City of the Unexpected (A Choir-eye-view)

As a member of Sororitas choir, based in Cardiff, I along with many other choirs across the city and beyond were invited to take part in a ‘Mass Choir’ as part of the City of the Unexpected. So after learning the songs (two newly written pieces and some medleys) and one slightly mad rehearsal with everyone, we were being set loosen the city of Cardiff along with the other performers.
The point of the event, as organisers kept insisting was the ‘unexpected’ but as choir performers we were kept at the castle (not unlike the prisoner Mr Fox) and missed out much of the early action. So mainly relying on rumour and, well Twitter, we discovered the peach had indeed landed and was heading in our direction. Eventually we heard it (who knew a peach would be so loud?) accompanied by a marching band and a band of protesters, we spotted the giant fruit heading our way.
The peach slowly arrived and was tethered to the front of the Castle, presumably to stop it escaping and causing more havoc…Accompanying it were protesters who demanded that we ‘Save the Peach’ and although we weren’t originally part of that group, the choirs couldn’t help but join in the rousing cry to ‘Save the Peach’. The protest crowd was made up of children and their adults, showing, much as Dahl would have wanted, kid power really works! Some brilliant signs accompanied the Peach such as ‘Make Fuzz not War’ and ‘Peach Peace’, so after an impromptu Peach Rally (choirs really do like to ‘join in’ we settled in to welcome the peach). The Peach was then formally welcomed by the Lord Mayor.
While the peach was being welcomed we were slightly distracted by Mr Fox and his family who seemed to be using the ramparts as a bit of a playground! Some acrobatic moves as Mrs Fox and Mr Fox ducked in and out of the castle, presumably while hiding from some angry farmers.  From our spot on the grass in front of the castle the choirs had a fantastic (pardon the pun) up close view of the acrobatics!
Meanwhile things were happening with the Peach, noises seemed to be coming out of it and the Fire Brigade sprang into action, quickly lifting what looked like a young boy from inside the peach. While the Chief of Fire services got to work rescuing those inside, it was time for the choir to do what we came to do. Singing a medley of Welsh classics to welcome the visitors from the peach. This is the kind of thing choirs live for, the chance to sing with about 500 other Welsh choristers, in front of Cardiff Castle, singing Welsh songs? That was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one we’re all thankful to Dahl for giving us! The crowd joined in with the songs as various animals- Ladybird, Grasshopper and Spider-were also winched from the peach. Ending with a rousing version of Catatonia’s International Velvet the creatures were formally welcomed to the City! They thanked the crowd and were on their way to the next adventure.
Meanwhile Mr Fox and family had been waiting for an opportunity. With some more flagpole acrobatics, things seemed to be building towards some sort of big climax…however this moment ended in disappointment, as Mr Fox was unable to escape across the tightrope between the Castle and Queen Street due to crowds’ bellow. Despite the organisers’ best efforts, the crowd couldn’t be persuaded to move, and so the big centrepiece of the day ended on a slight note of disappointment.
There has been a variety of comments on social media about crowds/crowd control and organisation at the event. And while it’s fair to say the ‘main events’ at the castle were very crowded, it was to be expected at such an event. Being a ‘part of the action’, I can say that yes there was an element of disorganisation felt at times, but given the scale of things, that isn’t surprising. All day however I was always in sight of several security and event staff at all times who did their best to help out. I didn’t use the App that signalled where things were, but I found that simply wandering around the city you found events popping up everywhere. And actually these smaller surprise events were sometimes far more rewarding to watch than the ‘main attraction’. It was frustrating that people as a group took out their frustration on one another, pushing and shoving and creating more of an issue in the crowds, rather than trying to cooperate and help one another, and the event run smoothly. So on that note, I feel sad that the crowds, not the organisation meant that Mr Fox didn’t complete his stunt as planned.
 However, as was the spirit of the event, those who later were wandering by the castle were rewarded with an unexpected Mr Fox tightrope walk later in the afternoon-and pretty impressive he was too!
While smaller ‘happenings’ took place all over the City Centre, including an impressive Digger Ballet, where Mr and Mrs Fox insinuated something a bit less child-friendly through their ‘digger dance’ to ‘Why Don’t We Do it in the Road’-not sure Paul McCartney ever saw two human sized foxes driving diggers to that song, but stranger things were happening all over town at that point. Mr Fox, seeming to get about a bit, was ballroom dancing in the museum, playing the Organ in St John’s Church and playing the violin in Castle Arcade. When Mr Fox wasn’t drawing crowds George and his marvellous medicine machine and some interesting Polar Explorers were also out and about. Eventually the city quietened down briefly and we could all draw breath before the evening performance.
The evening performance was both lavish and surreal. Taking place at City hall it was a celebration of the marriage between the Ladybird, and her rescuer from earlier that day, the Chief of Fire Services. The choir’s part in this was to sing to the newlyweds a medley of love songs, so we weren’t needed for the first half, and as a result were hidden out of sight at the side of City Hall. As with much of the choir’s waiting points, this proved a sneaky advantage in getting a clear and alternative view of the proceedings.
Just before that however, a few of us had our own ‘unexpected’ discovery, which showed, I think that the real magic wasn’t in the big crowds or events, but what you stumbled across. Having just got excited at finding where the vintage cars were ‘sleeping’ between performances, and having admired the vintage Morris Minor, two of us choir members stumbled on a Giant Peach floating quietly on its own behind City Hall! With hardly anyone around it was really magical to have a quiet moment and admire the truly impressive piece of set that had been created.
City Hall was decorated lavishly as a wedding venue, with the Bridal party on the roof, while dancers, orchestra and now choir gathered beneath. Singing our way through love classics ‘Love is in the Air’ ‘All You Need is Love’ ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and ‘Do You Love Me’ all with accompanying dance moves, confetti and paper hearts, again got the crowd singing along. And then we all turned and watched a Ladybird marry a fireman, accompanied by rock guitar solos on the rooftop, flanked by ballerinas. Finishing the romantic moment was singer Sophie Evans hoisted up on a platform singing ‘What a Wonderful World’ (which hopefully wasn’t drowned out by the snow machine for the rest of the audience as it was for us!).
The wedding party then departed and something strange started to happen to City Hall, video projections and sound scaping began to leap around, and the building was covered in chocolate and sweets in all manner of configurations. A display that Willy Wonka would be proud of, and one of the most visually impressive moments of the day. 

As the choir then left, and a few of us made our way back away from the action, one of the most truly magical moments of the day happened, on an entirely deserted Lloyd George Avenue, a Giant Peach with James himself suspended from it floated towards us. On a street with only two of us seeing him float, practice his moves and drift off towards his entrance was truly unexpected and a perfect end to the day. We might have missed the finale and fireworks, but being a part of the City of the Unexpected gave us a really magical moment to end the day. 

Groundhog Day-The Old Vic

If this was my actual Groundhog Day I’d happily spend hundreds of days there. The new musical from Tim Minchin manages to be both utterly uplifting as well as emotionally affecting.
For those who missed the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, it follows cynical weatherman Phil Connors, who is sent to report on ‘Groundhog Day’ which is, yes a real thing where folklore says that if a Groundhog comes out and sees his shadow on February 2nd there will be 6 more weeks of winter. Oh and for anyone wondering what exactly a Groundhog is, this is what one looks like: 

It’s a large Marmot, a relation of the squirrel. Also known as a Woodchuck. 
Now we’re all up to speed on our small mammals and folklore…in the film Phil begrudgingly reports on the Groundhog happenings, only to find himself stuck waking up on Groundhog Day seemingly forever. 

Trapped in a small town purgatory, Phil is angry, then elated, then suicidal until he finally as he says ‘gets it’ and starts trying to put things right in his small corner of the world. And in the process finds himself falling for, and working hard to make himself appealing to fellow journalist Rita. As a story it’s both a redemption tale and a homage to small town life. The deceptively simple premise is ultimately incredibly moving and heart-warming. And in using original screenwriter Danny Rubin to write the book gives a slightly updated and also pitch perfect stage version of his film. Teaming up with Tim Minchin, known for both his own music and comedy and the incredibly successful adaptation of Matlida, gives the book a beautiful, witty and fitting score. Standouts from Minchin are the second act opener ‘Being Nancy’ and the beautiful ‘Seeing You’. The score veers from high energy ensemble numbers filled with witty lines (Phil’s interjection about masturbating in a bath is a memorable one) as well as romantic and affecting lyrics. 

Alongside a brilliantly written piece is direction and staging that really elevates this production to the next level. Matthew Warchus’ direction combined with Peter Darling’s choreography against the backdrop of Paul Kieve’s sets create the world of Punxsutawney Pensylvania perfectly. The sets that Kieve creates are beautiful and ingenious. A backdrop of identical houses giving the sense of anywhereville USA, combined with the doll’s house fold out motel room that Phil wakes in every day. Intricate and deceptively simple these sets combined with exacting choreography build the town around Phil and give it a real sense of identity. Brilliant also are the visual illusions when in fast paced numbers Phil reappears in his bed the next morning for another Groundhog Day as if by magic. On a personal nerdy note, I was also utterly fascinated by the costume changes and working out just how many suits, coats and scarves Karl was working with. 
The whole show is held together by Andy Karl as Phil. The experienced Broadway actor takes on both the challenge of Bill Murray’s classic performance, and a potentially unlikeable leading character, and makes it his own, and make Phil a character you want to be better. And when he does, it’s Karl’s performance that makes it all the more rewarding for an audience. Charming, and engaging as an actor he’s also an exceptional musical theatre performer, not just in voice but in telling story through song. It is Karl’s performance as much as the clever writing and staging that really makes this a stand out musical. 

The ensemble that make up the town are brought to life by a talented team, with funny and sweet characters making up the backdrop to Phil’s (mis)adventures. And like Phil many audience members start by thinking it is a fate worse than hell to be stuck with these people, but by the end be completely won over by the mish-mash of slightly misfit townsfolk. Coupled with this the lovely love story of Phil and Rita (Played by Carlyss Peer), simple sweet and charming and utterly heart-warming but also feeling very real.

It is overall a magical and moving piece of musical theatre. Movie adaptations run the risk of being a ‘by numbers’ arrangement. Groundhog Day feels like something new, which is perhaps the greatest irony-and greatest strength. 

I left Groundhog Day feeling incredibly moved, but also elated. Much like Phil ends his time in Punxsutawney I imagine. Yes, it’s a simple enough morality tale, a tale about changing yourself to change your life. And maybe yes a lot of us, me included need to learn that lesson, and it makes for emotional viewing. But Groundhog Day is also so uplifting and so frankly joyous at times that it leaves an audience with a real sense of elation. New musical gems are hard to find, but I’d happily live this one over and over for some time to come.

Groundhog Day is at The Old Vic until until 17 September. Box office: 0844-871 7628.

No Man’s Land- Cardiff

Pinter plays can be a frustrating experience, the infamous pauses, the obtuse writing, it can be a fascinating evening but also a frustrating one if executed poorly. Of course there was no real fear of poor execution from two masters of the stage in Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Their double act, supported by fine work from Owen Teale and Damien Molony lifts this more obscure Pinter into something accessible and enjoyable for even the most Pinter-wary. 
It is an atmospheric production, with projections of trees reaching beyond the imposing living room set, and a soundscape of birdsong. Stephen Brimson Lewis through his set design gives an imposing presence to the house that Patrick Stewart’s Hirst inhabits. With high walled rooms and huge windows that are left curtained for much of the time, to the wing backed armchairs and hard wooden seats, Hirst’s world is drawn around him. The costumes too, also by Brimson Lewis, serve to create this particular slice of the world. Stewart clad in sharp pinstripe suits in contrast to McKellan’s Spooner, whose baggy suit has seen better days, his flat cap and tennis shoes likewise. Meanwhile Foster (Molony) and Briggs (Teale) sport a fetching line in extreme 70s suits. And with their outfits a particular corner of England is created. 
The costuming lends itself to the theme of nostalgia, the harking back to something now missing for both characters, for different reasons. Combining nostalgia with Cricket-both main characters are named for famous cricketers-ties with Pinter’s own feelings linking cricket to a time now lost. And this is something both characters are searching for, as is the younger Foster, who years for his earlier youth spent travelling in Asia, showing nostalgia is not only the preserve of the older generation. There is a wistfulness about the play, and the liminal space it seems to occupy between night and day seems to add to this. 
The performances are, as you would expect, a masterclass of acting and stagecraft. While inhabiting their own roles pitch perfectly, there is another level to this performance brought by the relationship between McKellan and Stewart. Playing off one another perfectly, and with performances so in sync the work could have been written for them, there is also a sense of real joy in the work that seems to undercut their performances. Individually they bring fascinating performances, McKellan’s Spooner is a loquacious and laconic poet, with a real air of vulnerability and confusion as he attempts to settle into his companion’s home. Stewart’s Hirst hides a different vulnerability behind a harder shell, and he is somewhat darker, harder to read. Together they have some joyously funny and touching moments in which both their skills as actors, and their relationship as actors (and friends) lifts to another level. It would be easy for Teale and Molony to be lost next to these two acting greats, but each holds their own and makes as strong an impression as the leading pair. An amusing and intriguing pair of sidekicks to Hirst, much is left unknown about the two employees who are brought to life with both comic timing and unanswered questions about where exactly they fit in.
There are no answers, as you’d expect from Pinter. Instead we’re left with various questions: What is actually going on? what does the audience think is going on? what do the character’s think is going on? what does the playwright think is going on? ultimately it doesn’t matter if these match up, what matters is asking these questions. In the case of this performance, having reached them through a masterclass of stagecraft. 
No Man’s Land is at the New Theatre Cardiff until Saturday 3rd September:’s-on/no-man’s-land/
And on tour nationally details here: