Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Evolving Universe

The Expressions Gallery in Upper Hutt is currently showing the Smithsonian Museum’s exhibition of The Evolving Universe. This is a series of astrophotographs, taken using a variety of wavelengths and technologies, and relate what is happening in our universe as part of the timeline of Earth. The time it takes for light to get to us from distant parts of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and galaxies further afield, are related to the Earth’s development and general information about astrophysics and telescope technology. It’s all fascinating stuff and the pictures are, of course, very high quality and detailed.

As it’s in Upper Hutt, I donned my wifebeater and mullet wig so that I’d fit in. If you don’t know about Upper Hutt, it’s the smallest of the four cities that make up the Wellington conurbation (along with Wellington, Porirua and Lower Hutt). I haven’t actually been to Upper Hutt town centre before, but I’d heard bad things about it. It’s not the most prepossessing of town centres, and has frankly earned the derision of most Wellingtonians, in much the same way as places like Croydon do in the UK.

After looking at the exhibition, we then had a look in another room, which had information about the Upper Hutt Blockhouse. This was built in 1860, at the height of the New Zealand Wars. For further information about the New Zealand Wars, see this. What was remarkable about this exhibition, however, was the text accompanying one of the photographs. It said that the blockhouse was built “after a series of squeamishnesses” – a sentence which had us confused. We eventually figured out that it was a spellcheck replacement for “skirmishes”. Really, someone should proofread these before pinning up huge boards with mistakes like this.

After a brief squeamish with the traffic, we headed back to Petone for some lunch. Our best-laid plan to dine at Bella Italia gang aglay when they told us there was a half hour wait for a table, so we ended up in café Chavi at the other end of Jackson Street.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Hurricanes vs. Lions

If you’ve been keeping up with current events, you’ll know that the British & Irish Lions rugby team are currently touring New Zealand. If you haven’t, here is the news…

They’re playing three test matches against the All Blacks, and in between they’re playing a number of other New Zealand sides. They have fixtures against the 5 New Zealand Super Rugby sides (that’s Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes, in case you don’t know) as well as the Provincial Barbarians and Māori All Blacks. Whilst they were solidly beaten by the All Blacks last weekend, their record against the provincial teams has been somewhat better. It must be noted that both sides are fielding a less-than-full-strength team for these matches, as the All Blacks who normally play for them are mostly excluded, and the Lions are giving some of their second-string players a run out (the Lions squad numbers 49 players, so they’ve plenty to spare).

This week, the party comes to Wellington, with two games: one against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, and one against the All Blacks on Saturday. We scored tickets to the Hurricanes match. After work, I headed up the road to the stadium so that we could get in early and avail ourselves of the catering at the stadium. In response to customer demand, they have now improved the options from the previous pies/burgers/fish’n’chips with Tui beer, and now have a slightly classier mezzanine bar that serves a better class of take-away food, and also some halfway decent beers on tap. Sounds good, yes? When we got there…closed for a private function. If we’d known that we’d have gone somewhere else first. Nul points, Westpac Stadium.

We feasted on fish’n’chips and burgers, washed down with Steinlager.

The expected chilliness of a clear night failed to materialise, so we weren’t too cold – didn’t need hats and gloves. We were up in the gods at the Southern end, right behind the goalposts. The stadium management had maximised their revenue by providing more seating in areas usually unoccupied – the walkways around the top of the stadium, and on the pitch itself. So a full crowd of what turned out to be 38,690 people attended. A lot of them were wearing red, and they were very vocal.

So, to the match. The Hurricanes were beaten in the first half, as the Lions took full advantage of a couple of lucky breaks and bounces, and also collected points from penalties in the way that New Zealand clubs rarely do (penalties usually being seen as opportunities to get into a try-scoring position, rather than kicking for goal). Handling errors and a couple of turnovers were the pivotal points of the first half, and the Canes failed to capitalise on their position when they were in the 22.

But it’s a game of two halves, and the Canes came out roaring with a  try in the first minute of the second half. Further tries followed and although the Lions managed another try and penalty, the second half definitely belonged to the Canes. There were two yellow-card incidents – one per team – which stretched the teams and led to most of the point-scoring opportunities. In the final few minutes they were tied at 31-31, the was clock ticking down, the Canes were in the Lions’ 22 and going forward. Jordie Barrett was waiting in the pocket for the drop-goal pass to come back…but it never did, as they were unable to get clean ball back to him. The moves eventually broke down, and play moved up to the Canes’ 22, where the Lions tried exactly the same thing. The ball came back to Halfpenny, he went for the drop-goal…and missed. The Canes tried to keep the ball alive but it went back beyond the dead-ball line. Game over. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. The match was tied – an unlikely result, but probably one that the Canes would be happy with after their first half. The moral victory also goes to the Canes as they scored 4 tries to the Lions’ 3.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Three Days In The Country

Another week, another excursion to the theatre. This time we’re off to see something serious…

Three Days In The Country is a new adaptation by Patrick Marber – best known for Closer – based on Turgenev’s classic A Month In The Country. I assume you’re all familiar with this? No? Me neither. However it is described as being Chekhovian, despite being written some 40 years before Chekhov hit his stride.

Years ago, we visited Two Souls Bistro on Wakefield Street. It was reasonably good, but uninspiring, standard bistro fare. Unsurprisingly, with the way that the Wellington food scene has moved on, it’s fallen somewhat out of favour, and closed last year. The site has now reopened as Vee N Zed, a New Zealand/Vietnamese fusion restaurant. As is so often the case with new restaurants, there’s a special offer on GrabOne to try and entice people into their new place. We were duly enticed – helped by a fairly positive write-up from David Burton a couple of weeks ago.

Whilst it calls itself a fusion restaurant, the two cuisines rarely meet – there’s either Kiwi classics or Vietnamese food on offer. Since its opening they seem to have largely ditched the Kiwi in favour of the Vietnam, and now only two fundamentally Kiwi dishes remain. As these were specifically excluded by our GrabOne deal, I ignored them, and instead had a reasonably good Vietnamese meal. They were prompt about dishing it up, too, which suited our purpose admirably. We were able to nonchalantly stroll up the road to Circa Theatre in time for the play to begin.

Three Days In the Country may have had its title shortened from A Month… but that doesn’t seem to have shortened the play. This is presumably part of the reason for the early start. Unlike most productions in Wellington, this one has a full cast of 14 characters, so at first it was a little confusing trying to determine who was who in relation to the main characters. It soon became clear, though. The casting included a number of Wellington favourites who we’ve seen in many a production over the years – I guess the number of actors able and willing to make a living from stage acting in Wellington is not high. Unlike the UK, New Zealand doesn’t have the critical mass to support a celebrity culture of soap stars, TV actors and the like to boost the popularity of shows. Nor do shows hang around in the style of the West End – they’re put on for a month at the most. Gavin Rutherford, Andrew Paterson and Harriet Prebble are all mainstays of Wellington theatre.

The play follows the relationships of the Islaev family and household in the Russian countryside. Everyone, it seems, is in love with the wrong person and (spoiler alert) it ends badly for most of them. As Patrick Marber put it, "not much happens but everything happens". It was all expertly done and thoroughly enjoyable. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

It's A Kinda Magic

Can a tribute act ever be as good as the real thing? There is any number of tribute acts to bands that have either stopped performing due to break-up or death. But what about bands where the main performer has died, but other members of the band carry on?

Queen continue to perform as Queen + Adam Lambert, an admission that Adam Lambert isn’t really part of the group. But with only the guitarist and drummer, are Queen really Queen? Freddie Mercury was, of course, the flamboyant front man, but both Brian May and Roger Taylor are noted performers and solo artists in their own right. (John Deacon has not performed with the rest of Queen, other than the tribute concert in 1992.)

But there are numerous Queen tribute acts doing the rounds. One, an Australian outfit styling themselves Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic, are currently touring New Zealand. I was in two minds about whether to go…but then an offer came up for cut-price tickets on GrabOne, so I bought them.

The main premise of their act is to recreate the 1986 Magic Tour. As you may know, I went to two concerts on this tour, at Knebworth Park and Wembley Stadium, so I am uniquely placed to judge their performance.

But first, dinner. We’ve not been to Jano Bistro in a while, so as the show wasn’t starting until 8pm, we thought we’d take it in. Jano specialise in offering a very short menu (usually 3 entrées and 4 mains), and then do the main ingredient in as many ways as possible. We shared the entrée platter (a taste of each of the three entrées – rabbit roulade, smoked eel and goat cheese with beetroot) before choosing the duck and king salmon mains. I’m pleased to report that the quality remains as high as ever – the nut-encrusted salmon was cooked sous-vide and was delicious. We considered the desserts but frankly, we were too full, so skipped straight to coffee and tea before making our way to the Opera House.

“I hope you’re not going to spend the whole evening carping at the historical inaccuracies” said Nicola, so let me get all the carping out at the beginning. OK, it’s not an exact recreation of the Queen concert…firstly, because they only have 2 hours to do it in, where the original was substantially longer. They’ve changed up the order, and left out all the non-Queen songs, natch. They also put in two songs which weren’t recorded at that time – Headlong and I Want It All, from The Miracle – presumably because they just like those songs. Oh, the historical inaccuracy!

Other than that, though, they did a passable imitation of Queen. The main man, Giles Taylor, was convincing as Mercury, and the other musicians were also competent, if not exactly the spit of the original members. Giles Taylor has put in a lot of work with Peter Freestone, long-time friend of Freddie Mercury, into getting the stage movements and gestures just right.

The next problem facing them was that the Opera House is a sit-down venue. He was successful at getting everyone standing and singing along for most of the anthemic stadium-rock songs. It is a feature of Queen concerts that the fans do know the words to all of the songs, and will happily sing along – even when they try and confuse us by delving deep into the back catalogue and offer up an album track from Sheer Heart Attack.

 At the end of the show, they all came to the front of the stage (Roger with a footpedal bass drum) to perform ’39, and Don’t Stop Me Now, before ending with the obligatory God Save The Queen. Overall, a very good show. It’s not Queen, but is it the next best thing?  

Monday, June 12, 2017

White Man Behind A Desk

The comedy festival is over, but parts of it keep popping up for a second go. White Man Behind A Desk won the best newcomer (Wellington) award, and as such was given a second run at a larger venue. One of my colleagues had seen the show during the festival and recommended it, so when I saw it was on at Circa, I booked tickets.

And a good job I did, as this run was also sold out in pretty short order.

A half past seven start gave us plenty of time to explore dining options, and those nice people at GrabOne duly obliged by promoting a special offer at Pravda, which we took full advantage of. We then walked down the road to Circa, arriving just in the nick of time to claim our seats.

White Man Behind A Desk is a satirical show, where Robbie Nicol attempts to solve some of the problems facing New Zealand, and the world. At first we thought it was going to be a right-on, tedious, leftie actually attempting do this, but he very quickly subverts the genre. He sits behind a desk and talks to camera, which is then projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. The first problem to be solved, as a warm-up for the audience, is World Hunger. “What should we do about world hunger?” he asked the audience. “Food?” came a querulous reply. “FOOD! Yes! Problem solved!” and the post-it note with World Hunger on it was quickly dispatched to the dustbin labelled “Solved”.

The show is managed by the First AD with a rod of iron. He is of a type that is probably familiar to all who work in TV or film, and really doesn’t give a shit what Robbie says or does as long as he does it from the right place. At one point, Robbie tries to get the cameraman to film, and 1st AD comes down on him hard. “You don’t tell him when to roll. I tell him when to roll”. Looks at cameraman. “…roll”.

The show descends into farce when their first special guest is a no-show, but fortunately they have a back-up in the form of Gareth Morgan. Morgan is world-famous in New Zealand for his opinions about cats. After some failed attempts at how to film him in the same frame as Robbie, he’s left standing on his own on the stage whilst Robbie goes out to try and find a chair for him. They play Pictionary. Robbie wins.

The rest of the show rapidly gets out of hand as they run out of time and realise that they haven’t actually solved any issues yet. Robbie starts handing out topics to various members of the audience and gets them to record their discussions on their phones. As you can imagine, this is somewhat chaotic and leads to the end of the show. I won’t spoil the surprise.

You can see the sort of things that he discusses on the Youtubes here: 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Basement Tapes

We haven’t been to BATS to see a theatre show in a long while, so I thought I’d check out what was on. There were a couple of things that caught my eye, one of which was The Basement Tapes. This has nothing to do with Bob Dylan, and everything to do with a cassette player.

But first, dinner. It’s a new year in the world of Entertainment, and we decided to revisit The Tasting Room, as they have, on their menu, beef Wellington. And you can’t beat eating beef Wellington in Wellington. We should probably have worn wellingtons to complete the experience. The Wellingtons come as individually baked servings and are pretty well executed. We also started with another Seventies classic, cheese fondue, to share. How retro are we?

We walked around the corner to the theatre. I’d left the tickets behind in my desk drawer (again) but fortunately had the email on my phone, which proved sufficient. BATS need to get with the program and do electronic ticketing!

The Basement Tapes is effectively a solo performance, augmented with an uncredited delivery guy and the disembodied voice from the tape recorder. The show starts ordinarily enough, with a telephoned pizza order for a vegan pizza. Then the scene is set as a young woman appears in the junk in the basement of her deceased grandmother’s home, and it is apparent that she’s there to sort out the junk, and dispose of it how she sees fit. A lot of it is being thrown out until she finds an old-fashioned tape recorder of the variety that we used to have in the 1970s, and also a box of old tapes. Selecting one at random, she starts to play it, and her grandmother’s voice comes out. Naturally, this scares the shit out of her. What follows is a quasi-dialogue between the unnamed protagonist and her grandmother/the tape recorder. The pizza delivery person makes his delivery but it turns out that he, too, is not what he appears. How much is real, and how many of the people involved in the story are alive, or dead, or fictional, is not made clear. It is all very spooky and atmospheric, and the final revelation makes it all very weird. I need to watch it again to figure out what it was all about!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Olive Copperbottom

As the comedy festival comes to a close, we took in our last show of the festival. Again, a performer that we’d seen before, in the shape of Penny Ashton. Last year we saw her produce Promise and Promiscuity, in collaboration with Jane Austen. This time round, she’d teamed up with Charles Dickens to create a new musical, Olive Copperbottom.

We went to dinner first at Portlander. This is the (mainly) steak restaurant in the Wellington Rydges hotel, and I’ve been there a couple of times before and found their burgers to be tasty during WOAP. In the evening they’re a bit pricey, but we were armed with our Entertainment discount to bring things down to a more manageable level. The food was good (but not brilliant) and the service distinctly dodgy. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks this place has gone downhill somewhat. I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to go back.

Olive Copperbottom is a one-woman show performed at the Circa Theatre. The evening’s audience was a little on the small side, and we were encouraged to sit in the first two rows of the smaller, Circa 2, auditorium. No matter. We were in the front row, and were often called upon to respond, although (fortunately) not to actively participate in the show. The story revolves around orphan Olive and her adventures in the orphanage, her career on the stage after leaving said orphanage, and the discovery of who she really is. In this respect, very much like a lot of Dickens’ other plots. Naturally, there’s singing and dancing, and topical references thrown in for good measure. The characters’ names also follow Dickensian tradition, with Mrs. Scabbybits being a particular standout.

At the end of the show she exhorted us to tell all our friends about it, and also publicised her fridge magnets for sale in the foyer (“you’ll have to walk past me to get out”, she told us). But we didn’t need the hard sell as wanted them anyway, to add to our collection from last year.

Penny is taking Promise And Promiscuity to the UK later in the year, so all my UK readers (both of you) please take a look at her website and see if there’s a show near you! If you’re a Londoner (and maybe it’s because I am one), then the Greenwich Theatre is the place to go.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tessa Waters Over Promises

The Comedy Festival Greatest Hits rolls on, and for part two of Wednesday night’s entertainment, we went to see Tessa Waters Over Promises. Last year, we saw Tessa on a windswept, rainy night at the Fringe Bar, in the company of maybe a dozen other people. Tonight, however, she was at the Propeller Stage in the BATS Theatre, and it was fully booked.

One of the features of Tessa’s shows is audience participation. To prepare ourselves fully, we selected seats in mid-row, where we were unlikely to be called out and onto the stage. Sure enough, she restricted her victims to front- and second-row audience members, and those on the ends of the rows. Phew! No need to get up and waltz this time!

Her show followed a similar format to last time, but with new moves: a mix of comedy, dance, exercise, and mime. She got an audience member to mime throwing her some mime hula hoops, then mimed hula hooping. This is actually funnier than it sounds. In fact, the whole show had us in stitches. At the end, she got everyone to shout out body parts for her to do a dance with, then put the whole thing together into one ensemble dance…then got everyone to stand up and do the dance with her. There’s just no getting away from that audience participation.

It is a bizarre performance, but it’s also very uplifting and feelgood. I don’t think she over promises at all.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Hand To God

We’re doubling up on the entertainment tonight, with a double bill starting at 6:30 at Circa Theatre and a performance of Hand To God, followed by another of NZ Comedy Festival’s Greatest Hits, a return to see what Tessa Waters has been up to in the year since we saw her last.

The first item to be dealt with was, of course, dinner. With an early start we couldn’t go anywhere too swanky, so decided to go to for a curry at Great India. We haven’t been there for a while and they’re a reliable all-purpose Indian restaurant.

Hand To God is a puppet show. Wait, what? Didn’t you just go to a puppet show? Why yes we did, and thank you for remembering. That was a ventriloquism show, though, whereas this is more a glove puppet show – like the muppets. But not like the muppets, in that the content is considerably darker. And it’s on during the comedy festival. Indeed, it is advertised on the comedy festival’s website as a show to go and see. So we went.

Hand To God isn’t a comedy show. OK, it has its blackly comedic moments, but mostly it’s a show about death, grief, coming of age, child abuse and religion. With puppets. Sounds like a bundle of laughs!

The action centres on a puppet club in the basement of a church in a small town in Texas. These are a thing in America, apparently. Americans are weird. Margery, recently widowed, has been asked to run the puppet club, whose members include her son, Jason. His puppet, Tyrone, becomes possessed by the devil, and high jinks ensue. The puppet says the things that Jason can’t say, to the girl he fancies in the club, to his mother, and to club delinquent Timothy. Jason tries to “kill” the puppet, but it comes back to life, and it’s not until he’s dealt with his feelings about his mother that he can finally remove the puppet from his hand. As I said, it’s not a comedy.

Monday, May 8, 2017

No One Puts Briney In The Corner

We do seem to be repeating ourselves a bit this year with the comedy festival. It’s a bit of a NZ Comedy Festival Greatest Hits, with artists that we’ve liked from previous years. So far we’ve seen Paco Erhard and Alice Brine, and later we’re seeing Tessa Waters and Penny Ashton. We will manage to see some new stuff, honestly (not least, Mr. & Mrs. Alexander earlier in April).

Alice Brine has come up in the world since we saw her last year and has now appeared on Seven Days, New Zealand’s topical news quiz, a couple of times – definitely a sign that you’ve arrived. Her new show has moved down from the upstairs Dome, where we saw her last year, to the main Propeller stage.

First up, a spot of dinner. We decided to visit our friends in Vista as we’ve not been there for dinner for a long while (we usually patronise them at the weekend for lunch). They do a short menu of well-cooked bistro-style food.

Alice Brine’s show, Nobody Puts Briney In The Corner, starts with a short film in which her face is superimposed on that of Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing, and also some shots of her trying (and failing) to perform some of the moves from the film.

And then we’re into the show proper. Alice introduced us to the three main events in her life since we saw her last: moving to Auckland (she’s a Hutt girl originally), an associated change in her relationship status to single, and Becoming A Feminist. She became a feminist by accident last year, when a Facebook post she wrote “went viral” as the marketing kids say. That is, it was shared many times over and reached a much wider audience than she was expecting. This led to her gaining a lot of followers who, no doubt, expected more of the same from her.

This was the status:

Alice has spent the best part of a year trying to live up to expectations so that she could use this material in her show…with some varying results. She detailed these to us in, er, detail. And as last time, she had us in stitches with her pithy observations of human behaviour. Especially her own. Everything from asking for permission on a Women’s March, free toilet roll and some distinctly sketchy dating decisions get the treatment. And for the final instalment, treatment was definitely needed.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

How To Be German

Yes, the comedy festival is back, and with it, our favourite German comedian (it’s quite a small field here in New Zealand), Paco Erhard. Paco, you may remember, was the Worst. German. Ever. in 2015, and now he’s back with a new show in which he promises “I can make you German” in five easy steps. This may not have been a state of affairs to which I’d previously aspired, but what the hell, I thought I’d give it a go.

First, of course, dinner. I’d tried to book St John’s Bar via their online booking system, but it insisted that they had no tables at 5:30 and 6:00pm, so I abandoned that idea, and instead we went to Cuba Street fave, Plum Café. We’d not been there in a while and I had an outstanding Entertainment book offer burning a hole in my phone, so that was my next choice. OK, it’s a short walk to the venue from Cuba Street, but nothing we can’t manage, even on a wind- and rainswept Wellington evening. They did a very nice pork belly with Israeli couscous, washed down with a Martinborough Riesling.

We crossed over to The Boatshed for the evening’s entertainment. Not normally open to the public, the venue was set up with a marquee atop the building, which was serving wine, beer and pizza. This was a “holding pen” for the audience before the doors were opened just before 7pm and we were able to take our seats in the top-floor room of the rowing club. The venue is normally used for weddings, functions and corporate events, but tonight was set out with theatre-style rows of seats. Given the space available and the number of tickets sold they could have set it up with tables and chairs, but hey…nitpicking.

Paco came on stage shortly after 7:00pm, and proceeded to inform us about the first step to being German: punctuality! His show is an exploration of all things German, other nationalities, and the difficulties of admitting to being German when meeting, for example, anyone Jewish. He asked if any Germans in the audience could raise their hands (“No! Not like that!”), and finding a token English person in the audience to be the foil for all his English jokes. Some of the material was the same or similar to when we saw him two years ago, but he’s expanded his repertoire a bit further. He covered some of the same stories about his schooling, learning about the Holocaust in history lessons, maths lessons, geography lessons…

There aren’t really five steps to becoming German, because we all start from different places, and anyway, which type of German do you want to be? He detailed several stereotypes, both as experienced by the world outside Germany, and those experienced by other Germans inside Germany, of which we may have been less aware. His show was longer this time around, but he is going to need some new material at some point to progress up the comedy ladder. We all left feeling slightly more German than when we’d entered, apart from maybe the Germans, who probably felt more smug.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Outside Looking In

The New Zealand comedy festival didn’t officially start until 29th April. However, some acts are here as part of it and have scheduled their runs to coincide at least in part, with the comedy festival. One such act is Ed Byrne, here to perform his Outside Looking In tour.

Autumn has definitely arrived in Wellington now, and it was a windy and damp evening as we trotted along to Wellington’s second-best seafood restaurant, Shed 5. Whether it is first, second or third best depends really on how you rank Whitebait and Ortega, but this is where I put it. Second-best in Wellington is still pretty good, however. We had scallops and calamari to start with, followed by the risotto and snapper. All dishes cooked excellently, and we had neither the time nor the inclination to stay for a pudding before heading off to the Opera House for a 7:30pm start.

We were there in plenty of time…and yet the doors weren’t open. What was going on? No explanation from Opera House staff was forthcoming, as they opened the doors with about 5 minutes to spare. We took our seats, and then waited, and waited. Finally, at around 7:45, Ed Byrne came on stage, and apologised for keeping us waiting. Apparently his flight had got all the way to Wellington before the driver decided that the weather was too dodgy to land, and so…flew back to Auckland. After a wait for another flight, he finally made it on the second go round at a landing, and hared it over to the Opera House. I’m assuming he probably stopped for a breather before coming on stage. Anyway, that’s the story he told us, and I have no reason to suspect that he’s lying.

He then gave us the rest of his show. Observations on his life, really, in the way that comedians do, with quite a long section on diarrhoea, and things that people had said that made them too stupid to stay in a relationship with. “Clear left” is the one that sticks out in my mind. Also obligatory is the comedic gold provided by children, six and four (“we’re not big on names in the Byrne household”). He also gave us a long and involved story about a corporate gig he once did, where he walked off “to the sound of my own feet”. Feet were also the subject of the finale of the show, which revolved around his son’s choice of trainers and the imposition of another parent’s values at kindergarten, and how that was resolved.

The show doesn’t have the theme or structure of an Izzard or a Bailey show. It was funny, but you have to strain to remember why, exactly. Although I laughed like a drain, it’s not quotably funny.

It also wasn’t hugely long, with no encore, so we were out and home by around ten. I switched on the telly to watch Seven Days on +1, and saw…Ed Byrne on the panel. This was followed by First Laughs, hosted by Urzila Carlson, and featuring…Ed Byrne. Fortunately, not doing a routine from the show, so a little extra bonus there.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


What’s the secret to good comedy?


Timing is everything. Nicola’s sister, Sacha, and husband Paul, are touring New Zealand in a camper van in April. They’d planned to visit us in Wellington on the weekend of 22/23 April. Unfortunately, Saturday 22nd April is also the date of the New Zealand Sweet Adelines Convention, to be held this year in Dunedin, which Nicola is committed to attend.

Not wanting to miss out on seeing her sister, therefore, we decided to head down to Queenstown at Easter and see them on their tours there. Serendipitously, niece Ishbel was also planning to be in New Zealand visiting other niece Eli, who is here for a year on a working visa. Hope you’re following this? Good. They also planned to be in Queenstown for Easter, so we could all meet up for a couple of days and do whatever there is to do in Queenstown.

We flew down on Maundy Thursday and arranged to meet up. We’d arrived first, so we had a quick lunch at Pier 19 and awaited their arrival. Once they were all ensconced in their camper van site, we met up and had a wander around town. Whilst the weather wasn’t the finest, the rain appeared to be holding off so we went for a walk through the Queenstown Gardens park, then headed back into town. We went to the Pub On Wharf – a Mac’s pub, unsurprisingly located on the wharf – for a pre-dinner drink before going to Jervois Steak House (“JSH”) for dinner.

JSH is a Nourish Group restaurant, and therefore we expected a high standard. Whilst primarily a steak house, it catered for all tastes, and everyone got what they wanted from salads to fish to steak. The waitress had explained in detail what steaks were on offer, from the marbled wagyu to the locally-produced grass-fed wakanui. After hearing her sales pitch,  I went for the wakanui sirloin rather than my usual choice of fillet. And it was great, as was everyone else’s dinners. So thumbs up to JSH from us.

After dinner we headed back to our vans and hotels, as we were up early the next morning to go white water rafting on the Shotover river.

We met up at the Queenstown Rafting shop on Shotover street at 8:00am, and were then driven the short distance out of town to the lower end of the Shotover river, i.e. the point at which we would end up. We were then equipped with wetsuit, surf boots, jacket, waterproof, life jacket and helmets, and boarded our bus to take us to the top of the river. The bus goes along Skippers Road, an ancient and treacherous way up the gorge, unsealed and narrow. Whilst towing a trailer loaded with inflatable boats. Presumably they must have some system of regulating the traffic along the road, as there’s no way to pass if you meet something head-on – one of you is going to have to reverse several miles until you get to a wide space on the road.

This portion of the drive lasted around 45 minutes, and took us to our jumping-off point. We were given another safety briefing, what to do if we exited the boat at any point, and what to do if the boat turned over on us. This is the last point at which you can back out of the tour…once you’re on the water there’s no turning back or saying “I want to get off”.

We were allocated a guide – in our case, Chief, who we’d had the privilege of rowing with when we went down the Kawarau four years ago. He didn’t recognise us. Ishbel and Eli went up the front, Paul and I took the middle, and Nicola and Sacha had the rear of the boat.

Last time when we'd done the Kawarau, Chief had berated us for "not being real kiwis" for not doing the Shotover. The river does have a higher grade - some of the rapids are graded 4/5, and 5 is where you really want to be experienced in doing this kind of stuff. But the conditions were OK for us - in fact, there'd been so little rain recently that the water flow was getting to dangerously slow levels and if it hadn't started raining a couple of days beforehand, they were seriously thinking about cancelling trips. Fortunately, the flow was back up after the rains, but the water was turbid due to the rainfall, instead of its normal crystal clarity.

Chief was clear in his instructions, rehearsing us on commands whilst we were in the calmer areas, and then we were doing it for real. After a couple of hair-raising rapids, we came over one particular fall, and then were caught in an eddy and couldn't escape! Eventually, we managed to get enough horsepower to break free and carry on down.

At the end, we went through the Oxenbridge Tunnel (literally - a 170 metre tunnel through the rock) and then down the final fall, the biggest of them all. Chief had forewarned us, though, and when he shouted "Get down!" we got as down as we possibly could into the boat. The force of the drop is such that the entire boat gets pushed underwater, and you along with it! However, we surfaced quickly and the boat drains itself, and we finished up on the shore.

Going under water!
After helping stack the boats back on the trailer, we went through the dressing process in reverse, rinsing our gear and then heading for a hot shower and a hot drink. The bus ride back into town was only 10 minutes, and we then queued for an hour or so to get a Fergburger.

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 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


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 Café 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! 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Star Trekkin'

On a rare sunny evening, we took ourselves along to Aro Park to watch some nutters. Nutters there are aplenty in this world, but the particular type that we were watching were Trekkies. Each year, this group of Star Trek fans put on an amateur dramatic production of an episode of Star Trek (the original series) in the open air. This year, they were performing Journey To Babel.

We walked down in the sunny evening and grabbed ourselves a good spot on the bank, slightly to the left of centre. The stage was already set, and there was pre-show entertainment in the form of a group of singers, the Space Babes, who performed a number of space-related songs - Space Oddity and the like – before finishing with an audience-participatory rendition of The Firm’s Star Trekkin'. Just to get us all in the mood.

Performing a play set mostly on a spaceship presents some challenges for an open-air production with limited means. Amongst these are the set changes. These were mostly achieved by sliding pictures and doorways on the backdrop. Also, without the benefit of actual automatic doors, two cast members stood at the side of the stage and took a step apart, then together, to imitate the doors, whilst saying “whoosh”. There’s also badly-choreographed fight scenes, and the bit where the Enterprise gets hit and everyone leans one way, then the other, to show the damage. It was all jolly good fun, and although they presented it completely deadpan, some of it is unintentionally funny these days, given how Star Trek has morphed in the popular imagination.

After the show we walked around the corner to Willis Street and The Bresolin to dine on their finest burgers.