Whatever I see Tamsin Greig in, Black Books always hovers on the edge of the performance. And that was ideal for this version of Twelfth Night at the National. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t always played for laughs but this one was.

The stage set revolved around the massive mast of the storm tossed ship from the opening scene. At each scene change a revolve revealed a new slice of Illyria – sweeping stairs, a garden, rooms, a nightclub, more rooms, a cell, a church and a jacuzzi. Played in dress of an indeterminate age, the play allowed the cast to squeeze every ounce of humour from the plot. 

And the plot had a significant twist. Tamsin Greig – remember her – played Malvolio. Or in this recasting, Malvolia. With the fool, Feste, also played by a woman a whole different layer of gender bending was added to the original conceit of a female twin posing as a man with all the obvious mistaken identities when her brother appears, saved from the shipwreck. 

This three hours flew by. Even the scene where Malvolia is imprisoned, which usually seems disjointed and out of place, was a seemless part of this production. Malvolia’s supposed madness which led to her imprisonment is brought on as she believes she is following the dress code and demeanour which will win the heart of her Mistress (but not her mistress) Olivia. A male Mavolio merely presents yellow knee length socks tied in an elaborate fashion. Tamsin Greig wears a whole body bee-like costume which is so ostentatious that the revolving flowers on her nipples seem commonplace. One can believe in the madness of this love struck Malvolia.


Twelfth Night, The National Theatre
21 February 2017

The play’s the thing

Went to see the critically acclaimed Hedda Gabler at the National and left feeling it was a little over-acted, a little over-interpreted, a little over-staged.

I was pleased to have seen it and it was certainly worth the money – given I didn’t pay – but I was left with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Something major or several minor somethings, but it didn’t quite gel.

I guess the main problem is that we’ve seen too many strong women as victims or villains. Hedda was written as villain, but this production cast her more as victim and as a modern production it didn’t work. This wasn’t a modern woman the victim of coercive abuse, trapped in a lifestyle that is alien to her very being. This was no Helen from the Archers. This was a slightly bored woman who had decided to settle down and had settled for the wrong marriage. She could have walked out at any moment. She would have walked out halfway through her honeymoon.

But neither was she a Lady Macbeth, although there were the occasional echoes – “it’s what a wife does for her husband” when she helps clear a path for her husbands promotion against his rival and her former lover. Set in Edwardian times there would have been fewer questions about the motives of Hedda, and fewer plot distractions – what was that bloody book manuscript doing on paper rather than a memory stick?

Set in a huge white box of a single room the cast gave it their best shot and they all gave great performances in the face of a muddled and muddied production. Ruth Wilson was the standout in the leading role but even she couldn’t quite persuade me that Hedda would have followed the course she did. A misfiring that produced its own metaphor in the final scene when an accidental two second delay between a trigger being pulled and the bang of the gun-shot was met with bemused silence rather than the gasp that would be expected even with the more usual off-stage finale.

So – nearly but not quite as far as I was concerned. A mannered play about manners.

Having said all that, I would certainly still recommend a look at this one. Certainly most of the chatter around us after the close was very enthusiastic about all aspects of the production, not just the acting.

And given my impending retirement, 23 days and counting, I have decided that in future I should take on the role of grumpy old git theatre critic and start awarding stars, or lack thereof. And because I think a lot of productions deserve more than a simple start rating I’m using smilies. As you can see this play gets two smilies and two not so sure. Not quite a four star rating in old money but certainly above average.

 🙂  🙂  😕  😕

Hedda Gabbler, The National, 7 February 2017

Water water everywhere

We toured the pools and muddy ditches of the Azores. These are usually mere puddles, and any waders that may be around will congregate in these small feeding stations.

But it rained. The pools were ponds, the ponds were lakes. The waders that may have been eking out a living on the muddy margins now had a choice of gourmet restaurants open for business. If there were any waders here in the first place – which I doubt.

But we tried our best – hardly a lake, coastal margin, or bucket of stagnant water went unregarded in our search for something that wasn’t a sparrow. Eventually we rocked up at a large lake. There were a few mallard, and some of those weren’t exactly pure bred. But we persevered and took a little walk through some adjacent woods and small-holdings. There were plenty of Goldcrests (Regulus regulus azoricus) – there are three sub-species on the Azores – and Waxbills (Estrilda astrild), but one of our group saw a Common Yellowthroat flying away from him.

In the best traditions of birding we gathered the rest of the gang together and stood around the bush where we thought the beast had gone. I thought it had flown out into a small allotment 100 meters of so away, and I wandered off there since I had had enough of staring at the bush in question. Within a couple of minutes I had relocated the bird and within 10 minutes everyone managed to get a decent view, and some (not me) a decent picture or two.

So instead you get to see one of the local Goldcrest. Enjoy.


Ringing the neck of a duck

So here we are on the Azores, on the main island São Miguel (obviously to the people who live on the other eight islands of this well spread archipelago that may be a contentious description).

We are bumbling around looking for rare birds – although very soon it becomes self-evident we should concentrate on looking for any birds at all. The most exciting thing of the afternoon is a discussion of whether a particular duck is a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), a Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) or a hybrid of the two, This discussion is taking place leaning on the wall of a small pond on a farm that our guide, Gerby, knows from previous trips.

It all seem to hang on the extent of bill colouring, the shape of the head, and some finer plumage details. There were two duck in question – a female (definitely a Ring-necked Duck) and a male (who knows).

Given that both birds were about 150 meters away and it was almost impossible to get a decent scope view because of the wall – did I mention it was taller than Jan – I thought I would give you the impression of what we were seeing. And therefore how fairly pointless the debate was.


As you can see – very easy to sort out.

Much easier was our first actual rarity of the trip. But more of that later.

The Yanks are coming…

…or not.

After a long hard summer, it’s great to be off to the Azores. A bit of rest and relaxation and some bird watching with some fairly hard-core birdwatchers. They want to see American birds.

That poses a very immediate and interesting question. Why not go to America? That’s where the birds are. Surely it would be easier to see them there? And that is self-evidently true. But there is a deeper answer to that question.

And the deeper answer to that question reminds me of an experience from over 20 years ago. We were watching another American bird – a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) – that had happened to turn to just outside Romsey, Hampshire UK. We were chatting to other birders and one couple said that they were about to go look for a Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) at some place in Berkshire. Being the generous types that we are, Jan and I offered to show them a site about 15 minutes drive away that was very reliable for seeing Dartford Warblers. “That’s very kind, but no thanks,” came the slightly surprising response. “You see, it wouldn’t be a Berkshire Dartford Warbler,”

And that’s when we got introduced to the idea of complex bird lists.

Everyone keeps a bird list. Even friends who phone up and say there’s this thing the size of an eagle in their their garden with yellow and red on it. “What is it? Can you come round and tell us?” (It’s a Goldfinch. It’s almost always a Goldfinch.) Once they’ve learnt Goldfinch they’ve got a list of one.

We certainly always kept a list. One list of birds we’d seen anywhere. But the Ring-necked Duck couple were the first to make us realise that where you saw the bird could be a little important. And 20 years later we are on trip with people who want to see American birds – or any other birds for that matter – in the Western Palearctic (WP for short). The Western Palearctic is roughly Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The United States, and all their lovely birds, inhabit a different ecozone – the Nearctic. And that’s why people come birdwatching in the Azores. It is the westernmost land in the WP, and therefore the most likely to be home to American birds that get blown off-course whilst migrating up and down in the US of A.

Some people take this very seriously indeed. The people we are on holiday with, for example. One or our companions only needs to see two more bird species in the WP and his WP list will be 800. I think that is a probably a good number and will put him well up amongst the top WP listers. By comparison, our WP list is only around 405.

Yes we now keep a WP list. And a garden list. A world list. A Hampshire list. Computerised record keeping means all lists as just the touch of button away.

So how are we getting on, on our hard-core WP listing holiday. Well, next time I get a wifi connection I’ll let you know more.

Never a happy ending…

“Don’t expect people to live happily ever after,” was Jan’s warning for any theatregoers going to any of Sean O’Casey’s plays. And that certainly held true for the ‘The Plough and the Stars’ at the National.

This gripping production of the inevitable consequences for ordinary decent people of the catastrophic leadership of the 1916 Irish uprising was a comic then tragic horror story with so many resonaces for the modern day – whether the conflict is armed or verbal. Plays about ordinary lives of ordinary people, of whatever class, often descend into senseless avoidable tragedy. There is nothing heroic in the Plough and Stars. Any more so than there is in Romeo and Juliet, or the Great Gatsby, or Cathy Come Home. Nor are there any heroes.

It does take a little time to get used to the Irishness of the accents. So much so that at half time I complained of the cod-Irish I was hearing, only to be admonished that the bulk of the cast were actually Irish – mea culpa. It’s a little like getting used to lilt of an early English version of Chaucer, but once you’ve caught the melody of the accent it becomes much easier. Easier to follow and a harder watch as the grim brutality unfolds.

I love a rotating set and the massive tenement interior rotated to an exterior, a pub, and a new interior for the final scenes of death and despair. The set changes were smoothly handled and the sets themselves detailed representations of wartime tenement life. When the leading player, Nora Clitheroe played by Judith Roddy, is unable to persuade her husband not to march to the call of the Irish Citizen Army, one can see the tragedy ready to unfold in front of you against this massive backdrop.
As with the ‘Juno and the Paycock’ – the only other O’Casey play I have seen – the women are the strong characters and those who bear the most of the suffering. That doesn’t mean that they are without fault themselves – Nora’s  lack of any sympathy for a dying soldier and the readiness of others to set off on a looting spree during the breakdown of law and order of the uprising being simple examples. It is hard to have any real empathy with any of the characters but your capacity for sympathy will be stretched to the limit.

With all the men being characterisations, almost caricatures, to tell the story of the uprising – the republican soldier, the union man, the communist, the bombast, the politician – the publican is the one person who seems to live in the world we can readily identify with. Indeed his constant exhortations to the abusive men and women in his bar to ‘speak easy’ seems somewhat resonant of today’s exhortations to calm the excesses of social media comment.

The six months of this story line are effortlessly compressed into the the two and half hours or so of the ruling time. I think that was enough. Although there was much humour in the play it was harrowing enough to make me feel somewhat drained at the end. I have no idea how the cast manage to deal with it day after day.

If you are going to see a play about the everyday story of pre-revolutionary (failed) city folk this is probably it. I can see why it was not universally acclaimed when first performed in 1926, at least by the republicans who felt they could do no wrong. But republican or loyalist or agnostic it’s a tale worth the seeing of today.


Petrel Station

A few days away from work culminated in the three days on Skokholm Island. On the boat on the way over we discovered that some intensive ringing of European Storm Petrels was going to take place over the nights of our stay.

We were looking forward to some relaxing time away from the phones and emails, but couldn’t resist the chance of handling this tiny sea bird. So it was a very late night working until 3 in the morning. But what a night it was.

The wardens and the other qualified bird ringers were luring birds into the mist nets by playing a selection of the storm petrel calls, where they were being bagged up ready from processing – have their weight and key measurements taken, and fitted with a unique ring. 256 birds were trapped. 8 had been trapped on the island in previous years and three birds were from other sites – four from close on the mainland, one from Portland Bill in Dorset, England and one as yet unknown.

20160722 213948 Skokholm 13004

We were fortunate to be able take some photographs from the release site. I was lucky enough to get this one full in the frame and most in focus – a stroke of luck since we were working in the small red glow from a head torch.

If you want to know more about Skokholm Island then head over to the warden’s blog at .

The Mad Dog is Dead

Simon Russell Beale, who knows a thing or two about Shakespearean theatre, seemed to enjoy this production of Richard III from his seat immediately in front of us.

Almost as long as Richard’s reign, this production at the Almeida didn’t have the pace of many recent productions. It did seem to have every single last line that Shakespeare penned (plumed?) but that didn’t detract from the power and menace of the piece.

With an audience used to the full War of the Roses tale being built in the three plays of the Hollow Crown, this production had to carefully bring people up to speed with the monster Gloucester who was to become the tyrant King Richard III. This was elegantly achieved from the very opening scenes of the modern day excavation of Richard’s remains from a car park, complete with BBC voice over. A combination of modern day dress and mobile phones with period armour and swords gave a broad landscape on which to paint this brutal tale.

Finbar Lynch played Buckingham, Richard’s right hand thug, with a stylish authority – right up to the point he was shot in back for daring to be hesitant in ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower. A lesson for all right hand thugs who seek to promote their master above their level of competence.

And that, of course, is Richard’s great failing. He seizes power because he can. He enjoys the game of plotting against his enemies, friends and family. He uses all means, fair and foul (well, actually, foul and foul) to remove obstacles from his path to – nowhere. With no plan other than to be King, no plan to govern, no plan of action at home or overseas, and certainly no broad appeal other than to his increasingly narrow band of thugs, he simply wanted to be the King.

As is customary these days Ralph Fiennes played the ambitious Duke of Gloucester partly for laughs, at least in the first half. But the laughs were often cut short by yet another death on his murderous rise to the top. Unusually, all the murders took place in plain view, again adding to the running time but making sure no-one was left in any illusion about the depravity of the central character. The only death scene which struck a slightly sour note – maybe the wine was off  – was the drowning of the Duke of Clarence in the barrel of Malmsey. The obviously emptying empty barrel resonated, not with the gurgles of a drowning man trying to gasp for air, but the heaving breathing of an actor stuffed head first into a small barrel. Obviously it is competing with the Martin Freeman production where Clarence was drowned – very convincingly – in a fish tank but it was still a petty poor effort.

As Fiennes’ Richard gathered momentum to his thankfully inevitable destruction at Bosworth Field, friends and foe joined forces to bring this particular experiment to a merciful end. And one of the good things about this play is when the end comes it is short – nasty and brutish, but mainly short. No drawn out death speeches.

Apart from Fiennes and Lynch the standout performances came from the female leads. In the play they are threatened, bullied, beaten and raped. They have their husbands and sons murdered. But they are the constant reminder to Richard that he is vulnerable to power and they provide the driving force to the opposition which brings his short region to an end. In particular Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret command the stage.

Not the best Richard I’ve seen – Martin Freeman on stage and Cumberbatch in the Hollow Crown are difficult to beat – but certainly up there. But when Ralph Fiennes does play for laughs, whether in a serious piece or a period comedy, I occasionally get the unnerving feeling that I’m watching Rigsby from Rising Damp – a TV sitcom of a generation ago for younger readers. I was tempted to ask Simon Russell Beale if he felt the same.


Lend me your ears

We’ve all had that problem of people in the office, at home, down the pub mouthing words at you and they just don’t register. Haven’t we?

Today that was definitely a thing. The clog and clutter in my ears, which I’d been attempting to shift with olive oil and other stuff, shifted. Unfortunately inwards rather than out and the world went largely muffled. My normal hearing is moderate to rubbish but it was getting noticeably worse last weekend when, on a short walk, the birds were clearly justing miming at me rather than singing.

Anyhow, tomorrow – the nurse, the syringe and hopefully birdsong beckon.

Just in time to listen to the great debate – where Ed Miliband will be centre stage and Cameron will once again show why he did everything possible to avoid a head to head with the Labour Leader. After last week’s shuttle diplomacy that passed for a debate-lite, there was a significant, potentially game changing, shift in people’s perception of Ed Miliband as the next PM. When on the same stage – albeit separated by the supporting cast – it will become even more apparent who has the ability and vision to lead the country and who, well, has run out of steam.


It’s time to choose

Normally this blog – when I can rouse myself to post something – is about birding, natural history, football. The theatre. Photography. Stuff.

Stuff happens.

But it doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because people like you make it happen. And because a government that we elect can help make it happen. Whatever stuff you care about, make sure you:

  1. Register to vote. You have until 20 April – visit
  2. Vote.
  3. Vote Labour.