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!

Travelog 2011 part 2

or: "Hi, uhh, my ice is frozen."

After playing around with Malaysian wifi (and seeing a number of web sites that genuinely merit being in the .my TLD), we headed back into the plane for the next leg. In Melbourne, wifi costs money but there's plenty of power points around; in KL, there's free wifi (you do have to sign up and watch an ad, but then you get full access - the SSID is "Free Y5 @ DOME"; the "FREE_WIFI@KLIA" one works, but only gives port 80 - not even 443 - and is slow), but power points are hens teeth. Anyway, we finished up in good time and re-boarded, only to learn that sixteen pax were late to the gate. We end up pushing back at 12:30 Melbourne time, and taking off at 12:39. The plane is full now, or pretty close to it, so there's no moving around. Traal sits on my lap - perfectly safe, sleeping comfortably. Emirates cabin crew understand that people who carry laptops are intelligent enough to keep them safe... unlike the US domestic airlines we flew with a couple of years ago, who understood only the rules.

On these planes, I'm starting to live the life of a cat - all I do is eat, sleep, and blog. (What, you've never seen a cat's blog?) I try to overcome this by doing a spot of coding, but it's not easy to type in the available space between my seat and the one in front, so I abandon the notion and just listen to stuff on the in-flight info/comms/entertainment system. Until the screen stops responding to me. Meh. Part way into the flight, I grab the attention of one of the cabin crew to say... "Hi! Uhh, my ICE is frozen, can you reset it please?"

He notes my seat number and reboots my ICE a few minutes later (the next time he got down the back, I think), and I get to watch the loading messages. Nothing of particularly great interest, nothing that tells me much about the internals (except that it doesn't seem to be an in-seat PC, which is how I'd do it - each with an IP address that corresponds to the seat number, eg .17.2 for seat 17B), but fun to watch anyway. Fifteen minutes later, I'm going through the movies and it puts me in category "(null)", which seems to have some random trailers, and shortly thereafter, the ICE crashes again. I am not accustomed to computer hardware failing on me twice in quick succession like that; that's something that happens to other people! My recommendation: Do a RAM check on seat 17A's PC. Oh wait, they're not PCs. Oh well. Still, there must be a reason. Anyway, we have three laptops and two ICEs between us, so we're not short of stuff to watch.

We're now approaching Dubai, although we've been put on hold until an Air Traffic Customer Service Operator is available. Current wait times are 10-15 minutes. So we're sitting here listening to really expensive music courtesy of the Rolls Royces on the wings, only we get to enjoy a sort of slow rollercoaster ride at the same time. However, on the up side, we are ahead of schedule, so there'll be extra time to poke around Dubai Airport, hopefully finding wifi and power.

19:38 (Melbourne time): Plopped down in Dubai, on wifi and power. Yay. Connecting flight's already been called, but we have a smidgen of time before we have to get down there. Hopefully enough to check emails and stuff; definitely enough to add another trophy IP to my collection.

Travelog 2011 part 1

The flight from Melbourne to Kuala-Lumpur has a lot of empty seats on it. We'll presumably be picking up more people for the K-L to Dubai leg, same as happened last time; but until then, there's room enough for us to spread out a bit. Boarding began rather later than we expected, so we sat in the airport lounge with power points handy, meaning that I now have plenty of battery power - always a good thing for a geek! - and we're enjoying the luxury of Emirates service. Michael and David are sitting in their assigned seats, while I've nipped forward to the vacant seat row ahead. Takeoff (which happened at pi time, 03:14) requires that all electronics be securely stowed, so Traal gets to sit beside me, safely seatbelted in like any other passenger.

Airports generally bustle with activity at all hours of the day and night, but Tullamarine seemed actually to be quite asleep as we went through - more shops were closed than open, and everything was surprisingly quiet. I'm normally active at this sort of time, so the hour didn't faze me at all, but Michael and David seem to prefer the quieter life. Well, let 'em sleep... we have a few hours ahead of us before the K-L stop.

Bilinguality is made fairly convenient when one of the languages reads left to right and the other right to left. Small brochures like the in-flight menu have the English first AND the Arabic first.

Now to sort out the in-flight entertainment system so I get some nice music as well as the downward-looking camera... Phantom of the Opera will do nicely.

06:20 (still on Melbourne time). A glance at the map gives some idea of how vast Australia is. We've been flying for a good three hours (that's longer than a bad three hours, in case you're wondering), are well on the way to our first landing, and where are we? Cruising over the desert of Western Australia toward Broome. Based on the "Airshow" (real-time map display and trip information) data, I expect we won't cross the coast for another hour or two.

07:25. As estimates go, not too bad. We're now heading out to sea past Broome. That's four hours of flying and more than half of the journey before we leave our native (golden) soil behind us.

09:39. Breakfast was a rather delicious omelette with some oddments including a bread roll, for which strawberry jam was provided. On seeing the latter, I immediately began whistling Sorcerer, but stopped on realising that the remaining ingredient would never be served on an Arab airline. However, we did have the opportunity for some Sound of Music when the hot drinks were brought around. (I think both my readers will recognize those references.)

Over breakfast Michael and I discuss the pressure vessels found in breakfast - can of soft drink, cup of orange juice with foil on top, bread roll sealed in plastic bag - and the possibility that they're deliberately pressurised to 8,000 feet the way the plane is. It seems likely enough; there's definitely enough business worldwide to justify making items unique to the airline industry, and overpressured foodstuffs would make for regular disasters at altitude.

It's now light outside, but the downward camera is hardly exciting. Seems there's some cloud between us and the earth - pesky stuff, that, pity it's so essential to life! Meanwhile, across on the other aisle, cabin crew take a photo of a young family using what is unmistakably a Polaroid, complete with the classic "shake the pic to make it develop faster" (no idea whether or not that actually works, I don't use Polaroid).

Touchdown at 10:55 Melbourne time or 8:55 local time (three TZs away but DST). Extremely smooth - almost a three-pointer. We popped out of the clouds straight onto the piano keys.

I'm posting this hastily from KL's free wifi. Unfortunately there's no non-HTTP access, so unless I can mail home a CGI script that'll let me access other things via Apache, it's not looking good... but hey, I can post this. And I claim among my trophies. :)

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Packing for England

When a geek packs for an overseas trip, the definition of "necessary" isn't quite what it would be for someone else. I am taking more batteries than t-shirts... more power adapters than pairs of socks... more cables than jumpers (and that includes the type you wear as well as the type you put across contacts)... more network ports than bottles of duty-free port...

24 hours from now, we'll be in the airport awaiting departure. It's good to be flying Emirates again; their forward- and downward- looking cameras make great in-flight entertainment. Who needs a window seat when you can just watch on your own screen!

Like our previous trips, I'll be blogging periodically. Unlike our previous trips, Clippy won't be; but Midga will, so follow as well as this one if you want random news of England.

On to Buxton!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Beauty and the Beast in concert - Waterdale

As a not-so-secret fan of the geeky leading character, I was not sorry to support a friend by coming to this concert version of Beauty & The Beast. The atmosphere is intimate and friendly, with non-allocated seating in an auditorium that seats only a hundred people. By the time I booked tickets, every performance was sold out except the Sat matinee; and it, too, has sold out - a good sign.

There's no curtain, so we can see the orchestra readying themselves on the stage, and occasionally we see a patch of light under a door as people move in and out behind the stage. Two minutes to show time, the ensemble file out, all wearing show t-shirts - looks good, like a Savoynet cast photo. In their neutral blacks they can fit into any scene, but what's more impressive is that they can stay out of a scene without leaving the stage - with no little skill in sitting still and looking invisible.

Above the orchestra, a small projection screen took the part of the mirror and rose and a few other things. There were a couple of additional times when I would have liked to see it used - when the Beast gave Belle her special gift, and we just had to guess at what it might have been. Other than that, it served its purpose well.

The opening announcement was done by Gaston, in the same way Alfred Doolittle did for Scotch's My Fair Lady - complete with plenty of egotistical comments. (Advertise yourself, Gaston. It's what you do best.)

The chorus did an excellent job of carrying the action while focusing attention on the leads - for instance, in "Bonjour" they wore muted colours, while Belle was in the classic blue-white, and Gaston in red; also, any time they were not singing, members of the chorus remained almost perfectly stationary. During "Kill the Beast", typical crowd-conversation staging had them talking to each other; the three cloaked ensemble members spread the word, and everyone else carried it through animatedly.

Belle (Jacqueline Levitas) did enjoy her books, rather a lot. She somehow failed to return one, even when she went to borrow another. Apparently she's such a popular customer at the bookstore that he's happy to give her both books! At least she has the brains to use them, though, unlike the three awesomely stupid Silly Girls (Caitlyn Burt, who also played Babette, and Sarah Kiely and Sarah Burke) - whose greatest trait is to move and act in perfect synchronization in their fawning over Gaston (Robert Clark). Larger than life, with his ego pumping yes-men, he commands the stage. And leader of his yes-men, Le Fou (Anthony Julian), manages to own the stage when it's appropriate too, in his own inimimimimitable way. The two of them with Monsieur D'arque (Alexander Pech) form a fairly devastatingly evil trio, quite... quite delightful. But no threat of lunatic asylum fazes Belle or her father Maurice (Kristopher Brown) - not when they have the mirror on their side. The glow from the mirror is an excellent effect - although I would have liked to see more of the Beast up on the top mirror. He probably wouldn't have been hideous enough to project, though; played by Sam McPartlan, he has quite a decent voice, and isn't quite ten feet tall (sorry Maurice). But he has the trademark roar of temper, enough to scare Lumiere (Nathan Wright) and Cogsworth (Sean Walpole), who spend most of the show either by-playing off each other or getting in trouble with the Master. Still, they do get to order the master around once - "DANCE!" (it's probably the second-funniest waltz I've ever seen) - and I'm still not sure which of them won the one-upmanship contest. Not that Mrs Potts (Emma Fitzgerald) cared; anyone for a spot of tea? And Chip (Phoebe Bengough) was too well-behaved to complain at not knowing what was going on. Ever-helpful servants, they only live to serve and chat - and, in the case of Madame Grande (Bec Muratore), sing. Poor little forget-me-not, at least she still has that opera-singer voice; it's powerful enough to shatter, if not glass, then at least the confidence of the invaders and encroachers!

The technical aspects of the show did extremely well with minimal resources. Lighting (with one single follow spot) and smoke were used to good effect; even using the work-lights for one bright flash. The sound was a little out of balance at times, but most things were audible. The ensemble created some fairly indicative wolf-eyes with pairs of torches, and both they and the crew kept the microphones ready for the people who were going to need them - always preempting requirements, keeping things moving smoothly. Pieces of set were reused in several places, which also helps to reduce pressure on backstage room - which was clearly in short supply. And then a couple of crowning moments of awesome... at the end of "Be Our Guest", a massive pop emits a cloud of tinsel-confetti all over the stage!

Staging was of course simplified down to fit the small stage, but things still worked quite well. The songs "Gaston" and "Be Our Guest" were superb - well sung and well danced, as the first citizen put it. I suppose it's predictable that the leading girl will get my attention, but Jacqueline does have a wonderfully expressive face. During "Be Our Guest", she has nothing to sing, but plenty to act - and her wide-eyed enthusiasm helped to lift the number that bit further. And when she's miserable (when she realises what the beast is demanding of her), it's all written there on her face; but the joy and love that fill her soul later on, when she rejoins her father, are equally visible.

Smoke was used extensively in a number of scenes. (It smelled somewhat like maple syrup, which would make some weird form of sense given that Pancake Parlor sponsored the show!) Can't be good for the cast's voices, but it was an effective look. There were quite a few outlets... even Mrs Potts's spout, which caused several intruders alarm!

The programme states that Waterdale shows aim to provide opportunities for young people to get involved in theatre. This is clearly the case, and is reflected in the staging; several times, the cast were moving around and even climbing down off things immediately after a black-out. Good eyesight does help there; nobody appeared to have any problems with that.

This has been an excellent show, and shows off some excellent performers and crew.