The Troth – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Akademi presents
The Troth
based on a short story by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri
Directed and choreographed by Gary Clarke
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Spanning continents and timeframes, Akademi’s powerful production The Troth begins a UK tour at Curve, having first toured five cities in India.

Based on what is believed to be the first Hindi short story, Usne Kaha Tha by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, this production serves to commemorate several anniversaries: the centenaries of World War I, of Guleri’s story (written in 1915) and the birth of Indian cinema, the contributions of Indian soldiers to the Allied war effort and 70 years since India’s independence from the British Empire.

But this implies a war story; whilst the horror and waste of life of World War I is an important element to Guleri’s story, it is more a depiction of human love in its many forms: love at first sight that can never be, love for one’s family and the camaraderie and love between men fighting together in war.

The Troth fuses dance, film projection and music to tell the evolving story of Lehna Singh and his relationship with Leela from their first meeting in an Amritsar market where Lehna, as a young boy, asks if Leela is betrothed to later chance meetings and Leela’s admission she is now betrothed, as of the day before. A victim of unrequited love and with war declared, Lehna promises to keep Leela’s husband and son safe as the 77 Sikh Rifles regiment leaves India to fight in the Belgian trenches.

Gary Clarke’s direction and choreography, Josh Hawkins’s video projection (including original footage of some of the 60,000 Indian troops serving in Europe), Shri Sriram’s haunting score and Charles Webber’s lighting evoke the mood of silent film, resulting in a compelling, cross-cultural and well-paced production.

The sheer physicality of the performance is, at times, relentless. In particular, the drill sequence as the young men from the Amritsar market place are transformed into soldiers pulses with controlled energy. Likewise the confusion of battle.

Combining traditional Indian dance and more contemporary movement, each posture, from the finer gestures of sharing food to the rituals of prayer to bodies forming battlements, serves to move the narrative forward. Subhash Viman Gorania as Lehna conveys great emotional range, although the whole cast are excellent (Dom Coffey, Vidya Patel, Deepraj Singh, Songhay Toldon and Daniel Hay-Gordon).

Guleri’s story quickly became a popular, almost sacred text in India and has long been taught as part of India’s national curriculum. It therefore shows great faith in Clarke’s abilities as a storyteller (and largely on the strength of his production COAL) that the producers have chosen a white British choreographer and director with no previous experience of traditional Indian dance to lead this project; their faith is justified.

Love and sacrifice is at the heart of this piece; The Troth is a surprisingly uplifting addition to the many productions commemorating the Great War, and a welcome creative collaboration between cultures and continents.

Images by Vipul Sangoi and Simon Richardson

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UK Pun Championships 2018 – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Leicester Comedy Festival presents
UK Pun Championships
De Montfort Hall, Leicester

After puns galore on the trending #UKPunDay, it seems we all have a pun up our sleeve, with everyone from the Royal Mail to Irn Bru and BBC Earth joining in the marketing bonanza on Twitter.

Now in its eight year, and a total sell out for the last four, the UK Pun Championships has always been one of the more popular shows at Leicester’s long-running comedy festival. Since my first visit in 2015, the event has moved to the much grander De Montfort Hall, and incorporates more pun-ch for its puns with a boxing ring style ‘in the round’ set up.

Hot from his role as a judge on Ireland’s Got Talent, comedian Jason Byrne is an excellent host, immediately getting the audience to sing a rousing adaptation of The Bangles’ ‘(Just another) Magic Punday’ as he bounds into the ring.  Quickly establishing relationships with individuals in the audience for various running gags and ‘voluntary’ activities, he is withering yet encouraging, and not scared to chuck in a few p-bombs of his own. 

How does it work? Instead of a rap battle, we have a pun battle – topics are plucked randomly from a bucket and two competitors take it in turns to hit us with their best puns on their given subject. The audience decides who goes through via the scientific method of clapping and cheering. Further tension is added via Jason’s wielding of his sound effects pad, whacking out claps, slaps and tings of approval post-pun. Eight competitors are whittled down to two finalists to pun it out for the title.

Round 1

Iain “The Puncredible Hulk“ MacDonald vs EL Baldiniho “The Pungician” tackled cooking and the royal wedding.  Here’s The Pungician:

I’m doing a tour of the UK teaching people how to do Moroccan cooking. I’ve just added a few dates

I liked this from The Puncredible Hulk:

My grandmother is so scared of incontinence that she sits on a chapati. She’s my pish-wary nan

The Pungician may have lost the audience with a pretty sick Princess Diana-themed pun – it seems it is still too soon where that’s concerned, however, the Puncredible Hulk’s superior crafting won out here.

Round 2
Samantha ‘Hit and Pun’ Baines vs Robert ‘Pun Robert, Pun Robert, Pun, Pun, Pun’ Thomas had ice skating and alcohol. Both threw some nicely-turned puns but Samantha took a little too long to get going and ‘Pun Robert’ took the round (if only for his fine pun involving ‘curling one out’).

Pun Robert:

I did an experiment on the effects of alcohol. The results were staggering.

Round 3
Julian ‘Pun DMC’ Lee and Colin ‘The Pun and Only’ Leggo punned lyrical on newspapers and rain. Pretty evenly matched, but Pun DMC came through.

Round 4

Adele ‘Thor God of Punder’ Cliff vs Tim ‘Pun Lovin Criminal’ Andrews punned on eggs and rap grime. Thor had the superior game, this one really working it homonym-style:

What happens when a French footballer breaks 100 eggs for a goal celebration? They get cent oeuf.

Semi final 1 Thor God of Punder vs Pun Robert – pretty close but Pun Robert came through on football and musicals, and a canny move by Pun Robert to involve Leicester City’s Premiership victory season as the main focus of his football puns.

Semi final 2 – Pun DMC and The Puncredible Hulk battled it out in a very close contest requiring three rounds of clapping and cheering to determine the winner (Pun DMC in the end). Their subjects, love and the environment.

Puncredible Hulk:

I have a fantasy I’m a tissue fondling a crumpet – hanky pancake

The final

Bit of a marathon session here with five topics: pigs, the Oscars, Leicester, Brexit and exercise. Here are a couple of Pun Robert’s big guns:

As a subscriber to slipped disc monthly, I’ve got a lot of back issues

When Leicester won the league, my mum bought a candle to celebrate. Now it just languishes in the middle of the table

It felt a topic or two too many here but Pun Robert kept his cool and has the more consistent material; after several attempts and having been runner up in 2015, congratulations to Robert Thomas, now the UK Pun Champion 2018.  

In 2015, this was a very male-dominated event, both on and off stage. Good news for 2018 is seeing two excellent female finalists and a really wide-ranging audience demographic. Slick, but still a bit silly, Jason Byrne keeps a tight hold on proceedings, however, it’s a shame there isn’t a more freestyle feel to the rounds. The best moments are when contestants pun on the spot and appear to go off-script. Fair enough they have some idea of the topics coming up as these puns need to be lovingly crafted, but I would have liked more spontaneity and sparring – reading from notes kind of kills it.

My choice would have been Iain MacDonald and Rob Thomas in the final – they were the two best punners on the night and clearly understand the importance of a clean, clear set up as well as the killer pun-chline. 

Thinking of entering next year? One piece of advice is spend less time on a costume and more time on the puns. Pun Robert’s advice may well be if at first you don’t succeed, pun, pun and pun again.

 Image by Crosscut Media

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Souped up chestnuts

‘Avid’ readers of this blog will know I have been focusing on ways of using stuff up. Christmas usually provides an abundance of excess ingredients and so, this week, my challenging question is what do I do with the vacuum-packed chestnuts that never made it to a nut roast?

I love chestnuts, especially roast, running the gauntlet of injury to fingers when impatiently removing the jaggy shells to reveal the soft brain inside. Using vacuum-packed cuts down on injury, although their slightly greasy feel is not the nicest sensation.

(I also had a glut of leeks and onions; an idea for their use is covered later in the blog.)

Christmas is very good at providing a new supply of lovely cookery books and 2017 was no exception. Flicking through Soup by Vava Berry (Pavilion, and no relation to ‘that’ Berry I don’t think), I thought I’d give her Mushroom and chestnut soup a try.

The ingredients did state dried porcini mushrooms, a medley of different mushrooms, a Parmesan crust and homemade chicken stock. I had none of these to hand but ploughed on regardless with closed cup mushrooms and used what I had. So, this is my adapted version with further thoughts in ‘verdict’.

Mushroom and chestnut soup (adapted from Vava Berry)

a slug of cooking oil
1 onion, finely chopped
500g / 1lb 2oz closed cup mushrooms, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
30g / 1oz oats
1x200g / 7oz pack whole chestnuts, ready to use
1 litre / 1  3/4 pints stock
Salt and pepper

Grated Parmesan to serve

Heat the oil, add the onion and cook for  a few minutes until soft. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for 5 minutes, and until the mushrooms are cooked and their juices have evaporated. Add the crushed garlic and oats and stir-fry for about a minute.

Add the chestnuts and stock, bring to the boil, removing any surface scum.  Simmer covered for about 20 minutes.

Process about a third to a half of the soup in a blender. Return the blended soup to the saucepan, stir and heat through until ready to serve.

Check for seasoning and serve with grated Parmesan.

Verdict: Really tasty soup, earthy and perfect for autumn and winter. A variety of mushrooms and the dried porcini mushrooms would definitely give added depths so I will try and be more prepared next time. I’m happy with vegetable stock, and would halve the chestnuts rather than use whole (although the blending of half the soup is a good idea, the remaining whole chestnuts still seemed a bit too big). And finally, I would maybe add a herb – sage, I think.

My Morrison’s Wonky Box has included leeks of late, so here’s a recipe for caramelised leeks and onions – I think this originally formed part of a filling for a flan (with crumbled feta and thyme in puff pastry), but it works well as a side dish accompaniment with a roast dinner or sausages.

Caramelised leeks and onions

slug of oil
1 large onion, sliced thinly
1 large leek, sliced thinly and washed
a good tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a good tablespoon soft, dark brown sugar
Salt and pepper

(this is about right as a side dish for 2 – 3 people, For a filling for a flan, I would increase everything to 3).

Heat oil in a large saucepan and cook onions gently until soft for about 5 minutes (I like them to also have slightly crisp, golden edges). Stir in leeks and cook for another few minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and sugar, stir then cover the saucepan and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring regularly. If it starts to look dry, add a little more balsamic vinegar and sugar. There should still be a little liquid in the pan and the onions and leeks will get mushy. Taste and season.

Cook with the lid off for a further few minutes, just to ‘firm up’ before serving. You can cook these earlier in the day and just heat up gently when ready to serve.

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UniSlam18 – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Final of UniSlam18
Curve Theatre, Leicester
28 January 2018

In a wash of blue light, Curve’s Studio stage is simply dressed: four mics are lined downstage, three shard-like trophies on a small table upstage watch over the mics, and, to their right, a line of tables lurking in the dark ready for the judges to take their places. It’s the final of UniSlam18.

Over the previous couple of days, twenty five teams from universities across the UK took part in workshops, preliminary and semi-final rounds, ending up with four teams vying to become UniSlam18 champions.

Before curtain up (or perhaps slam down), audience members sang and danced along to an ’80s fest of Bon Jovi, Prince and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”; I estimate I was one of a handful of people in the audience who could remember these songs first time around. No matter, it gave the place a real gig feel, got everyone in a lively mood and built anticipation nicely.

UniSlam began at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Midlands’ poet and playwright Toby Campion helped coach the Edinburgh University team to victory, and every year since, Toby has organised the event in full. The aim of the event is not only to support poets coming up through university but also “work with groups of young people who experience various barriers in accessing literature and engage them with poetry in an inspiring way”.

Back to the final: Kat Francois is our host, and she performs this duty with warmth, wit and a whole heap of sass.  Erin Bolens delivered an enjoyable ‘sacrificial poet’ slot, warming up the crowd with her poem ‘Home’, a naughty-but-nice reflection on her guilty pleasure relationship with London (being from Leeds).

The rules

Teams representing the universities of Kent, Birmingham, Bath Spa and Manchester performed one poem each over four rounds, sometimes individually, sometimes as a group. Poems performed in the semis can’t be repeated in the final, judges score on the quality of the writing and the performance; any performance longer than three minutes loses marks.  The judging panel comprises the mighty poetic talent of Rob Auton, Kayo Chingonyi, Alice Watson (from the Poetry Society), Vanessa Kisuule and Bridget Minamore.  Phew.

A couple of common themes feature throughout the performances: explorations of mental health and, like Erin’s opening poem, reflections on home and living away from familiarity (perhaps not unexpected of a student voice).

Whoops and hollers

A fast-moving show, whoops and hollers of appreciation top and tail each performance.  Audience members also ‘mmmm’ and ‘yeah’ their approval of the poet’s words during the performance, along with bursts of finger-clicking at a particularly good line. This clicking is rather odd, but also distracting as I found myself trying to predict when a wave of clicks might sweep across the audience like a plague of crickets.

(NB I would prefer to name check individual poets, however, they are introduced by university rather than name.)

Kent – a couple of poems stood out, one a nicely-paced, amusing contemplation of beards, with encouragement to

cultivate your inner beard and wear it with good grace

Also, a cheeky poem within a poem, a meta-performance poem which knowingly deconstructed Pythonesque-style what we were all there listening to – tricky for the next person to go onstage and follow, however, the audience loved it.

Birmingham – Often delivering their poems as a group with impressive voices in ’rounds’, and choreographed movement. Really effective, particularly the ‘sadness factory’ poem, and with a more theatrical feel to their performances.

Bath Spa – poems predominantly inwardly reflective and individual, delivered well.

Manchester – as above, poems reflective and personal in style. I enjoyed one of the poet’s take on the home theme, comparing country and city life through wild flowers. The team’s final poem was raw and emotional, and I was intrigued by the breakdown in language and the poet’s sheer force of delivery.

Overall, impressive performances of well-crafted poems, confidently delivered and well-rehearsed.  It is clear there has been some serious bonding and poetry-love going on between the teams and their supporters, with space to explore ideas, express themselves as writers and performers, and respect one another’s work.

An added bonus was each of the judges taking to the mic; Bridget, Vanessa and Kayo all continuing the themes of home and identity with sharp, stinging words. Rob’s poem “Heaven Food” is surreal, shouty and hilarious.

The result

We are reminded this event isn’t about the points, it’s about the poetry. But, it is a competition and trophies must be awarded, so it’s third place for University of Kent, second for Bath Spa and University of Birmingham are UniSlam18 champions.

I’d say this is a fair result – Birmingham certainly had a different and innovative approach, and with their more collaborative performance-style, the embodiment of team spirit. One of the team, Sean Colletti, was also awarded the UniSlam Ambassador Award for his attitude both within his own team, and working with others.

After a seismic week or so for poetry in the media (what with ‘that’ PN Review article), it is reassuring, energising and indeed, a beautiful thing to witness the supportive encouragement wrapped around this whole event; testament to Toby and his team for their positive, inclusive attitude.

Based on this, poetry is in a good place with an encouraging future.



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Bad language

Who wants to read a book about grammar and punctuation? Thought not. It is likely, if you had such a book, it would be purely for reference purposes – your job, your studies but, ultimately, a purely functional item.

Anyway, back to the question: who wants to read a book about grammar and punctuation? Would you be interested if it was called ‘F*cking Apostrophes’? Or how about ‘How to swear’? Reader, I have both these f*cking books!

As a word nerd with an add-on passion for punctuation, I was a happy giver and receiver of these books for Christmas 2017, an amusing shock-in-the-stocking type thing. Entertaining as they are, it struck me how much the use of taboo language acts as an aid to learning.

Stephen Wildish’s How to Swear takes seven key swear words, provides their etymology, as well as examples of use when breaking down the phrasing into parts of speech. It’s not just words either; there’s pleasing use of Venn diagrams, tables and diagrams, and useful ‘how to’ sweary flow charts.

It’s important to get the detail right, so Mr Wildish has included a handy guide on the correct order of adjectives in insults (size and age come before shape and colour – ‘ stupid, little, green … ‘, rather than ‘green, little, stupid’, for example).

As it turns out, ‘f*ck’ is one of the English language’s most versatile words, employed as noun, verb (transitive and instransitive), adjective, adverb, intensifier, imperative, interjection, conjunction and, appropriately, a ‘grammatical ejaculation’. It’s amazing how much easier grammar appears to become when you see what the ‘offending’ word is doing in a sentence.

An amusing and useful book – always a great device to use humour as a learning tool, as well as the smug glow of knowing when you’re using an expletive as a reinforcing adverb as opposed to a plain old adjective.

F*cking Apostrophes by Simon Griffin is a reinforcer of rules, essentially adding the aforementioned ‘f’ word in front of ‘apostrophe’ whenever it appears (quite a lot, as it happens).  I like this book – as well as providing a bit of background history, Griffin sorts out when to use apostrophes with plenty of examples.

We know that sex sells. I’m not convinced that also applies to grammar and punctuation, however, maybe swearing adds something along the way as it really aids engagement.

Perfect for the grammar police officer in your life, regrettably, I doubt these will also feature on an approved reading list for any of the key stages of the curriculum, which is a real, f*cking shame.



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A Passage to India – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal and Derogate and Simple8 Production
A Passage to India
based on the novel by E M Forster
adapted by Simon Dormandy
directed by Simon  Dormandy and Sebastian Armesto
Royal and Derogate Theatre, Northampton

Simon Dormandy’s adaptation of E M Forster’s classic novel A Passage to India is imaginatively brought to the stage in this Royal and Derngate and Simple8 co-production, and the latest in the venue’s Made in Northampton series.

Having two directors on a production often rings alarm bells. Here, however, the co-directorship of Dormandy and Sebastian Armesto successfully steers us at a compelling gallop through the oppressive heat and expectations of colonial rule, love and religion in Forster’s fictional Chandrapore, Northern India. A strong ensemble cast creates striking scenes, particularly the sequences in the menacing Marabar Caves—the physicality of bodies and bamboo poles is mesmerising.

Dormandy’s programme notes advise that a minimalist approach has been taken with design style, to focus on “character and relationships, not period and milieu”. Set in the novel’s original timeframe straddling 1910 and 1912, simple period costume, tea boxes and cloth are greatly enhanced with the on-stage presence of composer and musician Kuljit Bhamra and musician Meera Raja. They add a beautifully atmospheric soundscape, and eerily combine with the cast’s chants and echoes in the dark Marabar Caves.

Asif Khan as proud but ultimately disillusioned Dr Aziz and Richard Goulding as the honourable Fielding skillfully portray the nuances in their relationship. Their characters form the heart of the play, and there’s a nice counterbalance between Aziz’s enthusiasm, humour—and anger—and Fielding’s repressed frustration.

Great support from all the cast, with strong performances by Liz Crowther as the redoubtable Mrs Moore and Phoebe Pryce’s earnest, well-meaning Miss Quested.

With Dr Aziz’s unsuccessful run-in with the colonial powers of pre-WWI India, and the clash of cultures—Indian and English, as well as religious—it is right to ask what’s changed in 100 years? Set at a time when England looked out to her Empire, there are certainly apposite and topical messages here. Unfortunately, the pace of this play did not allow full development, leaving rather binary “good” or “bad” characterisation, and some themes unexplored.

We are warned at the start by Aziz’s lawyer friend Mahmoud Ali “One cannot be friends with the English”, and after a dangerous brush with English rule, Aziz escapes to the independent state of Mau—and its warm backdrop of bright colours and light.

Despite the cast’s chants of “no, not yet”, and “no, not now”, Aziz and Fielding’s final, emotional scenes of reconciliation inspire joy and optimism. An imaginative and absorbing production.

Images by Idil Sukan


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When life gives you lemons (and a new cake tin)

I recently purchased a big, round cake tin in the Debenhams sale (and there was a tin inside it for biscuits!). So, with the worst reason ever to make a cake, I decided to ‘try out’ my new tin.

(This is also a post about using stuff up: lemons, dates and marzipan – all fruits of a cupboard rummage.)

I cling desperately to the creaming method when sponge-making (and imperial measurements).  I’d love a Kitchen Aid one day, and imagine myself happily watching ingredients churning round in an ‘all-in-one’ method kind-of-a-way, producing lots of delicious fayre, and whilst using every attachment. #Lifegoals.

Despite what I have said previously – that I don’t experiment with recipes when baking – I did give my standard sponge recipe a tweak. With the fail-safe ratio of 1 egg to every 2oz butter/sugar/flour, I added a lemon. I used my zester which gives quite long strips of peel  – you could use the fine side of a grater but hey, life’s too short for that and the grater’s difficult to wash up.

NB: In the spirit of frugal kitchen practice, I used the remaining half of lemon in my tea for the rest of the day.

Lemon sponge cake

6oz butter
6oz golden caster sugar
6oz self-raising flour
3 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
juice of half of above lemon
Filling – lemon curd and a few spoons of butter icing (found a pot of ready-made icing during cupboard rummage)

Preheat oven to 190C/170C fan/Gas 5. Grease and bottom-line 1 deep or 2 Victoria sandwich tins. Cream together butter and caster sugar till light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Fold in flour. Stir in zest and juice. Spread into tin(s) and bake for about 20 mins (a bit longer if in one tin) until golden on top and springy to the touch. Turn onto a wire rack after a few mins to cool completely.

Halve cake horizontally (if baked in one tin), spread with fillings. Nice with a cup of tea – put any cake remains in a nice cake tin!

Verdict: the image implies the cake was soggy and stodgy – this is one of the lightest sponges I’ve ever produced, so take heart.



Stuffed dates

For that last taste of Christmas past, I pitted the dates, made some little marzipan ‘sausages’ and voilà, we’re back in my childhood in the ’70s.  Some might say life’s too short to stuff a date but I would disagree – the rather boring process allows one to do ‘other thinking’ so I’m happy to confirm no time was wasted during this process.

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