Sunday, June 16, 2019

Brian Cox

Brian Cox is back in town, with a different show to his last visit. He was here about 18 months ago with his Scientific Phenomena show. This time he was focussing specifically on space and the universe. We sacrificed a night at pub quiz to go and see him.

For a quick dinner beforehand, we decided on Bin 44. Mindful of our previous mishap when dining out before a show at the TSB, we booked a table and rocked up at 6:15. This caused a bit of kerfuffle as they were fully booked, and someone had walked in and just sat down at a table, without waiting to be seated, so the staff had to evict them from our table. Bin 44 is more pub grub than fine dining, so we had a burger and pizza. The pizza was enormous so Nicola could only finish half of it (the burger was pretty substantial too) so maybe we’ll just share one next time we go there.

Then it was across the road, and taking our place up on a side gallery in the TSB Arena. Brian came on to huge applause, thanked us for coming out on a cold, windy Wellington night, and said how delighted he was that on such a night 2,500 people are prepared to come out and listen to someone talk about science-y stuff. He then launched into a quick explanation of relativity, time and events, drew some charts, and explained how time can be different for different people. It was quite science-y. From this, he moved into a discussion about black holes and what they look like. To illustrate this he drew on his experience with the people who made the black hole model used in the film Interstellar, and how it was based on real, actual science, not just fancy special effects (although they used some of those as well). He then showed us the famous picture taken a couple of months ago of a black hole, and demonstrated that it looked pretty much as predicted by the model used in the film. 

Black hole from Interstellar

Black hole from reality

Not only that, but that the basis of the model was Einstein’s theory of relativity, showing how this 100-year-old theory was still the basis for astrophysics today. We had a picture of the universe from 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and why it looked like it did, all the way through the formation of planets and the conditions necessary for life to form. He went through some recent discoveries and theories about planets within our solar system that might support life, and once again mentioned the ice fountains of Enceladus.

This all sound like heavy going. How about some light relief? Of course, his old mucker and co-presenter of Infinite Monkey Cage, Robin Ince,  was there alongside him, to provide some comedy and break up the evening a bit. Also to give Brian a rest, as he spoke non-stop for nearly an hour in the first half. Robin amused us with some talk of dressing like a scientist, and how he is mistaken for Brian’s dad (they’re the same age). He also had several requests for his cardigan supplier.

As at the previous talk we went to, he opened up the second half to questions from the audience, and also digressed into philosophy. Once again an enjoyable evening.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

West Side Story

West Side Story is playing in Wellington for a limited season. We’d be fools not to go.

This outing was organised by Nicola’s chorus, the current world champions Wellington City Chorus. We met up with a few of them beforehand in one of Wellington’s ever-increasing number of brew bars, Whistling Sisters. We’ve been there before and found it to produce good food, which I washed down with one of their brews. Nicola had wine (which they didn’t make). We both had scotch eggs for dinner, accompanied by salad and chips.

We walked up to the Opera House and found our way to the gallery, where we are seated. The gallery hasn’t usually been open for other shows we’ve seen at the Opera House – it’s certainly the first time we’ve had seats up there in the nosebleed section.

The show got under way, with an elaborate set representing the back streets of New Yoik – all railings and drop-down fire escape ladders. It switched in and out to allow street scenes, and also the interior of the dress shop where Maria works. With all this design in the set, it was remarkably underused, I thought, with nearly all the action taking place between the two swingout sections. All the singing and dancing is done very competently, and the story progresses with gusto.

They did seem to leave the break between acts very late, but this seems to be in accordance with the original production. Uncomfortable Opera House seats can leave you a bit saddlesore after an hour and a half, so it was a relief when the interval came. The second act, in which the consequences of all the violence at the end of Act One have to be faced, is mercifully shorter. The ending is sudden, and given its emotional impact, there’s no grand finale song’n’dance number, nor an encore. The cast came out and took their curtain calls, then that was it, show’s over.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Night Tour

The observant among you may have noticed that I’ve been spending quite a lot of time at Zealandia over the last few months. In fact, since doing a number of training sessions in August and September last year, I have been a volunteer guide at the sanctuary, working at weekends. This involves helping people out around the sanctuary, pointing out the wildlife (which some people walk right past without noticing), feeding some of the birds, and also giving short talks on various subjects around the valley. 

As summer moves into autumn, one of the events at Zealandia is an Open Weekend. This allows Wellingtonians to visit the sanctuary for a measly $2 per person instead of the usual cost of a 2-day pass, $19.50. Which is still a bargain, by the way. But Wellingtonians love a freebie, and there is a positive stampede on this weekend. Naturally, they need as much help as possible, and so all volunteers and other staff are roped in to help. As a reward for this, they offer a free night tour to volunteers.

On a windy Wednesday evening, therefore, Nicola and I arrived at the Visitor Centre at the allotted time of 4:45pm. They actually start the tour in the dusky twilight as there are some crepuscular creatures to be seen. At the beginning there is a health-and-safety briefing, then we’re kitted out with earpieces and red-light torches (which don’t disturb night-time animals). Before we set out we’re subjected to the Zealandia film, which is basically a guilt-trip about all the damage done by humans to New Zealand since arrival, but culminates on an upbeat note with the building of Zealandia and the release of native species within.

There are six of us on the tour – one couple from Auckland, one visiting from the USA, and us. The tour is led by Katie, who does all the talking, and assisted by Julie, who scouts out ahead, looking for kiwi. Kiwi are the main attraction and objective of the night tour; they are nocturnal so, despite being in the valley in reasonable numbers (130 is the current estimate), they’re not seen by the public on a general admittance ticket. Indeed, I’m often asked where they are when I’m working during the day, and explain that you’ll need to come on a night tour to see them. Some species of kiwi are still found in the wild in remote areas of New Zealand, but the species we have at Zealandia, little spotted kiwi, are only found in reserves and on predator-free islands. They owe their existence to a far-sighted conservationist, who transferred five birds to Kapiti Island in 1912. The species was already extinct on the mainland, and shortly afterwards became extinct on all other islands. Since the 1980s populations have been established on other offshore islands, and in Zealandia.

Kiwi are supposed to be nocturnal. This one didn't get the memo.
Katie led us on the usual tour along the Lake Road, down to see the takahe, and through the jungly Te Mahanga track, where we saw cave weta, glow worms, and heard the night-time activities of kaka. But no kiwi. We could hear them calling in the distance, but couldn’t see any. At this point, Julie left our group to go and scout for kiwi in likely locations. And it was as we walked back along the Lake Road, with Katie giving us some further information on something or other, that she was interrupted by a call on the radio. Kiwi ahead! We strode purposefully forward as quickly as possible without making a noise, and sure enough, foraging on the cliff by the side of the road, was a little spotted kiwi! Despite being highlighted by Julie’s red light, it seems unconcerned by our presence, and continued snuffling through the leaf litter and undergrowth, in search of worms, beetles and other inveterate invertebrates, for around five minutes.

So we saw a kiwi in the wild! Mission accomplished, we headed back to the Visitor Centre for a cup of kawakawa tea, returned our equipment, and headed back home.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Comedy Festival

New Zealand’s Comedy Festival took place between 2nd and 26th May. We took a look through the programme and made a selection of five shows – all people we’d not seen before:

The Fan Brigade

A Friday night gig at the San Fran – usually a music venue, but set up this time for comedy. They have some strange narrow tables there which you sit at perpendicular to the stage. They’re wide enough for drinks, but not for eating. Fortunately, we’d booked ourselves into Heaven afterwards, so weren’t tempted by the food options, which aren’t great. The beer is good, though. The Fan Brigade are two Kiwi women who sing songs about life, particularly New Zealand life, and their take on it. They are frequently rude; in their songs, to each other, and to the audience. And very, very funny. Here’s a taster: 

Afterwards we went to Heaven for pizza.

The following week, we took in two shows in one night. With only half an hour between shows, we decided to have an early dinner at Capitol, it being near to our first venue, BATS Theatre.

Kura Forrester

Kura Forrester is perhaps better known as an actress, from What We Do In The Shadows, The Breaker Upperers, and various New Zealand TV series. Her show, Kura Woulda Shoulda, draws on her family life, and introduces various characters as aunts and uncles, all of whom we have to keep up with. She also gives a lot of detail about her sex life, and in particular, finishes with a story about then-unknown, now rugby multi-code megastar, Sonny Bill Williams. This show eventually won the Billy T award this year.

David Correos

A short walk up the road took us to the Fringe Bar, one of the full-time comedy and cabaret clubs in Wellington. This looked like another sell-out night (we went on Cheap Wednesday), and we were near the front. Not too near, as we have had instances where, upon seeing an act that we were unfamiliar with, we were invited to become part of the show. David Correos is a Filipino comedian, and specialises a lot in gross-out comedy. Fortunately for us, most of his show was merely describing his previous comedic shows and experiences. These sounded bad enough being related to us, so what they were like when he actually performed them beggars belief. He finished on a high with a tale about boats with no toilet facilities, relieving oneself whilst swimming in the sea – I mean, hey, who’s going to notice? – and the effects of currents in water. Oh, did he mention his parents were on board? His parents were on board.

Alice Snedden

The following week, on cheap Wednesday, we headed back to the Fringe Bar to see Alice Snedden. Alice has been writing, and appearing on, New Zealand TV shows for the last couple of years, with such shows as Jono And Ben and Funny Girls, and now has a show called Absolute Monster. She is, I think, a standard comedian. Yes, she has funny stories and tells them well, but she doesn’t seem to have a hook on which to hang it, anything unique. Still, an enjoyable night.  Afterwards we crossed the road to Fratelli, an Italian which we have so far managed to avoid in all our trips out. They do standard Italian grub, pretty well but nothing unusual. So it complemented the comedy quite well.

So You think You Khandallah?

The next night out was our final pick for this year’s festival. So You Think You Khandallah? Is an ensemble piece by Kickin’ Rad, performed at BATS Theatre. It’s set in the Khandallah Academy of Performing Arts in the Eighties, and comes with a warning: may contain legwarmers.

So what’s the title all about? Khandallah, for my international readers, is a suburb of Wellington. Previous years’ productions have included Mirror Miramar and Deep Space Naenae. The premise is an improvised soap opera, set in an acting and dancing school. It is played over five nights, and I’m sure there are some aficionados who go every night to find out how it works out. We weren’t that committed, and only went for one night. There is a sort of compère who announces the plot changes, scenes, and generally moves the action on. One of the actors decided to play the entire evening as a horse, which led to some interesting situations (lots of “what’s that, Skippy? Timmy’s fallen down a well?” – type dialogue needed to convey her thoughts). It was all very silly and enjoyable, but we had no real need to go and find out how it all ended.

Afterwards we went for dinner at a new(-ish) place that’s opened up around the corner, Brown Brothers. This is an Indian fusion restaurant featuring a chef who worked under Chetan Pangam of 180°Restaurant. It wasn’t bad, but I felt that they could have been bolder with the spices.

So that’s our comedy festival adventure for this year.

Waiting For Godot

Well blimey! I’ve fallen way behind on this blog…here’s an update. Last month, we went to see Waiting for Godot, at Circa Theatre. This was their headline production for May, and we went along to a matinee performance on a Sunday afternoon, so no dining experience beforehand or afterhand.

Waiting For Godot, as you may be aware, is a play in which very little happens. Not only that, the second act is very similar to the first act so, in the words of Vivian Mercier, it is “…a play in which nothing happens, twice.” Further, the stage directions were provided by Becket so there isn’t a lot of room for improvisation. I’ve not seen it all the way through before – I seem to recall watching part of the Stewart/McKellern version on the tell-o-vision many years ago.

There’s not much more to say about it, really. The production was up to standard, but they didn’t do anything overtly new with the material. Pozzo was played by Hobbit actor Peter Hambleton (Gloin), and the other parts by Circa stalwarts Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Andrew Foster. We emerged, into the now dark and cold wind of a Wellington night.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin is Back. That’s the name of his new tour, which contains “old songs, new songs, fuck you songs” according to his publicity. He’s not toured for seven years (we last saw him in the UK) so when this was announced, I was all over it like a rash. Possibly too rash-like, it turns out, because we were allocated seats in the second row of the stalls, so we were looking up to the stage.

First, though, we have to stuff our fat faces, as is tradition. On this occasion, with an 8pm start, we could take our time over dinner, and so decided to revisit the scene of many a lunch and dinner in the past, Wellington’s finest, Logan Brown. At one time I was visiting this establishment so regularly that I started calling it the staff canteen. As it is, we’ve not actually been here for a while, so it’s always worth checking out whether it’s still Wellington’s finest. You’ll be relieved to hear that it is.

We then walked along to the Michael Fowler Centre, which we’d managed to park nearby earlier (all the better for a quick getaway), and bumped into one of Nicola’s chorus colleagues. Then we took our seats, discovering quite how close to the stage we were. There’d been a delay with opening the doors to the general public, and so the show started about ten minutes late. What was the problem? Tim explained: “Apparently, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has been in here today, rehearsing. Making me late! Fuckers!”

The stage set was quite simple, with a black backdrop and his piano in front of it. He gave us a couple of songs, Plane Goes Down and F Sharp, and told us how he loved us more than his kids. “They never cheer when I come into a room!”, gave us some interesting facts about statistics and bell curves, and was generally funny. A few songs in and he’s doing Rock & Roll Nerd, a song about wanting to be in a rock band, and failing, when the backdrop falls down, there’s banging of drums and the squeal of guitars, and behind the backdrop there’s…a rock band! Wow! How cool is that? So he plays the rest of the song with an actual rock band, who then provide backing for the rest of the show.

The rest of the set contained songs as advertised, including a 8½ minute rock opera dedicated to cheese, Woody Allen Jesus (with audience participation), and other songs old, new and fuck-you. There was Leaving LA, a song about leaving LA (no shit, Sherlock!), which he introduced as “the very definition of white privilege: writing a song whining about how your $100 million singing cartoon film project has been cancelled”. Interspersed, as always, with his comments on life in general, his family, and other comedic targets. Go see if you get the chance!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Children

Circa Theatre’s main offering for April is The Children, a play which opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2017, and has now been produced in New Zealand. The play centres on three people dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear disaster caused by a tsunami, in a reflection of the 2011 Japanese Fukushima tsunami. All three actors are veterans of New Zealand’s screen and stage, and we’ve seen them many times both at Circa and on TV and film, including The Hobbit.  

As it was an early show, we decided to have a glass of wine at Noble Rot beforehand, and dine afterwards. Noble Rot is Wellington’s premiere wine bar (admittedly, from a pretty small field – most of the wine bars of yore have shut up shop) but they are only open of an evening, so when we’re usually in the area (Cuba Street) we’re looking for lunch, so don’t get there much. We took advantage of their early evening opening, and then walked along to Circa for the show.

There’s been a tsunami. The nuclear power station has been damaged, and the surrounding area contaminated. Two of the physicists who worked there have left their home inside the exclusion zone, and decamped to a cottage just outside the irradiated area, where they live a simple life of organic vegetables and compost toilets. A former colleague, Rose, turns up, and they start talking, and arguing about, what, if anything, they should be doing as a consequence. A lot of the past is dug up and raked over, and newer things also come up. In the end, a kind of decision is reached, and we all go home somewhat more enlightened than when we arrived. It’s powerfully done, not least because it’s so understated.

Afterwards we decided to give Pico Bar & Eatery another try, as it’s very conveniently located. I tried their burger this time, which was competently executed, and Nicola had the gnocchi. Again, these were done well, but I can’t help feeling that this place is now a shadow of its former self. Hopefully they’ll bring their 'A' game when WOAP starts in a few months.