bennett's dry humour is brought to life by Rylands and the rest of the cast as Hector's view on the world and his teaching methods is contrasted with a modern desire of headmaster (Robert Pickavance) to get the History Boys of the title into Oxford or Cambridge. Helping them is another Keswick favourite, Kieran Buckeridge, playing new graduate teacher, Irwin.

The boys - an elite class of eight students - pull off a show-stopping performance all of their own. A variety of antics, songs and dances are used to great effect adding to the warmth and charm of this production. And while all perform superbly, Meilir Rhys Williams has to be singled out for his delightful solo performances. It would aslo be remiss not to mention Mitchell Hunt for his electrifying portrayal of cock-sure Dakin. Oh dear, now I feel I should name them all as all the performances are top notch - so here's the rest: Jack Brown, Andy Daniel, Phil Duguid-McQuillan, Greg Herst, Freddie Rogers and Phil Adele.

It is the boys that the audience are cheering on, but it's Hector who is the jewel in this show. Rylands is following in the footsteps of Richard Griffiths' award-winning portrayal in the play and later film of The History Boys but Rylands makes this his own. Inspirational teachers have become something of a cliche in the world of the arts and yet Rylands wows us all once more with a warm and sincere performance. It is, of course, a vehicle for Alan Bennett to show off his literary knowledge and his humour but director Ian Forrest ensures this is a visual feast as well as a mental one. 

The show's only woman - Mrs Lintott played by Maria Gough - is a breath of fresh air and Robert Pickavance as the headmaster is the loveable villain of the piece.

This is a terrific night's entertainment but you'll need to be quick to get a ticket.

Box Office is 017687 74411. Be aware there is strong language in this play.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Knives In Hens

Knives In Hens
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, 
February 3 to February 18.

HelenMacfarlane in Knives In Hens
THEATRE serves several purposes. Primarly we hope it entertains. But if it makes us think as well that's no bad thing. Keswick Theatre tends to put its more challenging theatre in the smaller-sized auditorium of The Studio. Which, sadly, probably tells us all we need to know about ourselves and our current TV diet of easily digestible drama. 

It's also a pity because we miss out on remarkable and thought-provoking plays such as Knives In Hens. Contemporary Scottish playwright David Harrower. He wrote it in 1995 from a sense of rage at the irrelevant work he saw being put on the stage at that time - and anger at having been told "what makes a good play"! Knives In Hens certainly tears up all the rule books - and there's more than a dash of anger as the three characters interact on a minimal but atmospheric stage.

The setting is simply described as 'rural' and at first you think it might be medieval Britain or perhaps some middle European country. But it could equally be set in the future or on another world. It doesn't matter. What Harrower does - and director Jez Pike expands on this brilliantly - is put the  trio  in a setting which makes you think more carefully about how they are behaving and what they have to say.

Their language is staccato but accessible and the simple love-triangle plot allows Harrower to concentrate on more important things. Actors Helen MacFarlance, Adam O'Brian and Liam Smith give a faultless performance squeezing every last nuance from the sizzling script. They're helped by the imaginative set designed by Thomasin Marshall. This is a play which makes you say a small prayer of thanks for the gift of theatre. 

The idea that without drama like this we might have to stay at home and watch Big Brother, Dancing on Ice or Loose Women all the time is just too horrible to contemplate. 

Knives in Hens runs at Keswick Theatre until February 18. Box Office: 017687 74411.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The hare-fairy of Carlisle

I promised the fairy enthusiasts on the Fairy Folklore of the UK and Cumbrian Folklore Facebook groups that I would report back on the reference I had found to a hare-fairy being caught in Carlisle. The huge tome of The Saturday Review (Vol 94) for 1902 has now arrived from America and here is the full extract (the whole article on Lakeland fairies and boggles runs to about a thousand words.

The hare-fairy reference comes at the end when the unnamed author is talking about a Mr Cowper and a Mrs Hodgson who have collected fairy stories. I've come across these before - both local historians at about the turn of the 20th century. Mrs Hodgson contributed an article on "Surviving Fairies" to the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1901. Sadly I know nothing more about her (let me know if you do!) but I'll investigate further and see if her papers are kept in the Cumbria Archives. 

The author mentions the witch that turned into a hare at Outgate near Ambleside (a famous legend) and then goes on to say...

...but Mrs Hodgson has caught a real live hare-fairy still haunting the neighbourhood of Carlisle. "There was a fairy that looked like a hare. It was  a real fairy, but a man caught it for a hare, and put it in a bag and thought he would have a nice Sunday dinner. While it was in the bag it saw its father outside, and he called to it, 'Pork, pork'! (query, Puck, the Icelandic puki?) and it cried out 'Let me go to Daddy'! Then the man was angry and said 'Thoo ga to thy Daddy'! and it went away to its Daddy; and he was very much disappointed at not getting his Sunday dinner.

I assume when the writer says Mrs Hodgson has 'caught' a real live hare-fairy, he is meaning that she has tracked down a still current hare-fairy legend. 

The rest of the article refers to other well-known Lake District legends (the phantom army on Souther Fell - though the author says there is also one on Helvellyn, need-fires and the Armboth boggle legend. The Saturday Review was evidently a weekly 'magazine' looking in-depth at a variety of subjects.

This is another delightful fairy legend - I keep a map locating other fairy legends in Cumbria so take a look at let me know of any I have missed!