Friday, 18 November 2011

The world is full of Charlieocracies

Every now and then, Neddie Seagoon is referred to (usually by Grytpype-Thynne) as a Charlie. It's a word that teems with hidden meaning... well, not so hidden really, except that Seagoon doesn't figure out what it means. For the benefit of readers without a higher education in BBC Radio Comedy, a Charlie is a chump, a patsy, someone who can have tasks foisted upon him. (It should be noted that the term is not gender-specific; there are female Charlies too.)

In this world, we have many types of government represented. At the political level, someone can be given power through a mandate from the masses, or heredity, or even a farcical aquatic ceremony (though that one is getting rather rare these days). Heads of corporations are appointed by boards of directors or shareholders' meetings. And heads of non-profit organizations are elected at Annual General Meetings of their members.

Or are they? What happens when there's one candidate for President, one for Vice Pres, one for Secretary, and only as many (or not as many) as vacancies for other members? That's when you have a Charlieocracy. Instead of people being elected to positions, the positions are filled by whichever Charlies are willing to do the work. This is (usually) a compliment to the aforementioned Charlies, in that it means they're willing to do the work, but sometimes it can result in the wrong person in a position simply because nobody else stepped forward.

More and more non-profits are turning Charlieocratic. The good thing about that is that if you don't like the way something's being run, all you have to do is offer yourself - most Charlieocrats would be quite happy to take a break from the work to let someone else in for a bit! Plus, it's one of the best ways to become respected, and definitely the best way to get the inside information on what happens - do the work.

Find a community organization and join the worldwide Charlie Army today!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Mischans, and an idea for GMail

From Wiktionary: mischan (pl mischans): a message posted accidentally to the wrong IRC channel.

When people have multiple communication channels available, it's inevitable that some message will be sent to the wrong one. Sometimes that's relatively benign (a public message that accidentally gets sent privately and needs to be resent), other times it's quite serious (a private message gets a wider audience, thus revealing secrets or making embarrassing statements). On MUDs, mischans are a part of life; Threshold RPG has an extensive thread on its forums dedicated to the funniest such events. In email, it's not nearly as common, but it is known.

I used to mischan quite frequently on Threshold - a consequence of having access to a large number of channels, and also having a tendency to snap off very quick replies. These days, I have just as many channels and snap off just as quick replies, but almost never mischan; but the solution applied does not conveniently translate to the alternate medium of email. Yet emails are just as easy to misdirect, and considerably more serious (everyone knows about the dreaded Reply All). I use GMail for all my mailing lists, for the threaded conversation view; it's excellent, but doesn't have any protection against mischans.

The solution is to make use of color. Train your brain to associate certain colors with certain topics or channels, and then any time there's a mismatch, the brain will instantly recognize it - before it's too late. Threshold RPG already has a feature for applying color to channels, but it applies only to what the server sends you; there's no way, normally, to change the color of your typed text. (Shameless plug ahead...) My MUD client, RosMud++, has a means of configuring the input color. From the Options|Color dialog, simply enter channel names and select the corresponding colors - and watch as your brain becomes accustomed to seeing text in the color it's going to end up. Unfortunately, it's not so easy with email.

I'll restrict the email issue to one common case: Mailing lists, managed by the popular Mailman software. Mailman powers myriad lists, including ones dedicated to the Python programming language, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, V8 (the Google JavaScript interpreter), MondoArchive, everything on lists.sourceforge.net ... a lotta little lists. It's a well-behaved mailing list manager; the emails it sends out have headers identifying the list, there's proper reply-to and from addresses, it's all very easy. Point to note: In a normal Mailman configuration, the default reply address is the single sender, NOT the list; and etiquette on most lists is to reply privately unless it's of definite interest to the list. It's therefore normal to hit Reply, type up your response, and then change the To address to be the list's (hitting Reply All will send a copy to the list and another to the sender, not usually the intended behaviour).

Two solutions recommend themselves. The first is to do the same as for the MUD; assign a color to each list, and get used to typing 'python' only for this color, and 'savoynet' only for that one. This requires quite a bit of configuration but could give excellent dividends. The other is to have a pseudo-address 'list' that can be used whenever you reply to an email, and which will send to the list address cited in the email header.

This isn't a different form of Reply button (Reply, Reply-All, Reply-List), although it could perhaps be implemented thus; it should be possible to send something to some address "and the list", where the latter is automatically filled in from the header. As a pseudo-address, 'list' could be permanently aliased to 'whatever the RFC 4021 header List-Post specifies', allowing the fingers to become accustomed to replying "to sender" or "to list" very easily. Fighting human nature is doomed to failure; working with the way the brain and fingers already want to work promises far more success.

Friday, 2 September 2011

We don't NEED all that design space

Or, How Magic: The Gathering helps me at work

I fight for the users. -- Tron

At work, I'm a computer programmer; my job involves software and interface design. At home, I play M:TG, and enjoy reading Mark Rosewater's articles on game design. Every now and then, the two cross over and influence each other; one such example came up this week, so it's a good excuse to write something up (or write something down - isn't English a weird language) on the subject.

First, the Magic part. This is an article from late last year, discussing one of the mechanics from the then-new Scars of Mirrodin expansion set; and in discussing Metalcraft, the article explains many things about the nature of "threshold mechanics". But that's not the point of what I'm saying here. For that, read down as far as Lesson #2: There's A Sweet Spot.

If the ability had been written as "Metalcraft 3", then additional design space would have been opened up for cards with "Metalcraft 4" or "Metalcraft 2" or "Metalcraft 17" if R&D so desired. More flexibility is a good thing, right? Mark puts it better than I could: "We don't add a number, because there's no reason to open up future design space that we won't use."

In any design, be it a collectible card game, a web site, an automatic toaster, or a novel, this issue will always come up. We could number the pages of a book as "1+1", "2+1", "3+1", "4+1", etc, thus allowing ourselves to write books in the future where the page numbers increment by some other number. But this would be a bad decision, because we'll never want to do that, and it adds a completely unnecessary cost - complexity and mindspace. Every element that the user must grok takes up space in his/her mind.

With user-interface design, I have adopted the assumptions that the user:
  • Starts out knowing nothing about our system
  • Does not read the documentation
  • Won't click the crucial button that would have explained everything
  • Is in a hurry, and
  • Has a very specific goal.
This hypothetical user must achieve his goal, or our system is a failure. There's little value in having a system that has infinite power if it takes two weeks to learn; most people just won't bother. So what can we do to ensure that the user can do what he's trying to do?
  • Make our system similar to everyone else's. People can handle "log in by entering username and password", and "sign up with an email address, then click the link in the email we send you".
  • Ensure that the interface is itself intuitive, at least for straight-forward actions.
  • Make normal actions easy (and unusual actions possible). Don't force the user to click twenty different links to find the one that does what most people will want first off anyway.
  • Keep the screen uncluttered.
It's that last one that I want to focus on. Going back to the page numbering example: Suppose that you opened up your favorite document editor (Open Office, Microsoft Word, DeScribe, whatever) and said "New Document". Instead of just giving you a page in which you can start writing your latest novel, it asks you a series of questions (imagine this in the most annoying wizard ever):
  1. What color do you want your paper to be?
  2. What font would you like the acknowledgements page to use?
  3. By what number should the page numbers increase?
  4. Should the text color alternate on left/right pages?

Are these questions you need to answer before you see your document? No. They're just clutter; and even if they're pushed off to a "Document Options" screen, #3 and #4 should not even be asked. When you design a communication protocol, don't make every single element capable of having multiple values, just because someone might maybe want to put a second source port into his TCP packet. When you design a device for humans to use, don't go to great lengths to ensure that it can be used by someone who stands five meters high.

Everyone wants to make powerful software. Hey look, not only can you do this, but you can do this and this and this too! In every design discussion, somebody needs to fight for the users. Yes, that means dumbing it down. It's the right thing to do.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Travelog part 4

10:41pm. Flight was due to depart 21:00, but at least we're sitting in the plane now. Looks like we'll be departing two down... two hours, that is. Fortunately it's not hard to catch up some time across a seven hour journey; we'll see what time we land in Dubai. Still have no idea what the cause of the delay is, but frankly, I'd rather have a delayed departure than some of the, uhh, oddities that we saw in US domestic flights.

10:51pm. Michael and I attempt to sync our ices to watch Dawn Treader together. We mused earlier today as to whether or not it would be more fun if these systems had a "show me what seat B9 is seeing" feature; it'd spoil the fun of syncing, but it would be easier to watch movies together.

10:53pm. Captain's announcement hints that the delay was due to a safety issue, but doesn't say what. Another announcement a bit later has some electronic screech in the background, so one of the cabin crew goes forward to give the captain some feedback feedback.

10:59pm. Pushback.

11:20pm. The optional, but very much enjoyable, part of flying. The mandatory part is scheduled for six hours from now, which implies that we'll be catching up an hour during the journey.

01:54am. The modern Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie is pretty good, as long as you like modern movies and have never read the book. Otherwise, not so much.

05:10am. This flight is supposed to have mobile phone support, but I've been unable to get to it with my 3G stick from England, my pocket wifi from home, nor Michael's phone. None of them get signal. It's very disappointing, Dame Hannah. Oh well. We're now descending, so I'll try the whole thing again on the next leg - if the option's there. Oh, and I forgot to get out the green cable to try the ethernet port, although it didn't do me much good on the outward trip.

05:38am. Landed - local time 08:38am. We were due to land at 07:05 local time, which means we've caught up a good half hour - but we're still quite late. Not a problem to us personally, but two passengers are moved to the very front of Economy to facilitate a hasty transfer, and the captain apologizes to us all. I'm still curious as to what delayed us two hours. Pulling in to the terminal is delayed somewhat too - possibly we've lost our path.

06:52am. Whoops, forgot to post while I had wifi. We're now boarding for the non-stop leg Dubai to home. Time to reset clocks to Melbourne time; it's now 3:52pm. (There goes most of Wednesday. No wonder we're landing on Thurs after taking off on Tues.)

04:11pm. Had some trouble fitting our stuff in the overhead lockers, but two rows ahead is a family that seems to have crammed four people into three seats or something, so the cabin crew have done some rejigging and are moving them southward. We may now have a bit more room upstairs.

04:33pm. Pushback. You'd think that after a century of commercial flight we'd have sorted this out, but it still takes a long time to get planes into and out of the air.

04:47pm. Takeoff. The downward camera gives us a beautiful view of our own shadow in the moments after we leave the ground - first the nose, then progressively the whole aircraft.

06:57pm. The ethernet port is just as useless as on the outward journey. I wonder - maybe it's a NAT router that connects to a 10.* or 192.168.* network with no advertised DNS? Be hard to figure anything out without docs. I'd say it's an unimplemented feature, still.

11:40pm. A couple of suggestions for Emirates' ice system, which I'll be emailing them once I get an internet connection (which will probably be on landing in MEL). First, please change the font to one that properly differentiates 3 and 5 - the two are quite similar. And second, consider implementing the "show me what my friend is seeing" feature :)

02:24am. Crossing the coast at Geraldton, with ETA in under three hours. This is what happens when you don't have to accel out of Perth - cuts a whole hour off the flight time.

04:45am. Captain's just announced that we'll be descending soon. According to the map, we've only just passed Adelaide. Australia's a big place, but we're moving at quite a clip... and we're still enjoying 200km/h tail winds. In spite of departing Dubai somewhat late, we're going to be landing in good time - about ten minutes early, even.

05:48am. HOME!! Just waiting for David to find his bag.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Delays, delays...

Hello folks of world! This is Ned Seagoon folks, blogging to you live from Manchester!

Our flight was due to depart at 21:00. It's now 22:00 and we haven't even started boarding. The final call for passengers went out a while ago; we've all had our boarding passes scanned, and are in a checked-in state and merely awaiting the readiness of the plane. Emirates staff have come round a few times with bottled water, juices, nibbles, and such, but we still don't know what time we'll be boarding, much less taking off. Fortunately we have a three-hour connection in Dubai; I very much doubt we're going to have trouble with that.

There's no GPO handy to any seat, but Michael's phone is still happily connected on 3G, and is providing wifi to all our devices. There's just been an announcement saying that there's nothing to announce, but stating that connections will be sorted out once we take off - or, putting it another way: Henry can't go, it's a guaranteed connection!

Returning home from Buxton

After some final mess to deal with regarding the crate of G&S Society things being shipped home (and with many thanks to Neil, Oliver, and Amy(?) for a chance encounter in the Octagon), we're finally ready to leave. We've said our goodbyes, there's nothing left on the to-do list, and all we have to do is make our way to Manchester Airport. Cinderella is in half an hour, which is good as our bus appears to be running late (it was due here five minutes ago and has only just arrived);
it's going to be a long trip. Fortunately we're well rested, having not just finished our show!

With a long trip ahead of us and no wifi, this is as good a time as any for a run-down of Buxton vs Melbourne. What have I most enjoyed here, and what am I most looking forward to back home? In Gustha Ebbastodder order.

Buxton:
* Meeting random people on the street and having something in common with them. We can trade G&S quotes with all sorts of people here.
* A G&S every night. Duh. :) And the whole Festival Fringe, where we and several hundred other people enjoy in-jokes and metahumour based on G&S. Related to the above.
* Unmetered fast downloads. I've been torrenting heavily while we've been here.
* Freedom to do things on a whim, without needing to schedule it around everything. I've been megging a lot of nights.
* Being of value to the Festival organizers.
* The small-town atmosphere. Quite a few people came to recognize us, and I don't think that's just because we're Aussies.
* Walking home with people like Jackie Mitchell after the Festival Club.
* Thorntons Chocolates
* Rambling conversations with awesome people like Robyn Pidcock, the BOH theatre techs (note, there is no F in there), and the Smiths
* Belle's Heaven
* No mosquitoes or cicadas!

Melbourne:
* Thea! I can't wait to see my darling sister again. And I know she'll be as delighted to see me.
* Casey. There's no convenient piano where we're staying - or anywhere else, pretty much. I made use of the Octagon's while waiting for the truck, but that's about it. I do like being able to just sit down and play something. Same with the church organ, too.
* Reliable internet connetions. Actually, it's probably no more reliable than here, but we've already solved all the issues at home, so it "just works". Also, I have control of the routers, so again, things "just work".
* Being of value to the nuclear family.
* The benefits of suburbia - convenient public transport, for instance.
* Pedestrian crossings that don't sound like alarms.
* Sweet As's chocolates
* Church services that are based primarily on the Bible, not on social gospel (three Angelicos discussing stuff isn't really church, although it is of interest)
* The whole family there to share in joys and pleasures
* No rain. Yeah, I know we do need rain (aye, sorely), but it does get inconvenient when you're out in it!
* My favorite skillet - with a lid. Frying sausages without a lid is so inefficient.
* Working fully in metric instead of the weird hybrid system found here

Every day, I learn something new, and do something productive. That's my rule. So far, I do not recall any day when I've failed to fulfil it. I'm not, by nature, one to express extremes of emotion; I don't tend to panic, fret, erupt in laughter, nor explode in anger; but through this whole trip, I cannot point to any time when I was dissatisfied or bored. Perhaps that says more about me than about Buxton, but certainly there has been much of delight and interest in these four weeks; I'm
glad to have come, and am looking forward to our next visit - whenever that may be - with hope and joy, but am also not sorry to be heading homewards.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Say goodbye - for the Festival is over

Or: But now that it's all over, you may as well know the truth!

Or: It's over now, the music of the night!

Or: This seems as good a time as not to look around and write.

(Okay, better start writing content before I fill it up with subtitles.)

It's impossible to do justice to the G&S Festival in blog posts. There is something here that just can't be captured in words. Why, for instance, do we:

* Clock up hundreds of kilometers walking up and down and in and out, here and there and roundabout, looking for things that back home we know we can easily find?

* Volunteer to help carry scenery and costumes for the pro shows, shows that we have no connection with other than seeing them from the gallery?

* Rehearse our own show at very long hours, to the exclusion of other activities that we would have greatly enjoyed doing?

* Bump in and dress rehearse a show all in one day, with no time to fix up mistakes?

* Perform before a thousand people, knowing full well that one of them is going to come up at the end and tell us exactly where we did a bad job?

* Immediately after bumping in and performing, go to the Festival Club and perform even more?

* Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Why do we? Because it's the Festival! There's no adequate way to explain this, it's just something that has to be experienced. But we do have some shareable happy memories, and looking around me here in my room at High Peak Halls, I can see quite a few things that are worth mentioning.

Claiming the attention right off is Steph's trophy for Best Female Voice. Since she already left, Ron Pidcock (as President) accepted it on her behalf, and we're couriering it home in our luggage. The base of the trophy has plates engraved with the names and shows of previous winners, including the mention that G&S Opera Victoria won this same award last time we came here (hi Lynlee!). I wonder what will be done in a few years' time, when the plate fills up.

The cup is sitting on top of two copies of the new Beauty Stone score. I've hardly had a chance to read through it properly, but I also haven't had a chance to tinkle it out on a piano so it's probably going to wait till we're home and with Casey again. (Why two copies? Well, we have a flautist at home too, and I think she and I might end up dueting... anyway, I wanted to be safe.)

Next to them is a tall pile of DVDs. Apart from a few that I'm couriering home for people, they're all ours. We only get DVDs of the really outstandingly awesome shows, so if you think that my reviews are aimed at mediocrity, let this adjust your opinion of my opinion of the shows.

Also sitting here is the full programme of the Opera House productions. We bought it at the very beginning of the Festival, and it has been through life my guide and monitor, allowing me to get everyone's names correct in my reviews (well, assuming the programme is itself correct - but nobody's yet complained). I don't go autograph-hunting, but i was talking with Simon Butteriss toward the end of the three weeks and he was signing a few people's programmes, so I asked him to sign mine too. :) This book was also instrumental in getting me to go to Scrivener's for the first time; I mightn't have made the time for that first visit if I hadn't seen their ad stating that they had a shelf dedicated to G&S. I'm so glad I went.

Under the programme are two framed certificates. The trophy cup is lent for one year and must be returned for next year's festival, but Steph gets a certificate to keep. Also, there's another one - to Michael and Chris Angelico, "in recognition of their contribution to the 2011 International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival". THAT is a trophy.

Speaking of trophies, this trip has been great for my IP trophy collection. But most people don't care about that.

Over in the corner, a collection of empty Thorntons boxes gives some idea of how much chocolate has been consumed here lately. It counts only the boxes that were emptied right here in this room, so add about as much again for the ones that went to rehearsal or performance and didn't come back. Yes, the chocolate definitely helps.

Sitting in a rough pile are my handwritten notes that become the show reviews. Michael's right that I try ever to be courteous to the mediocre, but I do try to say something about the superb in each production. Unfortunately it's not always easy to express myself adequately, without leaving myself open to the linguistic analysis that the Halls use. But these notes carry some extra, and rather subtle, information: if the comment is written tidily, there wasn't much happening on the stage; if it scrawls down the page in a horrid mess, then the stage had riveted my attention.

All this still does a poor job of capturing the "feel" of the festival, but meh, I just felt like writing something. So sue me. :)

18th International G&S Festival Awards: Results

Presentations are made by Thomas Round (awards to individual ladies), Valerie Masterson (awards to individual men), and Gillian herself (group awards).

(* = winner)

International Champions
* South Anglia: Patience

Runners up
1. Derby: Princess Ida
2. Peak: HMS Pinafore

Best Chorus
* Derby: Princess Ida
Festival: Iolanthe
Peak: Pinafore

Best Supporting Actor
Sth Ang: Colonel
* Derby: Hildebrand (Michael Tipler)
(Missed the third nomination)

Best Supporting Actress
Savoynet: Peep-Bo
Sth Ang: Angela
* Trent: Phoebe (Jessica Nicklin)

Best Concerted Item
* Festival: Nothing Venture Nothing Win
Sth Anglia: If Saphir I Choose
Oxbridge: Quintet (?)

Best Male Voice
Oxbridge: Giuseppe
Peak: Corcoran
* South Anglia: Grosvenor (Adam Sullivan)

Best Female Voice
Oxbridge: Casilda
Derby: Melissa
* G&S Opera Vic: Elsie (Stephanie Gibson)

Best Character Actor
Festival: Lord Chancellor
Cambridge: Lord Chancellor
* Oxbridge: Duke of Plaza-Toro (Jordan Bell)

Best Character Actress
* South Anglia: Lady Jane (Anthea Kenna)
Peak: Hebe
Derby: Blanche

Best Musical Director
G&S Opera Vic: Richard Stockton
Derby: Ida: Andrew Nicklin
* South Ang: Patience: Stephen Kenna

Best Director
Derby: Ida: Andrew Nicklin
* South Ang: Patience: Shane Collins
Peak: Pinafore: Ian Henderson

Best Male Performer
Peak: Corcoran
Derby: Gama
* South Anglia: Bunthorne (Paul Tarrant)

Best Female Performer
Peak: Josephine
* Derby: Princess Ida (Austine Broad)
Festival: Phyllis

Best Animated Chorus
* Cambridge Iolanthe: Peers March
Festival Iolanthe
South Anglia Patience

Adjudicator's Award
Gilbert's dialogue. So impressed by this production - Gilbert's anniversary year. From this performance, clarity of diction
and dialogue, such respect - overwhelmed by that performance. Wanted to give special prize to the word.
* Festival Iolanthe: Tolloller/Mount/Chancellor

Most Traditional Opera
* Savoynet: Mikado
Festival: Iolanthe
G&S Opera Vic: Yeomen

Best Duet
* South Anglia: Jane/Bunthorne "So Go To Him"
Derby: Blanche/Melissa
Oxbridge: Casilda/Luiz


And at the end of the awards, a surprising one: to Michael and Chris Angelico, "In recognition of their contribution to the 2011 Inernational Gilbert & Sullivan Festival". Wooot!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

G&S Opera Co: Utopia, Ltd

As a lesser-known work, Utopia is generally considered hard to sell. In Buxton? Standing room only! With a superb lineup of principals, and the name "G&S Opera Co" on the heading, it promised to be rather excellent. And based on anecdotal evidence, extrapolating out from known data, and doing all those other horribly unscientific things, I deduce that 100% of audience members enjoyed the show.

Naturally, given the setting of the piece, the lighting was strong. Even the second act, set in the evening, was brightly lit - certainly far more than your average G&S night scene. The usual darkish corners of the stage were notably absent; whereever people went, they were illuminated. The set gave the appearance that we were in a largely wooden area, with a beach behind; although the semi-circular pieces could easily have been wheels of Dutch smoked cheese. Yes, I have a weird mind. But you knew that already!

As I said, a most promising lineup of names in the cast. Rebecca Bottone being still medically disqualified from singing, the part of Princess Nekaya was instead played by Beverley Werboys. She and her sister Kalyba (Catrine Kirkman), as very English schoolgirls, had lovely voices that unfortunately had trouble competing with the orchestra at times; otherwise, both were fun characters, particularly with their somewhat middle-aged suitors Dramaleigh (Barry Clark) and Goldbury (Bruce Graham). The contrast between the genuine English and the attempted Englishness created an entertaining tension, and never better than in the Drawing Room scene. The six Flowers of Progress (the aforementioned, plus Fitzbattleaxe (Oliver White), Corcoran (Stephen Godward), Bailey Barre (Martin Milnes), and Blushington (Simon Theobald)), in remodelling Utopia, were at once individual characters and a chorus; the latter being most notable in Society Has Quite Forsaken, in which six Flowers and King Paramount (Donald Maxwell) made a seven-person chorus of extreme precision but for the one who was always late - six Flowers moving in perfect synchronization, and the King eyeing them and doing his best to follow. The same was true of the First Lifeguards; one was always just one beat behind the others, although in that instance it may not have been for deliberate effect. But oh, such care they took of the Princess Zara (Deborah Norman) - delivering her to her father in an excellent condition of substantial and decorative repair - although I daresay stealing her heart doesn't quite come under "reasonable wear and tear". Her love duet with Fitzbattleaxe was beautifully sweet, though a trifle low - hard to hear them over the orchestra at times - and a lovely contrast to the comic ridiculousness of A Tenor All Singers Above, but handled just as well. It's no surprise that Zara's sisters were sent away from this pair; Lady Sophy (Jill Pert) would not have approved of such terrors on the high C's! A conscientious chaperone and dutiful governess, she had reason to be proud of her well-behaved charges; but more interesting was her relationship to the King, as we watch her understanding dawn in that second act scene where the truth comes out. (Oh so THAT'S why you didn't boil the author on the spot.) How disconcerting to have been one of the Wise Men, Scaphio (Simon Butteriss) and Phantis (Ian Belsey) - to be so thoroughly thwarted and so easily! Two comic geniuses, playing off each other both in character and out of character, with brilliant timing on their lines; and with the skill and stagecraft to know when to wait for the applause or laughter to die down before continuing. This was particularly noteworthy in the dialogue with the King, in which Scaphio pointed out that the editors of the Palace Peeper were being flogged publicly - which paused several times while we expressed our appreciation of the lines! But perhaps even funnier was the Public Exploder, Tarara (Richard Gauntlett), whose bang snaps sometimes didn't all go off - several times, one went off under someone's foot, several scenes later! Ah, life in Utopia could not be boring...

It's said that it's better to go out with a bang than a whimper. In more ways than one, the final show of the 2011 Festival (I'm being naughty and not counting the Pirates tomorrow night - it's the same Pirates that was performed at the beginning of the Festival) is closing with a bang.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Festival Production: Iolanthe

Every show in the Festival opens with an overture, so it makes sense that this review open with a few comments about them. So far this year, I have not seen any shows with cheesy business during the overture; there's always been just the curtain with green warmers (and occasionally the house lights), and everyone listening in silence to the excellent Festival Orchestra which, night after night, has played superbly. In comparing one show to another, it's useless to discuss the overtures - no musical director has been so appalling as to be noteworthy - but in describing the Festival itself, they're delightful demonstration of the skill of the musicians; the material is perhaps familiar with them, but each conductor has his own style, and the orchestra gets only one run with each MD.

Iolanthe has a good share of superb music. It's been well represented in the community singing selections in the Festival Club; although we've only gone up on stage for the Peers March twice this year, down from about four or five times in the last festival we were in (two years ago). The title character's music is soft and beautiful. It needs to be played well, and this orchestra and tonight's conductor John Howells have handled it appropriately.

The aforementioned Title Character (Bryony Wilmington) has a lovely, sweet voice, although her diction did impact her audibility in the gallery. Her all-important second act scene was beautiful, as long as you already knew what she was singing; the attention of the Lord Chancellor (David Kay) was fixed on her at all times (she may have wanted to make more use of her veil though - I guess it's a magical one that doesn't need her to keep her hand at the level of her eye). The Chancellor's exteme energy was appropriately muted for that grand scene, but was in evidence at all other times - particularly during encores, of which we had a Gillian-satisfying half dozen - even to the consternation of his closest companions, the Lords Mountararat (John Colston) and Tolloller (David Brown). The co-leaders of the House of Lords, as inseparable as when they'd been boys together (well, one of them had), walked their minds through the maze of who was to destroy whom with passion and fervour and grace (okay, maybe grace isn't really what two noble peers would demonstrate, but close enough), with an utterly-bored Phyllis (Shelley Anne Rivers) upstage having a glass of wine with a robed peer of indeterminate party membership; if I'd been in her place, I would have just walked up to the backcloth and selected a book to read (c'mon, don't tell me you can't see the bookshelves in the depiction of that cityscape!), but apparently she's happy with the society of gentlemen who aren't totally fawning over her as they all were during the business of the day. This included her boyfriend at that time, too, and nastily probing the subject of mothers with Strephon (Anthony Mahon). He took it in his stride, casually explaining his mixed ancestry with an air of finality and a calmness that, oddly, corresponded to the way he was on their first meeting - a little enthusiasm would not go amiss. He does love Phyllis, although he's perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer - a little discretion in how he addresses his mother would have spared him a lot of pain (but we'd have missed out on the whole second act). In contrast, Private Willis (Ian Murray) talks less but has the brain and cerebellum too; and he has a good strong voice with which to deliver his thoughts to the audience. He's perfectly comfortable discussing his personal appearance with the Fairy Queen (Alison Davis), who is so taken by him that she breaks off her sentence as he walks in; all the fairies are impressed by him, but apparently they can do better - Celia (Victoria Goulden) and Leila (Holly Parker-Strawson) take the Lords Tollollerat for their money, and Fleta (Pauline Hepkin) waits until the very VERY end before pairing off (somewhat unexpectedly) with the Lord Chancellor's elderly page! It looked a little odd, with an unpaired Fleta downstage and several doubled-up "pairs" upstage, until she slipped into the wings and came back with her beloved.

Lighting tonight was handled skilfully. Subtle changes of mood, major changes of illumination, and also effects such as for Strephon's entrance, in which the fairies froze upstage in gloom while Strephon and Iolanthe conversed downstage in the light (actually, on the edge of the shadow, but that's insignificant), and a superb moment when the lights went down to a couple of cross lights for Phyllis's "For riches and rank I do not long" - she was right smack in the middle of the cross fire, in just the right spot when the lights changed.

Much has been said about cast having fun. I have no doubt that the members of this company had a lot of fun. And so did we.

G&S Opera Victoria: Yeomen of the Guard

Oh, that's our show. I can't objectively blog about it. But this much I can say: Our Elsie (Stephanie Gibson) has a voice that's to fall insensible for.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Belle's Heaven

Officially called Scrivener's Books & Bookbinding, to me it'll always be Belle's Heaven. Five floors of books, mostly old, with that "old book" smell all through; it's a lovely place to spend time. A lot of what they carry is first editions and such, priced appropriately, but there are some volumes that are more suited to a budget. I went up to the top floor, and I came down with something... no, not asthma from the dust (which isn't too bad, actually), but rather some books.

Behind the name "Scrivener's" is actually something like the story of Driver Bus Lines back home. Not only does "scrivener" have bookish meaning, but it's also the founder's name - Alastair Scrivener, who still runs the place.

I'm told that this is the busiest time of year for them (seems the G&S Festival brings quite a bit of custom to the place - the official Festival Programme contains an ad from them, and they have a shelf of G&S scores, libretti, and other books), but even so, there's never all that many people there at a time. It's easy to find delightful solitude in the upper reaches of this magnificent tower of books. Definitely a place that Belle would enjoy spending time with - has the character of her village's bookshop, but far more extensive (though not as huge as the Beast's library!). Scrivener's is a calm point of solitude, and would be even in a huge city.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Red Fire Productions: Foggerty's Fairy

We will not allow our Foggerty to be presumed upon!

Or something like that. Anyway. Michael and I saw "Foggerty's Fairy" today, courtesy of a break in the rehearsal (that's like a break in the clouds, only instead of sunshine, you go to a place that's even darker). This is a play of Gilbert's that he did without Sullivan, and has an awful lot of dialogue between the songs... actually, I've yet to hear a song. Something about it not being a musical, whatever. Anyway. There's a lot of jokes in Foggerty's Fairy that Gilbert reused in subsequent G&Ses, so they're quite familiar to this audience; everyone's laughing at the lead-up rather than the punch line. The text bears Gilbert's hallmark humour and skilful writing, and the cast are rendering the jokes superbly. Energy, pace, and passion, all necessary to a strong performance, are in evidence among all those on the stage.

I can't do my usual run-through of the characters as I don't know the show at all, but the titular Fairy Rebecca (Naomi Webb) is a lot of fun, and the central Foggerty (David Jones) is maintaining a superb energy level throughout a long and unbroken performance. He's also a superb unrehearsed story-teller; throw anything at him and he'll weave it right into the story!

This is a very fun show, and one that ought to be less obscure.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Derby Gilbert & Sullivan Company: Princess Ida

If I'd seen five thousand traditional Idas, this would have been a refreshingly new production; modernized, cleverly costumed, and with decent characterizations. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that I missed something; there's some concept here that I failed to comprehend - several of the principals appeared to have been costumed very specifically, presumably to ape somebody from popular culture or politics.

My reviews lately have been somewhat on the long side, so I will attempt to be a little more brief today. The songs were taken at a decent clip, although the dialogue sometimes dragged; vocal balance was excellent throughout, with beautiful alto lines clearly audible; the set was impressive. Diction was passable, but a lot of odd words were lost due to people singing upstage or facing across the stage, and in one sad moment, Melissa was all the way at the top of the set, and she was a veritable Strephon - invisible down to the waist, only her legs remained exposed to view.

Melissa (Alexandra Saunders) was an excellent performer, though; her drill sergeant work at the beginning of the third act ought surely to have satisfied her employer! But the strong Princess (Austine Broad) needed more than simulations to fight for her, and more than her excellent voice to defeat the invading forces. Her three brothers (Stephen Godward, Stephen Andrews, and Chris Hawksworth), wearing leathers with their "trusty blades" tucked into their boots, fought adequately enough against the three invading hordes Hilarion (Robert Jenkins), Cyril (Andy McPhee), and Florian (Alastair Maughan); rather than using swords, it was a boxing match, and the more agile Hildebrites overcame their adversaries. None of the words were changed, which meant that lines about swords were somewhat orphaned; Gama (John Torr) told them they would need no more than their tongues, even though they used no swords. Gama was quite thoroughly depicted as unpleasant, and played with the courteous nastiness that the role demands. On the other hand, Hildebrand (Michael Tipler) was a decent fellow, garbed in military uniform, and though he could be dangerous when crossed, he would be pleasant enough in his own court. So would Psyche (Roma Loukes), in Cyril's "court"; I have no doubt that he would enjoy her bubbly and fun personality. The Lady Blanche (Joan Self - were any jokes made in rehearsal about Blanche being played by "her Self"?), with free reign over the university, would undoubtedly have made more extensive use of their three display screens. Regrettably the center one was completely invisible to the gallery; I understand that it was used in A Maiden Fair Of Lineage High, but we didn't get to see any of it. In any case, they were of some significance to the lady undergraduates - a definite improvement over the usual setting of the opera, back in the years B.C. (before computers)!

One comment I'd like to make that doesn't really address Derby's Ida specifically, but is equally to every company performing on this stage. The gallery is extremely high up, and we get to see some things that you may not realise we see. Crossing behind something upstage isn't necessarily "safe"; we can see your head moving across as you prepare for your dramatic entrance. This isn't a major criticism, but more a point of amusement; the only time it'd be a real problem would be if someone's entrance (or, for that matter, exit) distracts during a particularly poignant moment on the stage, which hasn't happened this Festival.

Tonight's performance was not terrible, but I can't call it excellent either. My suspicion is that this is more than somewhat my fault for not grokking the concept, but that is one of the risks of concept productions; not everyone will understand or appreciate what was done. I welcome comments (as always); what did you think of it, and did the updating work? Comments also (of course) welcome from those involved - explanations, corrections, hate mail, whatever you like!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Magic Online trade account proposal

This is proposed as an addition to the current trade system in Magic: The Gathering Online, which works quite well for casual trades between two players. But for trade bots, which are the way most players tend to acquire singles, there are a number of points on which this system could be improved:

* One bot account can service only one customer at a time. This means that the bot owner must run an army of bots, which in turn adds to server load; in addition, players need to figure out which ones aren't currently trading, and many bots solve this by rewriting their advertisements - again, unnecessary server load.

* Each bot account must have its own classifieds ad, which everyone must weed through to find the ones they want.

* Each bot has its own separate inventory. When you're looking for an obscure item, you might need to open trade multiple times with bots from the same controller.

* Bot credit is utterly unmanaged; there is no recourse from MTGO if a bot loses your credit, and there's no protection against misrepresentation by competing bots (imagine a bot that advertises that you can sell your cards to it for credit that can be used with a famous bot like Marlon). Also, it's very easy to "lose" credit by not knowing which bots you have traded with.

* Bots count as regular playing accounts, as demonstrated in the recent tournament in which myriad bots competed just to get a free booster pack.

* Most bots (I won't say all, but the bots I've seen for sale have said this) require a computer dedicated to running one bot account. I dread to think how many computers are tied up doing what a single computer ought to be able to do.

My proposal solves all of these issues, by creating a new type of account: a non-playing trade-only account. This does not in any way affect trades between two regular accounts, which can be done the same way they currently are. A trade account would replace one vendor's entire army of bots. This account would be managed by a script running on the vendor's computer, using a simple API to communicate with the MTGO server.

The requirements from Wizards' end would be:

* A new trade server connection, which would be a published connection-point in the same way that the current logins are done. This could simply be a different port on the same computer, or it could be a completely separate host.

* Ideally, a credit matrix. This is optional; the proposal will stand without it, but this facility would solve another of the problems (that of "lost credit").

The requirements on a vendor would be:

* Write an application that uses a simple network protocol to handle multiplexed simultaneous trades.

That's all. Quite simple on both ends.

I recommend a straight-forward TCP socket connection, using SSL/TLS for encryption, as it is available without much effort in many programming languages. The vendor's app (the "client") connects to MTGO's API server (the "server"), negotiates SSL, and logs in using a username and password (or a hash thereof), just as a player does using the regular MTGO application. The server can then notify the client of a new customer, and the client can query the customer's on-trade items, select items, communicate via chat, and be alerted of the customer's chat messages and item selections.

The protocol need not be complex. Each notification or command is terminated by end-of-line, as with IMAP and similar. For example:

(connect to server)
<--- OK Welcome to Magic Online Trading
---> LOGIN test_bot my_password
<--- OK Logged in
---> ADVERT Test bot: all cards, boosters, etc at great prices, blah blah
<--- OK Advert saved
(user named Rosuav opens trade)
<--- NEWTRADE Rosuav 0.00
---> ACCEPT Rosuav
<--- OK Accepted
---> CHAT Rosuav Welcome to Test Bot, Rosuav. Your credit is: 0.00
(user Rosuav selects an item - the server identifies it by its ID)
<--- ITEM Rosuav 123456
---> CHAT Rosuav You have selected: {Island} (foil) 3.40
(user Rosuav types "done" into chat)
<--- CHAT Rosuav done
---> ITEM Rosuav ticket
---> ITEM Rosuav ticket
---> ITEM Rosuav ticket
---> ITEM Rosuav ticket
---> CREDIT Rosuav 0.60
---> CHAT Rosuav I'll save 0.60 credit on your account. Please confirm!
---> CONFIRM1 Rosuav
(user clicks Confirm)
<--- CONFIRM1 Rosuav
---> CONFIRM2 Rosuav
(user clicks the second Confirm)
<--- CONFIRM2 Rosuav
<--- RECV ticket ticket ticket ticket
<--- ENDTRADE Rosuav

If MTGO doesn't save credit, then the NEWTRADE alert would not have a credit amount, and the CREDIT command would not exist.

Note that this protocol allows simultaneous trades with different players. The user name is given in every command and response, and separate trades need not interfere with each other in any way.

I would be prepared to write the code necessary to make this work. It could be coded extremely efficiently, and the protocol is simple enough that any basic computer could operate the vendor's account, without affecting other things running it.

This would require some set-up work, but this could be offset by charging for trade accounts. The added convenience of operating a bot in this way rather than the old way would be a great boon for vendors, and players would find things immensely easier under this system.

Savoynet Performing Group: Mikado

I must begin by apologizing for an error in yesterday's review. I described Cambridge's Iolanthe as "pretty much sold out", but tonight we saw what "pretty much sold out" really means. I think you might have been able to seat three more people, if you rend them limb from limb and distribute them among your Irish tenantry... And this show merited the numerous and enthusiastic audience response.

There are other performing companies who can boast more International Festival productions total, but apparently Savoynet is the first to complete the canon (Thespis not included) at the Festival. A highly commendable achievement, and amazing that it should be a Mikado that finishes the set (although perhaps less amazing with Savoynet than others, as it's easier to assemble a Grand Duke cast when you have the international pool of talent that Savoynet draws from). Of course, not all Savoynetters are on the stage; there are several of the distinctive S'net t-shirt visible here in the gallery and in the upper circle. This show might not command many of the traditional SCA's (the Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts), but instead we have Savoynet's Committed Adherents who will unfailingly support the show. (I've just spoken with one who came to the festival for one night only; that's dedication.)

As was proven two years ago at the University Challenge, Savoynet is NOT a coherent whole, a Borg-style hive mind, a collective consciousness. No, Savoynetters are all individuals, with individual characters and personalities. This we saw on the stage tonight; we don't have a chorus of indistinguishable blur, we have a collection of real characters. This extended even more so to the role of Peep-Bo; often she's a person in her first half-scene, then relegated to "just another chorister", but tonight Rachel Middle was active in the role all through the first act finale, driving the plot along even though she has no solo lines. At the opposite extreme, the Mikado (Philip Walsh) was an absolute ruler and acted it - he owned the stage and everyone knew it. At least... the audience knew it, the local nobles knew it... but Katisha (Angela Lowe) didn't. A magnificent characterization, but no less than we have come to expect from Angela; she is a suberb performer. In "The hour of gladness", the lights dimmed and everyone faced upstage, giving her the stage all to herself - a beautiful moment. If she'd boasted of her singing instead of her elbow, perhaps she'd have acquired a husband more easily! Ko-Ko (David Lovell) didn't particularly want her, but when he went to woo her, he did so with strong passion and fervour. More passion, even, than he showed toward his ward; Yum-Yum (Kathryn Noonan) certainly wasn't much impressed by him. She had plenty of people attending to her, anyhow; in the opening of the second act, she even had native-guitarists playing for her - slightly odd, as we hadn't seen any such guitar in Nanki's hands (nor any instrument at all for that matter - he had a case but nothing to play). But Nanki-Poo (Rich Miller) didn't need an instrument to be a musician; his voice is all he needs. (The oft-missed joke in his opening dialogue, that he's a member of the band whose job it is to pass the cap around - and NOT to play - ignores the fact that he would make an excellent lead singer.) On the other hand, Pooh-Bah (Kevin Murray) forswore vocal intensity in favour of stately bearing and uppitiness; his characterization was strong, but I missed some of his lines up in the gallery. But William Revels' Pish-Tush was amply audible at the top of the theatre, and the snarking of Pitti-Sing (Emma Rogers) needs nothing to carry it but her expressive gestures. Both were extremely good fun.

Fun, in fact, is the best description for the show. Everyone on the stage had fun; everyone in the audience had fun. That, right there, is the definition of an excellent show. Just a few general highlights before I wrap up... The Little List song was tremendous, with a number of topical references in it; it was taken at a tempo and diction that allowed us to hear every word. The gag at the end, with the MD and Ko-Ko going back and forth after the latter "dried" was hilarious; it's funny how much rehearsal it takes to make something sound convincingly like a rehearsal! But convincing this was, to the extent that a number of people (including the adjudicator) thought it was a genuine failure. A show can afford to spend some time on gags of this nature when everything else is kept tight; and tonight's pace did indeed allow that luxury. This was an excellent show; Savoynet Performing Group, you have done the list proud.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Cambridge University G&S Society: Iolanthe

Tonight's house was pretty much sold out, with the edges of the gallery and even the restricted-viewing seats being empersonned. (This is probably because Savoynet was well represented, as were the casts for our Australian shows. What, you don't think we made that much difference? Aww. Well, I can fantasize, can't I?) This unfortunately doesn't correspond to the show's quality, with several excellent shows having failed to fill; I cannot in honesty say that today's show was superior to them.

That's not to say that the show was terrible, though. The female chorus all plausibly looked as young as Phyllis and Iolanthe (and so did the Fairy Queen), and performers' voices across the board were sweet and lovely. However, several lacked the volume and diction to be heard in the gallery, which detracted from otherwise-notable songs (including "Fold Your Flapping Wings", a worthwhile inclusion when your Strephon can do it justice), and in some cases, words were lost upstage when someone faced away from the audience while singing or speaking. But this was clearly a fun show, with leads and chorus all enjoying the experience.

The set was simple and wide-open, leaving ample room for choreography. This room was often left unused in favour of having the singers all the way downstage, a fair trade if ever I saw one. When the entire stage was put to use (such as in the first act finale, with the fairies driving the peers around the stage in perfect formation), the effect was... effective. Lighting was stable, in stark contrast to the melodramatic appearance of the weekend's Ruddigore; changes were done gently and subtlely.

A few changes to the script bear noting. Strephon, not being on the large side, was described as "inclined to be blonde" - this apparently refers not to his hair but what's under it, as demonstrated by the length of time it took him to figure out that his mother's sisters were his... err..... aunts? As mentioned above, "Fold Your Flapping Wings" was restored; this along with several one-word changes cemented Iolanthe as a political satire - unsurprising for a university's production. Up in the peanut gallery, we were wondering if the Fairy Queen's second verse would be changed, but anoraks aside, it wasn't. (If you don't know why I'm referring to anoraks, you don't want to know. Long story off Savoynet - only other anoraks would know, probably! Apologies to everyone else - normal people, in other words.)

The cast, as we have been told, ranges from university alumni all the way down to first-years, several of whom have been demonstrating their excellent musical skills tonight on the cabaret stage. I can't single out people for commendation fairly without knowing who had how much experience, but I am told that there were some for whom this was their first stage show; to them, whoever you are, may I offer my congratulations and encouragement for the future! But in no particular order... Strephon (Aled Walker - this is not a typo for Alex) carried a strong character, a bit blonde at times (as mentioned above), but good fun. Knew to wait for the laugh after "Which half?" so that his response was not lost in it. His beloved Phyllis (Charlotte Greenhow) did enjoy looking in that mirror (you can't make me believe it was the first sight she'd had of one), and there's little wonder that the peers are all after her. Of them, the Lords Tollollerat (James Hall and Alan Hay) were an inseparable pair, able to ramble on at extreme length about which of them should slay the other (at which Phyllis was unutterably bored and lay down on the grass upstage), in spite of being on opposite political sides. Their love for Phyllis is a bond that binds them to one another... oh wait, wrong show. The Lord Chancellor (Jonathan Padley) juggled his two capacities carefully, remaining judicial while very much in love with his own ward; his wig was spectacular, until we learned that it wasn't a wig at all! (He greyed his hair for the performance, and commented on it when describing the damage to his constitution: "Three months ago, I was a brunette".) A stable Private Willis (Neill Campbell) quietly stood the stage for the entire second act, and at a word of command, sprouted wings for the finale in quite a convincing manner - him first, then the rest of the company. And the one who wields the power to command wings to appear? A youthful but powerful leader, the Fairy Queen (Anna Harvey); she didn't really look like a devastating leader, but when the need is there, she will be all you need and more. The Chancellor's misinterpretation of her as a classroom teacher isn't hard to understand, nor is his consternation at discovering that she's so much more. We must only hope that he is forgiven once it's known that she's also his mother-in-law, once he's reunited with Iolanthe (Danielle Phillips) - such a sweet voice, he must surely have recognized it to some extent. Iolanthe carried her beautiful aria fairly well, though I could have hoped for a little more passion in it; she's pleading for her son's lifelong happiness, at the risk of painful execution. And she knows full well that she is bringing death upon herself; it's only the timely intervention of Leila (Helena Culliney) and the rest of the company that saves her. With her opposite number Celia (Francesca Costigan), they led the company of fairies through their terrorizing acts, keeping the entire House of Lords on its toes or on its knees.

This is the company's fiftieth year, in a context with (I presume) heavy turnover of cast members. Maintaining a performing company under those circumstances cannot be easy, and Cambridge Uni G&S are to be commended. May I echo the sentiments shared by Gillian and Neil in their respective concluding remarks, that this company should go from strength to strength with, we hope, many good performing years ahead of them.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Volunteers are duck-typed

Around the theatre groups where we work, my brother Michael and I are often confused for each other; and even more frequently, someone will know which name each of us bears, but will simply ask for "an Angelico" without caring who responds. Why? Are we fungible? To an extent, but not completely. To be more precise, people duck-type us.

Duck typing is, broadly speaking, the notion that you don't ask what something IS, you instead ask whether it's able to do what you want it to do. Popular in the Python programming community, it's the idea that you don't care if this is a file as long as you can write to it and read from it; you don't care if this is an integer as long as you can add to it and subtract from it; you don't care if this is a list as long as you can step across its elements.

When someone needs a volunteer, they don't care whether his name is Fred or Joe. They don't care whether he's cast, crew, or random passer-by. All they care is that he be able to do what's needed, willing to do it, and not presently occupied with another task. That's duck typing. It is, in fact, the ultimate in fairness and equity; there's no racism, no sexism, no ism of any kind. If you will work, you will be accepted.

Of course, there are times when other criteria are added (such as 'Weapon Proficiency: Screw-gun'), which will still work the same way. But often, tasks simply require a willing pair of hands - everyone has the necessary hardware and skills, and yet valuable volunteers are treasured like Hildebrand's wise remarks. There always seem to be two or three times as many jobs as people to do them; if you want the respect of pretty much everyone involved in a show, just offer to help!

Pro Ruddigore

Having managed to get a ticket to the matinee, I was able to see the show again. I'm glad to have seen both performances; last night demonstrated how well the company cope with odd things going wrong, and today showed how well the company can perform when things go right. Last night was spectacular enough that I wanted to see the show again; today was even better. The first-act set behaved itself, everyone's lines were delivered in the right order (the verse order in "For 35 Years" being a deliberate change), and everything worked smoothly. I was sitting next to some well-behaved young children and their mother and grandmother, all of whom seemed to enjoy the show immensely. This is Ruddigore as it ought to be - a parody of every element of classic mellerdramer.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

G&S Opera Co: Ruddigore

Those of us who helped out last night got a privileged chance to see part of the set for tonight's professional Ruddigore, which was something elaborate. Ian Smith waffled at length in front of the curtain - listeners will note the cunning way in which the Goons fill in time on their programme - until someone signalled him that all was prepared and the gallant set awaited.

And the set, when we saw it, was indeed worth the delay. Dual-purpose structures were village houses until the finale, when panels in them opened out to make trees. The entire tone of the stage changed completely. (Owing to the complexity of them and the shortness of time, there were a few small issues with holding them open/closed, but this I am sure will be solved for tomorrow's performances.) The second act set, too, had two modes; rotating the flats changed them from portraits to empty frames.

Our first clue that this was not using the most usual score came in the overture, which was not the well-known Toye one but the original. We were subsequently treated to a number of pieces that were cut on, shortly after, or even before, the original opening night; various odd lines of dialogue, Sir Ruthven's second-act song "For thirty-five years", the second verses of "I once was as meek" and "In bygone days", and - something I've never seen performed on stage - the dialogue between Despard and Margaret in the first act, and one verse of the song about Mad Margaret's curse, which was spoken rather than sung for the simple reason that Sullivan never actually wrote music for it.

The curtain rose on Rose Maynard, err I mean Maybud, alone in the center of the stage. An energetic company of bridesmaids entered and encircled her in sweet voice, alas with something of a lack of altos; all of them were attentive and observant, qualities that greatly enhance a performance. Ensemble work throughout the evening was precise and crisp, highly commendably so.

Tonight's show can boast a large number of small "wins" - those little moments when something happened that was just so very right. None is necessarily noteworthy on its own, but together they make a good show into an excellent one. Such moments in this Ruddigore include Rose singing about her heart directing her left and then right, when the men were on the wrong sides of her - she gave a small hand-wave of acknowledgement; again from Rose, when Margaret refers to "Rose Maybud" and then says "I love him" - Rose looked up in some surprise; Gideon Crawle entering during the applause, and claiming it as his own; and several more besides. And there were some moments that definitely merit mentioning - crowning moments of awesome such as the beginning of the first act finale, with two completely different places created by a skilful lighting state. Actually, the lighting was superb the whole time; from the reds of Dame Hannah's legend to the monochrome appearance of the ghosts' scene (with Ruthven the only patch of color on the stage) to the moonlit second act, everything was well served by its lighting states.

Those who know me will know that I take particular note of Mad Margaret. I've seen quite a few, and she's fairly important to me. Victoria Byron played the part, somewhat noisily at times, but fairly believably. Her diction gave me no cause to complain, which is especially important with all the unusual material that was performed. A lovely Meg, and one that I would not be sorry to see again! And quite a dangerous mad girl, too; Rose Maybud (Charlotte Page) seemed quite scared of her, although oddly enough, this didn't cause her to put distance between them. I would have thought that, when faced with someone who talks casually of killing people and rending them asunder, any sane girl would back away just a little. Unless you have particular interest in insanity, you probably don't want to hang around with Meg... But on the other hand, Rose could show you the exact place in her book where it says that she is not to walk away while someone is talking to you. Rose's honorary aunt Hannah Trusty (Jill Pert) knows all about The Book, having probably had parts of it read out to her every day for the past decade; if one of the Murgatroyds had had to take care of Rose, I daresay one of his earliest crimes would have been to toss that book on the stove. But Hannah is too sweet and gentle to do that... sweet, gentle, and not half bad with a short blade, as Robin/Ruthven (Richard Gauntlett - did it cause confusion in rehearsal?) finds out. Robin's not a bad fellow, though, once you get past the fact that he, well, outright lied to a girl to entice her into wedlock, and yellowly ran out so that his younger brother had to take the curse, and a few things like that. But apart from all those crimes, he's a decent fella, and it's quite a dramatic change when he - right in front of our eyes, though with his back to us - is "turned evil" at the end of the first act. His devoted servant Adam (Simon Masterton-Smith), following him into crime and ending up ahead, seemed to enjoy applause rather a lot; on several occasions, he entered during the applause from the previous song, and claimed the applause for his own - highly amusing. In the first act, where he asks to honestly identify his master, we learn what poor weather he is used to; on the pronouncement of the name, a thunderclap erupts (as happened every time anyone named a Murgatroyd), and as soon as it was over, he declared that it was like eight hours at the seaside! Of course, such adverse weather would be all in a day's work for Dick Dauntless (Oliver White), busily running away from French combat ships while practicing his hornpipe; incidentally, it's the talk not only of the fleet but of his home village, too, and he manages to get the bridesmaids involved when he demonstrates it. In contrast to his despicable goodness, we have Sir Despard (Philip Cox), honestly evil and consciously atoning for it - although his beloved Margaret doesn't believe the atonement is sufficient. (Despard's not truly evil, though; as we learn in the second act, the crimes were really Ruthven's, performed by proxy.) The contrast between the evilness of Despard or Ruthven and the purity of (say) Dick Dauntless gave the follow spot operators some fun; at several points, two spots were used, in different colors. Of course, we don't see the ultimate evil (the original witch of the curse), and most of the ghosts were doddering old rheumatic things, so most of the demonstrated power of evil comes from Sir Roderic (Donald Maxwell). He led the ghosts for the simple reason that he had enough energy to actually do things. But when it came time to deliver some agonies, all the ghosts helped out; the effect, with lighting and sound and everybody's movement, must be seen to be appreciated.

In fact, that probably sums up the entire show. I can set some words down about what I thought of this, that, or the other, but ultimately, you have to see it to understand. This performance thrilled me enough that I went straight down to the foyer after the show with the intention of buying a ticket to the matinee. That is how I feel about this Ruddigore.

Friday, 5 August 2011

South Anglia Savoy Players: Patience

Despite having lovely music and plenty of comedic material, Patience tends not to sell as well as some of the other G&S operas. Even here in Buxton, other shows sell out or are fairly tight, but tonight's Patience had quite a few empty seats in the upper stalls, and the two ushers added fully 50% to the gallery's population.

(Parenthesis: Neil Smith is an excellent wordsmith. I'll say no more.)

If you want a receipt for the mysteriously less-than-popular Patience, take all the remarkable hams in history, have them rattle off some Sullivan tunes. Or something like that. Everyone - dragoons, aesthetes, and Patience - contended for the title of Biggest Ham, although Patience (Charlotte Wattebot O'Brien - I hope I have that spelled correctly) pulled back for the "Iolanthe moment" of Love Is A Plaintive Song and let that number be itself. But for the rest of the show, she was the peanut gallery to Bunthorne's drama-queen performances, snarking and chewing a piece of straw. It didn't seem to bother Bunthorne (Paul Tarrant) though; when your ego is that large, you don't mind what sort of attention you get, as long as you get attention. His sense of comedic timing was excellent, and much appreciated. Had it not been quite firmly refused, we would have demanded he encore "When I go out of door" as well as "So go to him". The Lady Jane (Anthea Kenna) walked all over him, even literally at the end (just before he moans "Crushed again!"), so I think he did better with his tulip or lil-eye actually! She entered at the beginning of the second act with a tuba, which she played (for real, I think), although for her song she switched to the traditional cello and the traditional clueless sawing with the bow. Ladies Angela (Jenny Haxell), Saphir (Jackie Mitchell), and Ella (Claire Poth), particularly notably in the Off Note, have lovely voices and clear diction. Leading the maidens from within, they set the tone of the entire show in the opening number, and were highly important in keeping the plot moving along. Their "opposite numbers", the Dragoon Guards, were crisp and smart as military officers should be, although there were a few places where movements were a little ragged. Led by the Colonel (David Philips), whose diction improved markedly when he removed his helmet, the Dragoons were a vibrant splash of colour against the soft and wimpy pastels that the girls were wearing; normally, the guys are the epitome of precision, against the languor of the girls, but tonight, the Aesthetic Maidens were every bit as precise and synchronized as the soldiers. The Colonel's song had new words written for it (by ex-ButAGirl, Sharon Cutworth), which included a lot of local references that were lost on me, but clearly appreciated by most of the audience. Major Murgatroyd (Robert Barker) had a screaming parade-ground voice, but also a crystal clear singing voice for such moments as the Off Note, and the Duke (Mick Wilson) demonstrated superb diction and comedic delivery. Grosvenor (Adam Sullivan), wearing something like Lincoln Green, tried to just walk up to a girl and say "Hey, remember me? We were kids together. Will you marry me?" like the Disney animated Robin Hood. It just doesn't work that way... but we got some fun scenes before they realised that.

Ensemble work was at a consistently high standard of energy, observation, and utter hammishness. The men were a little sloppy on some of their salutes and such in their entrance number, but very minorly and it was tightened up by the first act finale. The women were particularly notable in the Magnet and the Churn, in which the movements were precise and well timed, producing a snappy on-the-beat marked set of actions.

This was a production done by people who loved what they were doing. This was, over and above all else, a FUN show.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Peak Opera: HMS Pinafore

I never tire of listening to the Festival Orchestra play the lovely overtures to Sullivan's operas (I can't say "Sullivan's overtures" of course). Every night a different G&S, every night a different musical director to work under; and every night, beautiful music. Pinafore rollicks along with the promise of a fun evening, and that promise was not left unfulfilled.

There've been a few last-minute changes to cast lately, and tonight, Gareth Edwards was unable to play Dick Deadeye. When there's naught else to cast, he casts himself... yes, Ian Henderson took the part. Must have made the dress rehearsal tricky, but the show looked fine. Ian is an excellent performer; at short notice, it would be difficult indeed to find anyone better fitted to step into Deadeye's shoes.

Ensemble work was passably good all through, and excellent in places. The men were a little sloppy with their salutes and hat movements early on, but once they met up with the Sisters/Cousins/Aunts brigade, they sharpened up somewhat. Typical... they'll do anything to impress the girls! Speaking of hats, the chorus hats in "A Many Years Ago" moved in clean unison from watching Buttercup while she sang to facing front in the chorus responses; this followed a fairly consistent pattern of everyone facing front to sing - excellent for audibility and was mostly done without looking crude. Everyone sustained a level of energy and watchfulness that kept the show moving in the right direction, although at times we could have hoped for a little more pace.

The second act had an uncredited addition to it. Cousin Hebe (Elaine Bishop) sang "Why am I always a bridesmaid", solo on an empty stage - a privilege few Hebes get. Her part was considerably expanded from the Jessie Bond version that we're familiar with, but not by giving her the "Crushed again!" dialogue that is better known as Lady Jane's. Instead, she became Josephine's confidant; most of Josie's asides in the first act ("Oh, if only I dared", and so on) were delivered to Hebe, as were some of her monologues-to-the-audience (the whole "Sir Joseph's attentions nauseate me" speech, for instance). This was an interesting take on the scene, but unfortunately it was not backed up by future staging. Since Hebe clearly knows exactly what's going on, she should be in a privileged situation at the beginning of the finale; when Ralph is trying to kill himself, Hebe ought to know that it's unnecessary. But she acted with the rest of the chorus, not knowing any more than any of them. There, that's what my note tells me to say, and in my rough, common, sailor fashion, I've said it. Now I can get on with saying all the many things that I enjoyed about the show.

And foremost among the shows qualities has to be the music. Some excellent singers, most notably a strong Captain Corcoran (Ben McAteer), whose stage presence was so powerful that by merely *looking* at a cat-o'-nine-tails he could scare the sailors! His most attractive daughter Josephine (Roma Loukes), edging out Celerity and Impunity for the title, had vibrato enough to share, but a beautiful top range. Gracious enough to share the stage with Hebe for her second act aria, or flatly refusing to offer a common sailor her love, she carried herself with energy throughout the performance. Opposite her, Ralph (Harry Bagnall) gave us a clear and lovely tenor voice, and he matched Josephine in energy. He knew how to sing in an ensemble as well as in solo work, and the vocal balance in "A British Tar" was superb - all three parts could be heard. Likewise the Bosun (David Thomson, if I'm reading the programme aright) in the first act finale; being heard over a chorus without majorly dominating them takes some care - unless your character is the type to simply cut through and be heard, as Buttercup (Lucy Appleyard) was to an extent. The bumboat woman didn't seem to do a very good trade in the snuff and tobacco and so on that she brought to sell, but she quite probably has, well, another source of income. (And perhaps there's something to be done along the lines of reading weather reports in people's hands ("Warm, winds light to variable, and there is a cool change in store for you")? But, I digress.) Sir Joseph (Adam Bishop) was quite a Pooh-Bah of ego and flatterability, who seemed genuinely surprised that Josephine didn't fall for him. His good diction, decent sense of comedic timing, and the fun by-play between him and various other characters - mostly Corcoran - kept the show bouncing along Finally, and in a very successful violation of the "Never work with animals or children" rule, two young boys (whose mother was singing in the chorus) added a fun touch to the show. Tom Tucker (Max O'Brien) was joined by a short John Silver (his brother Daniel); they scurried about hither and yon, running small errands, bringing information, or whatever else was necessary; one of them even carried Ralph's loaded pistol off stage after he decided he wouldn't use it!

Overall, the show had the appearance of a final dress rehearsal. It could have done with a little more polish, and there were some unfortunate mishaps of dropped lines, but had there been a longer season these would have been corrected. The company clearly enjoyed what they were doing, and it translated well to our enjoyment in the audience.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Trent Opera: Yeomen of the Guard

Tonight kicked off the adjudicated portion of the G&S Festival 2011, with a most enjoyable Yeomen. Gillian Humphreys gave her opinion of the show, emphasizing that this was just one person's view, and that every single audience member can and should be able to do the same - so, without further ado, here's mine.

Yeomen is darker than most of the G&S operas, and has many moments of drama, rather than comedy - not that it isn't funny, but it needs to be so real. And tonight, those scenes were beautifully rendered; the characters really existed, they were not caricatures.

The set was simple, with just an elevated platform and lots of open space to use. After a stirring and beautiful overture under Andrew Nicklin's skilled direction, we were treated to a lovely-voiced Phoebe (Jessica Nicklin) on the empty stage. Shadbolt (Stephen Godward) poked around and listened to her sing, then made his presence felt. Their interaction then, and equally later on, was strongly played and energetic; Phoebe made her views on assistant tormentors quite plain. Her father Sgt Meryll (Michael Tipler) had an excellent voice, satisfactorily justifying the inclusion of "A Laughing Boy But Yesterday". As with Phoebe and Shadbolt's, the duet between Meryll and Carruthers (Christine Anson) had energy and strong character, and realistic emotion. These scenes were not played for laughs; they were played straight, by a cast and director who trusted Gilbert's words to carry the show. Dame Carruthers had a little trouble staring people down at times (even Phoebe dared to talk back to her), which may have been deliberate, but it meant that she was unable to command the stage. Her singing voice was nothing to complain of, although she was somewhat outshone by her niece Kate (Charli Baptie - not listed in the programme), whose sweet clear soprano in "Strange Adventure" and set of individual tablets elevated the first-act cipher to her second-act cruciality. But of course, when it comes to beautiful soprano voices, it is no wonder that the best was cast as Elsie; in her marble-count aria ("Tis done!"), Alexandra Saunders completely won our sympathy. (She still had a few marbles at that point - didn't lose them until later.) Later, when she had a choice of suitors, she made a definite and clear decision; there was no hesitation and no ambiguity, she chose one and not the other - and Jack Point (Alastair Massey) moved further down the path to a broken-hearted finale. Alastair's singing is not what I would normally look for in a principal G&S performer, but he is competent at patter, and his expressive acting makes up for the musical ability somewhat. Alas, for all his jesting and jumping about, he was unable to impress his new master the Lieutenant, although the audience did appreciate his jokes. Both he and the Lieutenant 9William Revels) demonstrated excellent diction, being quite audible and comprehensible even in the gallery. I have to be careful how much I say about the gentleman who will shortly be playing in our Yeomen, but he is definitely to be commended for putting on a competent performance at extremely short notice. Fairfax (Joseph Shovelton) completes a quality cast of actors and singers, bringing professional talent as well as professionalism to the stage.

I shan't try to predict which shows are most likely to win which prizes, and to a large extent it really doesn't matter. But Gillian and I both enjoyed the performance, and from the sound of the applause that greeted the extended curtain calls, so did many many others in the audience.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Edinburgh G&S: The Mikado

Quite a good house - and I was there for the performance! The Mikado is generally a popular show, so it's no surprise that it's packing in the audience tonight. Not completely sold out but it's only the restricted viewing seats and the sides of the gallery that have empty space in them. And, unlike the Pirates we saw on Saturday, the boxes are in use too. Quite a few children in the audience (my apologies, Mr Bah - "young persons"), which is all to the good.

Rather than following the traditional running order, this performance reverted to the opening night arrangement - The Sun Whose Rays was sung in the first act, and the Little List song wasn't until Ko-Ko knew he needed to behead someone. Also, Were You Not To Ko-Ko Plighted had two verses; unfortunately, Yum-Yum's diction was not quite as good as I might have liked, and some of the words were lost. I can see why the now-traditional edits were made, but as a variant Mikado, this worked well. (Incidentally, the "bassoon chuckle" from Three Little Maids was kept. Those bars would sound a bit empty without it!)

Speaking of traditional, there were a couple of shout-outs in the Little List song, including to the "adjudicationist" (and yes, this year we have a female adjudicator, so she fits in the Singular Anomaly slot) and "Anyone named Smith". As always with any such changes to words, diction is crucial, and Ko-Ko (Geoff Lee) delivered every consonant to the gallery. I do harp on about that a bit, but it really is important; poor diction destroys numbers, but excellent diction can prevent what could otherwise have been a problem - such as when the Mikado (Ian Lawson) and Katisha (Fiona Main) were all the way upstage for "From every kind of man", but could still be understood. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Nanki-Poo (Scott Barron), whose lines sometimes didn't quite get all the way up to the ceiling; however, he gave a highly entertaining performance, particularly in duet with Yum-Yum (Gillian Robertson); if you're already familiar with the words, it's not as great a loss as it might be. And he performed with great energy, which is always a good thing. Yum-Yum carried her emotions strongly, being quite definitely "distracted" when Nanki's death was announced, and giving enthusiastic approval to the notion of a Ko-Ko/Katisha marriage. Pitti-Sing (Rae Lamond) also gave a strong performance, buoying scenes along with her anger or approval, and trying - unsuccessfully - to keep Pooh-Bah (Matthew Stanhope) from making a fool of himself in front of the Mikado, by seeking payment for singing his verse of "Criminal Cried". He had all the haughtiness that his history could boast, the unbalancing power of ancestral recall being ridiculously exploited; but he was too useful to be ignored. (Although, even light insults would add up - it would get quite expensive to do things in Titipu.) The functional functionary Pish-Tush (Andrew Edmonstone), and the lesser Go-To (Andrew Crawford), had figured out how to treat Pooh-Bah and were doing themselves fairly well; both performers demonstrated the energy and presence necessary to keep the show alive.

I was a little disappointed with the lighting in a few places, with the four corners of the stage all being quite dark at times, but the "evil lighting state" for Katisha was effective, and "The hour of gladness" in near darkness on a nearly empty stage was decent. "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day" had everything in darkness upstage, except for one odd puddle of yellowish light - I was left wondering if something would happen there, but nothing did.

Ensemble synchronization was quite good tonight. (Yes, that's another thing I harp on about.) Not as crisp as in Saturday's Pirates, but more noticeable - the simultaneous fan movements can be heard as well as seen. Some of the staging felt a little static early on, but improved by the second act. Harmonic balance wasn't bad; Sullivan's lovely alto lines came through beautifully. The show was hilarious fun, pork pie encores particularly so, and tonight's cabaret was worth waiting for. A long night and a fun one!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

G&S Opera Co: Pirates of Penzance

Gallery seats are quite a bit more expensive this time around than they were on our previous trips, but we know now that the G&S Opera Co shows are worth seeing. To ensure that we'd get good seats every time, I booked our entire season's worth of tickets at once; good seats are available in the gallery for all the shows at the moment, but that might well change as the weeks pass. And now, sitting here in the house, I can't see many empty seats - there's a few here in the gallery, and in the restricted-viewing seats on the sides, but the rest is mostly full. I wish we could get houses like this back home!

So here we are once more on the scene of everyone's former triumphs. The very first show of the festival, a matinee of the pro Pirates of Penzance. According to the programme, this show is directed by Gary Slavin, so I have some fairly high expectations (will he have the principals downstage center to sing?). He did not disappoint. Musical direction by Timothy Henty was similarly expert, as he kept the cast and orchestra together with only a couple of strayings (such as in Beautifully Blue The Sky, with the girls all the way upstage and less able to see him). Pace was maintained throughout the show, with rapid-fire dialogue never losing its crisp audibility.

Owing to an unfortunate loss of voice, Rebecca Bottone was unable to play Mabel, but as Ian Smith announced in front of the curtain, all the cast are excellent performers in their own right, and one of the chorus (Rebecca Moon) stepped up to take the role. I have no idea where she came from for her entrance - perhaps she was already in the chorus - very skilfully handled. She was a little weak in the "chook bit" and final cadenza in Poor Wandring One, but was otherwise excellent. Her place in the chorus was filled by an uncredited Rachel Middle, who at extremely short notice played the part smoothly - a highly competent stand-in.

The technical aspects of this show were well handled, although a few things had the feeling of the beginning of the season (there was a sudden and unexpected flash from one of the follow spots at the end of Cat-Like Tread). Lighting states mostly worked, but there were some persistent shadows downstage, and sometimes people were in shadow up on the rostra as well. But apart from that, everything was visible as it ought to be, and the second act starfield background was quite effective.

Act I opened with the pirates celebrating Freddy's birthday... by singing Happy Birthday quite flat. From there the show rollicked along as Pirates generally does, the pace being maintained through good tempi and machine-gun dialogue; we hardly got a chance to applaud after several numbers as the show just kept right on going. Diction was excellent all round, with special commendations going to Frederic (Jeremy Finch), the Pirate King (James Cleverton), and Samuel (Alastair McCall). In the audience were quite a few people who'd never seen Pirates of Penzance before, and they were laughing at all the jokes - every one of them was delivered audibly and with an excellent sense of comedic timing. Every ensemble number demonstrated an enviable precision and synchronization with the entire chorus moving exactly on the beat.

A number of the "classic" gags were abandoned (the Major-General having trouble with his rhymes was cut back severely), and new ones brought in to replace them. The Pirate King ascertained that it was half past eleven by gauging the direction of the wind, and when Samuel invited his compatriot to seize his dark lantern, the item in question was rolling down towards the orchestra pit - I don't know if that was deliberate or not, but it certainly made a lot of sense! Frederic and Ruth maintained their amusing byplay through all their scenes, but no matter what, they still managed to face the audience to sing - as did everyone.

Every member of the cast demonstrated excellent stagecraft and singing. I can't single out anyone in the chorus, as they all remained focused on the action, energetic, and enthusiastic (even gleeful, as the Stanley girls donned black armbands while singing "Go ye heroes, go and DIE!"); the harmonic balance was carefully maintained, with all parts audible in such as "Help! Oh, a tree!" and the counterpoint double chorus in Foeman's Steel. The stage was fully utilized, although there were occasions in the second act where things looked a little cramped downstage left; the cast had no trouble getting on and off stage in good time, avoiding the sloppiness of having three choristers still on stage when the dialogue implies that everyone's gone. Singers were downstage enough to be heard, even all the way up in the gallery.

The star-studded lineup of leads bears some noting. As mentioned above, Rebecca Bottone did not perform Mabel as listed in the programme, but Rebecca Moon gave an excellent rendition of the part. If we had not been told of the substitution, we would not have known that she hadn't been originally cast for the role; her top notes were ample for the part, and managed to break, if not the glass windows, then at least the nearby Frederic (Jeremy Finch); and his top notes were enough to break one of the girls, who swooned upstage while he sang downstage. Edith (Angela Simkin) and Kate (Melanie Lodge) carried their lines beautifully, holding harmonies and maintaining characters throughout their solos and the ensemble work; Edith and Mabel sang the "thirds apart chook bit" in the second act finale without a hint of rivalry. At the other extreme of vocal range, the Sergeant of Police (Bruce Graham) gave us a superb bass, backed by his half-dozen good basses, all of whom were crisp and accurate in their sung responses to Mabel's speech about Frederic. Comedic timing was in evidence everywhere but nowhere better than Simon Butteriss's Major-General Stanley during the Orphan/Often exchange with the Pirate King (James Cleverton). Again, rapid-fire dialogue kept the show from dragging, even through the dramatic-effect pauses. Ruth (Louise Crane) moved around the stage at a stride, able to get to exactly where she wanted to be at exactly the right time ("Let me tell you who they are" downstage center, immediately after entering stage right), and Samuel (Alastair McCall) didn't even need to move around the stage if he didn't want to - he could be heard just fine from anywhere. Excellent diction (oh, I already said that didn't I).

This is an excellent show; I am right glad to see it, and so's Michael. At the risk of sounding like an advert, I'll point out that there are several more performances coming up - tonight (as in, right about now), tomorrow, and a couple more in the coming weeks. Tickets are more expensive than they have been in previous years, but the show is well worth seeing. My heartiest congratulations to all involved.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Thornton's Chocolates Centenary

It seems we came to England at the right time. On the way back from Aldi, I dropped in on Thornton's in Spring Gardens (if you know the geography of Buxton, that's like going from stage left to stage right via the lighting box). It's a chocolatier that I remember from our last two trips as being good, but a tad on the expensive side.

Turns out that it's their hundredth year in business, and they're celebrating with some decent discounts! I picked up four 230g boxes for 10 quid, and a couple of "lucky dip bags" of unknown content (but guaranteed to be worth at least 18 pounds) for the same price. Stocks are nearly out, but if anyone else has a Thornton's near them, it'd be a good time to drop in and see what they have!

Mmm chocolate.

Travelog 2011 part 3

The third and final leg of our journey is on a slightly differently-configured aircraft. From Dubai to Manchester, we're spending seven hours on a plane that has power points in the seat backs (two between three in Economy, which is fine for us), and a rather unexplained ethernet port in the middle seat. I've plugged into this port and it's given me DHCP, but I cannot easily see where to go from here... it's quite undocumented. Still, seven hours on power? Don't mind if I do.

The ethernet port is quite a mystery. It's live, in that I can see a router and get a 172.16 address; but there does not appear to be anything else on it. I suppose it could potentially be used for seat-to-seat sharing, although not between us as we have only one port between us; perhaps it's a cool feature that isn't yet implemented. In any case, there's no internet available on this plane (no 3G either - it's active on a lot of flights but not this one), so no logging on from 10,000 meters up.

It's approaching pi time in Melbourne again, so we've been in transit for 24 hours. It doesn't feel like 3AM of course; in Manchester, it's now 6:12PM. By the look of things we'll be landing ahead of schedule, for a roughly 25 hour trip. Airport wifi at Manchester was a pay-for service last time we landed there (in 2007), so I'll be checking that out to see if it's changed. I still have the PDF receipt from last time's wifi purchase (5 GBP) sitting on my desktop, which is quite a feat considering that it isn't even the same laptop. Apparently desktops and laptops are completely independent things.

As we're now descending into Manchester, I'm making the timezone change; it's no longer 3:41AM Fri Melbourne time, it's now 6:42PM Thu UK time.

19:00. Touchdown! Bit bumpy but nothing to worry about. We plan out our disembarcation procedure during the taxi; it's quite pointless as the Business Class people will take far longer to get out than we will to get ready, but as an exercise in mathematics, it's fun. Sure enough, we're all ready to walk out well before the curtain opens to let us through... but hey, we were efficient! Side note. On our second leg, David had the window seat, I was in the middle, and Michael had the aisle. David had stepped out for a stroll when dinners were delivered, so we had to accept three dinners onto trays and then get David back into his seat without spilling anything. The result was a complex Tower of Hanoi manipulation in which people stood up, were passed trays, and moved around the cabin, with mathematical precision. Effective and efficient in both time and space!

19:30ish. We're all done with Customs and poking around for a bus. I've spent most of this time going through all the various unsecured wifi networks here, and have found one that permits 30 mins free (per MAC address) but "no VPN". Seems that "no VPN" actually means "no traffic on any port other than 80". So no trophying. :( Fortunately though, it's enough for me to retrieve one extremely crucial piece of information from my cloud. This is why I cloud things. It works.

The bus from the airport to Buxton runs once an hour at this time of night, so we're stuck waiting here for thirty minutes. The bus actually drops by here twice; it goes to Stockport, then back to the airport, then to Buxton, then back. I automatically suggest riding the bus out and back, only to be met with the scornful reminder that we're paying per trip here - no multimodal ticketing that makes extra trips free. Oops.

20:04. Not a lot to do here, it has the same feeling that we had at 8:30pm at home when we were to catch the bus at 9:15 - we're all ready, everything that needs to be done is done, but we can't proceed until the appropriate time. Since the wifi dropped me at the end of the 30 mins, I've been back to "isolation level 10,000 meters" (try that one, DBAs - it's great for safety), and am waiting until our arrival in Buxton before I can actually do anything useful. It's 5AM back home, so there won't be anyone there to talk to, but I would like to drop in on Minstrel Hall and see who's around.

21:45. The 199 bus made excellent time to Buxton, depositing us in the familiar stop at 21:33. As in previous years, the Derby HoR staff are helpful and prepared, and we're settled into our rooms with a minimum of fuss. The arrangements for the internet connection seem to have changed, but we can still get it for free (have to make a login, and it tries to up-sell us a faster link, but we can get a decent one for nothing). May cause some issues later on, but we'll sort that out. For now, Traal's the only device on the net. I'm going to try to sort that out... tomorrow.

Travelog's over now; we've arrived. Subsequent blog posts will hopefully have more real content to them.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Travelog 2011 part 2a

Small postscript to the previous entry. As we approached Dubai, the in-flight display showed us a whole lot of connecting flights, in a nice table. More or less what you'd expect, but my database-driven mind did a double take; the columns were, I was pretty sure, "Flight", "Destination", "Time", "Date" - and the fourth column had a "TBA" listed. Ooops - that actually said "Gate". Yeah, that makes a bit more sense!