christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Haverhill

‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’ Review of Hamlet, Outspoken Theatre company, East Town Park, Haverhill

As a play, Hamlet is full of questions, the most famous of which perhaps is the life and death choice: ‘To be or not to be?’ But there was no question over the quality of the Outspoken Theatre’s superb production. In the atmospheric setting of East Town Park, with crows in the trees and the creeping dark of a summer night, the company staged an emotionally charged performance of this most daunting of works. With a minimalist set, director, David Hart let the poetry do the talking; his own voicing of the Hamlet’s father’s ghost  was exceptionally well done. He caused ‘each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’

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There wasn’t a weak link among the cast, which was efficiently employed, with some playing two or even three parts, notably the versatile Candice Danleigh. Alfie Allin was compelling as a restless Hamlet, by turns brooding and animated, with darting eyes and wild flights of fancy. His leaps, bounds and cat calls made him a wonderfully unpredictable presence. But there was variety in his delivery too; a bar stool, upon which he perched to deliver some of his soliloquies, was a witty touch. Hart was also careful not to be too reverent: Gravedigger, (Debbi Walters in excellent voice throughout) ate a cheese sandwich during Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick…’ set piece.

The fact that Hamlet and his friends are students was emphasised in both costume and manner. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Emma Letcher and Jacob Simmons in mischievously good form) were seen helping themselves and filling their pockets with free food from the royal table. Lorraine Mason’s loyal Horatio meanwhile wore an Oxbridge style scarf. Her clearly spoken, level headed performance made her the stabilising presence in the otherwise spiralling madness of the Danish court.

The pace was sure footed and the first half was peppered with highlights. Alan Davison was a comic delight as the pompous, long winded Polonious and promising newcomer Daniel Payne gave a witty, vibrant performance as Laertes, at one point miming along to his father’s advice (‘To thine own self by true etc.) as if to show he had heard it all before. It is an odd part, as he is absent throughout much of the play, but his return at the end as the avenging brother was thrilling and his nimble sword fighting was an electrifying finale.

Steve Murray gave a suitably lascivious turn as the dastardly, usurping uncle, Claudius, who murders his brother and steals his wife. His naturally authoritative public tone was undermined perfectly by his guilt ridden, hand wringing soliloquies. In short, he was  the ‘something’ that was ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Andy Letcher was accomplished in multiple roles, particularly as the decorously spoken Osrick, master of ceremonies at the sword fight.

But it was the two principle women who stole the show. Catherine Keeble gave a nuanced performance as Gertrude, conflicted by her love for her son, attraction to her new husband and desire to maintain her position in court. She was waspishly short when required (‘More matter, with less art,’ she instructs Polonius) but her delivery of the play’s greatest piece of poetry – her vivid, heart rending account of Ophelia’s death was masterful, clutching her ‘fantastic garlands’ as she sank into the ‘glassy stream.’ Billie Allen as Ophelia herself was superb, at once formidable with the courting Hamlet and haunting as she slides into madness and grief. Her broken singing and disturbing sense of purpose as she distributed flowers, a sort of natural justice, was the emotional heart of the play.

The company disappeared after the first curtain call, but easily deserved to return for another. They filled East Town Park with ghosts, dreams and poetry at the ‘very witching time of night.’

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Joking apart – Boo Hewerdine live at Haverhill Arts Centre

Boo Hewerdine tells a joke. In facts he tells plenty tonight (and sings one) along with a shed-load of music industry anecdotes at Haverhill Arts Centre – on the first stop on his My Name in the Brackets tour. He reveals that he took ‘between 11am and 12 noon off’ between the end of his tour with Eddie Reader and the start of his new solo outing. As one of the hardest working song writing and touring troubadours, Boo’s work ethic is beyond question.

Boo

Boo is an imposing presence. His fabulous support act, Icelandic songstress Hafdis Huld, stands a clear two feet below the mike set up for Boo and she is equally glowing about his talent – singing beautifully on their beguiling, Icelandic fairy tale ‘Wolf’ from her latest solo album, which she co-wrote with Boo. Her own songs, especially Queen Bee and Lucky are sublime.

The idea behind the latest tour is showcasing some of the songs Boo wrote for others, along with new work. These include the Eddie Reader hits ‘Dragonflies’ (they go nuts for this one in Ireland) and most famously ‘The Patience of Angels’, which is still a powerfully affecting tale of a struggling young mother and sung with urgency this evening (although possibly to get it out of the way?). The Girl Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a lovely, lilting classic, given sensitive treatment and added poignancy by the fact that co-writer Jacob Eriksen recently passed away.

His reading of My Last Cigarette, penned for K.D. Lang is masterful, showcasing his pure vocals and impressive range. He is no three chord trickster on the guitar either; his jazz chords look like a spider doing the splits and the descending chords progressions add an engaging counterpoint to his classic melodies. It’s old fashioned song-writing that sounds perfectly contemporary.

Boo’s shtick is that life has been vaguely disappointing and perhaps a little unlucky. For example, The Bible’s (Boo’s 80s outfit) big song ‘Graceland’ was released on the same day as Paul Simon’s Graceland. His trousers nearly fall down while playing live on Wogan. A meeting with Elvis Costello leads to an altercation over a cheese sandwich. His laconic, dead pan delivery is perfectly suited to these hilarious misadventures.

The song ‘Joke’ and all time classic ‘Honey Be Good’ are filled with punkish energy, perhaps propelled by talk of Mr Costello and the Sex Pistols. ‘Bible Papers’ meanwhile (nothing to do with his old band) is a lament for the Tommies who rolled their fags in the trenches with the thin pages of a Bible, made all the more impressive by rhyming ‘Deuteronomy’ with ‘they’re out to get me.’ It’s riveting stuff.

The evening is given an added edge by the fact that Boo has never performed some of the new songs live, which leads to an amusing false start and even the appearance of a crib sheet – but they are as muscular and perfectly crafted as the old; ‘Snowglobe’ is a neat trick and the nostalgic and slightly accusative ‘Amazing Robot’ is a wonder – especially with its refrain ‘Spin me, spin me, spin me.’ Heard on record, it gives the eerie impression that the CD is talking – like the bottle in Alice in Wonderland that says ‘Drink Me.’

Perhaps Boo deserved to be massive, playing stadiums and ten straight sold out nights at the O2. But then we wouldn’t have nights like this, at Haverhill Arts Centre, with candlelight flickering from the tables, humour, humility and magical song-writing bringing cheer to the rainy streets of provincial England. There’s nothing funny about that.

Thomas and his friends

To Haverhill Arts Centre to see Austrian acoustic guitar maestro Thomas Leeb. He plays in the percussive melodic style probably made most famous by Newton Faulkner, spending just as much time ill treating his guitar as playing it. His insistent, rhythmic tapping, scraping and brushing against the wooden body (his long suffering guitar also takes a bow at the end) has the effect of providing a constant tribal beat to his beguiling tunes.

This is the last night of the tour and afterwards he heads straight to Heathrow to fly home to California, but he’s in no hurry and no one is short changed. He is great fun throughout, with a gentle, off-beat sense of humour. His most well known tunes are dispensed early, including the genre defining Desert Pirate, the beautiful, harmonic YouTube smash, Akaskero and his definitive instrumental version of No Woman No Cry, which is the perfect excuse for some of his amiable shuffling about the stage in the style of the old reggae masters.

He combines a life touring the world with one of domesticity, reporting that he has now finished building his own home. He recalls two days lying on his side cleaning the gap between the walls and the floor, the tedium of which resulted in new song ‘Sideways,’ which with its pretty melody housed in a tight rhythmic structure, is anything but tedious.

He admits he is treating us as a test bed for new material, which gives an edge to the night. New song ‘Fishbowl’ is an attempt to capture the skewed world view you have when constantly travelling through different time zones. ‘I don’t care if you don’t like the title,’ he laughs when introducing the tune, ‘I do.’

His original material is consistently strong and it’s clear he is not content merely to be an interpreter. However his covers are equally arresting. A delirious delight is his arrangement of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ full of witty runs and fills, and frantic dashes up and down the fretboard. It’s made all the more brilliant by the odd circumstances of its creation – at an airport after the ‘strangely liberating perfect storm’ of losing his coat, wallet, green card and passport in one foul swoop. It says everything about the man that this was his response to the disaster.   

He claims to be a one trick pony – envying other guitarists who can play in different styles, but it’s hard to see what he means; across the night we get Austrian and Celtic folk, acoustic speed metal and even funk, in the gloriously named ‘Grooveyard.’ His eclecticism and versatility are both key to his appeal.

A highlight among many, is his tender rendition of some Bach (he stuck a picture on Facebook as a nod to Arnie, his fellow Austrian – ‘I’ll be Bach!). The Bach piece glistens with harmonics and shows perhaps he has come full circle. He returns shortly, and no doubt in some glory, to the conservatoire in Austria where he was rejected twenty years ago.  

He says that it’s wonderful to return to Haverhill (although no doubt he says similar thing elsewhere) but we have a special claim to be a spiritual home from home. He plays two songs composed by the late Eric Roche, a resident of the town and a great friend of Thomas’ – the mind boggling Perc-U-Lator and a tender tune that I lost the name of halfway through my second beer. Composed by Eric for the birth of his son, Thomas does it full justice however, his thumb sounding a tender heartbeat throughout.        

I’ve seen him play here before but it was a privilege once again to see how he can transform a space with his questing musical spirit and the simple power of song.

Street Parties and Jubilations

My Jubilee moment was our two year old daughter, Martha, sitting down on the warm tarmac in the middle of the road, legs astride a Union Jack paper plate.

Diamond Jubilee Street Party

With the red brick houses bedecked in more flags than Nelson’s navy, had it not been for the Sky satellite dishes fixed to every house, it could have 1900, 1945, 1952 or 2012 for that matter. Our gently sloping Victorian cul de sac (the only one in Suffolk I discovered yesterday) was the perfect venue for the outpouring of neighbourliness that toasted the Queen’s sixty years on the throne.

Despite some initial scepticism, the families eventually drifted from their houses, clutching their sausages, bowls of potato salads and flags. The organisers, a energetic former council worker (with a weakness for Catholicism and Mick Jagger as it transpired) and a previously quiet young couple, had put plenty of thought into proceedings and managed to summon up three BBQs, a children’s colouring competition, pass the parcel, and a street sing-a-long to Sir Gary Barlow’s new national anthem ‘Sing’ plus plenty of booze and ball games. Two senior ladies sat themselves on deckchairs in the middle of the street and handed out toys and memories to the children.

I spoke to more neighbours in one afternoon than I had in six years, discovering there was a prison officer, map maker, park ranger and mechanic, teacher, former Odeon cinema manager and professional dog walker all on our street. The elderly cinema manager, now an octogenarian told us tearfully and perhaps inevitably, it was just like the war. If this sort of thing has happened across the country we will be the most close knit country in Europe by Christmas.

The only draw-back from me was that I had to steer clear of the jubilee rum punch most of the day as I was reading a poem at the lighting of the Haverhill beacon in the evening (read on). But I was back in time for a couple of ales while watching Macca blast out Obladioblada and Prince Charles address his mother alternatively and rather endearingly, as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Your Majesty.’ The Queen herself was regal throughout and quite sensibly kept up her policy of only smiling when she feels like it. Which was quite a lot.

THE HOUR

Think of her sixty years as sixty minutes

on the clock of St. Mary’s Haverhill.

Think of the steady hand of her rule,

as the slow sweep of the hour.

The first ten minutes are as giddy

as a New Zealander on Everest,

or the man at the wheel of a Mini,

sailing down the new M1.  

Twenty minutes past the hour,

and Russians circle the earth;

The Beatles play on the rooftops

and the last train pulls out of Haverhill.

The hour slips by, Diana disappears;

Redgrave returns from a river with gold;

her soldiers fight in foreign lands

in the dusts of Iraq and Afghanistan.   

But just like this tower of glass and stone

she watches over us; in the sky there

is a shower of diamonds for our Queen:

the graceful inheritor of ancient power.

This is her time; this is her hour.