Belgian Tragedy: Ivo Van Hove ‘reinvents’ A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic

Saturday 19th April 2014, matinée

Watching the Young Vic’s new production of Arthur Millers ‘A View from the Bridge’ made us feel as though we were witnessing a battle between a great playwright and a director who appears to want to undermine his writing at every turn and replace it with ‘spectacle’.  Thankfully Arthur Miller came out on top in our book, despite a number of irritating attempts to ‘improve’ his work.

The plot is deceptively simple – Eddie and Beatrice Carbone have brought up her sister’s child, Catherine, as their only child, and as she turns 18, Eddie must face the fact that she is growing up and one day he will have to let her go.  Meanwhile, two of Beatrice’s cousins have come over from Italy as illegal workers and are staying in the house.  When Catherine falls for the younger one, trouble ensues and we can guess that things are not going to end well, as Eddie realises there are some situations he cannot control.

Unusually for the Young Vic, the stage was surrounded by a shed-like box, which piqued our curiosity, although not in a good way.  As the house lights went down, the box was raised slowly to reveal what appeared to be a giant shower tray, with two very clean looking men having a shower with their trousers on.  Rather oddly, they then proceeded to change their clothes, while another character tried to inconspicuously dry the floor (this is meant to be a shower, remember) and on top of all this, Michael Gould as the narrator had to try to attract and retain our attention as he delivered the introductory narration for the play, battling against the noise of the water and pointless visual distractions behind him.  We cannot see why this charade was so necessary, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if the rest of the action had not become subservient to the set.  All the actors continued barefoot – was this an artistic decision or a late realisation that the floor would get marked by shoes?  Given that we are supposed to be in a downtrodden area of Brooklyn, a set which dominates the action with its sterility seems perverse to say the least.

The setting takes away everything which makes Arthur Miller such a great playwright – all sense of place, distinctions between public and private space, any sense of time and political context.  Apart from the pristine floor, the playing area is enclosed on three sides by a low perspex balcony which reminded us of a penthouse apartment.  Perhaps Van Hove was looking for something neutral, but sadly the empty space proves to be a vacuum into which any dramatic tension and texture are sucked.  The removal of dramatic tension is ‘replaced’ in this production with some very annoying and unnecessary theatrical devices, not least the painfully funereal pace.  Dialogue is marked out with a slow drum beat or underscored with church music, or interrupted with static tableaux.  The frustrating thing about all this is that everything you need is in the text.  If only the actors could be allowed free reign to play it, we might have been able to engage emotionally.  As it was we felt as though we were watching a butterfly which had been nailed to a wall.

To pick an example which may seem trivial, the costumes for most of the characters are fairly nondescript, fitting quite happily into modern times, or into the 1950s, when the play is set.  Catherine, the young niece, however, appears in a skirt which would have made even sixties’ swingers blush, and in the fifties would not even be considered outdoor wear.  The point is that when Eddie tells Catherine her skirt is too short, it is meant to show how conservative and protective he is.  In this production, he is merely pointing out the obvious.  For the plot to work, Catherine needs to be absolutely ordinary and in tune with her generation, but here she is dressed like a bizarre child-woman.

We were slightly surprised and quite pleased when we heard that Mark Strong had been cast, after we booked tickets.  He has an undeniable stage presence, and an intensity which convinces us that his family are right to be scared of him.  But we couldn’t help feeling that ultimately he had been miscast.  He can portray the physicality and stubbornness of the character, but we don’t get much complexity. He is too smooth, and doesn’t look or act as though he has done twenty years of back-breaking physical labour.  We don’t get enough of the broken man behind the bravado.  As his wife Beatrice, Nicola Walker is a constant, steely presence, the only character who can see the necessity for her niece to get away and secure her independence.  It is not easy being the voice of reason amidst the testosterone fueled drama, and she does it with quiet dignity.  As Catherine, Phoebe Fox captures the naivety of the character well and portrays the raw pain of having to both face the truth and act on it more quickly than she is ready for.

Ivo Van Hove doesn’t seem to trust the playwright or the audience to get the subtleties of the play, without constantly trying to give us more.  But sometimes less is more.  This production makes us think of David Mamet’s wise words about theatre – that artists need to learn to ‘get out of their own way’.  We suspect that Van Hove would disagree with him.

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Don’t mention the war: Bomber’s Moon at the Park Theatre

Sunday  6th April 2014, matinée

William Ivory is known for following the old writers’ adage ‘write about what you know’, giving his work a real sense of depth and texture.  In the case of ‘Bomber’s Moon’, currently enjoying a well-deserved outing at the Park Theatre, this is clearly a subject which is close to his heart - his father was a Lancaster bomber pilot in the second world war, and Ivory has already touched on the subject in his TV movie ‘Night Flight’.

We can’t think of an actor better qualified than James Bolam to play grumpy old man Jimmy.  It’s a role he began honing his skills for in his twenties, judging by this early example from the Likely Lads, and the opportunity to see him doing it live was too good to miss.  In fact our enthusiasm was so great that we had to go twice – the first time the performance was cancelled due to water problems.

The plot doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs.  It centres around Jimmy, battling old age, illness and increasingly frequent flashbacks to his time as a rear gunner in the second world war.  Enter David, his carer, who soon reveals plenty of care needs of his own as the cheery and optimistic facade starts to slip.  Fortunately, this is more dark comedy than drama and is full of sharp, down to earth dialogue and mordant observations on growing old, dealing with death and coming to terms with loss.  Using faith as a central theme, the play asks the question, do we need faith or is love enough?  One way or another, the desire to find meaning, whether secular, religious or superstitious, seems inescapable, and raises the play above sit-com territory.

James Bolam more than delivers, making every line count with masterful timing, and giving the character an unpredictability which is highly entertaining, whether ranting about the trivialities of institutional life, using his advanced age to get away with being politically incorrect, or making light of his own contribution to the war.   Steven John Shepherd as carer David is the perfect foil, a sitting duck for Jimmy’s piercing analysis, but ultimately an unlikely source of insight and change.  He gives a perfectly nuanced performance, conveying the fragility and brittleness of a troubled soul and the desperate need to do some good for those around him as part of his own rehabilitation.  The chemistry between them brings warmth to a situation which might be rather grim and hopeless in different hands.

The set is well-used – the realism of Jimmy’s sheltered flat contrasts with the flashbacks, where clever lighting and the ceiling fan evoke night-time bombing raids with ease.

Overall, this is a play which brings fresh insights to a familiar scenario, and in a thoroughly entertaining and touching way.

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A suitable case for treatment: The Man Inside at the Landor Theatre

Saturday 16th March 2014, matinée

Our first question on hearing about ‘The Man Inside’, a new musical from Tony Rees and Gary Young at the Landor Theatre, was ‘Does the world need another adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story?’ We very much doubted it – as we pointed out in our review of Frank Wildhorn’s musical version, this is a story which has been mined extensively already.  However, the desire to see Dave Willetts on stage again, after he was so gloriously creepy as the butler in Craig Revel Horwood’s revival of Sunset Boulevard, was irresistible.

‘The Man Inside’ promises a contemporary re-imaging of the Jekyll and Hyde story, but it is largely a fairly straight retelling of the story, using the original Victorian setting.  The final ‘twist’ manages to be less sophisticated psychologically than Stevenson’s original and if you try to guess what it is you will probably be right.  The problem is that the authors haven’t found a modern framework for this story of good versus evil, and it remains stuck in the narrow Victorian obsession with sexual mores, with the violence becoming almost an after-thought.

The eighty minute running time makes it difficult to tell the story in any depth, but this needn’t have been a problem if there had been a sense of narrative drive or some economy in the story-telling.  As it is there are too many songs which don’t really push the story forward, and whilst the music is pleasant enough and suitably dramatic during the scenes of transformation, there seems to be a lot of repetition in the themes of the songs, and by the end, with a few notable exceptions, such as Lizzie’s music hall turns, they become almost unwelcome interruptions.  The staging itself is well done, with an austere and simple setting that is very evocative, and the use of lighting with minimal props and scenery is very effective.

Dave Willetts brings authenticity to his portrayal of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  He creates two distinct characters with just his voice and physicality and transcends the lack of pace in the story with an aura of menace and tension, building to the climax with relentless energy.  He also captures one of the aspects of the story that is often ignored – that Dr Jekyll is also unhinged in his own way – an obsessive fanatic who is prepared to risk his own psyche to achieve his ambition, however altruistic that might be.  In the words of Banksy ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.’  This might almost be a one man show, but for the two women in his life.  As devoted fiancée, Alexandra Fisher doesn’t have a lot to work with – we would have liked to see something revealing a darker side, or perhaps less selfless motives, but she is doomed only to sing a series of adoring love songs.  Jessie Lilley manages to inject warmth, fun and spirit into the hopelessly clichéd ‘tart with a heart’, Lizzie, making the journey a little more bearable.

Overall, this production has a high quality cast and is well directed, but sadly this was not enough to make the material fly.  Which brings us back to our original question.  Perhaps it is time to give this tortured soul a rest.

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Looking for Directions? The A-Z of Mrs P loses its way at the Southwark Playhouse

Saturday 22nd February 2014, matinée (preview)

We had no trouble deciding to book for the latest production at the Southwark Playhouse, ‘The A-Z of Mrs P’, a new musical with book by Diane Samuels and Music and Lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, about Phyllis Pearsall, the driving force behind the ‘A-Z’ maps of London.  The subject seemed intriguing, and with Frances Ruffelle and Stuart Matthew Price in the cast and one of our favourite musical theatre venues hosting, we were really looking forward to an enjoyable afternoon.

We should probably start by making a confession.  We don’t like traverse staging – here are a couple of reviews that explain why (Victor/Victoria at the Southwark and Road Show at the Menier).  We came early to queue for good seats, and there is nothing more depressing than coming into the theatre and realising that even with the ‘best seats in the house’ the view is probably going to be terrible.  This is because the audience are seated in rows facing each other with the playing area a narrow strip in the middle.  Add to this the sight of disappointed faces across the stage of people whose view is going to be worse than ours, as they were stuck at the end of the rows, and would clearly miss most of the action.  It’s not a good start to the afternoon.  If only we’d realised then that this was going to be the least of the production’s problems.

The plot is centered around Phyllis Pearsall, daughter of map publisher Alexander Gross, and a successful artist in her own right, who is persuaded to take on the mammoth task of creating an all-in-one pocket guide to the streets of London, a guide which was to become the popular and well-known ‘A-Z’ brand.  Bizarrely, the story is not as interesting as it might be – although her life was quite eventful and full of eccentric characters, the focus of the story is too wide and the chronology too muddled to give it any narrative drive or real sense of drama and depth.  Interestingly, some of the key facts of the story are disputed, revealing a whole new drama which remains untold in this version.  Here we seem to have an unquestioning re-enactment of Pearsall’s own autobiography, in which some have suggested that she gives herself more credit than she deserves.  We won’t go into that here, but her much younger half brother, Alex Gross, has a few things to say about it which can be found on his blog, including some interesting email correspondence with the producers.  Of course, there is always artistic licence for playwrights, who may not want the facts to get in the way of a good story.  But in this case, the story is not interesting enough to justify the fabrication (if that is what it is).

Clear staging and strong direction might have helped to make more of the story, but in this case it seems to have added to the confusion.  We were genuinely shocked to discover that director Sam Buntrock has a string of credits behind him, including ‘Take Flight’ at the Menier, an underappreciated production of one of our favourite musicals which was full of originality and simplicity in its staging.  In this case, there is a lot of inconsistency, for example real doors (which must have blocked sight lines), but mimed knocking.  Too many of the scenes were overworked with superfluous props and overuse of the chorus, for example, the bus and cab journeys.  The whole space felt cluttered and the action just didn’t flow.  We were constantly trying to work out what was going on and trying to filter out annoying distractions.  A major flaw of the traverse style is that most of the time we cannot see the performers’ faces full on, getting either a side or back view, which creates a distancing effect, and makes it difficult to empathise and get involved in the drama.  And on top of all that the limited and bizarrely shaped space made choreography virtually impossible.

Isy Sutie plays Mrs P – she is a good comedienne but in this production there is little opportunity for humour, and she simply does not have the vocal power and range to carry off the songs.  We wonder why this wasn’t made a priority in the casting (surely the writers would have wanted their songs given the best possible airing?), but sadly it seems to be common practice in musicals to downplay the need for strong singers, and in this case, it does let down the production.  Michael Matus is the highlight of the show, playing Alexander Gross, Phyllis’s tyrannical but charming father.  A dominant figure in the drama, even when communicating largely through the medium of telegrams, he has a fantastic voice and a charismatic stage presence.  When he was off stage we found ourselves waiting for his next appearance.  Judging by recent appearances, Frances Ruffelle seems to have it written into her contract that wearing stockings and slinky slips is obligatory, and to be fair, she carries off the role of Phyllis’s unstable yet loving mother with ease, but the character is paper-thin and her talents are wasted here.  Stuart Matthew Price’s lovely voice is also given only a brief airing, although he is sweetly engaging playing the brother as both child and adult.

We can only conclude by saying that this is a very hard review to write.  We are painfully conscious that writing about what is wrong with a play or musical is easier than getting it right, but sometimes, the errors seem so obvious that it is hard to believe nobody noticed.  It seems to us that many of these problems seem to have come about because the experience of the audience was not given enough consideration.  This is a preview, but sadly these are fundamental flaws which are unlikely to be ‘ironed out’ in time for opening night.  But of course, there is no ‘A-Z’ for success in musical theatre.

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A Man of Substance: The White Carnation at Jermyn Street Theatre

Sunday 9th February 2014, matinée

There we were writing about acting dynasties, and now we have a dynasty actor, Michael Praed, no less, starring in RC Sherriff’s play ‘The White Carnation’ at the Jermyn Street Theatre.  We can’t think of many professions where one minute you are being seen by millions of people in a primetime TV series, and the next (well nearly thirty years later), you’re in a 70 seat studio theatre in the heart of the West End.  We were intrigued to finally see him in the flesh, but it was RC Sherriff who was the main reason to revisit Jermyn Street on this occasion.  His classic play Journey’s End made a big impression when we saw it more than two years ago, not just because of the subject matter, but because of the quality of the writing, and the chance to see whether ‘The White Carnation’ was a hidden gem was too good to miss.

The scene is London in 1951. John Greenwood, a wealthy, self-made man, sees off his guests on Christmas Eve after a party, and while he is outside taking in the night air, a gust of wind slams the front door shut.  There is no response from his wife inside, so he breaks in through the window, and finding everything dark, he begins to come to terms with his true existence.  Although apparently made of flesh, he is a ghost, dead for seven years, and his house has been a ruin since it was struck by a flying bomb, killing everyone inside.  The plot explores some of the more unlikely facets of ghost folklore: we have the bureaucratic entanglements of property law as Greenwood tries to regain ownership of his house, which is due to be knocked down for a building project; there is the question of how to fill an eternity of time – he wants to read all the unread books in his library and make new discoveries, but hasn’t reckoned on the limited capacity of the human brain; the policeman who ‘discovered’ him wants to make a fortune by showing him off to the world; and of course there is interest from the church as well as the spiritualists – to which he flatly responds ‘I’m not interested – I don’t believe in spiritualism’.

The beauty of the play is in its refreshingly matter-of-fact approach.  Almost devoid of melodrama or sentimentality, this is a highly perceptive and thoughtful exploration of human mortality which exploits every opportunity for dry satirical humour as the great institutions of humanity try and fail to come to terms with a real-life ghost.  Greenwood couldn’t be more down-to-earth, and as a ghost he is all too human, soon abandoning his lofty books for his beloved ‘Financial Times’.  He believes in nothing but rationality and is full of optimism that he can re-make his life, but as he discovers, all the rationality in the world is useless without compassion.  He has some difficult lessons to learn about how his loved ones really saw him.  The play almost feels like a missing link, the pre-cursor to the absurdists and playwrights such as Pinter, subverting the naturalistic form to provoke deep questions and evoke the disturbingly dark psychology of a generation who survived two world wars, some of whom may well have seemed like ghosts when they returned to their former lives.

As Greenwood, Michael Praed delivers a tour-de-force of understatement.  He is the calm centre around which the farce plays out, surrounded by a procession of characters for whom his very existence is a problem.  He has an apparently effortless stage presence which draws the audience in.  He is supported by an excellent cast of eleven (how did they all manage to fit backstage at once, we ask ourselves?) Benjamin Whitrow gives a particularly delightful star turn as the vicar, the disarming dispenser of wisdom, some of it mildly heretical, some pure common sense (‘Well, I don’t think a catholic priest could exorcise the ghost of a man who was CofE’ he pronounces at one point).  Philip York and Robert Benfield are frighteningly believable as the Home Office official and coroner respectively, and Daisy Boulton brings a breath of fresh air as Lydia Truscott, the niece of one of the officials who is an amateur ghost enthusiast eager to test her theories on the real thing.

Knight Mantell has not just unearthed a hidden gem, but given it a good polish in this tiny venue, with clear and simple staging and a clever design by Alex Marker.  Though clearly of its time, this play is as fresh as the everlasting carnation which John Greenwood wears on his lapel – an apparent impossibility which is proof of his ghostly existence.

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Less-ter is Moor: Red Velvet returns to the Tricycle

Saturday 1st February 2014, matinée

According to an interview in the Guardian, Adrian Lester’s least favourite question from journalists is ‘What is it like being a black actor?’  So he must have been delighted to discover that his wife, the actress and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti was going to write a play about the first black actor to grace the West End stage, nearly two hundred years ago in 1833.  ‘Red Velvet’ tells the story of Ira Aldridge, a highly successful African American actor who specialised in classical theatre, and whose appearance at Covent Garden as Othello, following the sudden collapse of Edmund Kean, was unfairly curtailed by the scandalised reaction of critics, audiences, and the owners of the theatre who decided they would rather let the theatre go dark than continue with him as the star. He subsequently disappeared into apparent obscurity, but the West End’s loss was Europe’s gain as he went on to become the highest paid actor in Russia, and the recipient of a state funeral in Poland, where he died.

We can see why this play, returning to the Tricycle under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction for the second time and already sold out, has been so successful.  Intelligently written and highly entertaining, the play is refreshingly unpretentious, and teases out the wider issues by keeping the story personal and real.  The central tension in the play has Aldridge being forced into the role of reluctant cause celebre, a poster boy for the abolitionist cause and trailblazer for racial minorities, while all he ever wants is to be successful as an actor, black or otherwise. The fact that he later ‘whited up’ to play other Shakespearean roles such as King Lear is a bittersweet triumph and ultimately the act of a pragmatist for whom the art is the most important thing.

Adrian Lester delivers a rounded portrayal, full of intelligence, more than a hint of arrogance, and a surprisingly childlike enthusiasm for his art.  He doesn’t try to win us over, but instead convinces us that Aldridge simply deserves to be there on his own merit, and his passion for acting has us rooting for him.  When he finally loses control and lets fly with rage and self-pity it is exhilarating.  The interplay of theatrical politics is deftly brought to life by the supporting cast, each with their own agendas.  Oliver Ryan as Charles Kean wonderfully captures the indignation of the heir apparent, expecting to take over from his father, then finding the part taken away from him – the colour of the interloper being the final straw.  Amongst the rest of the company, Simon Chandler and Nic Jackman make a good double act, the former as old hand Bernard shamelessly saying whatever is needed to work his way up the ladder, and the latter as youngster Henry, the low status actor who is more clued up than the rest of the company, and knows when to hide it to get on.  As Ellen Tree, Charlotte Lucas is a charming free spirit, cheerful and resilient.  Eugene O’Hare delivers a perfectly paced performance as Pierre La Porte, the theatre manager and admirer of Aldridge’s work, juggling all the balls to advance his friend’s career, only to find his life becoming a tragic farce, and his liberal values being eclipsed by his sheer frustration with Aldridge’s refusal to be grateful and toe the line.

There was never a better candidate for a story which needs to be told, and it is interesting to see a play which so skillfully makes the case for diversity in theatre without being overtly polemical.  We can see for ourselves how this privileged and insular acting company are in danger of becoming artistically sterile through their insistence that imitation is the only value in art – that a white man (or woman) can encompass all aspects of life without looking outside themselves.  Chakrabarti is quoted as wanting to write a play which would still address modern issues, and in our opinion she has done just that, by shining a spotlight on some of the worst aspects of the theatrical world, the conservatism and the dynastic power bases which still exist.  After all, why are there so many theatrical dynasties, and so few sporting ones?  Could it be that sport is objectively measured?  Whilst not as overtly racist as the reviews which Aldridge received, some of the comments and arguments made during the recent controversy surrounding the RSC’s failure to cast East Asian actors in their production of ‘The orphan of Zhao’ shows the same kind of complacency and conservatism, and the ease with which the cause of ‘art’ can be used to justify excluding groups of people from the artistic process.  In that sense, this is a story which is both extraordinary and universal, and beautifully told.

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What a waist: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Young Vic

Saturday 25th January 2014, evening (preview)

The story goes that Samuel Beckett wrote Happy Days partly in response to Margaret Cusack’s request that he write ‘a happy play’ after ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.  History does not record her response to the play.  Having seen a grimly hilarious production of Krapp’s Last Tape many years ago starring John Hurt, we finally had the chance to make the comparison ourselves, with Juliet Stevenson taking on the part of the invisibly legged Winnie in a new revival of ‘Happy Days’ at the Young Vic.  To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen, we would have to admit that we prefer his earlier, funnier stuff.

We don’t usually start with the set, but in this case Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary design defines everything else about this production.  She has the heroine positioned precariously just below a ravine in a starkly beautiful cliff face of folded rock, and it is very obvious how she could have been buried up to her waist, then neck, and the likely final outcome.  Both solid looking and ever-shifting with the tiny patter of falling shingle, this landscape is utterly convincing, and throws into relief all the unanswered questions in a play which is ultimately surreal and absurd.  Any trace of realism is soon undercut by the nerve-jangling claxon which begins and ends each day (our thanks to Tom Gibbons for that).  There is no plot to speak of – we are invited to witness a typical day with Winnie, a middle-aged housewife, immobile in the centre of the stage with only her top half visible, and her husband Willie, who appears to live in a hole just out of her sight.  We are not told how they got there, in fact Winnie speaks of history being wiped clean with every day, as if she never had legs, and all that is left is her daily rituals, centred around a parasol, a large beach bag, containing amongst other things a gun, and her endless talk, most of which goes unreciprocated by her brutish husband.

We can’t imagine anyone else embodying this part so perfectly.  Juliet Stevenson is among a very few actresses we would see in practically anything – with the lightest touch she has us enthralled in Winnie’s world.  She has a translucent quality which makes you see the thoughts and emotions beneath the cheerfulness with frightening clarity.  Her performance gives us the bizarre feeling of being pulled headlong into the play, whilst Beckett’s text firmly pushes us away again.

At fist glance, one might be tempted to label this play as misogynistic.  The sheer arbitrariness of putting a woman centre stage, unable to move, in a slow, chatty, tortuous eternity must surely say something about Beckett’s attitude to women.  But to be fair, his men don’t fair much better.  He is a misanthropist, and in that sense he gives his female characters (and brave actresses) an equal airing.  His fascination with humans is obvious, but the resulting dissection seems to kill the subject and ultimately fails to illuminate its humanity, leaving us reeling not just from the horrific scenario which is depicted but from the mind which thought it up.

To borrow a metaphor from Tom Stoppard in his play The Real Thing, the main character, a writer, describes the difference between a ‘good’ play and a ‘bad’ one.  The good play is like a finely crafted cricket bat – it may look like a piece of wood, but in fact it contains numerous pieces of wood which have been carefully constructed and pieced together to make a cricket ball travel.  The bad play, on the other hand, might look like a cricket bat, but is in fact just a lump of wood.  Happy Days is neither of these things.  The skilful construction is in plentiful supply – the multi-layered resonances, the poetic use of language and metaphor, the pacing, the symbolism.  But it is as if Beckett has deliberately put the handle at the wrong end.  After an evening of admiring fine writing, we found ourselves just longing to see a cricket ball hurtling towards the boundary.

SONY DSC

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