Monday, April 17, 2017

Cosmic Shambles

Cosmic Shambles is the name that Robin Ince gives to his show, currently touring Australia and New Zealand, in which he gathers together scientists, comedians, and musicians, both local and imported, and puts on a collection of stories and demonstrations. Each performer gets a slot of around 15 minutes, and other than that, it’s anything goes, really.

We met up in Courtenay Place at the Bangalore Polo Club for some dinner beforehand. The food was fairly standard pub grub, washed down with a beer or cocktail.

The show started at 7:00pm, as there’s quite a lot to get through. At the beginning there’s a short film starring the puppets of Brian Cox and Robin Ince discussing science things. Brian Cox is far too famous and busy doing television in the UK to come on tour, so this was a substitute for that. Brian and Robin go way back, though, having presented The Infinite Monkey Cage since 2009. The rest of the cast were:   

Robin Ince (puppet)
Brian Cox (puppet)
Robin Ince – comedian/mc
Josie Long – comedian
Helen Czerski – bubble scientist
Lucie Green – solar scientist 
Matt Parker – mathematician
Nation – music
Michelle Dickinson – nanotechnologist
Siouxsie Wiles – microbiologist
James Nokise – comedian
Shaun Hendy – physicist
Matt Stellingwerf – comedian
Jon Toogood – music


After an introduction from Robin, he introduced the first live guest, Josie Long, who undertook the first experiment of the night. This was based around “what do ghosts eat? Spook-etti”, a joke from a Christmas cracker. This involved opening two tins of spaghetti, leaving one for the ghost, and Robin Ince eating the other (cold, natch), whilst leaving the third unopened as a control. This proved absolutely nothing, but was much funnier than described here.

After that, each act came on individually, and did their bit. Matt Parker, a mad Australian mathematician, demonstrated how to calculate pi with pies in several different ways, and also explained how pi, and indeed pie, gets into everything. The main event was using a pi-endulum to calculate pi with a little help from an audience member.

Siouxsie Wiles gave a convincing, and quite frightening, demonstration of how we’re all going to die, as antibiotics fail to overcome bacteria. The end is nigh. You heard it here secondhand.

At the end of the first half, local band Nation gave us some tunes. They seemed to be channelling the Eighties in a Go West, Love And Money style…all they needed was a sax to complete the picture.

The second half included a very interesting discussion of bubbles from Helen Czerki, including how penguins use them to avoid leopard seals and get out of the water. Nanotechnologist Michelle Dickinson gave a live demonstration of the effect of cold on various materials, and how this led to the space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds after launching, in 1986. Using liquid nitrogen to cool down metals, and showing scant regard for elf-and-safety along the way, she showed how the metal reacted at low temperatures.

The final musical interlude of the evening was Jon Toogood, singer from Shihad, (world famous in New Zealand since ages ago) who gave us an acoustic set to finish with. Robin Ince then wrapped up the show and we all staggered out into the night.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Midge Ure

Midge Ure is back. We went to see him two years ago on his first solo tour of New Zealand. Last time, there was a gap of 33 years between tours…this time, only two.

The venue where we saw him last time, Bodega, is now sadly defunct, so we were off to the San Fran (formerly San Francisco Bath House, formerly, er, an actual bathhouse) on Cuba Street. We’d taken the precaution of parking nearby before heading off to watch the cricket during the day, so we were able to dump our cricket paraphernalia in the car before stripping down to gig wear.

The venue didn’t open until 8pm so we were queuing outside in what was a chilly Southerly for about 20 minutes beforehand with Tor and Gavin. We pondered why they didn’t open earlier, as all they were doing was losing valuable drinking revenue, but I guess that’s their business. Once in, we still had a half hour wait before the first band came on.

Midge has brought some friends with him this time, in the form of the India Electric Company, who turn out to be two blokes who play a lot of instruments between them. They came on first as a support act, playing six songs of their own (OK, one was by Bruce Springsteen and two were traditional Irish songs, but you know what I mean. I hope.) Then they went off and a few minutes later, reappeared with Midge.

The premise of this tour is “something from everything”, i.e. to play at least one song from every album he’s been involved in. He explained that as part of the tour, he was obliged to front up to journalists on a regular basis, to publicise the tour. He told us that even though he explained very carefully, as he’d just done to us, they inevitably asked “so will you be playing any Thin Lizzy then?” Journalists eh? What to do?* As the tour has progressed this concept has been slightly reworked, and I think he may have decided to leave out an album or two from the 14 that Midge has been involved with over the years.


He played a few of the classics, but really, this tour was more about diving into the hidden gems of his back catalogue and exploring some of the more obscure tracks. Naturally he played Vienna, and he got us doing the “oh-oh-oh-oh”s on The Voice, same as last time, as well as singing along to Fade To Grey. One of the rarities that surfaced was The Damned Don’t Cry, from Visage’s second album, which Midge told us hadn’t been performed live before this tour, and maybe we were about to find out why. He made a decent hash of it though.

Overall, the addition of the India Electric Company added more substance than 2015’s solo performance, particularly with Joseph O'Keefe playing the violin parts on Ultravox songs, and allowed them to play the middle eight better than previously. They still didn’t do Astradyne, though.



* The answer’s “No”, because he didn’t record anything with Thin Lizzy, just toured with them for a while.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Black Caps vs. Proteas

The Black Caps are coming to town. They’re playing South Africa, currently ranked 3rd in the world at test cricket, to New Zealand’s 5th. The first test in Dunedin was drawn after the fifth day’s play was lost to rain, with both teams scoring and taking wickets at similar rates, so it looked like a fairly even match.

New Zealand started poorly on the Thursday, losing three quick wickets for 21, before being steadied by Raval and then Nicholls, and finishing on 268. That looked like a low score until they went in to bowl and finished day one with South Africa on 24/2. Day two started well, too, and at lunch South Africa were looking on the ropes with all their top order out, and at 94/6.

But after lunch they picked up, and De Kock and Bavuma put on a 160 partnership to take the Proteas to within sniffing distance of the Black Caps target. And there was more trouble to come, as the Black Caps inexplicably failed to deal with the tail adequately, allowing the runs to pile on well past their total; they closed the day at 348, 80 runs ahead, and with one wicket still remaining.

We had tickets to Saturday, day three. After dealing with our usual Saturday morning chores, we headed down to the Basin. By the time we'd parked and walked to the ground, South Africa had added 11 runs before being dismissed, and the Black Caps were in to bat at 13/0. Right, the fightback starts here, we thought...play a good morning's cricket, and start slowly chipping away at that total. After all, you've got three days to play two innings, the weather forecast is good for all three days, what's the hurry?


Some nice bins, with a cricket match in the background

Unfortunately, the Black Caps don't seem to be very good at this kind of cricket. With the exception of Raval, nearly all of the batsmen were tempted into foolish hits, and got themselves out. Raval held it together until he reached 80, then got himself out. There was a steady succession of wickets falling throughout the day, and they weren't advancing the scoreboard to compensate. It was a worst of both worlds situation, and inevitably, the final wicket fell with the Black Caps having amassed a lead of just 80 runs. The Proteas came in to bat at the end of the day, and despite losing a couple of wickets, and having to request an extra 8 overs to finish the job off, they made pretty short work of it in the end, to lead the series 1-0 after two games played.

There's one more test, which New Zealand must win to square the series. Hopefully some of their injured players will be back to perform in that, and maybe Williamson can score some actual runs next time.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Strassman

When did you last go to a puppet show? I can’t remember the last time I did. I suppose I must have seen a Punch and Judy show at the beach in my dim and distant childhood (as we dodged the tyrannosaurs, yadda yadda yadda), but I can’t remember anything other than that. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a ventriloquist show.

David Strassman is a ventriloquist. He’s also an American. Despite this, he seems to have had most of his success in Australia and New Zealand, where he had an imaginatively-titled tv show, “Strassman”, in 2000. He’s toured extensively in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

The show was on a Saturday night, so we set out early to try and find a park on Taranaki Street before heading into old favourite haunt Zibibbo for a pre-show dinner. We’ve been there enough times to be recognised by the maitre d’. We went for the pre-theatre menu with matching wines, and we had some discussion about what wines to match – it was pretty much “tell me what you like and I’ll find something like that for you”. We ended up with a glass of pinot noir each to start (I know!) to accompany our duck liver parfait and pork rillettes. Mine was a dark Central Otago wine, all plummy and earthy flavours, whereas Nicola’s was a light, bright Marlborough wine. For mains we switched to white, and Nicola reverted to form with a Camshorn sauvignon blanc, which has all the flavours you’d expect from a Marlborough SB. This accompanied her chicken and mushroom tortellini, where I had a slice of pork belly accompanied by a very earthy flavoured chardonnay from Dog Point.

We were out in plenty of time for a 7:00pm start at the Michael Fowler centre. On came Strassman, and introduced us first to Ted E Bare, then to a series of his other characters, including Chuck Wood, Sid Beaverman, Grandpa Fred, Kevin the alien, and Buttons the clown. He goes through various routines with these characters, which demonstrate the essential craft of being a ventriloquist. You see, at that distance, you can't really tell if his mouth is moving much at all, and to a certain extent, it's not that important. What he does well is bring the characters to life, and he is very funny. During the exposition, he tells each character that he's setting up for the second half of the show, which will be in the format of a TED talk...hence the show's name. The subject of the talk is the suspension of disbelief, which is obviously an integral part of his act.


In the second half of the act, he has all the characters lined up and controlled by animatronics. Whilst he has a control in his hand, there may also be some off-stage jiggery, and indeed pokery, to control all the movements of the characters on stage. Again, it was all very funny, as well as enlightening.

Now, here's a funny thing: I've read some reviews of Strassman's shows in Australia. Two of them mention that he used the wrong voice for the wrong character at one stage. And guess what? He did the same in the show we saw...then the dummy (I think it was Chuck) corrected him. Do you think, possibly, it's part of the act? Hmm?


Monday, March 13, 2017

All's Well That Ends Well

The summer hasn’t really been up to much this year, so it was a bit of a punt to book tickets to this year’s outdoor Shakespeare. But we did, and hoped for the best.

The venue has changed from The Dell at the botanical gardens, to Civic Square. The tickets invited us to bring along a picnic, before sternly warning us that this was a no-alcohol area. Where’s the fun in that? Is it that rioting Shakespeare fans have caused trouble at previous years’ gigs, accosting innocent members of the public and quoting the bard at them? I don’t know what the rationale for the move was, but we decided that a quick dinner beforehand would be a better course of action.

As the Entertainment book year is drawing to a close, I checked to see which venues we hadn’t patronised in a while to get our discount from. Turns out we’ve not been to Foxglove in ages, and there’s a deal to be had there. So off we went, and enjoyed a tasty dinner. We then walked along the waterfront to Civic Square, and took our seats.

They had roped off a corner of the square to set a stage and control access to the seating. It was a cool evening and I wished I’d brought a sleeved fleece instead of the bodywarmer, but at least it wasn’t raining. We grabbed a programme which gave us a summary of All’s Well That Ends Well, and watched as they took the stage.



All's Well That Ends Well is one of the least-performed of Shakespeare’s comedies, and it’s easy to see why. It’s just not very funny. Added to that are the problems of performing outdoors, where there’s no echo, so the vocal delivery has to be robust at all times. This meant that there was no subtlety in the delivery of the lines. Whose side we’re supposed to be on is a bit of a mystery as well, as no-one behaves particularly well. Due to its location, bemused passers-by stopped to see what was going on from over the parapet, at one point severely impeding the progress of one of the actors in his delivery. Overall, not the greatest performance we’ve been to. Ah well, let's see what next summer brings.



Friday, March 3, 2017

As You Like It

Way, way, back, many centuries ago, a chap called William Shakespeare, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built a theatre for the exhibition of his plays. It was on the south bank of the Thames, and was called The Globe. It burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, but was rebuilt the following year. It was closed by the Puritans in 1642, and pulled down a couple of years later.

In 1997, a replica Globe was built on the South Bank of the Thames, close to its original location. And in 2016, a pop-up Globe was built in Auckland for the first time. This was repeated in 2017, and we decided to pay it a visit.

Normally, visiting Auckland is a fairly mundane experience. However, we had failed to anticipate the other attraction that was on offer on the particular weekend we had chosen: The Boss was in town, performing at Mt Smart stadium. This meant that accommodation was in short supply, and air fares had also obeyed the rules of supply and demand and gone through the roof. We gritted our teeth and booked the flights and one of the few remaining hotel rooms at Rydges.

We’d arrived early in the morning, so to pass the time of day we decided to visit the suburb of Ponsonby, which is just down the road from the CBD. We boarded an Inner Link bus until we reached Ponsonby Road, and then walked along from there. We stopped for lunch at Adam Arnold’s CafĂ© Bar, where we lunched on bread, halloumi, and cured salmon. The waiter said to us “sounds like you’re from my part of the world”, to which we replied “What, Wellington?” which flummoxed him somewhat…especially as he’d addressed us in a Yorkshire accent. So we explained, and all was well in the world again.

We set out for the venue, which has been built at Ellerslie race course, by train. It’s a five minute walk from the station. When we got there, we checked out the hospitality options available and sat down with a bread and cheese platter, washed down with a glass of The King’s Bastard (chardonnay) and The King’s Favour (sauvignon blanc).

We were seated in the middle level of the theatre. All the seats give a good view, as they are around the edge of the theatre. There is also standing room on the ground floor, which was presumably cheaper, and also involved the hazard of being accosted by the actors who used it as part of the stage at times. We were there to see As You Like It, which is a comedy based on a woman dressing up as a man, and fooling him. In this respect, it’s very similar to all the other Shakespeare comedies. As they’d taken the Shakespeareanism of the production to heart, the leading woman, Rosalind, was in fact played by a man.


The production was very well done; the comedy, for once, was actually funny – largely helped by a lot of physical comedy, particularly from Adam, Orlando’s servant. Also there was a very funny flautist, who started playing whenever anyone started getting amorous.

It was all jolly good fun and went on long into the night. we finally rolled out at around 11:00pm and caught the first available train back to the city centre.




Thursday, February 23, 2017

Nose Job

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have a basal cell carcinoma that needs to be removed. Surgery was originally set for 15th February; on the morning that we arrived at the hospital I received a call to say that the surgeon had been delayed and could we reschedule to next week? What delayed him wasn’t clear – it could have been the previous surgery developing complications, or he could have been stuck in a bunker on the 8th hole. I suspect the former.

Yesterday, I was back at the hospital – with an earlier scheduled time this week, so less susceptible to delay. After changing into paper underwear and one of those fetching backless gowns, the nurse struggled to get the surgical stockings on my feet, but eventually prevailed. I met the anaesthetist and we discussed how I was to be anaesthetised; and then the surgeon again. The surgeon drew a circle on my nose to indicate where he was going to cut; and we had a bit of chat about Dr. Gregory House writing “not this one” on his left leg, and “not this one either” on his right. There are a lot of forms to be filled out, and everyone you meet for the first time asks you your name and date of birth, and checks this against their paperwork…gotta make sure they’re operating on the right person!

I was wheeled up to the theatre, and a line put into the back of my right hand. There was no warning, no “count down from 10” or anything like that…next thing I knew, I was back in the room, and being given some painkillers. It was all over! The nurse then dressed the wound again, organised a light lunch for me, and we hung around until I felt well enough to go home.



On the way home we picked up the antibiotics and painkillers prescribed, and I was given instructions about washing.

This morning I woke up looking like the elephant man. The area around the surgery has swollen up, but it doesn’t hurt or feel hot, so I think it’s just normal post-surgical swelling. Hopefully it’ll go down before I present myself back at the office – I don’t want to frighten the kids at work!