Pottering into August

One of my birthday present highlights this year was a pair of Harry Potter, Marauder’s Map pyjamas. Because nothing says ‘responsible vicar type person’ like PJ’s with fictional characters on…

Marauders Map PJsBio-ethics mug + Harry Potter PJs = emotionally stable 30 something. Honest.

My birthday weekend coincided with the biggest Potter event to have hit the Muggle world since the final film instalment appeared five years ago. The Cursed Child play premiered and its script was released – both on the date upon which, in 1991, Harry Potter first discovered he was a wizard. [Yes, I just googled the year.]

In fact, the whole week was something of a Harry Potter fest…

On the Wednesday, a few days after the play’s premiere, with a couple of hours free in Soho, I took myself off to the House of MinaLima – a shop and exhibition of the work done by the films’ graphic design team. Nestling behind the Palace Theatre (the play’s home) on Greek Street, the shop is a treasure trove of Potter detail. Some of it’s familiar from the films (like the Daily Prophet front pages and the Ministry’s Proclamations) – but the level of detail in objects you probably hadn’t even noticed is phenomenal!

Hogwarts lettersHogwarts Text Books

Hogwarts letters to a certain Mr H. Potter & a selection of textbooks.

Thursday of that week had one priority alone: the purchasing of tickets for the aforementioned (and not at all high profile) Harry Potter play. For next year. In fact, for possibly 18 months’ time – depending on availability. The queue opened at 10am and I logged my place. At 11am *just* 10,000 people were ahead of me. Soon after noon, it was my turn.

Myy turn to click through EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY, any date within school holidays (in honour of my teacher sister) and even, when I got desperate, a few Sundays (believing I could always make a quick getaway for a 1pm start). I spent over an hour trying to get tickets, but failed. Informed that no tickets were available (presumably together) for the date I’d chosen. Every. Single. Time. Utterly depressing. (Especially as some friends later acquired tickets – on a Saturday – at gone 5pm. Perhaps I lacked stamina in my ticket buying!)

Cursed queue

I thought that would be the end of Potter for that week. I didn’t even buy the play as solace for my lack of tickets. [I have issues with play reading. And overly high expectations.] But I didn’t count for Friday…

One of my meetings that Friday was with a guy from Harvard Divinity School who’s involved in some fascinating research on non-religious communities and what the church can learn from them. [Potentially the subject of a whole other post. Honestly, it’s exciting stuff!] It was a fun conversation, and towards the end he threw in the factoid that he’d recently begun co-hosting a podcast based on Harry Potter. My ears pricked up, especially when I heard the title: ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’.

I’ve now listened to the first few episodes (the most recent is only number 13) and I’m impressed. In fact, I just about managed to jump on the podcast’s bandwagon before it jumped into the iTunes podcast charts! Even the Guardian’s discovered it.

HPSacredText

Here’s the thing. What the podcast is *not* suggesting is that it IS a sacred text. This is not when all the uber-conservative Christians who claimed Harry Potter was occultish are proved right! What Casper ter Kuile & Vanessa Zoltan *are* exploring is what happens when we analyse, reflect upon and go deeply into Rowling’s work. It’s taking some of the principles of sacred text reading and applying them to a series that millions of people have read (more than once) and whose content in terms of number of words easily outstrips that of other sacred texts. [HP has, in total, 1,084,170 words compared to the KJV’s 783,137.]

As all readers of the series/viewers of the films will know, the central themes of Harry Potter are ones that are also found in sacred texts: death; good versus evil; violence; the power of love; resurrection… Comparisons between the series and the Chronicles of Narnia (a deliberately Christian allegory) are not uncommon. The way in which Rowling grapples with these big questions is largely to thank for the series’ popularity – they’re not dumbed down for the sake of being a “children’s book”.

Back to the podcast. It’s not too long (25 minutes). Each episode focuses on a chapter of the book – beginning at chapter 1 of Philosopher’s Stone. [Though sadly, being American, it uses the unfortunate – and wrong – US title!] Casper & Vanessa are engaging and competitive – I’m a fan of the weekly challenge to summarise the chapter in under 30 seconds. [Seriously, could you do it??]

It’ll make you think a lot more deeply about some of the themes and characters in the books – even in the comparatively (to the later books) cheery first volume. Like The West Wing Weekly, it might inspire you to return to the books and read along with the podcast. And, as far as I’m concerned, it provides a welcome alternative to my current journey through the back catalogue of You Must Remember This. [Which is a wonderful podcast, but if I listen to too many in a row, I forget which decade I’m living in!]

And, for now, the podcast helps alleviate a little of the pain I still feel when I think about those flipping Cursed Child tickets!

At the ballet…

This week marked four years since I made my first ever venture into the world of ballet watchingCinderella at Sadler’s Wells. It was an experience that had been on my list of ‘first’ things I wanted to achieve in 2010, and I managed it with 10 days to spare. However, it was subsequently pointed out to me that while the work of Matthew Bourne is certainly excellent, it falls more into the ‘modern dance’ category rather than ‘ballet’. (I’d never seen a Bourne production live either, so it was still a first!)

Days before the anniversary of this auspicious event, I finally realised my First properly. Surely no one could argue that the Royal Ballet performing at the Royal Opera House doesn’t count as ballet??

As with my Bourne experience, the initiator was my balletomane friend Jules. In the heady days of summer, shocked that I’d never entered the hallowed ROH, she bagged some bargain tickets for a Christmas performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. [Top ROH tip: our tickets were £10 and in the heights of the Upper Amphitheatre slips, where the seats are actually cushioned benches. Being row CC and numbers 15 & 16 meant that we actually got a pretty good view. Any higher a number or row DD and things would’ve been tricky. Only one small part of the stage was obscured, and for £10, I’m willing to make that sacrifice!!]

alice & White Rabbit

Premiered in 2011, Alice is the Royal Ballet’s first full length ballet for two decades, choreographed by the rather fabulous Christopher Wheeldon. My biggest fear with watching dance is that I won’t understand what’s going on without words, but this made Alice a safe choice, given my familiarity with the source material.

Actually, even without the book and film versions, I think I would have understood the plot in this production. The beginning deviated from the source in that it featured a Lewis Carroll-esque photographer; and a handsome gardener chased away by Alice’s mother after discovering the pair kissing – but I picked up on this without the aid of the programme notes. The characters in the prologue went on to ‘play’ the Wonderland characters, Alice’s mother being the Queen of Hearts chasing the gardener’s Knave.

Alice-30

The production was just as bonkers and colourful as any version of Alice deserves to be. The Mad Hatter, resplendent in green and pink, tap-danced through his scenes; the caterpillar was a reincarnation of an Indian maharajah, whose Bollywood style moves perfectly captured the larvae’s undulating movement; and the Queen coasted in a giant acrylic heart for all of act 1! The set was reminiscent of Tori Amos’ The Light Princess, with animated shadow puppet style backdrops at points where extra narration was needed. Once released from her heart on wheels, the queen was the campest and most demanding prima ballerina the ROH’s stage can ever have hosted!

Caterpillar Alice

The ballet was magical and I highly recommend catching it at some point. (I’m pretty sure the entire run is now sold out, but it’ll be back…) But, almost more impressive was the sheer act of watching something in the Opera House. Fortunately, the 3 act ballet provided us with two intervals in which t take it all in – one spent admiring the auditorium space, and the other the sparkle and charm of the bars and corridors. Man, I love a good chandelier!

Looking up at the amphitheatre barObserving the observers in the amphitheatre bar.

It was an epic night out, one that might only have been improved had I still been living at my previous address, a mere 20 minutes walk from the ROH’s steps. Emerging to discover freezing rain would have been much easier to deal with knowing I’d be warm and dry in half an hour, instead of at the end of a 1 hour bus journey! [Three years in WC1 has spoiled me.]

Thinking back to that visit to Sadler’s Wells four years ago [incidentally, gosh what a lot has happened in those four years!], I’m pretty confident that a trip to the Royal Ballet would have been too much for a ‘first’. I simply didn’t know enough about the ballet world to have appreciated it.

What’s changed? Well, inadvertently, I’ve been on a crash course in ballet history, courtesy of a couple of BBC documentaries and a YouTube black hole. I knew a certain amount already, thanks to assiduous re-reading of the Drina books (last re-read in August!) and a certain fondness for stage/ballet school tv shows. The discovery of Dance Academy on Netflix early this year would partly explain my descent into ballet exploration. Set in a fictional Australian ballet school adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, it’s three seasons were a brilliant mix of ballet and Neighbours! Then there was the not fictional at all First Position – an award winning documentary about the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition. Mesmerising!

The above would probably be what I’d call an introduction to the world of ballet – they’re easy watches and in the case of Dance Academy, positively addictive. If you want to take things a little further, here are some links to gems that offered me some solace while finishing off my degree earlier in the year:

Royal Ballet School documentary (From the 90’s, featuring some famous names when they were young, and epic 90’s hair.)
Strictly Bolshoi (Christopher Wheeldon choreographs at the Bolshoi)
Ballet in Birmingham (Welsh pupils at Elmhurst School)
‘Agony & Ecstasy – a year with the English National Ballet’

 

Next year, I may have to set my sights higher – a classic ballet. Swan Lake perhaps, or Giselle? At least my childhood love of dancing books means I have an idea of their plots too! Jules, what do you reckon? Same place next year?

Spontaneity versus planning

I’m of the opinion that one can be both a fan of the well planned, and inclined towards spontaneity.

I like a good plan. I like to know where my life is headed. I like to know things in advance.
But, I also like having the space into diary to be spontaneous. Or, rather, to have the space in which to be spontaneous. A too-full diary means saying no to fun things that might be last minute, and that would be sad…

This past weekend was an excellent example of this dichotomy. Since January, theatre tickets had been booked for Sunday & Monday. An empty diary for Friday night and some late Thursday night ticket booking allowed for a spontaneous trip to the theatre.

April Musical FunMormon, Commitments & Matilda. Am I annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the outside of The Cambridge Theatre? You bet I am! 

There is a myth that theatre in the West End is unaffordable and difficult to do at the last minute. Admittedly, ‘affordable’ is subjective, but I consider anything £25 or under to be good value. (I ought to confess that I have also been very lucky in having friends over the years who have secured freebies, so I’m spoilt.) Our tickets on Friday were £20 + booking fee – and they were good.

What follows is some wisdom I’ve amassed regarding theatre going in London. It’s my personal opinion (obviously), but some of it might prove to be useful…

Last Minute Tickets
It’s never too late to book tickets. (Well, until the show starts, obviously.) Some of my favourite theatre-going moments were the result of spontaneity. Like £15 tickets to A Chorus Line, less than 2 hours before curtain up. We should have been up in the gods, but ticket sales were low and the upper circles were closed – we ended up in row D of the stalls and had a jolly good time. Tickets were courtesy of the ticket booth inside Leicester Square station (thank you sibling’s out of work actor friends…) and the moral is: never be afraid to ask what the cheapest deal is!

Some shows (not enough, in my opinion) run a lottery for their front row before each performance. It’s a regular occurrence on Broadway, but so far the only shows I know to have done it in London are Legally Blonde and The Book of Mormon – and I’ve benefitted from both. The deal is, you arrive at least 2 hours before the performance, fill in a form & await the drawing of the ‘winning’ forms, which give you the right to bag a bargain. I got Legally Blonde tickets on my first attempt; Mormon ones on my fifth – it can take dedication and good chunks of free time in central London.

Often, there are no ‘bad’ seats
Our £15 Chorus Line tickets were sold to us with the words “there are no bad seats at the Palladium”. One of the tricks to bargain theatre going is getting to know the seating plan. Obviously, the ‘best’ views are the most expensive tickets – but look around. This genius website lets you read reviews of specific seats in specific theatres, rating the view. You might think that sounds ridiculous, but thanks to it, I scored a £20 seat at Billy Elliot, next door to a £60 one. The difference? I supposedly had a restricted view – but the website informed me that the view was fine.

Friday night’s choice was another restricted view (thanks to a ridiculous pillar). We couldn’t check my website friend, but we took the risk – and won. The view was fine, being in row I of the stalls helped a lot (I like being able to see faces), but also, the two seats next to us remained empty, so we scooted over in the interval. You never know when you might get lucky…

Know when to compromise
The 2nd show of the weekend was Matilda, which I’d seen over 2 years ago. But Morv (who I was accompanying to The Book of Mormon for show 3) hadn’t seen it, and we thought we’d fit a performance in. Mormon tickets are pricey (unless you do the lottery), so we didn’t want to pay too much – so ended up on the second from back row of the gods. Morv was desperate to see it, so any seat at all was good for us, even if it meant enduring a Sunday afternoon matinee with a lot of children! (Who, incidentally, behaved beautifully.)

As mentioned, Mormon tickets are pricey and require advance booking (unless you can manage the lottery). Having attempted 3 lotteries with Morv last year, booking tickets had to be the way forward (she lives in Durham, so does not fall into the ‘large periods of time in central London’ category), and we got ours back in January. Booking proved to be tricky, given their policy of not letting you book 2 tickets if it leaves 1 on its own. Plus, it’s the hottest ticket in town and is priced as such (airline style, so prices rise with demand). But, we compromised on view – going for 2 seats in a box that had some form of restricted view. Yes, we compromised WITH A BOX! It was a good compromise – the only bit we couldn’t see was the far end of our side, and very little happened there. Plus, seats in the box (all 4 of them) moved, you could lean out, and it was fine. We didn’t ask how much the couple who joined us had paid for their tickets, given as they’d bought them the night before…

Mormon boxYes, I took a photo of our box. Don’t judge me – Morv took a video of the walk down our own corridor…

Take a risk
Yes, I’d seen Mormon & Matilda before – I’d really enjoyed both of them the first time and would happily see them again – but Friday night’s offering was The Commitments (currently at the Palace Theatre). I’m on intimate terms with the soundtrack (thanks in part to several years singing a Commitments Medley in a youth choir), but never got around to watching the film. Ultimately, I knew it was likely to be fun – and it was. Great music, not much of a plot, lots of cheese – but a great night out. I got to have quality time with a friend and we left the theatre singing the tunes. Good times. There is a lot on in the West End. Some of it is dross (you will not catch me in the queue for Dirty Dancing, for example), but there’s a lot of good stuff.

Take Gin 
Or Pimm’s. Those cocktails in cans are frightfully useful in theatre-going situations. I know how to be über classy…

Tweet
This final tip’s a little niche. Ever since our first trip to see Legally Blonde, Morv and I have had a soft spot for its leading man. This actor now happens to be playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda – this fact had absolutely nothing to do with our choosing to see it, it’s pure coincidence. Over post-matinee dinner, I tweeted a genuinely well-meant compliment on his performance and became slightly giddy when he replied. I am very easily pleased.

Gaumond Matilda tweet

As Is – A Review

It isn’t often that I find myself following in the cultural footsteps of Stephen Fry, but yesterday morning’s Twitter browsing revealed that Fry had spent the previous evening at the play I had tickets for that evening. A play that officially opened on Thursday, that’s only running for the rest of this month and in a tiny theatre – what were the chances?

As a disclaimer, I will point out that the main reason I had a ticket at all was because an old friend stars in the production. However, all my views are my own and honest at that – he knows that if I don’t like something I’ll say so, even if it’s at his expense!

As Is was first staged in 1985 and is widely regarded as being the first play about AIDS. William Hoffman wrote it in the midst of seeing at first-hand the damage that this mysterious disease was doing to his circle of friends. Set primarily in St Vincent’s Hospital, a hospice for many of New York’s first AIDS victims, the play explores attitudes and reactions to the disease from both within and outside the gay community. Through the story of Rich and Saul – a couple brought back together after the former is diagnosed – and flashbacks of their lives together, the audience is drawn into the world of those first years of the devastating outbreak.

Saul & Rich - As Is, Finborough Theatre Saul (David Poynor) & Rich (Tom Colley).

It’s intense. Finborough Theatre is small – very small – and the audience is close to the action at all times. It runs for 90 minutes with no interval, so the atmosphere is never broken. When I stood up at the end of the performance, I had to unfold myself out of the position I’d been sitting in without moving for the entire duration, so absorbed I barely moved an inch from start to finish. The cast get little time off the stage too, forming a chorus behind the main players until the play’s final scenes. It’s emotional, it couldn’t be a play about the death of so many people without emotion, but it’s genuine. The cast carry that emotion and draw the audience in. You root for Rich and Saul, for their relationship with one another, for Rich’s health, for their friends and family…

And then you remember that this isn’t fiction. Rich and Saul may not be real, but they’re based on real people – many of them. That the fear that Rich has about dying and the fear Saul has of catching the disease were (and are) genuine. In the early 1980’s no one really understood exactly what was going on, just that countless friends were dying, often in horrible ways.

As Is hasn’t been staged in the UK since 1987 – perhaps people felt it was passé, that with Angels in America and Rent, the AIDS thing had kind of been done – but it isn’t passé, far from it. The world has been aware of AIDS for almost exactly the same length of time as I’ve been in existence, and although there have been massive medical advances and huge progress in attitudes to the disease, there’s still no cure. It is still a disease of pandemic proportions. But I wonder if western society forgets that when AIDS first emerged it was healthy white men it struck down first, and instead concentrate on its impact on the African subcontinent – AIDS is now something that happens ‘over there’. Except it happens here too. It’s not sorted.

I was surprised by how much the play seemed to have to say about God in the context of this epidemic. Reading Hoffman’s preface in the programme notes, I noticed a mention of God in the writing of the play:

“I was willing to go to any lengths for my play, except to imagine myself having AIDS. I was not afraid of contracting the disease through casual physical contact with those who had it. I was well aware that AIDS is transmitted only by an exchange of bodily fluids. But on a deeply irrational level, I was terrified of catching it by identifying with those who had it. Consequently, for a long period, my central characters, Rich and Saul, were shadowy and undeveloped, compared with the background figures. But one day I realized the depth of my fear and asked God to protect me as I wrote the play. He did.”

The audience is led through the play’s events by an Irish could-have-been-a-nun hospice worker, whose faith is evident in her regular monologues – something you might expect from someone who was nearly a nun. What is unexpected are the depictions of religious experience that both Rich and Saul (who describes himself as an atheist, from a Jewish family) have. On the last day before the illness that eventually led to his diagnosis, Rich experiences the presence of God and the beauty of creation as he runs past New York’s bridges. Saul seems sceptical of religion until a pivotal moment in the play (I’ll avoid spoilers), when God seems to speak to him in the reflection of a sex-shop sign in a puddle. God moves in very mysterious ways…

What I loved about the play, aside from the excellent performances and intense subject, was that it wasn’t without hope. In 1985 it would have been very easy to write a play that was hopeless and full of death, in the context of a pandemic that was still raging. But that’s not what As Is is about, it’s hopeful. Hopeful that not all will die, that attitudes can and do change, that relationships can be rekindled and that God is amongst all of it.

The play runs at the Finborough Theatre near Earls Court until the end of August and tickets are a veritable bargain for a London production. I could not recommend it more highly! (You don’t need to just take my word for it either, the BBC and Time Out have also had very positive things to say about it.)

Mission and Musicals

So, this happened:

Mormon joySummer frizz, right there. (In a moment of vanity I released my hair from its bun for the photo.) 

Rather optimistically, my July bucket list included mention of The Book of Mormon – a musical I’ve tried to see four times in the last couple of months, but as yet, had not managed to. (The soundtrack has been played so many times I’m pretty much word perfect.) The thing is, it’s the most popular musical in the West End. It’s instigated airline pricing (tickets go up in price as demand increases) and you need to book months and months in advance. A while ago, a friend offered me a spare ticket – the catch? Its £95 price tag.

However, it has brought with it from Broadway the tradition of holding a lottery prior to every performance, with the front row up for grabs for the very reasonable price of £20. [Keen readers and friends may remember that only Legally Blonde has done this in the West End. I got lucky with that show on my first attempt.] I’d entered the draw four times previously, to no avail (although the process is a fun one), but on my fifth attempt got lucky – very lucky.

For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon was the work of the creators of South Park (and in turn, two of my favourite soundtracks – South Park: The Movie and Team America) and the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q. If you know anything about any of those TV programmes/movies/musicals, you’ll begin to understand what the nature of the show is. It is not an advert for the Mormon church, or really, any church that does what’s viewed by the secular world as ‘mission’. Two young Mormon men head out on their two year mission, finding themselves in a Ugandan village where no one cares about God or Mormonism…

The opening number of The Book of Mormon as the opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards

I loved it. The front row didn’t mean an obscured view or neck craning – it meant being so close to the cast that their sweat practically dripped on you. The staging wasn’t quite what I’d assumed from the soundtrack; the plot was slightly different than I’d figured out; the costumes and dancing were awesome; the missionaries were hot… I could go on. I knew (even though I couldn’t see them) that every member of the full house audience was having a whale of a time.

I loved it, and yet at times, I had a strange sense of misgiving. Should a trainee vicar really be enjoying a musical that pokes fun at religion? [Basically, yes. I’ve just written a piece on Threads about this.] What about people I have a lot of respect for who happen to be Mormon – like favourite blogger Courtney – would they be offended that I’d seen it and enjoyed it? [Interestingly, the Mormon church has used it as an opportunity to promote itself. Any interest in Mormons is good interest, apparently, and a campaign to ‘ask a Mormon’ appeared on the escalators of Piccadilly station when the show opened.] Then there was its depiction of Uganda which was inaccurate and stereotypical – shouldn’t the producers have known better? [Probably, but I guess it’s a plot device.]

But I came up with a theory. Yes, the show poked fun at Mormon missionary methods – ringing doorbells and speaking from the same script – but in doing this, it became a fascinating exploration of how to do mission contextually. In many ways, the things the missionaries get up to reminded me of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible which tells the tale of a missionary family in 1960’s Congo doing things that would make modern day missiologists’ hair stand on end! Adapting to context? I don’t think so! There’s a brilliant scene just after the Elders reach Uganda, where they try to go door to door, ringing doorbells to speak to people – only to discover that Ugandan huts don’t have doorbells.

It’s only when Elder Cunningham begins to adapt the Book of Mormon to the villagers’ concerns that they start to come alongside the Mormons. They are threatened by a local war lord who wants all the women of the village circumcised; people believe sex with virgins will cure AIDS; and they are all threatened by disease – quite reasonably, the Ugandans ask what Joseph Smith has to say about all these things. Of course, FGM and AIDS aren’t mentioned in the scriptures, so Elder Cunningham (who’s a self-confessed fantasist) makes things up so that it does – throwing in some Star Trek and Star Wars references along the way. He lies, but in doing so, is actually beginning to contextualise the gospel he’s trying to share.

Obviously, lying in order to make a message relevant isn’t right and that’s not what I’m suggesting mission ought to be. But, we do know that Jesus would – for example – have spoken out on how to prevent dysentery, had he known how and had it been a major issue in 1st century Palestine. [For all I know, it might have been!] Basically, if we’re to learn one important theological lesson from this musical, it’s that we should approach mission not like clean-cut, try-hard Elder Price, but like short, fat and geeky Elder Cunningham – only with less of the fantastical fusion of scripture with sci-fi. [Oh, and there are always theological lessons to be learnt from musicals, seriously.]

Ultimately, we just need to truly believe…

You *need* to watch this – you’ll laugh, I promise. (Again, from the Tonys, this time in 2011.)