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Arts & Entertainment - Reviews

A Very Naughty Polar Bear

Review of The Bear, Bristol Old Vic, Saturday 18 February 2107

A polar bear squeezes through a child's window and...is very naughty.Dressing up. Photo by Paul BlakemoreDressing up. Photo by Paul Blakemore

Tales of polar bears could go cuddly or monstrous. Recently, for instance, I've been watching the TV show Fortitude set on an Arctic island. There, everyone packs a rifle in case they encounter one of the huge white beasts and are in danger of becoming its snack.

But this is a half term theatre show based on a Raymond Briggs story and performed at the Bristol Old Vic, so we can assume this is a Nice Bear - the kind teddies are based on, the vulnerable giant whose habitat is rapidly shrinking.

I'm here with my almost four year old who is as concerned with the snacks in my bag with the action on stage. (This is the kind of distraction that kids' theatre companies such as Pins and Needles Productions have to put up with and handle with glee.) Tilly - who loves writing and singing pop songs - finds she has a large and noisy house guest. He becomes her new pal, but it's not easy sharing with someone who splashes bath water everywhere, messes up mummy and daddy's bedroom, mistakes the floor for a toilet and the toilet for a bowl of drinking water, and breaks things.

For a while I thought it might be just another children's show with a simple story where the bear is a child stand-in, but it, as it turns out, was a much richer metaphor than that. As with other Briggs' stories like The Snowman, it finds the magical space between dreams and reality.

Lily Donovan makes a charming Tilly; by turns excited child who can't get to sleep without Teddy, to a full tantrum on the floor because Bear has left the house in a state, but most of the time in wonderment of her new best friend.

And although Bear in the bath and Bear dressed up and what to do with Bear's big poos are funny enough, it is Tilly riding Bear across the stage, Bear swimming and Bear reunited with Baby Bear at the North Pole which takes the story from kids' TV territory and transforms it into a beautiful, tearjerking piece of theatre for any age.


REVIEW Psychological thriller by local author: Jar's girlfriend killed herself - why does he keep glimpsing her so long afterwards?

Find Me - before they do  by J.S. Monroe (published 2017 by Head of Zeus Ltd)

J.S. Monroe's Find Me is a tremendous read.   The story unfolds at a great pace and the narrative  structure is used with great finesse to keep the reader puzzled and on the very edge of resolving the mystery.

Rosa, a troubled young Oxford undergraduate, has committed suicide. With the apparent and highly unsettling sightings of her by Jar, the young Irish writer with whom Rosa had an intense but all too brief affair, you spend the book’s first section wondering what kind of world you are entering.

It is only on page 93 that one of the characters lets you down none too gently with a very short sentence: “This is not a ghost story.”  But there is still the web of events that may be coincidences misread as connections - or may not be.

The first part of Find Me tightens the mystery of Rosa’s apparent reappearance.  The second part is an even tighter unravelling of that mystery.  It is difficult to say much more without adding a 'spoiler alert'.

Find Me is a thriller that combines a young man’s post-bereavement hallucinations with a very taut cat and mouse chase involving a garden shed, the ‘dark web’ and hacking galore. And among a cast of strange characters there is at least one mouse – called Rosa - that drowns.

The main characters are very clearly drawn – with just enough left unsaid to keep you guessing. Much of the well controlled tension is produced by cleverly alternating the story between the main characters.

In part one, as the hunt for a vital hard drive continues, readers are in the privileged position of being first to find out what is on the hard drive.  Or are they?  Is Jar being ‘played’ – as one of his helpers suspects?
The author says he was inspired to change genres – switching from his spy novels to this psychological thriller – as he had so enjoyed reading The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.  But J.S. Monroe cannot quite leave behind the world of spies spy he wrote about as Jon Stock.  In telling us that, perhaps he too is laying a false trail for his readers.  Watch out for it.

Having got as far into the ‘dark web’ as is good for one’s sanity, we then get drawn into recent history with the CIA’s use of nasty psychological experiments that surround the nasty theory – and practice – of ‘learned helplessness’.    

There are clear echoes in Find Me of current controversies – not just about torture, but about the media and truth.  We get right up to date with a George Orwell definition: “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printing. Everything else is public relations.”  So we tiptoe into President Trump’s world where torture by the CIA is okay and all journalism should be PR for himself.

I was intrigued to read in the Marlborough.News report of the Marlborough launch for Find Me, that a friend of the author had devoured the book at one sitting – all eight hours of it. I did not manage the eight hour record, but I did finish it at one o’clock in the morning.  Good finding…

You can read more about the author on Marlborough.News and Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop still has signed copies of Find Me.  


Review: Remember, remember? Fame is a trip down memory lane for parents

Rosie Amos as CarmenRosie Amos as CarmenRemember the kids from Fame? I do. I was 10 when the TV show began airing on BBC in 1982 – a little too young to fully appreciate some of the topics being explored, but you couldn’t move for the Irene Cara’s theme song at school discos: “Baby remember my name (remember, remember…)” she implored. I didn’t. I had to look it up for this article.

Anyway, like last year’s We Will Rock You, the St John’s Academy production of Fame is aimed squarely at a parental market, although I’m sure the ongoing 80s revival in fashion and music helps it feel not too irrelevant to the cast (in fact the only time the stageplay feels dated is when fame-hungry Carmen fantasises about fighting off autograph hunters – today they’d all be taking selfies).

Like the movie and the TV series, the musical is set at New York City's High School of Performing Arts. Pre-X Factor and YouTube, young people had to go to college for a shot at success, a fact of which we are reminded in the opening song, a full company rendition of Hard Work.

Here singers, dancers and musicians triumph or fail, fall in love and fall back out again. They also swear and take drugs – something I’m sure was cut from the BBC teatime show but remains intact for this production, giving the cast members the chance to (legitimately) use four letter words on school grounds.

Thus Sam Austen as Hispanic acting student Joe Vegas gets to sing (quite graphically, and with superb comic timing) about his sexual prowess (I Can't Keep It Down), while dancer Carmen Diaz (Rosie Amos – a terrific actor, dancer and singer) substitutes breakfast for drugs to stay skinny and alert, drops out of school to seek her fortune in LA, and has to do God knows what to earn the money to get home again, all the while shooting the audience sassy looks that could stop traffic.

Archie Fisher as TyroneArchie Fisher as TyroneNew York, of course, was and is a cultural melting pot, and class and ethnic tensions are a running theme throughout Fame – not easy for an all-white cast to convey.

So top marks to Archie Fisher (hip hop dancer Tyrone), who manages to rap (quite capably) about growing up poor and black in the Bronx. “No-ones gotta tell me what its like to be black,” he raps, without flinching.

The lad can dance, too. And besides some great dance performances from Sophie Little (ballet dancer Iris) and Rosie Amos, the role usually filled by “chorus members” is a stage-commanding dance troupe, while the backing singers huddle around the band in the orchestra pit.

School musicals normally demand acting and a bit of singing. Throwing dance into the mix is ambitious, and it says something about the St John’s – which offers music, dance and drama as part of its syllabus – that it has produced young performers who can handle all three – with aplomb.

Images courtesy of Sally Bere


Review: The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic

The Flower Witch, photo by Mark DouetThe Flower Witch, photo by Mark Douet

A fight between good and evil with an icy darkness – Milo Davison (10) reports from Bristol Old Vic's Christmas production.

The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic made a unexpected start. The two main characters, Gerda and Kai, were introduced as puppets.

In the small peasant Village of the Yellow Roses both began as swaddled blankets, then as toddlers and young children both were puppets controlled by actors - learning to crawl then as young children until actors Steven Roberts (Kai) and Emily Burnett (Gerda) took over.

The songs were catchy, the music and lyrics were relevant to the scenes and I often wanted to dance.

I liked when Gerda and Kai called each other names in their first song to show how good friends they were, like ‘a factory full of farts’ and ‘the stickiest, stickiest kind of glue’.

Thousands of miles away in the Antarctic, I think, two goblins had captured bad-tempered children to feed the Snow Queen with their angry thoughts.

Doctor Boffin, played by Joanna Holden, and a goblin apprentice, played by Dylan Wood, were pulling a giant machine.

This machine looked handmade and I really liked all the gadgets they could pull out. Then a shadow projection of the Snow Queen appeared and we heard her speak - Gwyneth Herbert, the musical director, made a voice that sounded like it extinguished all hope.

Then back in the village Kia was captured for his big heart which was turned black by a magical shard. So started Gerda’s adventure to find her friend.

In one scene she swam with the turtles and these were my favourite costumes - they had green clothing a big shell on their back and it looked like their bellies were resting on a skateboard or a platform with wheels so they could scoot along really smoothly.

Gerda washed up on a beach where the Flower Witch, played by Miltos Yerolemou, found her. He had a hilarious costume of a flowery body with a fake beard with artificial flowers stuck to it.

He also had a companion called Parrot, played by Jessica Hayles. Her costume was quite cool with feathers sticking out here and there and a head-dress with a row of multicoloured feathers along the top which kind of reminded me of a centurion.

The Flower Witch had been bullied by other humans but Gerda made friends with him and liked him for his different style, just like her friend Kai who preferred dancing to football.

My favourite song was by the evil Duchess which was robotic and electronic and my favourite character was the Snow Queen.

Her costume had a giant icy ribcage a long snow battered dress night black beady eyes and a rugby ball shaped head with icicles sticking out - how she looked was how she was inside.

The set was great too, especially the smoke effects making icy fog.

A soul devouring, heart touching, laughing happiness, heartbreaking, icy sunlit performance.

The Snow Queen runs until January 15. For tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/snowqueen



REVIEW: Brilliant, young and international - the Castalian Quartet at St Peter's Church

The Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesThe Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesIn February Christopher Graves brought Alison Rhind to St Peter’s Church to perform a joint piano and cello recital.  This time (Sunday, November 20), Christopher brought more of his friends - friends who have formed the Castalian Quartet.

Having started their training variously in Helsinki, France and Britain, they graduated together with Masters Degrees in Chamber Music in Hannover in 2014, the year they released their first recording to considerable critical acclaim.  Just recognition came quickly.

They won the First Prize at the 2015 Lyon International Chamber Music Festival, and have developed an extensive repertoire and an impressive range of bookings.  They are a group on the ascendant, and we were very privileged to welcome them in homely Saint Peter’s since they were to play the same programme later in the week in a grander setting in Frankfurt.

The evening began with Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. It is the only string quartet he wrote.  It was written in 1903 while he was still one of Faure’s students at the Paris Conservatoire.  It opens with a sweeping, delicate adagio movement, like gossamer shimmering in a gentle breeze - beautifully and delicately played.   

The second movement has another sweeping melody batted from one instrument to another, the remaining members of the ensemble playing pizzicato for much of the time.  Ravel was imitating the sound of gamelan music from South East Asia, being  one of many artists profoundly influenced by eastern music at the turn of the last century.   

This is followed by a slow movement, the plangent musical lines delicately shaped and played with immense intensity. The work concludes with a fast and furious movement with the theme introduced in the first movement rising above the agitated playing of the lower strings. This was a superb performance, full of energy and intensity.  The subtle changes in dynamics and abrupt shifts in rhythms were adroitly conveyed.   

The second work in their concert, Four Quarters by Thomas Ades had been written for the Emerson String Quartet and first performed in 2011. Thomas Ades studied music at King’s College Cambridge. He is an accomplished pianist and was runner up as BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990. However it is as a composer than he is better known. He is now Benjamin Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has written a wealth of both orchestral music and a series of operas.

Never slow to incorporate new ideas, his ‘Polaris’ is written for piano, orchestra and five video screens! This work, ‘Four Quarters’, requires less demanding resources, but is technically very challenging.  

The work is a time sequence, each movement exploring a different stage of the day. ‘Nightfalls’ is quite remarkable.  The upper four instruments playing a series of high pitched individual notes interacting with one another over the steady continuo of the cello.  Tiny droplets of crystal, sparkling like stars: a brilliant portrayal of the vastness of the heavens.  ‘Morning Dew’ is almost entirely played pizzicato, the whole movement finishing with a series of upward-sweeping octaves.

The last movement ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’ was quite amazing. The rhythmic sequences are very complex and into their mathematical pattern is woven a wild dance-like fury, slowly dying  away until the fragile harmonies give way to complete silence.  

This was stupendous playing by a group of musicians who revelled in the musical and technical opportunities which Ades had provided. The audience was left utterly amazed both with the virtuosic playing, but also at the complexity and compositional ingenuity which the music had portrayed.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Brahms’s String Quartet No 3 in B Flat. This was music that fitted within the ‘frames of reference’ which the audience recognised! It is a lovely piece in which the first movement begins with a series of hunting calls followed by a pastoral rocking theme, in which Brahms uses his ever-favourite two time signatures at the same time.  

The third movement, an adagio, consists largely of a wonderful and languid viola solo. It is written as a waltz, but the music is surprisingly dark and tormented. The clouds clear for the last movement, a Finale in the form of a theme and variations in which the initial hunting theme from the first movement plays a significant part.  

The diversity of mood in these movements was subtly expressed and the viola playing was really lovely.  The group played as one, the eye-contact being ample evidence of how melded they are as chamber players.

What a concert! Three dramatically different works from three different centuries and different musical traditions, one of which took us out of our ‘comfort zone’.   They gave us great pleasure - their warmth of personality and their musical skill appreciated by us all.    

The Quartet are: Sini Simonen (violin), Daniel Roberts (violin), Charlotte Booneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).


REVIEW: An-Ting Chang adds sparkle to her musical menagerie at St Peter's Church recital

An-Ting ChangAn-Ting ChangThe first of the fifth series of Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church began in great style (Sunday, October 23) with a recital given by the young Taiwanese pianist An-Ting Chang.  

Chang graduated in 2007 from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. However she chose a career in music, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is still a PhD student in performance practice. Not content with developing a career as a pianist, she has begun experimenting with music and multimedia, through the ‘Concert Theatre’ she has created.

With all the music in her programme relating to the natural world, Chang called her recital, ‘The Carnival of Animals’.  She began with Robert Schumann’s studies known as Papillons.  Written when Schumann was but twenty years old, this group of twelve delicate miniatures floats past us like butterflies on a hot summer day.

Some of the butterflies are brightly coloured, in major keys, while others are portrayed in more sombre minor keys. These were all played with the rich variety of mood which they deserve.

This was followed by the evening's first appearance of the cuckoo: Le Coucou written by the French baroque composer and harpsichordist, Louis-Claude Daquin. Originally a movement from a harpsichord suite, we heard the distinctive two-tone call of the cuckoo recur endlessly in a variety of keys. This was a very robust cuckoo, portrayed with real vigour and technical skill.

Chang followed the butterflies with a very different piece, The Maiden and the Nightingale, by the twentieth century Spanish composer, Enrique Granados. This describes a love-torn maiden singing mournfully to the sound of a nightingale.

Her plangent song, based on a folksong from Valencia, is replete with Spanish rhythms, and redolent of a sad event played out on a warm summer’s night in Granada, with the song of nightingales filling the air.

Played caressingly by Chang, it was a dramatic contrast to her next choice - the Flight of the Bumble Bee composed by Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestra.  This version for solo piano was transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov.  It is a virtuoso display of semi-quavers played with huge enthusiasm and technical skill. This was an angry bumble bee, not to ignore!  

From an irritating and potentially malevolent insect Chang led us to the river bank with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Die Forelle - The Trout - the introductory song in Schubert’s much loved song cycle. This version is surprisingly troubling.

Of course, there is the description of the trout lurking in a millstream on a summer’s evening, but Chang’s powerful playing made much of the blood-curdling battle between the fisherman and the trout, killed, inevitably in cold blood.  

What a contrast to Debussy’s Poisson d’Or, from his Images Book II.  This is a much more placid piece, perhaps inspired by the sight of a goldfish swimming monotonously in the security of its bowl - its gilded scales flashing in the light.

In reality it is claimed that the piece is inspired by two golden fish on a Japanese lacquer panel, which Debussy owned.  Even he was swept up in the huge interest in the Orient, which dominated early twentieth century taste. Two well-known Chopin waltzes followed.  

These may well have been familiar, and lacking a little in sensitivity.  However, I doubt whether anyone in the audience was aware that the first, the Minute Waltz, had been inspired George Sand’s dog, chasing its own tail, while the second was inspired by George Sand’s cat, Valdeck, the yearning long notes imitating the sound of cats.

The first half ended with Aaron Copland’s The Cat and Mouse, taking its cue from one of La Fontaine’s Fables.  There was much energetic playing as the turbulent relationship between the cat and mouse is played out. There were brilliant musical flourishes, and the final pleading chords of the mouse left much to the imagination.    May be the mouse did get away...

After the interval we were treated to the whole of Daquin’s Troisieme Suite, of which Le Coucou had been a taster.  This time though it was LA Coucou, the same music, but played with a gentle femininity - in contrast to the raucous mate heard in the first half. The suite ended with a lovely rondo, La Tendre Silvie, played with all the tenderness and love the work demanded.

The concert finished with Le Carnival des Animaux, undoubtedly Saint Saens’ most popular work. Originally written for a variety of instruments, this version was adapted for solo piano by Chang herself.  There was the familiar cast list including another cuckoo! This one, though, exhausted after performing so much this evening, is calling in a rather ‘tired’ minor mode. If only cuckoos were so commonly heard in rural Wiltshire!  

There was the heavy-footed elephant, the chattering hens and the ponderous tortoise, all vividly portrayed.  Perhaps The Swan, the best known of the movements, suffered from insufficient emphasis on the plangent lyrical line, lost as it was in the rippling waves.  

It was a lovely concert - one made all the more memorable by Chang’s introduction and explanation of the pieces. Not only did we learn so much about the pieces, but we were enveloped in her infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps it will not be so much the music, but An-Ting Chang’s infectious smile, humour and charm we shall remember from this evening.   Please come again!  


In pictures: Wheely good fun at Pewsey Carnival's famous barrow race

Pewsey's famous wheelbarrow race returned to the streets of the village on Thursday night, ahead of tonight's illuminated carnival procession.

Hundreds of competitors donned fancy dress and pushed imaginatively-decorated wheelbarrows.

Photographer Jonathan Helps was on hand to capture the action.

Pewsey Carnival culminates tonight (Saturday) from 7.30pm with the ever-popular illuminated procession.

Click images to enlarge



Rabley Summer Exhibition: seventeen artists showing talents nurtured at the Rabley Drawing Centre

Amanda Ralfe: 'Wiltshire landscape'Amanda Ralfe: 'Wiltshire landscape'Rabley Drawing Centre is renowned for high quality exhibitions throughout the year, but I wonder how many people are aware of the thriving workshop sessions which are going on in the surrounding studios.

This year's summer exhibition of fine art prints features 17 artists, some like Arran Miles, Penny Furbisher and Suzy Miles have been working with Rabley since the early days in 2004, while others are new or occasional participants. It is an excellent show where every piece is visually strong and all are showing great skill and technique.

If you are not familiar with the variety of printmaking techniques this is an excellent show to visit.  You won't find any explanations, but look at the work where it is clear to see the diversity of the discipline.

Compare the etched and inked lines of Beetroot by Serena Nickson to the block colour in the relief prints of Penny Furbisher or the delicacy of the chine colle used by Alison Grant against the bravado of a Jean Stibbon monotype. These verbal descriptions don't do justice to the contrasts which every artist in this exhibition is able to show within each piece of work.

Two of the artists have been selected for this year's Royal Academy summer exhibition. Amy Jane Blackwell is an accomplished printmaker who works as a technician to some of the UK's top artists. At Rabley she shows two small pictures, curious and compelling to look at and much more than they might at first appear.

Suzy Miles' 'Burning Bush' captures the vibrant colour of the willow tree in her garden, seeming so ridiculously flamboyant, you know she has been looking at and absorbing its reality.

Susie Whimster: 'Song of the Rain, Series 1'Susie Whimster: 'Song of the Rain, Series 1'The detailed work of Amanda Cornish uses photopolymer gravure where photography and printing collide - in this case to create a stark close up of natural forms like dark recently discovered black and white stills from a lost folio.

Two monoprints by Susie Whimster are light and full of air and atmosphere. These beguiling pieces appear to drop off the gallery wall in their weightless quality.

Rabley Drawing Centre is much more than just a gallery where you visit to stare at the wall.  Director Meryl Ainslie has created a friendly community where anyone can go and work with her excellent collection of tutors - however inexperienced an artist you might be.

The beauty of this exhibition is that it shows in the right atmosphere high quality work can be achieved. It is on for a short time but I recommend you go and look, marvel at the work and even buy something.

The exhibition is open from Thursday, June 30 to Sunday, July 3 from 110.00am to 4.pm.

Rabley Drawing Centre, Rabley Barn, Mildenhall, Marlborough, SN8 2LW (01672 511999.)  Further details on the Centre's website.

And there are more examples of the works in the Exhibition here.



Review: local author's vivid tale of a woman's unequal struggle for independence in Victorian Britain and its violent Empire

Do not go down to your local bookshop to buy The Planter's Daughter by Jo Carroll - known locally as a writer through her widely-read columns for Marlborough.News.  This is her first novel and it is only available to download from Amazon to a Kindle (a bargain at £3.50) - or you can download a sample of the opening chapter as text.

Previous books by Jo Carroll have been her travel series of Over the Hill titles - about her adventures in Nepal and Ecuador.  The Planter's Daughter was born from a story she heard on her travels in New Zealand in 2005.  

It is a novel full of absorbing characters that stretches across the world of Britain's Victorian-era Empire and is as serious as it is entertaining.  In each section of the book the story is told through a different person's eyes.

We first meet Irish-born Sara Weldon in Liverpool.  We see her through the eyes of her Aunt's maid, Kitty.  It is 1847 and she has come to England escaping the potato famine and eventually she leaves Liverpool having become tangentially involved in working class politics - she leaves as a criminal transported to Australia having fallen foul of her scheming Uncle.  But before she leaves she provides her Aunt with a purpose in life - we will not spoil that surprise.

In Australia we see Sara through the eyes of a religious zealot Grace, who saves her from the slave market and takes her in as maid to her troubled family.  Life near Melbourne on a barely viable small-holding - with a side-line in making tools for the country's many thousand gold prospectors - is vividly drawn and based on sound research.

Grace is not an easy character to read about and you can tell quite early on that her relationship with Sara is based more on Grace's pious views of what people should be like (with the Lord's help) than on any realistic view of Sara's character and how she might make her way in the world.

One of Grace's stepsons takes Sara with him when he leaves home to join life among the rough and tough prospectors. They are mostly men and almost all of them are deprived of female company.  Sara's escape and her attempts to support herself financially take her several rungs down the ladder of despair.

Jo Carroll first heard about the 'notorious character' Barbara Weldon when she was in Hokitika (on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island) in 2005 and the book, she says, has been 'simmering' ever since.

The novel turns Barbara into Sara Weldon and it is from Australia that she is sent to New Zealand for using 'obscene language in a public place' - she is transported again.  The British Empire's rough and ready legal system could not send its unwanted any further away than antipodean New Zealand.

In New Zealand a magistrate named Grenville, who has been shipped from Scotland to work for the Empire, falls for her undoubted charms and lures her - with promises we know he cannot keep - to Hokitika where he is the local magistrate and where he lives with his starched-pinny of a wife and their two sons, Rupert and Alistair.  

He sets Sara up as his mistress in a cabin by the sea - just far enough from the town to keep her from prying eyes.  But can she keep away from the men from whom she can make money by selling the only thing that is by now her own - her body?  Will she ever save enough to get home to Ireland or to Liverpool?  Can Grenville fulfil his promises?

Throughout this section of the novel the magistrate is only referred to by his surname - he is just 'Grenville'.  As his relationship with Sara unravels, she refers to him with increasing sarcasm as 'Mr Magistrate'.  He ends up abandoned by his wife: "And you - you can walk into the sea for all I care.  You might as well.  There's not much left for you here, Mr High-and-Mighty Magistrate."

Each historical and geographical part this book has been carefully researched, yet the research is not obtrusive.  That it is true of this section.  But of all the stages in Sara's story, it is this one that really comes to life both in terms of the characters and the descriptions - especially the descriptions Grenville's state of continual panic as he realises his duplicity will be discovered.

It also lives strongly with Jo Carroll's descriptions of the bleak scenery of the sea shore blasted with winds from the Antarctic, of the little town with its disreputable cast of seekers after gold and of Sara's prisoner-like existence.  Some of the scenes reminded me of those desperate beach scenes in the 1993 film The Piano - also set on New Zealand's west coast.

Sara's attempt (in Jo Carroll's words) to 'steer an independent path' in the male dominated nineteenth century, ends badly.  Barbara Weldon's life also ended badly - in the words of the real life New Zealand magistrate, it ended "casually and by misfortune".   

Jo Carroll could not leave us with Sara simply being "swept along by a tide of events".  So she gives us one last chapter that helps explain how Sara ended up on this one-way ladder.  

The author takes us back in time to the potato famine that led to Sara's initial move from Ireland to the unpleasant rule of her Aunt and Uncle and to the mayhem and inequalities of Liverpool's burgeoning capitalism.   

The descriptions of the Antrim countryside and its inhabitants destroyed by the potato blight are grim.  And overlaid onto the disaster of starvation is Ireland's all to blatant religious divide.  Sara was, after all, a planter's daughter - and the incoming, colonising Presbyterian planters held out strongly against the native Irish Catholics.  So the book ends by taking us into the divides that still blight that part of Ireland to this day.

One of the major accomplishments of this novel is that the story flows so clearly. There are no unlikely coincidences to perplex the reader and undermine the veracity of the tale.  This is as close to the real story of such women as Barbara Weldon as we are likely to get.

However, coincidences do happen.  No sooner had I finished The Planter's Daughter and put away the Kindle, than I spotted a report in my morning newspaper datelined Hokitika and headlined "Miners pile in for latest gold rush in New Zealand".  

In the 1860s gold rush, Hokitika, this report says, had 72 hotels and few women: "Just as today, the original miners were secretive about their claims, often laying false trails and misinformation to lure their competitors away from prosperous sites."

Magistrate Grenville's pot of gold was Sara herself - and his false trails and misinformation led to his downfall and to Sara's death.  His was 'fool's gold' and she paid the price for his folly.

We can look forward to Jo Carroll's next novel - whether it is available between hard or soft covers or online.


“This orchestra gets better and better" - a review of Marlborough Concert Orchestra Winter Concert

Marlborough Concert OrchestraMarlborough Concert Orchestra“This orchestra gets better and better.” ...was a comment overheard on Saturday 3rd December, when the Marlborough Concert Orchestra gave its Winter Concert at St. Mary’s Church to a highly appreciative audience.

There was a strong ‘young’ element to the evening.  Alexander Webb, currently a Conducting Scholar at the Royal Northern College of Music, came to the podium at very short notice and conducted with aplomb, giving fine, clear direction.  The two professional soloists in the first half were Irene Enzlin (‘cello) and Verena Chen (violin) who gave us a superb rendition of Brahms’ Double Concerto; in this they were ably supported by the orchestra.  It is said that Brahms was very diffident about this concerto.  On the basis of this performance, there was no need for such modesty.

Following the interval, when raffle prizes were collected (one lucky family appeared nearly to scoop the pool), there was an impromptu encore from the soloists – a delightful Passacaglia by the Norwegian composer, Halvorsen.  After this, the orchestra set forth with Invitation to the Dance by Weber, described by one member of the orchestra as “not as easy (to play) as it sounds”.  These playersd did make it sound easy, David Edwards, (1st ‘cello) set the standard with the opening solo part.

Next came the Vocalise Op.14 No.14 by Rachmaninov, in which momentum was well-maintained under Alex Webb’s baton and the familiar ‘sob factor’ of this composer shone through.  Finally, we had Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms, where each section of the orchestra came to the fore separately and collectively, demonstrating fine musical abilities in dealing with the changing pace of these variations.  The comment at the opening to this review was right, this was an evening of splendid music, well-played.


All aboard the ghost ship - ss Great Britain serves up spooky tales for Hallowe’en

Dorothy Collins as Emily LancasterDorothy Collins as Emily LancasterWe’ve all heard of ghost ships, right: The Flying Dutchman or the Mary Celeste, drifting at sea with no living crew on board?

Well, on Saturday night - for one night only - Bristol’s ss Great Britain became a ghost ship, or rather a ship possessed by the ghosts of its passengers, each with a gruesome story to tell.

During a seemingly normal guided tour of the vessel, we encountered a number of spectres, who offered an alternative history than the familiar “the longest ship of the period” and “she crossed the Atlantic in 14 days”.

(It’s worth remembering, of course, that the Brunel’s famous ship has its own back-from-the-dead story to tell: being retired 40 years after its 1845 maiden voyage, and scuttled in 1937 before – in 1970 – limping back to the Bristol dock at which she was built, to be restored to her former glory.)

Some of the ghosts – portrayed marvellously by young actors in a joint production with the Bristol Old Vic – were based on historical characters. Others were embellishments, or their fates imagined.

The first ghost our tour group met was Mrs Gray, the wife of celebrated merchant fleet captain John Gray. Gray commanded the ss Great Britain for 18 years before disappearing in mysterious circumstances on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Being on a ship, there was no way for the news to be communicated to shore, and the first Mrs Gray knew of her husband’s demise was when the ship docked. Clad in funereal black, our Mrs Gray (Stephanie Kempson) was doomed to spend eternity at the dockside, waiting for her husband to return.

Hal Kelly as The ButcherHal Kelly as The ButcherOn the dry dock we met nursery rhyme-singing Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins), one of the passengers to succumb to an outbreak of smallpox on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Her tale was a sad one, and told us a lot about the treatment of steerage class passengers, but was she really cast into the sea not yet dead, as her ghost suggested? And did her mother really not shed a tear?

In the ship’s galley we met The Butcher, played by Hal Kelly. His story was based on a diary entry from a passenger, which told how a drunk butcher had stuck a pig in the wrong place, and the bleeding beast had run around the ship for half an hour. But in our story, the butcher’s motives were reinterpreted as psychopathy, as the slaughterman revealed how he had learnt to prolong, and relish in, the death of an animal.

There was more psychopathy in the first class dining saloon, where bored passengers played by Julia Head and Matt Landau gorged themselves on a banquet while discussing killing animals to relieve the boredom of their voyage. But after a rat, a cat, and a fellow passenger’s Labrador, what could they torture next? Their eyes turned to the children on the tour – it was played for laughs but suffice to say the little 'uns were holding their parents’ hands a little tighter as the aristocratic apparitions pursued our tour group down the corridor with carving knives.

The Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauThe Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauWe also met brides (Jenny Davies and Faye Bishop) a traumatised Crimean soldier (Scott Bayliss) and Sister Benedict, played by Kirsty Asher, a nun struggling with the conflict between her wrath at the immoral women sharing her third class accommodation and succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins.

This event could have been reduced to a common jump-out-of-cupboards fright fest, and I was glad that it was not. Like the best horror stories, the grisly yarns woven by the passengers of the ss Great Britain stayed with me long after I had left the dock, and was tucked up safe in my own bed.

Photographs by John Rowley courtesy of the ss Great Britain Trust


Review: An Elephant in the Garden at Newbury Corn Exchange

Alison Reid in An Elephant in the GardenAlison Reid in An Elephant in the GardenA group of children from St Katharine’s School watched An Elephant in the Garden, a play based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, to support their studies into the World Wars. Milo Davison (10) reports.

On Friday I went to see An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo at the Corn Exchange in Newbury. We have been reading Michael Morpurgo at school and studying the First and Second World Wars.

I thought it was excellent because it was all done by one person. That person was acting it out like she was reading it to us. It was all done so well.

It had really good scenes in it my favourite scene was when Lizzie met Peter in the hay. Alison Reid (the actor who did it) also had to do all the right accents and had to do the right thing when the right sound effect came up.

There were some parts that were not like the book. For instance they missed out main character, Karli, but i still think the woman did quite well to fit it in an hour.

The story is about a lady remembering her life. She and her family were at her uncle's house and were having an argument about whether Hitler was good or bad. And they thought that Hitler was going to start a war.

When he did the father went off to war first to France then to Russia.

The mother decided to get a job in the zoo. Where they live, Dresden, which was one of the only cities in Germany which hadn't been bombed. If it was all the zoo animals would have to be shot. On Lizzie's birthday the air raid sirens went off and the mother took a baby elephant with them so with thousands of other refugees they all went off but then suddenly the mother went off in a complete other direction!

After hours of walking they eventually arrived at the uncle's house. There was no one there. They decided to put the elephant in the barn but when they got in there a British pilot was asleep on the hay. The mother held the man hostage eventually they made friends but the German soldiers arrived! So the man (Peter) had to pretend that he was Lizzie's brother.

After that they got away with it Lizzie found out that she loved Peter. Peter had to lead them to the Americans, so Peter lead them on with his compass. They carried on for a week until Lizzie fell ill. They sought out refuge and found a house.

When they came in Lizzie got some rest and became better. When she went out in the house she took Peter's compass. But a man who helped own the house took the compass and found it was British and he reported them to the police so they had to leave.

When they were about to go they had to take a bunch of choir children with them. After about another week they found the Americans and the Americans put them in a camp. When they got out Peter and Lizzie got married. So it all ended in a happy ending.


From violent village sports to missing bird species - the story of the Ridgeway as it runs from Berkshire to Wiltshire

Towards Uffington - by Anna Dillon Towards Uffington - by Anna Dillon The Middle Ridgeway and its Environment by Eric Jones and Patrick Dillon  (Wessex Books, 2016)

To mark the publication of this book, landscape paintings of the area by Anna Dillon (Patrick Dillon's daughter) - some of which illustrate this book - are being exhibited in the Chandler Room of the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough High Street for the rest of September.

This book gives a lively view of the middle section of the great Ridgeway - "the oldest public highway in Britain".  It is the part that runs from Streatley in Berkshire westwards to Avebury in Wiltshire. The book makes the most of the area's historical and ecological records and some of its literary associations.

The authors have written an enthusiastic study of this ancient pathway - observing its landscapes, investigating its natural and cultural history and the development of its agriculture.

Along the way they have unearthed some fascinating stories and insights.  It as well to remember, as we worry over planning issues, that in the good old days of 1930 there was a Berkshire Regional Joint Town Planning Committee - even in those days they wrapped themselves up in words. 

A report written for the committee judged: "The downland area of Berkshire is a tract of country as unique and full of interest as the most absorbing parts of Wiltshire."  One up to the Wiltshire end of the Middle Ridgeway.

The book charts the changes in the fairs that dotted rural towns and villages.  Stanford-in-the-Vale's 'Veast' had as its 'dramatic centrepiece' a single-stick match - a bloody form of contest that perhaps has much less violent echoes today in the clashing of sticks wielded by Morris dancers.

Upham View - Anna Dillon  Upham View - Anna Dillon Another contest enjoyed at fairs - at least by the onlookers - was 'shin-kicking'.  This 'game' was 'even rougher than single-stick': "Shin-kicking meant putting one's hands on the opponent's shoulders and kicking away with one's work boots, while he replied in kind."  Both these fairground sports - along with various forms of animal baiting - were ended by the Victorian era's guardians of all things regarding health, safety and ethics.

When you see a pair of hares performing their rituals in the fields or on the downs, you can, with the help of this book, think back to the incredible popularity of the coursing hares with dogs and shooting hares that nearly led to their extinction in the area. 

In 1904 on the part of the Marlborough Downs' Meux Estate that lay north of the A4 a game bag was recorded that included 525 hares.

Coursing became something of a rural industry drawing enthusiasts and ne'er-do-wells from far and wide. In the Vale of the White Horse one landowner was so cross when the coursing fraternity decide to move away from his land, that he ordered the hare population to be killed off: "...a most dreadful warfare was lately waged in Ashdown Park, where in the course of a few days Lord Craven killed no less than sixteen hundred hares."

The quarrel did not last and coursing returned to the area and, as the authors write, "...hares began to be preserved again at Ashdown - preservation meaning kept alive to be courses."

The landscape paintings that illustrate this book by Anna Dillon are a refreshing reminder that the landscapes survive - remarkably intact - to be painted in a modernist and very appealing style.

Silbury - Anna DillonSilbury - Anna DillonThey give a fresh and vibrant view of the downs through which the Middle Ridgeway pass and remind us vividly of some of the landscape's major landmarks.

Many of Ms Dillon's paintings have distinct echoes or traces of geological maps and their colourful strata - giving us a suggestion of what lies beneath and helps form the landscape we see.

The book itself is full of strange facts and vanished times: the 'currier' was the man who added colour to finished leather - now he is relegated to a convenient word for crossword compilers. Lambourn once had a racecourse - it closed in 1803.  But the Lambourn Downs' dominance as a training centre for racehorses was slow to develop.  At one time horses had to be walked to the GWR station at Uffington - "until a branch line from Newbury reached up the valley of the River Lambourn in 1898."

The authors have a revealing chapter on the area's bird life - referencing among their sources 'a small book' published in 1869 and titled simply Birds of Marlborough.  It was by Everard im Thurn published when he was still a 'schoolboy' at Marlborough College: "...a remarkable compilation of local sightings and bird lore for one so young."

Birds, it seems, have long been subject to the changes in farming that in some parts of the country still afflict wildlife today.  In 1866 a rough-legged buzzard was trapped at West Overton.  Possible sightings of a golden eagle or two and the loss of the wryneck and the dwindling sightings of lone dotterel as they pass through the area, are mentioned.

The only problem with the book is that it concentrates rather on the Vale of the White Horse and does find as much of interest along the Wiltshire length of the Middle Ridgeway.

Discussing the area's bird life, the authors mention the decline in tree sparrows on the downs. But they do not mention the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area and its post government grant successor 'The Marlborough Downs: A space for nature'.

Thirty-five farms working together over 25,000 acres of the Marlborough Downs along the Ridgeway have made and still are making a huge difference to the ecology - and, incidentally, they have been working hard and successfully to bring many more tree sparrows to the Downs.

However, do not let anyone put you off this book.  It is a mine of fascinating information and accessible history - with brilliant illustrations in the form of Anna Dillon's paintings.

[The paintings used in this review remain the copyright of the artist.]


MantonFest rocks as fans defy elements and surfeit of food, beer and wine, and enjoy a great day out

“What shall we play now?” The question posed by John Steel, drummer with the Animals and Friends and the surviving member from the band’s inception in 1957, as they came back on to the stage at MantonFest for the encore.

Of course, it was the one number that they hadn’t played, the number that fans had been shouting out for the previous hour and a half:  ‘The House of The Rising Sun’, The Animals greatest worldwide hit from 1964.  Maybe ‘We've Gotta Get Out of This Place’ as encore would have been more appropriate, but the rocking crowd who had stayed and survived the showers, excesses offered by the Ramsbury Breweries beer tent and numerous excellent food outlets (“I need another Hog Roast” exclaimed Pete at about ten o’clock. “I’ve only had three so far, I’m not hungry, but I need another…..”) were in no mood to let the band go without that number, and they weren’t disappointed.

The Animals and Friends closed MantonFest 2016, a great line-up mixing big names - Dr Feelgood’s set was electric, sparking the crowd’s energy level of excitement with their mix of ‘Down by The Jetty’, ‘Roxette’, ’She Does It Right’ and other hard-driving classics - to the many excellent local bands on the bill such as Straight Six, regulars for several years and now playing their swansong performance, Barrelhouse, The Banned (even topping their last year’s stunning debut performance), The Clive Collective, Empty Gestures, Ukey D’Ukes, Smiley’s People, Skedaddle and The Harry Miller Band - a great new act who kicked off proceedings at the other end of the day.

A laid-back and relaxing mix of a music festival with a stream of accomplished sets and a family day out, with whole families from babes in arms to great grandparents setting up their own picnics wth gazebos, chairs etc all in a field that acted as a natural auditorium with everyone, everywhere being able to see and hear what was going on.  Swindon PA Hire provided the sounds and lights, and unusually for a local festival the quality of the sound system meant that everyone could enjoy all the performances.

“A great day” exclaimed Roger Grant, chairman of the organising Committee, “All the profits will go to ‘The Brighter Futures’ radiotherapy appeal at the GWH, not sure yet how much as we haven’t had a chance to count it all but it’s a good amount”.  And he promised to let us know how much when he had.

And next year? “The only promise we can make is that it will be at least as good as this year” said Roger, adding that “it’s a wonderful way to create a great fun day out for the while family whilst raising money for a fantastic charity”

Top that - not even The Animals and Friends, Dr Feelgood or any of MantonFest’s 2016 line-up could come close!

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