Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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Love the Island – lose the F-word

The Husband (68) and I (56) are addicted to ‘Love Island’. Our oldest children (36 & 38) are horrified. Why? Because it’s an empty format show set in the close confines of a Majorcan villa, crammed with a vapid bunch of gorgeous-bodied self obsessed 20-somethings apparently searching for ‘the one’? Maybe.

We watched 20 seconds of the first episode and reached for the remote. Anything was better than watching dull young people lying around a pool, muttering about who they fancied and how they were ‘gonna make a move’. However, spurred on by the fact that  it’s always good to have something to watch as a family (with London Daughter it was ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’), we tried again. We were drawn in by the ultimate savagery of the show. We now watch it even when the 16-year-old is out.

The relentless focus on ‘finding someone to leave the island with’ brings out the most Darwinian tendencies in people. Partners are chosen and discarded with relentless carelessness, eyewatering disregard for other’s feelings and jaw-dropping self-justifications. Dumpers and dumpees move on to try a new squeeze faster than their sunburn peels. This is natural selection and survival of the fittest writ large – aided by viciously cruel interventions from the programme makers to stir up distrust and dissonance.

The F-word is used endlessly on the Island by everyone. Actually, it’s not just on ‘Love Island’, is it? The F-word is used everywhere by everyone.

I love words and – put in the right order – the amazing power they have to amuse, move, motivate and transform. However, some words have become so over-used they are no longer fit for purpose. They have become dull like a discarded lover rather than shiny and sparkly like a new romance. They need to be rested, allowed to fade from memory so that they can return repackaged and hot. ‘Awful’, for example, enjoys its modern definition of being pretty rubbish rather than its awe-inspiring historic status. ‘Flirt’ has metamorphosed from its original meaning of flick or sudden hit, through being a jokey jibe, before finally emerging as the amorous and playful butterfly we know today.

For those not steeped in ‘Love Island’ etiquette, contenders are periodically lined up in front of the fire-pit (why they need a fire pit in over 30-degree heat is a moot point), whilst their peers decide whether they should be ‘dumped’ from the island or allowed to stay and continue the relentless search for love.


In the spirit of my favourite TV show of the moment and its focus on natural selection I am lining up before my very own virtual fire pit over-used words for you. Dump, keep, redefine: you decide. We start, of course, with:

  1. F**k. In all its forms. For me the F-word still carries some of its original shocking dirtiness and I do look round when I hear it on the street. I have a permanent stiff neck. In truth, it has become little more than what linguistic profs call a discourse marker: like ‘like’ and ‘right’ and ‘you know’, it simply punctuates sentences in a tedious and unattractive way. Give it a rest, people, and let f**k become truly shocking again.
  •             Main offenders:                 Everyone
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        10          
  1. Iconic. Call me an iconoclast but iconic needs a rest. Where it once conjured the classic example of something so singular that it was worthy of veneration – it has become a ubiquitous descriptor of everything from toilet rolls to pop stars to make-up. This Greek-derived stone-chiselled Latin hero of our language has become plasticised with overuse.
  •             Main offenders:                 Media presenters
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        8         
  1. Brexit. Look, I know it’s happening, but I don’t want it to. Enough of the B-word.
  •             Main offenders:                 Brexiters, media presenters, remainers
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        10      
  1. CSR. An acronym to make you shudder. Linking the words ‘corporate’ ‘social’ and ‘responsibility’ does not make it a thing. No matter how much it’s printed in annual reports. How many large corporates genuinely engage in a caring and deeply sustainable way in communities? Large organisations react – clearing up messes they’ve created in the process of ‘delivering’ yet more ‘shareholder value’ (grrr: there’s another term that needs to go!); or opt for the low-maintenance high-profile hit by chucking a few quid at a local initiative in return for plenty of smiley self-aggrandising publicity. Get proactive and get an acronym that describes something genuine.
  •             Main offenders:                 Large corporations, financial reviewers
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        7        
  1. Craft. Homebrew beer or macramé paintings made in your mum’s kitchen to be sold at inflated prices. Home-made is home-made whichever way you stick the needle in.
  •             Main offenders:                 US beer-makers, advertisers, crafty people
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        8       
  1. Serendipity. Look, we all loved the word the first time we heard it. But we’re grown-ups now and know you for who you are serendipity: a strangely baseless hope in chance and coincidence that is only truly realised by those who win the Lottery. Plus, every high-street has a shop called ‘Serendipity’ mostly selling the ubiquitous ‘craft’ (see above). I rest my case – preferably where some passing stranger will fill it with crisp £50 notes.
  •             Main offenders:                 Lottery winners, crafty shop owners
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        7        
  1. Rollercoaster. ‘It’s been a rollercoaster journey’. No, it hasn’t. It’s been a football match. It’s been a slot on a reality TV show. It’s been life.
  •             Main offenders:                 Reality TV shows, sports people, theme parks
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        9        
  1. Gym. Not so much a word as a concept. I acknowledge there is a need for professional sports people to have suitable facilities and paraphernalia where they can torture their bodies in ways appropriate to their chosen sport. But everyone else: get over it, get outside and get some initiative. Lift bags of sugar and run on the pavement/verge for heaven’s sake. This is not just bitterness at the endless gym memberships I have taken out and never used. Well, it is a bit.
  •             Main offenders:                 Fitness gurus, gym owners
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        8        
  1. Feelings. As in expressing them, exploring them, talking about them… I know that Millennials are the children of Generation X, a generation that took counselling and psychoanalysis to a whole new level. But it’s time for introspection to end. In the words of that great Disney movie, ‘Frozen’: Let it go! Get outward-looking. Feel the world rather than yourself. Ahem.
  •             Main offenders:                  Psychoanalysts, therapists, snowmen
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        10       
  1. Liminal. Sigh. It’s a lovely word whose meaning is caught between one moment and the next. However, it has transitioned to the dark side: the arts world. Hence, it has become incomprehensible, lost forever in a sea of hyperbolic descriptors pertaining to a quirky camera angle, a blast of air drifting through a concrete block, a gritty installation… or perhaps a twig – that strangely potent symbol of a tree’s ability to self-perpetuate through organic growth. Blah, blah, blah.
  •             Main offenders:                 Arty types, presenters of art shows
  •             Overuse rating (/10):        7        
  1. Love. No, I’m not going to banish love. I’m not that cruel. But we had to get back to ‘Love Island’ somehow. And, let’s face it: the programme’s a f**king rollercoaster journey for those golden-bodied passion-seekers. And, despite shock and disapproval, I intend to continue enjoying my poolside seat. As Shakespeare might have written (if Raleigh had discovered the best way to eat the humble potato as well as the earthy beast itself): ‘If music be the food of love, mine’s a glass of wine, a bowl of crisps and sunny island vibes’.

Cheers! At least it’s impossible to overuse this glass-lifter of a word!


Love Island is on ITV2 weeknights and Sunday nights at 9pm.

This article is also published on Voice of the North


Words in my window: June

Monty Python – Anagrams – Completion


From Facebook for SOME/TIMES/LIFE

‘s a pile of shit, when you look at it?
…. Is a passing thought.
 Hmmm. You may or may not know Jackie but, on the subject of life, times and interesting, a Chinese curse is said to run thus- ‘May you live in interesting times.’
Good – or been good, Joe Walsh would say…

makes you smile and some times makes you cry


From Facebook for NOW/IS/THE

anagram of own and won

3 of the letters in the word ‘window.’

Is the place that the past and the future meet
changing room of time
Age of Aquarius
Summer of love or winter of discontent?
the right time


From Facebook for THE/BUCK/STOPS

just up from the book shop near the bus stop.

When he sees the doe!!


This month I was struck by the fact that people often see my weekly words as something to be solved or completed – and also how playful and creative people are. One friend came up with loads of anagrams for NOW/IS/THE including the rather delightful HOT SINEW! I also like that people often hedge their comments with a question mark – just in case it’s not the right answer, perhaps.

The Husband and I have been getting our money’s worth from the NHS recently. With this noble institution’s70th birthday featuring large in the media, it seemed only right to give N/H/S a window slot. Yes, it’s a bit broken. Yes, it’s creaking under the weight placed on its ageing shoulders. And, yes, like Victorian school buildings and prisons, it needs a facelift, a refurb and a rethink. But it’s the NHS, our NHS. Let’s face it, as a country we bloody love the NHS and would feel much less complete without it.

I missed the Monty Python Life of Brian ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ reference of the first comment on SOME/TIMES/LIFE. It seems only right to sign this month of with an excerpt from that timeless song:

“Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

Words in my window: May

Why do we fill time in the ways we do? Does choice or necessity pull rank in how we occupy the hours of our lives?

I was busy enough during May to almost completely bypass the Royal Wedding. On 19th May, when my London Daughter sent an Instagram of a beautifully set afternoon tea, I asked what time the wedding was. Her reply: “It’s just finished, Mum!” Ooops.


However, I’d had the presence of mind to do a special Royal Wedding #wordsinmywindow earlier that morning. Worried about someone taking umbrage and smashing my window (see January’s words), I decided against OFF/WITH/THEIR. Instead I chose an allusion to the oft Marie Antoinette-attributed ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’: LET/THEM/EAT (using an upside-down 1 as an extra T). This prompted a variety of responses on social media, including:

Let them Eat…….Standing Up. Buffet style!!!!

Happily with family and friends

and the more prosaic:

Can’t be over soon enough, blurg…


‘Under the Sun’ (ellipted from ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ from Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament Bible book) would have been my choice to kick off May – prompted by the glorious Bank Holiday weather. However, there’s only one U in my light box letters. Hence UNDER/THE/SKY which, to me, seems to encapsulate the idea of being rather than doing, observing rather than striving to change and celebrating rather than denigrating. Of course, this rather leapfrogs the spiritual soul searching of the original. Is everything we do simply a reinvention of things already done? Does that make it all meaningless? Is true meaning only to be found through a connection with God/ a higher being?

20180513_111459.jpgThe next words of May feel almost like a double negative. I toyed with the equally nebulous ZERO/IS/CERTAIN. Suffice to say that the tenure of ZERO/IS NOT/CERTAIN was definitely uncertain. Our decorators turned up unexpectedly and kept removing the sign in order to paint the windows. On the upside, the window frame forms a slightly less frayed frame to my words now! One friend emailed and included a PS:

Zero may not be certain but I wouldn’t want to put too much money on it.

Another commented on the JOIN IN visible on a poster beneath it –  one of the many community notices that regularly feature in our windows – which highlights the opportunity to contribute a stitch or two to a tapestry being created to celebrate Berwick  à la Great Tapestry of Scotland.

Spirituality seems to haunt my words. WANDER/WATCH/WONDER was inspired by a brief stop in the beautiful Northumberland village of Felton and a wander in its Grade 1 listed church: St Michael And All Angels. Inside, we found a tenderly curated prayer trail based on Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…). It meandered lovingly around the church. All that work to offer a relatively small congregation and passers-by like us a week to stumble across it and consider it; all in this obvious and yet, somehow simultaneously, unlikely setting.

The Husband is very good at spending time pondering things – whether it be a planning notice on a lamp post or a flower in the garden. I am much more of a ‘no time for hanging around’ kind of person. But this little oasis of calm in that lovely church made me pause. No matter what your beliefs, allowing yourself valuable time to reconceive thoughts and ideas must surely be central to a world that welcomes rather than excludes or condemns out of hand. Surely curiosity and wonder are the lifeblood of existence?



Because we held an Open Garden as part of a fundraiser for our local parks here in Berwick, I finished the month with TEND/OUR/GARDENS. A nod to the French writer Voltaire’s picaresque satirical novella, ‘Candide’ or ‘Optimism’. It was an unplanned link and counterpoint to the earlier words: LET/THEM/EAT, and neatly pulled May’s words full circle to UNDER/THE/SKY.


Words in my window: April

I hijacked the first words of April: MIRACLES/DO/HAPPEN into March. The 16-year-old felt the words that have, by default, become the first of the month were ‘too frivolous and obvious’. But this is what came to mind four weeks ago.


Despite my daughter’s feelings, SPRING/IS THE/THING gained plenty of positive feedback on Instagram and Twitter. Perhaps courtesy of an optimistic bounce delivered by the changing season.

Spring garden

A little view along my garden path to lift the spirits

The bounce was short-lived. In a week where the USA, France and the UK bombed Damascus following Syrian leader Assad’s alleged chemical attacks on his own people, I felt bereft. The treadmill of violence and violent retributions seems relentless and inescapable.

Random acts of kindness and generosity – often acted out on a personal level – are so powerful. They often work to change perceptions and bring people and communities together in unexpected and productive ways.

Why does this not translate into world-stage actions? Why is the present endlessly shaped by stories that unfolded from divisions hatched long ago? Why has the status of land, nationhood and territory remained one of possession, exclusion and expansion? Why do we seem so easily to distance our macro actions from the micro state of being human?




It can be difficult to remember the point of being. Two local events here in North Northumberland/Berwickshire helped me reconnect and breathe at a different pace. The first was ‘Food for Thought’, organised by the recently conjoined Scotus Society of Duns and Chirnside’s David Hume group (Thinking without Borders). It was a day to ponder senses, taste and pleasure, and to question the philosophy of food-related values and ethics. The following day, 20 or so people joined a Berwick Slow Food Event at Chain Bridge Honey Farm to celebrate National Tea Day. We listened, rapt, to Willy Robson’s tales of his family business – as a lad Willy was responsible for flogging the family honey and took a van to Edinburgh, supplying many stores on Princes Street. Times have changed: retail is transformed; and, with the advent of pesticides and climate change, so is bee-keeping.


The Husband felt my words were ‘taking a sinister turn’. In my mind BEHIND/THE/SMILE summed up the sense of going beyond. Like the Spring that started the month, the smile is a strange and powerful force. Smiles can transform moments even while grief, hardship and unbearable events unfold in parallel. Despite the disturbing situation and general bizarreness, tell me you did not smile as the leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, held hands and stepped back and forth across the border between their countries on April 27.

I’ve been fascinated and delighted with the feedback I’ve received about the words in my window. People comment on social media and in person. It’s intriguing to hear what they have to say. One person said, ‘You have that stupid message thing in your window’ and then told me their reaction to LIFE/KEEPS/COMING: ‘I hope it’s not a bloody sequel!’. Another said, ‘That’s the house with the inspirational words in the window’. A local pub approached me to discuss whether they could do something similar in their window.

Hell, yeah!

MP rides bear-back as Berwick sculpture trail officially opened.

Today was the official opening of the wonderful sculpture trail here in Berwick’s Coronation Park. Local MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, joined the friends and families of the children who’d designed the eight-strong sculpture trail; the sculptor who realised the children’s designs – David Gross; Parks Development Officer, Kate Dixon; her team of volunteers – Friends of Castle Parks plus the local Cadets; and various local and county councillors. The sun shone!

The Berwick Bear

Anne-Marie Trevelyan atop ‘Bari’ the Berwick Bear


This chirpy chap is one of the eight sculptures designed by local schoolchildren and realised by sculptor David Gross.

The idea for the sculpture trail was hatched during the five-year HLF-funded project to regenerate and refurbish Coronation and Castle Vale Parks in Berwick – which will complete in June this year. It’s a fun, creative way to encourage more young people and families to enjoy the parks and take ownership of them. Funding came from utilities organisation, SUEZ, the Town Council and a private donor.

The mole

The mole, made of reclaimed walnut

The sculptures were installed in two batches, plus a one-off for the Berwick Bear which, by popular demand, has been dubbed ‘Bari’ – Berwick dialect for ‘really nice’. All the sculptures are made of reclaimed wood.

If you live in Berwick or are visiting, do take a wander in the parks. Coronation Park and Castle Vale Park fall either side of the station – you can walk between the two by road or by dropping down to the River Tweed, strolling along the riverside path – New Road – and walking up again.

A couple of dates for your diaries:

Saturday 2nd June 2018: Open Parks & Gardens, 11-4pm

Staff and volunteers will be in the parks to answer questions and sell you a leaflet (£3) to guide you around the various private gardens that will be open on the day – stretching from the YHA, to Bankhill, Castlegate, and Castle Terrace. Plants and refreshments will be available at various points. Donations will support the work of the Friends in the parks.

Saturday 23rd June 2018: Picnic in the Park, 12-4pm

A family picnic day in Coronation Park (no BBQs and well-behaved dogs on leads). Bring your picnic, enjoy the park, some live music, a community dance performance and children’s activities.

Bear and Cadets

Local Cadets with ‘Bari’, who they helped to install.




Cancer is popular

Look, I know cancer’s everywhere and it can get a bit dull reading about it. But, trust me, having cancer really sucks. In this bowel cancer awareness month, take a moment to check out the symptoms of bowel cancer here (it’s the fourth most common cancer after lung, breast and prostate). Share the details of the symptoms as widely as you can. And, if you can spare five more minutes, take a read of the rest of this post.

April is bowel cancer awareness month. But how do we get people to engage with the information they really need to know?

My blogposts about my experience of bowel cancer are some of the most popular posts I’ve written. Actually, scrub the ‘some’, they are the most widely read posts on this blog. This one, published just after Alan Rickman and David Bowie died in January 2016, achieved more views than any other post I’ve written.

Yep, cancer is popular.

But finding the story of someone’s experience of cancer compelling is not the same as engaging with the signs and symptoms of that cancer. And, besides, knowledge of the symptoms does not necessarily translate into action. I know because it didn’t for me.

I knew that blood in your poo wasn’t great. But, when I had a bleed from my bottom, it happened just once and, although it was a bit shocking, I assumed it was a haemorrhoid (pile). When it happened again a year later I thought: ‘Oh, that happened before and everything was fine!’

Why was I seemingly so disengaged from my own well-being?

Well, I don’t think I was.

I checked the symptoms of bowel cancer on several sites and was actually reassured:

  • I hadn’t lost weight inexplicably
  • I didn’t think I was abnormally tired
  • I wasn’t particularly bloated
  • I didn’t have a painful tummy
  • I was a bit prone to upset tummies but I kind of always have been

When the upset tummies became more insistent, I did go to see the GP (actually it was an Ed Byrne joke that made me decide to go to the doc – you can read about that here). She did not think there was anything to worry about. The internal exam (finger up the bottom) showed nothing untoward. The doctor sent me for a precautionary endoscopy (a camera inserted into your back passage). She did not fast-track me, although – fortunately for me – I was seen very quickly.

And that’s it.

If I’d gone to the GP when I had that first bleed, maybe I’d have caught the cancer at Stage 1. Maybe. Nine out of ten people survive five years or more after treatment at Stage 1 bowel cancer. As it is, I was Stage 3. But, as my surgeon said, it’s important to deal with ‘what is’ and not ‘what ifs’. I count myself lucky. I had (and have) no secondaries. I am cancer-free and back to full fitness. It is good to be alive.

The more we are able to talk about cancer openly and freely; the more we are able to highlight our stories frankly and honestly; the more we are able to engage with people beyond our own friend and family circles: the more lives will be saved.

Here’s the link to the marvellous Bowel Cancer UK site again. Take a look at the symptoms and share away.


It’s good to be alive. A pic of me and my lovely family to prove it.



Words in my window: March

I ended February with HOME/IS/WHERE so I guess THERE/IS NO/PLACE was a natural bookend.

It seems extraordinary that, given that we are all in the world for such a brief moment in time, we are hellbent on territory and our right to it. So much time spent on who can be included or excluded from a land that is ‘ours’ by a stroke of fate and birth.

Don’t get me wrong, if someone started camping in my garden and said they’d decided to live there from now on, I would doubtless be shocked, puzzled – and furious at the sheer audacity of it. I hope I’d also take the time to find out a bit about the person who had moved in before I booted them out.


Right now, it’s as if there’s a pervasive feeling of being out of control in the world’s ether. It’s as if it’s blowing through existence and sowing a sense of malaise and defensiveness; as if all we hold dear – whatever our political stance – is at risk. This unnerving perception tends to lead to a drive to cling to things that make us feel safe and protected – nationhood, social structures, the ‘right’ order of things. A need to repudiate the illusive and transient aspects of life (and death) and chisel out absolutes. What are we frightened of losing? Why are we frightened of losing it? Maybe it’s just my age.

One fellow Instagrammer commented on WHAT/IS/LOST (maybe facetiously):

We must consider this issue. And perhaps retrieve what is lost and remake it anew.


Looking at my March windows, they seem quite biblical. A Lent and Easter connection, perhaps.

20180318_102348In fact, LEAP/OF/FAITH was more to do with an ill-advised email I sent. It caused distress to the recipient and had an uncomfortable and disconcerting (albeit self-contained) ripple effect.

Some find apologising very difficult – I don’t mean the throwaway ‘sorries’ when you knock elbows with someone in the street (although why is it always me who says sorry for that and not the other person?!!) – I mean the deep-down sorry which excludes buts and justifications.


Of course, forgiving is even more complicated. Does someone have to be sorry to be forgiven? Can you stay angry about something and still forgive? Why do forgiveness and repentance matter so much?


I am including my first light box of April since it seems to sit well with this batch. It went in the window yesterday, April 1st, which this year was simultaneously Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day.

It also chimes with one of the inspirations of my project, Nathan Coley’s installation at Scotland’s Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh, There Will Be No Miracles Here, which I mentioned in my January post.


Autumn Festivals: Save the dates

My family arrived in Berwick-upon-Tweed from North London on the last Saturday of August 2010. Our new house was piled high with packing cases and all the loose shoes, clothes horses and pillows that seem to self-seed when you move house. The Husband announced that he had signed us up for litter picking duty at some Food & Beer Festival in a place called The Barracks the following day.

I wish I could say I merely waved an arm at the mountains of unpacking  that needed to happen before our then eight-year-old started her new school in a few days’ time. Over the sound-blast of my fury, The Husband said: ‘It’ll be a way of getting to know people.’ And, of course, he was right. Eight years later, we know an awful lot of people in Berwick, the now 16-year-old is well-established – and we’ve nearly finished unpacking!

And here we are again, looking forward to the Berwick Autumn Festivals. History and buildings, film and media arts, the written and spoken word in all its forms and genres, eating and drinking ethically and locally – Berwick’s got a festival for that! So get the dates in your diaries and plan your trip and stay.


Discovering Paxton House – by radio

I was privileged to be invited by Tony Henk and Colleen Henderson-Heywood to help create a show for local Alnwick-based community radio station Lionheart Radio.

I knew that Tony and Colleen had bona fide credentials – I’d listened to a previous show they’d done together about the Berwick Stoma Society. The programme was revelatory, entertaining and darn good community radio.

So, how to make a radio show that conjured the atmosphere, sights, history and stories of a stunning attraction in the Scottish Borders in Berwickshire – the marvellous Palladian Mansion, Paxton House?

Swans above Paxton House

During the making of the show there weren’t swans above Paxton but we did hear and see a skein of geese.

The answer was careful planning and fab support and access from Paxton House – including super shepherding and storytelling from Paxton tour guide, Jim Casey. And, of course, a brilliant creative team including classical singer, Tamsin Davidson and her ten-year-old daughter, Tilly, lithe-fingered pianist, James Tweddle, and patient and sympathetic editing (done in his front room!) by producer, Tony Henk.

The result is a blended radio show that allows the listener to enjoy the sights and sounds of this lovely stately home without leaving their armchair. I’m proud to have been a part of the programme. The first airing went out this morning (Tuesday 6th March) and there’s a further transmission today at 9pm and an additional chance to catch ‘Discovering Paxton House’ at 2pm on Thursday. Do tune in by following the link to Lionheart Radio above.

It’s amazing what you can create with an enthusiastic team and determination. Hats off to Tony Henk for driving the project and seeing it through.

Salmon netting at Paxton House

Traditional salmon netting at Paxton House



‘Rita’: A joyous bar-room romp

Berwick Festival Opera (BFO) charged into its 2018 season at full-tilt this weekend with a truly joyous bar-romp of a show: Donizetti’s ‘Rita’. It is a marvel that Maltings’ CEO Matthew Rooke manages to attract such quality musicians and performers to Berwick, let alone co-create tailormade opera to drop into the nooks and crannies of our historic town – in this case, slap-bang in the Maltings’ Bar – but we’re blooming lucky he does.

The fact that ‘Rita’ (written in 1841) has the plotline of a slapstick soap on amphetamines doesn’t matter a jot. What had the audience pinned to their seats and laughing out loud was the way the orchestra – led by conductor Peter Ford, and the performers – soprano Natasha Day, baritone Job Tomé and tenor Austin Gunn (Rocket Opera co-founder) pay such courteous attention to each other and take such joy in co-creating great music and entertainment.

The trick, Peter Ford told me, in adapting a score for a smaller orchestration is to select instruments that deliver the tone and colour to echo the original. Rooke certainly achieved this and the musicians delivered. Cath Cormie (violin) and Nigel Chandler (cello) and the keys of Julie Aherne provided the cohesion and impetus, and Simon McGann (flute, piccolo) and Sam Lord (clarinet) the light and depth.

The BFO/Rocket Opera partnership has produced consistently high-quality tailored opera entertainment in Berwick, including ‘The Mikado’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ (both conducted by Ford). As Rooke pointed out in his introduction, ‘Rita’ is from the same stable as ‘The Silken Ladder’ (another BFO/Rocket coproduction) – high octane, high jinks, super fun.  In short, Rita runs a bar with her bullied and downtrodden second husband Peppe. Her first husband, wife-beater Gasparo, is believed to be dead. However, Gasparo turns up wanting Rita’s death certificate (he thinks she died in a fire) so he can marry his new paramour. Both husbands want shot of Rita and compete to off-load her on each other.

From the moment Natasha Day chased Austin Gunn into the bar, beating him as they went, there was no let-up in performance energy and commitment. What a privilege to be up-close-and-personal with top-class singers who allow their voices to soar around the tight confines of a bar, whilst achieving wink-nod interactions with the audience. London-based Natasha Day’s Rita cut more of a 20s movie-star dash than a barmaid – and, despite her sharp tongue (to Peppe: ‘you’re a wimp and a snowflake’) and psychotic edge, you could kind of see why the men fell for her. Gunn inhabited Peppe’s transformation from shrunken snivelling husk to effervescent free man with a glee encapsulated in his manic opera laugh and triumphant resonant note held for what felt like several joyful minutes. And Job Tomé’s snake-hipped, satin-shirt wearing, double-dealing Gasparo owned the bar with his knowing duplicity and voice shoot-outs with both Gunn and Day.

I love Gunn’s eye for slapstick rhyme and ridiculous verbal contortions in his libretto translations. High spots were Pepe and Gasparo’s masterful duet – where they serenaded the straws they’d drawn in their bid to off-load Rita on each other. Pepe celebrates his ‘lovely sweet straw’, whilst Gasparo berates his ‘reprehensible straw’ (a masterful piece of scanning!). And the gullible Rita muses ‘with just the one arm/he can’t do much harm’ after Gasparo claims to have lost the use of his limb and Peppe relishes the idea that Rita will ‘dominate, frustrate and castrate’ Gasparo!


Natasha Day engages with the audience at the Maltings’ Bar

After the show, I said to Rocket’s Austin Gunn that it would be great to tour this show in pubs round the county. He said he’d love to. If this entertaining, delightful and riotously good fun show ever comes to a bar near you, go see!

A version of this review was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on Thursday 1st March

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