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

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‘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!

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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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Damp Knights warm cockles

Damp Knights

Damp Knights from left to right: Mark Vevers, Oliver Payn, Ross Graham and David ‘Dimples’ Simpson.

I have a soft spot for improv. Responding to all that’s said or thrown at you and creating engaging entertainment takes a certain mad chutzpah. On the 80s show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’, Josie Lawrence (pretty much the only female improv performer back then) was mesmerising with her left-field interpretations, ability to burst into song at any audience prompt, and her super-malleable face which folded into an array of characters and scenarios. Improv was vicious then and still is – fail to please your audience and you won’t be let off because it’s hard, you’ll be mocked for being crap.

Damp Knight Comedy first performed at the Maltings, Berwick in 2015. I was anxious for them – and myself – would I have to pretend they weren’t rubbish? In fact, they weren’t bad. Not bad at all. I’d even say they warmed my cockles (Berwick’s a seaside town, after all). Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the Knights – in the way that middle-aged women like to keep an eye on six or seven strapping young men.  Members have come and gone, but the core group – David Simpson (aka Dimples), Mark Vevers, Neil Watson, Oliver Payn, Ross Graham and Paul Summers (keyboards) – remains the same.

fine undiluted improv which only skilled players can pull off

The guys spark off each other in that knowing yet unpredictable way that only comedians who trust each other can. Improv is raw and brutal – one small quirk of fate and a comedic moment will slip into an offensive disaster. This nearly happened at the recent Da Vinci Toad show at the Maltings. Oliver Payn was trapped into saying something truly awful – think your 80-year-old granny reading out the Cards Against Humanity card about oral sex. Only 100 times worse. There was a stunned moment as the Knights and audience metaphorically facepalmed. No one-liner could get past this monumental awkwardness. Then, as if spontaneously propelled by his own shock, Mark Vever’s rocketed backwards and over the sofa. This was what we all wanted to do! Hide behind the sofa until the awkwardness was over. And, hence, in that visceral physical response, Mark released performers and audience from the nightmare. Yes, it was edgy – it was also fine undiluted improv which only skilled players can pull off.

One audience member commented on Facebook: ‘Have always really enjoyed Damp Knights’ shows – but last week seemed to be at a whole new Pythonesque level.’  The group has honed its craft since the early days. There have been more shows on home turf and, importantly, in the wide world: The Stand in Edinburgh and Newcastle, Alnwick Playhouse and The Record Factory in Glasgow. They work the audience well and largely avoid that group improv tendency to entertain each other instead of the spectators. They’ve developed a strong and pleasingly broad group of prompts – from the ludicrous Dead Bodies where one Knight is the only man standing in a sea of dead people and has to voice and manipulate them all, to the impressive Forward/Reverse – where the Knights act out a scenario and are periodically instructed to play the whole thing in reverse and then forward again. It hits the funny-bone – how they manage to remember actions and words to keep replaying them is a mystery to those of us who can barely recall how to get to the shops and back.

a good adult night out served with an ample portion of laugh-out-louds, seasoned with guffaws and finished with a liberal dollop of titters – particularly if Dimples keeps wearing those jeans with the dodgy fly.

Yes, there were a few glitches – some energy dippage in continuity between sketches. Maybe a new Knight might be the host? A couple of slightly lame sketches (I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘We’re not doing the cheese shop sketch sketch’ – but that’s subjective). And why the punning name for the show if there’s no linking sketch? But these are miserly gripes. I heard mumbles of too much swearing and, yes, there’s a fair reliance on knob gags. But, hey, this is improv, what do you expect? It’s not for children. The Damp Knights deliver a good adult night out served with an ample portion of laugh-out-louds, seasoned with guffaws and finished with a liberal dollop of titters – particularly if Dimples keeps wearing those jeans with the dodgy fly.

Find the Damp Knights on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Damp Knights logo

Home-made gyoza – get in!

With thanks to Tim Anderson’s JapanEasy – an inspired and inspiring book for any aspiring cooker of Japanese food. One change to his recipe: I had some rapidly crisping spring onions in the bottom of the fridge and used those instead of leek. The minced pork filling still tasted wonderfully authentic. These little darlings are time-consuming rather than difficult and worth every second! Don’t forget to factor in chilling time for the pancake dough – or you’ll end up with a very late lunch like me! I love the crispy bottom/soft top from the fry/steam combo. My only mistake was not making more.

homemade gyoza

 

Today is the time and place for miracles

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We invest so much into beginnings. We wish for better. Or for different. Or for change. And New Year is the classic time when we decide this is the moment that it’s all going to happen. It’s a time to breathe in new possibilities and exhale what’s past. Despite all the partaaays!, and Auld Lang Synes, and live-like-every-day’s-your-lasts, an indefinable profundity drapes itself around the start of a year. And what better place to be at such a time than the home of Hogmanay: Edinburgh.

Even before we’d arrived at the top of the Waverley Steps by the station, there was an expectant thrum about the place. It was New Year’s Eve or, in northern parlance, Old Year’s Night. Roads were being cordoned and stages erected amongst the shoppers and sightseers of Princes Street. Unlike London at times of mass gatherings, Edinburgh did not appear to groan under the weight but rather to expand happily to receive the flood of anticipation, awe and anxiety that comes with one year’s end and the next’s beginning. I deposited my daughter at the hip eatery Indigo Yard on Charlotte Lane with an agreement to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

Free! I tripped along Queensferry Street, past Randolph Crescent (which always makes me think of its namesake in London’s Maida Vale where I used to live), towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Suddenly I was in Alexander McCall Smith’s book A Work of Beauty ‘under the towering Dean Bridge’ and in the cobbled streets of Dean Village. I’ve been there before, but in that moment it felt fresh and new.

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To arrive moments later at Nathan Coley’s illuminated installation There will be no miracles here, is surreal in the very finest way. What more thought-provoking piece of art could you wish for when mangers and shepherds have still to be mothballed. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the concept of the miraculous: this time last year I had just come through a major operation and, in truth, was not sure whether I would still be around a year later. But here I was. Here I am. A miracle of sorts.

The Joan Eardley A Sense of Place exhibition at Gallery Two (until 21st May 2017) is a profound experience in its own right. Eardley tenaciously sketched and painted the tenements and people of Glasgow’s Townhead and the brutal and evocative landscape around Catterline just south of Aberdeen during the 50s. The exhibition is a tour de force that encapsulates the human and, specifically, one individual’s relationship with time and place. For Eardley this began with buildings in Glasgow and then extended to people – particularly children – who she portrayed with a curious and memorable blend of gritty macabre and Pierrot sentimentality. In Catterline, her initial focus was on the ramshackle fishermen’s cottages, rather than the stunning coastal views below the village. As you progress through this well-curated exhibition you are drawn into Joan’s world of urgent painting. From fishing creels to graffitied shopfronts, her’s is an emotive and at times jarring vision. You feel that she wanted to capture this moment, this place, to stop them being lost.

As I walked back to the meeting place I’d set with my daughter, I enjoyed the failing light and the drizzle. There was something about the water-smeared festive lights that brought a fitting wistfulness to the glitzy shop windows, fairylight-draped hotels, and spinning fairground rides. The fireworks later would be fabulous, but we were not staying to see them this time. Our moment here was done. As we sat on the train back south to Berwick-upon-Tweed, I felt strongly the creative miracle of time and place. And I thought how I would love to live 2017 not as if each day were my last but as if it were my first. Now that would be a miracle.

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Berwick Festival Opera: putting the high into Iolanthe

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I have a soft spot for Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’. My Mum had the album and, although I was never sure how you pronounced it, I knew that when it went on the deck there would be plenty of ‘tripping hither and tripping thither’ with the opening fairy chorus. The real joy, though, was to get to ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’ so that we could march round the furniture shrieking ‘Tarantara!’ and waggling brooms at each other.

On Saturday evening at the opening night of 2016’s Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) season at the Maltings, there was no impatience to skip through Matthew Rooke’s delightfully reorchestrated version of the operetta. From the first tinkling breaths of the clarinet and flute, you knew you were in safe hands. Indeed, the effervescent Monica Buckland has now conducted ‘Iolanthe’ three times – although I suspect this was her most bijou orchestra to date.

It’s a mad hoot of a story that, as so often with G&S, delivers a political satirical punch and a generally high old time. Two worlds collide: the domain of the female fairy dell – where fun, frolics and dancing predominate; and that of the House of Lords – where hunting, shooting, fishing and hereditary patriarchy rule. Iolanthe is a fairy who has been banished from the fairy dell for marrying a mortal. The son from that marriage (Strephon) wants to wed a shepherdess (Phyllis) who is a ward of court. However, since the whole aged troupe of the House of Lords including her guardian the Lord Chancellor seem to want to marry the young Phyllis too, Strephon’s in for a tricky ride. Cue much fairy intervention and plenty of comic riffs – including some up-to-the-moment referendum references stitched into Gilbert’s exceptional libretto.

Regular Festival collaborators Rocket Opera combine a light touch and a heady energy with perky, inclusive performances. The young cast stepped up to the plate with Lottie Greenhow (Phyllis) and Euan Williamson (Strephon) settling quickly and delivering a couple of tingling duets – Greenhow’s voice seemed to grow and grow with each song: beautiful. The fairy chorus provided pert and impertinent support and were masterfully stewarded by the stern but ultimately soft-hearted Queen of the Fairies (Kath Ireland). The confidence that the audience gains from the seamless interactions and interplay between characters would have been even sharper with a few more rehearsals – but bearing in mind the budget constraints these guys work under, the quality of production and performance is remarkable. Tamsin Davidson shone as Iolanthe, combining understatement and constant engagement. Someone commented on Facebook that when Davidson sang ‘My Lord, a suppliant at your feet’ he had a tear in his eye –  me too! Always an audience favourite, Fred Broom (The Lord Chancellor), reprised his role as Pooh-Bah in last year’s ‘The Mikado’, delivering a good dose of slapstick and Panto Dame – to grand effect. Austin Gunn (Earl Tolloller) and Neil Turnbull (Earl of Mountararat) are founder members of Rocket and along with Sam Morrison (Private Willis) injected plenty of frenetic energy and high-drinking jinks to the stage. Hats off to the tech crew: the lighting was excellent.

All in all, BFO continues to bring high-quality, accessible opera to Berwick, presenting great opportunities for young performers to work alongside seasoned professionals and delivering excellent entertainment to audiences. We still have Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Marschner’s ‘The Vampyre’, Poulenc’s ‘La Voix Humaine’ and a Summer Recital featuring Peter Selwyn to look forward to. Excited? You should be!

The Silken Ladder: a racy, pacey night at the opera

From the first note of the violins in the opening overture to the final bow of the cast, conductor and orchestra, Berwick Festival Opera’s (BFO) brand new production of Rossini’s farce of relationship tomfoolery was pacey, racy and raucous good fun. There is no doubt that the Maltings and North East-based Rocket Opera have consolidated their partnership with this original take on an opera favourite first performed in 1812.

The key plot question posed is whether Dormont (Austin Gunn) can marry off Giulia (Ines Simoes) one of his beautiful wards (the other is her cousin, Lucilla played by Berwick’s Tamsin Davidson) to lothario Blansac (Christopher Jacklin), whose hit rate is legend?

Yes, of course there are complications! A chaotic and delightful hour and a half of concealing truths and hiding behind and under furniture as relationships unravel and regroup. You see, Giulia is already secretly married to Blansac’s best friend. In BFO’s take, set in anything-goes Paris of the roaring 20s, Blansac’s best friend is a woman (Dorvil, played by Laura Wolk Lewanowicz). The happy couple have managed to keep their wedded bliss a secret courtesy of the silken ladder of the title which Giulia throws from her bedroom window nightly and Dorvil duly shimmies up. But their relationship spells trouble for the puffed-up Blansac and confusion all round – particularly for the inept Germano (Phil Gault), Lucilla’s tipple-loving servant.

So, the scene is set. But, how do you ensure an audience understands what’s going when the libretto is in Italian and the gorgeous (but not tailormade) venue (Berwick, Guildhall) has no surtitle technology? This production delivered a thematically and historically apt solution which contributed considerably to the slapstick quality and overall cohesion of style and setting. It gave us an extra non-singing character: Toniette (Katie Oswell) the maid. In fine silent movie tradition Toniette presented pithy plot synopses on classic cards. Oswell’s pert and knowing delivery massively enriched the nudge-nudge wink-wink tone. In fact Toniette was such a natural addition that it felt as if Rossini would have included her if he’d thought of it (and silent movies had been invented). For those of us used to understanding every word of opera, there was some adjusting to do. However, allowing the music and libretto to wash over your ears and the musical and sung performances to feed your eyes was enormously rewarding. Additionally, it ensured that the audience did not have its collective head buried in translation sheets on laps and was able to fully enjoy the fabulous emoting by the tip-top cast.

Never has an eyebrow conveyed so much desire or discomfort as that of Wolk Lewanowicz’s Dorvil as she was by turn delighted and enraged by her lover. She is convinced that Giulia, rather than shaking off Blansac’s attentions, is giving him the come-on. Of course, it’s hard to tell what your lover is up to when you’re hidden under a lampshade. Dorvil’s subsequent aria was masterfully delivered by Wolk Lewanowicz as a comic soaring wail of confusion and pain. Meanwhile, Jacklin’s cocksure Blansac continued to strut his stuff and voice his desires in muscular bass to anyone who would listen. Fortunately Tamsin Davidson’s ditsy and coquettish Lucilla was easily won over, with her limber suggestive soprano a fitting counterpoint to Jacklin’s macho playfulness. As Giulia, Ines Simoes was a superb spider at the centre of the web of confusion. Her fast-fire expressive asides and animated singing ensured we knew where we were in storyline and relationships terms – and enjoyed being there. I doff my cap to Phil Gault whose Germano conveyed lasciviousness, conceit, bamboozlement, and increasing inebriation (culminating in a superb drunken aria) with equal panache. Dormont could be seen almost as a cameo role, but Gunn’s energy is magnetic and he is a compelling and generous foil to other cast members.

It was fantastic to see the eight-piece orchestra taking a third of the stage space beside the set. And, boy, did they deserve it. Matthew Rooke’s new orchestration ensured that each instrumentalist shone, and Stephen Higgins’ impeccable and understated conducting highlighted the integral nature of music and performance. All together an exhilarating romp of an evening. Check with the Maltings Berwick for full details of forthcoming BFO productions – Le nozze di Figaro and Die Walküre.

CAST

Dormont – Austin Gunn

Giulia – Ines Simoes

Lucilla – Tamsin Davidson

Dorvil – Laura Wolk Lewanowicz

Blansac – Christopher Jacklin

Germano – Phil Germano

Toniette – Katie Oswell

ORCHESTRA

Conductor – Stephen Higgins

Violins – Claire Taylor, Frances Orde

Viola – Judith Buttars

Cello – Nigel Chandler

Double Bass – Kit Petry

Flute – Diana Clough

Clarinet/Bass – Sam Lord

Bassoon – Helena Richards

(A version of this review was published in The Berwick Advertiser on 6 August 2015)

Sweet music & community places & spaces – the perfect antidote to politics and politicians

Ne’er cast a clout til May is out. Electioneering mud-slinging has already ensured that May is knee-deep in more than clouts. But, hurrah! Today marks the end of the scrabble for our votes – although the shirt-tugging and hair-pulling will doubtless live on. For me voting is a bit like making a Pavlova. I always go through the same process but the end result isn’t always what I’d hoped for. That’s why, amidst all the endless politicking in Berwick, it’s nice to turn to other more productive topics.

Pavlovas are unpredictable beasties

Pavlovas like politics are unpredictable beasties

Just before I do, I should recap (for those who’ve been lurking under a duvet for a couple of years) that the upturned dander of the politicos amongst us is largely due to the fiercely contested nature of the Berwick-upon-Tweed seat. Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith has been warming it for the last 42 years since the then Tory incumbent Lord Lambton resigned after a scandal that would probably have enhanced his profile if he’d been a French MP. With Sir Alan’s retirement, the Tories are desperate to plump up the cushions of power for their own pert posteriors. And so the game of election musical chairs has been particularly discordant. Happy days.

Sweet music was abundant at the Maltings’ 25th birthday celebration. Local talent shone in ‘Here Come the Girls’, directed by the indefatigable Wendy Payn. My personal highlight? The boys’ take on the Ronson/Mars classic ‘Uptown Funk’, closely followed by Katie Hindmarsh’s rendition of Hairspray’s  ‘I know where I’ve been’. Fast-forward a couple of weekends and the Guildhall rang to the soaring notes of Northumbrian Kist, confected by Maltings Chief Exec Matthew Rooke. The deftly muscular National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, energetically helmed by Chris George, sailed through a true treasure chest of a programme sparkling with local references and talent. Mezzo soprano Tamsin Davidson and baritone Alan Rowland were perfect foils in Rooke’s tapestry of traditional tunes. Alison Coates pinpointed the twinkly naughtiness of ‘Wor Geordie’s Lost ‘Is Penker’. In Agustin Fernandez’s stunning ‘Arreglos Bolivianos’ the strings momentarily sounded like Bolivian pipes – incredible; whilst Alice Burn (sometime protégée of Fernandez’s partner, Kathryn Tickell) gave us no-holes-barred Northumbrian Pipes; Rooke’s ‘An a Craw Can Sing Anaw’ was a light-handed smile-inducing homage to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ and a perfect showcase for Sam Lord and her bass clarinet (or crow).

Northumbrian Kist was fab – look out for more classical music from The Maltings including 2015’s Berwick Festival Opera with shows in June, August & September.

If you missed the Maltings’ celebrations, the free Party on the Parade (Berwick Rotary Club and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research) on 24th May has rapidly become a town tradition. It’s a great bash and another opportunity to tap your toes to local talent.

The public spaces of Berwick are looking absolutely cracking. Kate Morison and her team of volunteers have managed to turn Castle Vale Park, Coronation Park and surrounding spaces into delicious areas for frolics, picnics, or simply to be. And, when mindless vandals attacked one of the handsome new shelters, local tradesmen stepped in and made them good: that’s community. Kate’s laid on a programme of events in the parks, from photography workshops to the wildly successful Easter egg hunt, from family sessions to get you up close and personal with pondlife and heritage to live dance and a dawn chorus walk. Alternatively (or as well!) head seaward to the crow’s nest atop the Coastwatch Tower by Magdalene Fields Golf Course. Volunteers have made this a place of beauty and information. The vertiginous stair will give you an adrenalin rush and the views will make your heart soar (open at weekends).

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick's Coastwatch Tower.

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick’s Coastwatch Tower.

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

Here’s a thought. Whatever the result today, let’s lock the politicians in a padded room where they can clout each other to the end of time – we could call it the House of Commons. The rest of us can get on with engaging in the community day-by-day and appreciating our tip-top corner of Northumberland.

The perfect room for politicians to clout each other.

A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 7th May 2015

Roll out the Burrell: Berwick’s community treasure chest

A new exhibition at the Granary Gallery showcases a fabulous town treasure – The Burrell Collection: a legacy always intended by its donor to be freely accessible to Berwick townsfolk. Berwick Visual Arts (BVA) and Berwick Museum wanted to do more than simply select artefacts for a one-off show. So, during the six months before it opened, volunteers explored and catalogued documents, oral histories were gathered, relationships and learning resources were developed with local schools, and a restoration programme began. This has enriched a delightful exhibition and fed into a wider programme of talks and school visits. James Lowther and Val Tobiass of BVA and Anne Moore of Berwick Museum hope it will begin to reconnect the town with this extraordinary gift.

Schoolchildren take inspiration from one of the newly framed Melville’s (Picture: Kimberley Powell, Berwick Advertiser)

When a community receives an arty bequest it can be a dilemma as well as a delight. In 1851 JMW Turner famously left a mass of his work to the nation, decreeing that his paintings ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun rising through Vapour’ must be hung alongside two paintings by 17th-century master Claude. A complex juggling act followed, complicated by a legal challenge to Turner’s will. Ultimately the four paintings were hung together in the National Gallery (and still are). The bulk of Turner’s collection – including beauties such as ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ – was shunted around London until finally taking up residence in the new Tate Gallery in 1910.

About the time Turner’s bequest was being pass-the-parcelled around London, Berwick Naturalists’ Club founded Berwick Museum (1867). A bit later, in 1875 a slip of a Glaswegian lad started to work his way up the rungs of his family’s shipping firm. This Victorian boy would become Sir William Burrell of Hutton Castle (he moved there in 1927). Aged 18 he chose to buy a painting instead of a cricket bat (to his father’s disgust), and began a 60-year hobby-cum-investment habit of collecting art. In the 1940s, he gave a princely slice of the works he had amassed to the people of Berwick. At the heart of Burrell’s gift of some 50 paintings and 300 ornamental objects was a desire to “give the people [of Berwick] an interest in Art”.

it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library

Through today’s lens Burrell looks like a classic didactic Victorian: a control freak with a keen mind and sharp business eye – sometimes expressed in eccentricity and meanness. He liked to shut off the electricity at Hutton Castle at 10pm, plunging all residents and guests into darkness whether they were in bed or not. However, Berwick can be thankful that, whilst Burrell enjoyed being hands-on during the renovations (which he paid for) to Berwick Museum so it could house his gift, he did not impose the restrictions he placed on the massive collection given to Glasgow. That city took years to find a site that met Burrell’s criteria and the doors did not open on Pollok Park until 1983.

Sir William Burrell – very much a man of his time. Picture from The Glasgow Story

Meanwhile, people in Berwick stopped by the Library and Museum on Marygate (now Costa Coffee) and perused the works of Arthur Melville and Jacob Maris while waiting for the bus. One man remembers spending weekends in the Library while his parents worked. He had free access to the Museum above where, he recalls, the Burrell Collection “shared space with a collection of local artefacts: huge keys and locks, cannonballs from the battle of Halidon Hill, a statue of Jimmy Strength and other treasures… it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library. The works that remain most strongly in my memory are paintings by Joseph Crawhall and Eugene Boudin.”  Degas, Daubigny, Gericault and Muhrman also feature in Berwick’s Burrell hoard, plus exquisite ancient Roman and Venetian glass, Japanese Imari pottery and Ming porcelain.

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault. Picture Olivia Gill/Vincent Lomenech

An often neglected aspect of publicly owned collections is restoration, conservation, and preservation. Thanks to some Heritage Lottery Funding several works in the current exhibition have received TLC from local paper conserver and restorer, Vincent Lomenech. In his Belford studio, Vincent eased from their frames watercolours and pastels undisturbed for over 100 years in order to release them from damaging acidic board and adhesives. He healed and cleaned, remounting and reframing as necessary. Vincent is a master in a precise and fragile art – in the past he has restored pages from the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, and is currently working on redeeming the original plans and drawings for Alnwick Gardens. Whilst working on the Burrell Collection, he found annotations in the artist’s hand on the back of a Maris, and a £45 price tag behind Melville’s ‘Cairo Bazaar’, “probably what Burrell paid for it”. Vincent’s wife, artist and illustrator Olivia Gill, remembers being inspired by the portraits in the Glasgow Burrell Collection as a 15-year-old and says she was “childishly excited at having Gericault’s ‘Wounded Cavalry Officer’ in the studio”.

BVA’s and Berwick Museum’s aim to rekindle community interest and present the Collection as a resource and attraction for a new generation echoes Burrell’s original desire. Hopefully the project will contribute to the on-going story of this important and extraordinary haul. As one local school teacher said in the visitors’ book: “A wonderful exhibition and workshop. Such a great resource for Berwick – we are very lucky!”

Berwick’s YHA: home of the Granary Gallery. Picture: Visit Berwick

MORE INFORMATION:

  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at The Granary Gallery, Dewar’s Lane: Free entry, 11am-5pm Wed-Sun until May 4th 2015
  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at Berwick Museum: http://www.berwickmuseum.org.uk/
  • For more information about the Schools Programme, Digital Learning Resources, Mobile App visit: http://www.berwickvisualarts.co.uk/
  • To contribute to the oral history project: contact Val Tobiass at bvalearning@maltingsberwick.co.uk or telephone 01289 333 088.
  • Vincent Lomenech, Paper Conservation and Restoration and specialist Picture Framing: http://www.lomenech.eu/
  • Olivia Lomenech Gill, Artist, Illustrator, Printmaker: http://www.oliviagill.com/

This article was first published on 2nd April 2015 in The Berwick Advertiser

Bring Back Borstal: nostalgia and a liberal blast of the airbrush

I am mourning the loss of the Co-op here in Berwick. It was our shop. We lived so close, I could leave a pan on the stove and run over for the missing ingredient. Now it’s gone, it feels as if a magic season has passed.  The other evening the Husband and I sat in front of the TV with a bowl of crisps and a glass of wine (we know how to live!). I whispered, ‘That’s the last bag of Co-op crisps’. Sad days indeed! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Seven am and the 13-year-old fancied a fresh-baked croissant before heading to school? Over to the Co-op. Eight-thirty pm, no milk? Co-op it is. Bag of cut-price greens for the guinea pigs? You guessed it. I’m already nostalgic for the Co-op. I’ve air-brushed out anything that irritated me about it, I just long for the sign to go back up and for things to be returned to the good old days.

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

The last bowl of Co-op crisps. Sad times.

Has anybody else been watching ITV’s “Bring Back Borstal”? A self-styled “social experiment” that certainly has its roots in nostalgia (apparently seven out of 10 lads sent to Borstal in the 30s did not reoffend, today nearly three quarters of young offenders end up back in prison), and our appetite for fly-on-the-wall shows. Served with a hearty helping of moral high ground, a dollop of character building by proxy, and period costumes, the series ignores the fact that, I suspect, for many boys, Borstal was neither formative nor transformative. The bad boys’ institution of the 30s was recreated in Ford Castle – so there are plenty of familiar places and local faces (scenes between Matthew Rawlings of Great Northumberland Bread and cheeky wide-boy Burniston are particularly touching) to spot alongside the nice-guy/nasty-guy act of Governor (criminologist Prof. David Williams) and Chief (ex-soldier Darren Dugan).

Borstal at Ford Castle last summer – Bring Back Borstal was screened by ITV in January 2015.

It makes compelling – and slightly depressing viewing – the 14 are like toddlers trapped in the strapping bodies of young men. They are entertaining but they are also scary. They have short fuses and lash out instinctively and without control at the slightest perceived injustice or snub. Their collective string of offences is sobering. They are, of course, a product of their childhood experiences. And it isn’t fair and it isn’t right and we as a society should be doing more to ensure young men such as these are not simply recycled by the system into ever more extreme criminals. Perhaps the lads’ most appealing custodian is Matron Jenny Molloy. Now a social worker, she talks about being taken into care at the age of nine as an opportunity “to rebuild my fractured self”. There was  an extraordinary attrition rate – three lads departed in the first week – but I hope the experience, albeit a quasi-experimental one, will help them towards making positive choices. It won’t be easy.

Institutions are always a bit prone to hypocrisy and our 13-year-old was horrified that the Chief in “Borstal” broke both the no-swearing and no-shouting rules. She commented that “it’s just like adults expecting you to say please and thank you and then not doing it themselves”. Since then I’ve kept my ears open. She has a point. This turned my mind to other things I’d “bring back” for adults. In no particular order, here are my top-five:

Bring back plate-licking. Way more polite than belching.

1. Gloves on strings. This would save so much heartache – and money.

2. Early nights and a good bedtime routine. You know how tired you are? Well then.

3. Asking “Why?” and “How?” this should never ever stop.

4. Plate-licking – way better sign of meal-appreciation than belching.

5. Tidying up one thing before starting another. Hiding mess under a sheet or in a cupboard/garage doesn’t count.

And now I’m thinking about the Co-op again. Sniff.

“Why, oh why?”

(a version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 5th February 2015)

The trill of the opera – time to take the plunge

I took a plunger with me the first time I went to the opera in the early 1980s. My brother lived in Peckham, south London – his sink was blocked. I lived and worked near Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Covent Garden was a good halfway house. Our plan was to experience an alien music form (and hand over the plunger). Our chosen opera was in English – we figured that we’d never understand warbly voices and a foreign language. I’m pretty sure the work was called “Samson!” Nowadays I would immediately be wary of a gratuitous exclamation mark: then I was young and innocent in the ways of punctuation hyperbole!

It’s a plunger!!!

In our childhood, my Dear Old Ma had a few Gilbert & Sullivan LPs – Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore spring to mind – I was aware that these romping tunes and catchy songs were not ‘real opera’. Real opera was difficult and hard to listen to. “Samson!” confirmed this. We folded ourselves into the stifling gods of the Coliseum. Below, tiny figures aboard huge turrets – half in black, the other white – skittered about colliding and separating, emoting and trilling. The good/evil metaphor was obvious even to us but we came away bemused and sure that this was not an art form to pursue. My brother, however, did unblock his sink.

We’ve all heard of operas such as Carmen. Here’s the reason: they’re the good ones.

Years later I was lucky enough to be reintroduced to opera through the Husband’s work. Many of us have only heard of a handful of operas: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata to name a few.  There’s a reason: the operas we’ve heard of are the best ones. If only I’d realised that 20 years earlier! Other winning aspects of opera that passed me by for many years were the spectacular sets, opulent costumes and huge casts. Opera, I now know, is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will.

“Opera is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will”

Matthew Rooke (Artistic Director of The Maltings, Berwick) has a beguiling vision to take well-known operas and produce vibrant new productions to fit smaller venues in smaller towns. He tested the water last year with a new orchestration of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (performed by the ebullient Newcastle-based Rocket Opera at the Guildhall, Berwick). It was fab –and despite what the cognoscenti may say, I think G&S is real opera. The trial led to a mini opera season this year. Would punters miss the pizazz and panache of large scale productions?

Rocket Opera’s rumbustious performance of The Pirates of Penzance had the audience giggling and guffawing. One man in front of me silently sang along to the whole show. The orchestra navigated the pared down score seamlessly under the helmsmanship of Nick Butters.

Not at all. Each of Berwick Festival Opera’s offerings was extraordinary in its own right. This was opera up close and personal – conductors, singers, musicians and audience bound together in the experience. Who’d have imagined orchestrating Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with four Saxes (the super Sax Ecosse) and an electric bass guitar? Rooke would. Or conjuring the seaside (G&S’s, Pirates of Penzance/Rocket Opera) with Doddington’s ice cream, some deck chair fun, and a sea-shanty riff or two? Watching Opera dei Lumi’s music director Peter Keenan rally some fine young regional musical talent in their electrifying inaugural performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte gave me goose bumps of delight – yes, the young male singers flagged slightly towards the end, but their female counterparts managed to buoy them up and sustain the energy and characterisation essential in a show without costumes, lights or sets and with the conductor tucked behind them. Hats off to them. Conductor Peter Selwyn dextrously steered the sublime Hebrides Ensemble and NYOS Camerata through the surges and splurges of Wagner’s Die Walkϋre with singers Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (first seen in Berwick last year in Rooke’s Flyting), Ronald Samm and Stuart Pendred making the most of the acoustically brilliant Guildhall. Pared down operas? Yes. Tailored to fit? Perfectly.

Another plus of local opera for local people is the opportunity to showcase local talent which was abundantly represented during the Berwick Festival Opera. Including well-known local singer Tamsin Davidson as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas.

Berwick-based singer, Tamsin Davidson.

Here in Berwick festival season is now in full swing – we’ve just smacked our lips over the final lobsters and locally sourced organic sausages of the family friendly Food Festival (13th & 14th Sept), and it’s eyes-down-look-in for the internationally acclaimed Film Festival (17th-21st Sept) with its blissful mix of free installations around our historic town, well-priced and accessible workshops, and cutting edge films. Plus there’s the all-new Literary Festival (17th-18th October). So, here’s to the delights still to come and, if you’re an opera sceptic, I urge you to take the plunge next year with the Berwick Festival Opera – but perhaps not the plunger.

Conductor Peter Selwyn conducted Jonathan Dove’s arrangement seemingly effortlessly.

(A version of this article was first printed in The Berwick Advertiser on 4th September 2014)

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