Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Are You Wicked?

It's not often I get excited about a new musical - so many of them these days are schmulzy Lloyd-Webber or Lloyd-Webber wannabes, and there seems to be an increasing trend for translating previously unmusical films to the stage (Billy Elliot, Whistle Down the Wind, The Producers...) and adding songs. This can sometimes work, but it can also turn into one of those "Let's throw in a musical number here to kill some time" type shows, where the singing seems entirely gratuitous, rather than the songs flowing naturally out of the action.

A few months ago I was out drinking with my oldest friend Jordan (with whom I have been in many amateur musicals), who was telling me about a recent trip to New York where she had been blow away by a new musical on Broadway called 'Wicked'. She explained that it was based on a fictional (obviously) biography of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, which charts her demise into wickedness (she wasn't always so it seems). This rang a bell, as I remembered seeing such a book in a quirky little shop in Clapham Junction years ago, then never being able to find it afterwards because it wasn't published in the UK. I'd forgotten about it until that evening, when Jordan's excitement got me all enthused again.

Soon afterwards I discovered that Wicked the musical is coming to the West End in September, and tickets are already selling out fast. I had a quick look on ebay and found two tickets on sale for my birthday night - surely it was meant to be! I hadn't even heard any of the songs at this point, and was going purely on recommendation. So a few days ago I downloaded the album (which is only available on import at the moment) and listened to it on my way to work this morning. Thankfully I wasn't disappointed - Stephen Schwartz has delivered his most energetic, stirring and entertaining musical yet (and I'm a big fan of Godspell). It's particularly refreshing to have two female leads getting all the best numbers (and a whole new world of audition pieces for us singers!). I haven't decided yet whether to read the book before I go to see the musical - which is advertised as 'loosely based' on Gregory Maguire's novel. Recently published in the UK in a beautifully designed black and shiny-green hardback, it made a perfect present for a gay friend's birthday - perhaps I'll borrow it back from him.

Wicked's UK Website




Sunday, March 26, 2006

My Digital Music Journey - Part One

I've never been one to fall victim to fads and fashions, prefering to be a bit different than to blend in and conform. But when the big new trend for digital portable music came along, I was lured by the attractive prospect of carrying virtually my whole record collection around with me in a tiny device. I decided to join the revolution but couldn't bear the thought of the ubiquitous iPod in my pocket, with its give-away white headphone leads. I'd seen the Sony NW-HD5 walkman and really liked its simple, black design. I figured that being Sony, the sound quality would be pretty good, so I parted with my £159 (it was reduced from £199) and began my journey into digital music.

The major stumbling block of this departure was that I don't actually own a PC. I started out using my Mum's computer, going over once a week and ripping as many CDs as I could. Luckily my husband Ant was rehearsing for a play in Eastbourne at the time, so it fitted in OK. Eventually I had a decent amount of songs uploaded (around 5,000) and was enjoying the experience of having the music I fancied on tap when I wanted it. After a few months though I discovered the drawbacks of the Sony machine - namely the terrible software Sonic Stage. Sony doesn't let you use anything else to interact with the device, and it also entails some pretty restrictive copy-protection software which stops you moving music off the device onto any computer other than the one from which it was originally uploaded. Being Mrs Geek, I ventured into the exciting but unpredictable world of hacking, finding some free software online that claimed to overcome these problems. Unfortunately I didn't quite read all the smallprint and ended up inadvertantly corrupting all the Atrac songs on the player. Ooops.

So now I had two choices - reload all the music (by now we had a laptop at home, so visits to Eastbourne were no longer needed) and live with the restrictions of Sony, or upgrade to something more flexible. After some extensive research, I narrowed it down to 3 open-source players that would work with Windows Media Player and didn't impose any restrictive copy-protection. I made my final choice mostly based on size and value for money and plumped for the newly release Archos Gmini XS202s. It is the smallest 20GB player, about the size of the iPod mini (which is only 4GB) with a massive screen in proportion to its size, and with the added bonus of being in chic black, rather than a white iPod-wannabe. It is a no-frills piece of kit, so you are not paying over the odds for added features such as photo and video storage (I can use my phone for this). Great sound quality, an intuitive menu system and the ability to easily manipulate one's music collection all contribute to the appeal of my new toy. I really hope I've got it right this time!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A death in the family

We've just received some very sad news. Ant's Uncle Paul died this evening, after a long battle with cancer. Although it wasn't sudden, in that we'd known it was inevitable eventually, in the end it was a sharp decline which has come as something of a shock. Paul and Auntie Judith were a devoted couple, full of a passion for life and a sense of adventure, even when faced with the trials and traumas of Paul's ongoing cancer treatment and other problems such as his increasing loss of sight (unrelated to the cancer, but untreatable because of it).

I am so glad that we made the decision to spend last Christmas up north, which included a big Miller/Shingler family gathering in Ambleside on boxing day, hosted by Paul and Judith. It was an altogether uplifting and life-affirming occaision, punctuated by music, games, laughter, affection and a prevailing sense of fun. Memories like this give one something happy to hold onto in the grave, cruel wasteland that is grieving.

I shan't indulge in a long, cliched rant about the nature of death and grief, although it's tempting. There is nothing I can say to make it seem any better or worse than it is. It is a horrible, tragic and painful thing and unlike other life experiences, it doesn't get any easier the more it happens. Quite the reverse in fact.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Love Taj

Last year a food revolution happened in Brighton, and I thought it was about time I mentioned it. Yes, we already have loads of lovely cafes, restaurants, pubs and delis - we're a foodie town - but when Taj opened up their new branch on Western Road, they took things to a new level.

I used to live opposite the old Taj shop on Bedford Place and was a regular customer, picking up bits on my way home and even using it for basics such as milk and bread. I'd always find myself tempted by nice dried fruit, fruit teas and exotic foods. It was pretty cool for a local convenience shop and excellent for unusual ingredients you can never normally find. When I discovered that the owners were expanding into a bigger premises on Western Road, I was intrigued and excited. It seemed to take an age for the doors to finally open. We'd be walking by every weekend peeking through the blinds to see what progress was like, but nothing much seemed to be happening for ages. Then suddenly, the day had arrived. Taj International Supermarket was born!

You might think with a name like Taj that the focus would be on Asian foods, but no, the stock is genuinely international. Everything from fresh fruit and veg to dried & tinned products, every kind of herb & spice and an intriguing selection of organic and vegetarian options are on offer. Now that I live the other side of town, popping over at weekends has become a treat to which I look forward with relish. If only there was a Kemptown branch, I'd never go to Asda again.

My personal favourite products include:

  • Various makes of Chai (spiced tea)
  • Squirty soya cream - my lactose intolerant friend Sarah is ecstatic!
  • Dried mango - not like anything you get in supermarkets
  • Fresh herbs - in huge, pungent bunches
  • Veggie sausages - lots of different flavours
  • Veggie jelly sweets - I never thought I'd have cola bottles again
  • Exotic fruit juices in every flavour
  • Fresh figs - Ant's favourite
  • LIQUORICE - red and black and more besides
  • Turkish delight - oh yes
  • Olives - in buckets


  • I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. Shopping there is truly an experience. Funky bollywood tunes waft through the fragrant isles and give you a real holiday vibe. I've started taking guests as a "thing to do in Brighton" when they come and stay, and they go home laden with goodies. If you live locally and haven't been already, do. If you live far away, it's a great excuse to come and visit!

    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Daddy Luka

    Lowbrow alert! I am not ashamed to admit that it is my Monday night treat to stay up past my bedtime and watch ER. I got hooked around the 4th series and have been back to catch up on the early days on DVD. Now in its 12th season, I am delighted to see the swoonsome Dr. Kovac (Goran Visnjic) in the 'top doc' spot, following in the footsteps of Dr Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Dr Carter (Noah Wyle). It's good to see lovely Luka finally getting the attention he deserves, having been smouldering in the background since season 6, with a few interesting storylines, but long periods of character stagnation. Last night's episode "All About Christmas Eve" finished on the shock revelation that Abby (Lockhart - played by Maura Tierney) is carrying Luka's child. The chemistry between the two had been building all series, and I am sure I'm not the only fan who was pleased to see them get it together again a couple of episodes ago (They dated for a while back in season 7). The credits rolled before we could see Luka's reaction to Abby's news, but we know he is desperate to be a father again after his kids were killed during the war in Croatia, so surely he will be jumping for joy. What remains to be seen is whether Abby, with her traumatic family background, can cope with the idea of motherhood. Both characters are long overdue some stability and contentment, so here's hoping for a happy ending...

    Season 6 of ER, in which Dr. Kovac first appears, is out on DVD in a few weeks. With only six more episodes to go in the current season, it's comforting to have this to look forward to. Oh the shame of TV addiction!

    Monday, March 13, 2006

    1987

    I found my first ever diary, from 1987. It was the year I left junior school and started secondary school. It's not very interesting - mostly just accounts of events without much insight, but a few telling comments made me laugh and even shed the odd tear. I think I gave Ant a pathos overload attack when I read out a bit about our leaver's disco at Stafford, which said: "The boys all laughed at me when I danced, so I didn't dance." I felt sad at first remembering being unpopular and an object of ridicule, but then it made me glad that through it I learnt to be resilient and strong. I suppose it's made me be more picky about my friends and probably a better judge of character, too. These days I wouldn't stop dancing if I was being laughed at, which I'm sure has happened on occaision. I'd probably even hoik up my skirts (metaphorically speaking) and go for it even more.


    Friday, March 10, 2006

    Ginger Geezer

    I've just finished reading 'Ginger Geezer', the biography of Vivian Stanshall by Chris Welch and Lucian Randall. It's probably just as well that Stanshall never got around to writing an autobiography, because judging by the chaotic lunacy described in this version of his life, it would probably have taken him 20 years and ended up a rambling, incomprehensible rant.

    There's no doubt in my mind that Stanshall was a genius. Underneath all the madness and booze there was a sharp intellect and sensitivity. The book charts his life from a 'normal' family upbringing in East London, through being a Teddy Boy, joining the Bonzos and all the various crazy projects in the later years, including a doomed cabaret boat project, before his tragic death in 1995.

    Quotes from his friends, family, colleagues and associates reveal the many different sides to his personality. As well as being a charismatic, energetic performer, he was a loving father and caring (if unpredictable and generally unreliable) friend. Plagued by panic-attacks and depression, he spent most of his adult life addicted to valium, which, combined with heavy drinking, resulted in some extreme rock n' roll antics which inevitably impacted on his personal life - most notably two failed marriages.

    Overall, Stanshall comes across as a loveable rogue with a wicked, and appealingly unconventional, sense of humour. This biography is entertaining, moving and enlightening by equal degrees. It helped to have my walkman handy with some Bonzo tunes to play at the appropriate places, to bring the narrative to life. I also found pointers to loads of new music among Stanshall's contemporaries, collaborators and competitors - my Amazon wish list is suddenly overflowing!

    Annoyingly, I missed a recent Bonzo Dog reunion gig, but I can't help thinking wouldn't have been the same without Vivian anyway. I must try and catch Neil Innes (another key Bonzo) next time he plays Brighton - his gigs at the Greys sell out in no time and you never know when he'll pop up at Club Boothby at Komedia. If only Vivian was still around to enjoy the recent renaissance of his brand of humour with off-the-wall, musical comedians such as the fantastically entertaining Boothby Graffoe. Being unaffected by most conventional comdey, I for one am relieved that the madness lives on.






    Ocelot

    I'd never heard of one until last night, but from now on I'll never be able to forget the "painted leopard". Thanks to my ignorance, we lost the pub quiz by only half a point - much worse than doing really badly. Ant had known, or had a hunch that Ocelot was the answer to the question of "what is the name of South America's most common wild cat, also known as the painted leopard?". I'd never heard of one, so stupidly insisted on "jaguar" and Ant was understandably pretty cross when he realised I'd lost us the game. We shouldn't be so competitive about it, but when you've won a few times it becomes addictive. Obviously I need to brush up on my wildlife knowledge. To rub salt in our wounds, I knew the tie-breaker which none of the 3 co-winners could answer when played the first few bars of 10CC's "Dreadlock Holiday". I was particularly on the ball, as I've been listening to a groovy remix of it on the Radio Soulwax album by 2ManyDJs, which is a 'versus' with Destiny's Child.

    It was a jolly evening up until the downfall, although I stupidly drunk one too many red wines and am suffering for it today. Well at least it's Friday.

    If you don't know what an Ocelot is either, visit: Big Cat Rescue and you'll be enlightened!

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    The Wonder Stuff at Concorde 2

    I spent most of Saturday night trying my best to feel 15 again. Donning my Doc Marten's boots, a hippy skirt and plenty of black eye-make up, and accompanied by Ant, Rob & Sarah, I finally got to see The Wonder Stuff live. I had waited 15 years for this night! When I was 15 (half my lfe ago!!), I'd wanted to go to their gig at the Brighton Centre, to which lots of my school friends and anyone who was anyone was going. Unfortunately, the evil tyrant Howard, my mother's boyfriend of the time, was still living with us, and forbade me to go. I fear he judged all men by his own standards, and thought that I would end up being corrupted, molested or worse still, might even have enjoyed myself.

    Giddy with anticipation, I entered the Concorde 2 and promptly ordered myself a pint of cider. Well, I was trying to be 15 again. It certainly got me in the mood for a mosh, and once the mediocre support band were out of the way, I was raring to go. Their set-list was a mixture of recognisable classics, new material and more obscure backlist. The strangest thing was seeing the once iconically-floppy-haried Miles Hunt with short, neatly slicked-down hair. Thankfully though, the ballsy attitude was still firmly in attendance. When asked by one of the audience how he'd hurt his finger (as it was quite obviously bandaged up) he sneered back "It got infected after I stuck it up the arse of the last bastard who didn't mind his own business" or words to that effect. Same old Hunt.

    The band played a tight set - I would say their talent as musicians has strengthened over the years - and although the new material didn't have the same familiar-catchyness of the old favourites, there was some interesting stuff. Plenty of po-go-ing, moshing and stomping ensued as we all enjoyed our own personal teenage reminsicences to classic such as 'Circlesquare', 'Radio Ass Kiss' and 'Size of a Cow'. Two ethusiastic encores later, the last 15 years started to catch us up. Ant's knees couldn't handle the po-go-ing and I was suffering from a stitch in my shoulder. As Hunt himself said (possibly in reference to his evident paunch), time hadn't been kind to any of us. True, the venue was packed with ageing 30-something hippies, indie-kids and goths, showing each other pictures of their kids on their mobile phones instead of snogging each other, but the atmosphere was bouncy and upbeat. As the band left the stage after the final encore, I was exhausted but elated. It had been worth waiting for.

    Friday, March 03, 2006

    To Do Everything in Truth

    When I was a teenager I used to listen to songs I liked over and over again, largely because my record collection was rather modest. I still have the lyrics of many of them stored in my head - Eddi Reader, Sinead O'Connor, Guns n Roses... These days I've close to a thousand albums, so the rotation between listenings tends to be longer, but equally there hasn't been a song for a long time that I felt could stand repeated playings, until now. I've found myself listening to the brilliant 'Bloody Mother F*$~ing Asshole' from Martha Wainwright's eponymous debut album on a fairly regular basis since I was given it for Christmas. There's something addictive about her raspy, gin-soaked voice belting out the expletive-laden chorus with the spine-tingling conviction of a woman scorned. I've promised Ant that if he dies before me, I'll sing it at his funeral. So I looked up the chords and started to learn it on the guitar, but my style of singing just doesn't do it justice. Sitting on the train this morning, I was hankering to hear it again, and so stuck on my current playlist of favourites, which also includes Lorna Bennett's version of 'Breakfast in Bed', Nina Simone's 'Break Down & Let It All Out' and 'Fancy' by Bobbie Gentry. Though these are all from different eras and genres, they hang together for me as songs of this moment in my life. Martha's album has evoked in me a long-forgotten enthusiasm for music that appeals directly to a given personal era, satisfying a need, enhancing an existing state of mind. It's not about the lyrics or the sentiment even (neither of which particularly apply to me), but the atmosphere it conjures just speaks to something inside me. More soon please, Martha.