Requiem for a Spouse: The Kreutzer Sonata at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 16th July, matinée

We can’t believe we have left it so long to go and see Greg Hicks on stage after seeing him in Little Eagles, an intriguing play about the Russian Space Race, five years ago.  Having said that, at least ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ offered us just over ninety uninterrupted minutes of Hicks alone on stage (with live musical accompaniment), in the intimate Arcola theatre.  And to top it all, this is genuine original Tolstoy.

Based on a 1890 novella which was almost immediately censored in both Russia and America, the drama is set on a train, where a man named Pozdnyshev tells us how he murdered his own wife.  He is quick to explain to his audience of fellow train passengers that he was acquitted of the crime, so they needn’t move away.  But as the narrative progresses, the comfort of his imaginary companions is clearly not his priority as he gives us an account that literally pulls no punches.

In her adaptation of the novella, Nancy Harris has avoided the temptation to ‘flesh out’ the drama by bringing the other characters onto the stage (except as projected by the musicians who give us a live performance of the eponymous piece).  She keeps a single narrative voice, and the result is a powerful portrait of a man who has completely internalised the values of a paternalistic society and yet still sees himself as a victim. In some ways he is, although not in the way he thinks.  A prisoner of his own rigid beliefs, he seems like a man incapable of being happy.

The narrative is simple, concrete and clear, and at times painfully detailed – a confessional story which makes the central character frighteningly plausible, whilst filling us with dread as each mundane occurence foreshadows something darker.

Greg Hicks raises solo drama to a new level here with a compelling performance.  There is barely any set (just a couple of benches and some clever lighting which suggests a train carriage), a few props which take on a grim significance at the end, yet he conjures the whole world of his doomed marriage, from the romantic boat trip where he proposes, to the domestic milieu, the little details which fuel his jealousy and the distorted inner world which compels him to act on it.  The biggest compliment we can pay to Greg Hicks is that he seems to have no technique at all.  He is Pozdnyshev, and this is the closest we could imagine being to joining a murderer in his cell.  Better in fact, in that he makes his strange compulsion to confess and extraordinary insight and eloquence seem like the most natural thing in the world.  The performance is flawless and utterly gripping, to the extent that we were propelled back out into the sunlight feeling emotionally and physically turned over.

All we can say is, this was well worth the wait, a brilliantly tight production from Director John Terry given an extra touch of class by pianist Alice Pinto and violinist Phillip Granell. It was Tolstoy’s wish to have the story performed with live music, such a powerful transformative force did he believe it to be, and it is hard to disagree with him.

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Groomed for stardom: Royal Academy of Music presents Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Sunday 10th July 2016

If someone had asked us if we wanted to see a group of twenty-something amateurs put on a production of Sweeney Todd, we would probably run a mile, if we hadn’t already sampled the brilliance of the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre students.  RAM has an impressive track record, and having nailed Follies, a musical about aging showgirls, we were intrigued and excited to see what they would do with this rather darker Sondheim piece.  We had already heard a spine-tingling version of the opening prologue at their 30th birthday concert, and although we would have to go a bit further afield to the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the journey was well worth it.

We last saw Sweeney Todd four years ago, when Michael Ball literally proved that he was more than just a pretty face.  It was an impressive production, and we reviewed it and synopsised the plot here.  Seeing it again, we were struck by what a good choice this is for the RAM.  Everyone has something to get their teeth into (sometimes literally), and the music is rich and dense, demanding but ultimately rewarding in the right hands.  Musical Director Torquil Munro has pulled off an amazing feat by bringing the music to life in all its glory – from shrieking choruses to heartbreaking melodies.

Director Michael Fentiman and choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane have served the students very well too.  This is a bold production with a clear vision, but without pretensions.  There are a few well chosen coups de theatre that heighten the action without detracting from it.  The show opens with a post mortem going on in a gloomy upstairs room, while bodies hang below.  At the end, the ‘body’ who has had his heart removed, rises up and reveals himself to be….Sweeney Todd himself.  Quite an entrance. Instead of being dispatched directly via trapdoor, the victims process down a staircase, and jump into the ovens below of their own accord, falling with an eerie grace.  This motif enables an emotionally powerful moment of ‘reconciliation’ at the end when Sweeney discovers the truth about his dead wife too late.  Mostly the production is focused on telling the story with clarity and pace, and, perhaps most important of all, bringing out the dark humour of the piece (aided by some excellent diction).

Lawrence Smith as Sweeney exhibits a strong stage presence whilst simultaneously convincing us that he is dead inside – his energy is palpable but contained with remarkable intensity, allowing only the smallest indications of humanity from his former life.  He seems to have literally stripped the character down to the bones.  Musically, he conveys great emotional range, bringing out the complexity and inner conflict of painful and distorted emotions in songs such as ‘Pretty Women’ (a touching piece about the beauty of women leading up to his first murder attempt) and ‘My Friends’, where the affection shines through – for his set of cut-throat razors.

Mrs Lovett is one of the great roles for women in Musical Theatre, and Elissa Churchill grabs it with every bone in her body and doesn’t let a single opportunity slip by.  She comes on in full tilt, extracting every comedic moment from her predicament as owner of the worst pie shop in London, with great delivery both vocally and visually – the gruesome lyrics are backed up with some great comic business that rams home just how disgusting these pies are.  She starts out a bit scatty and eccentric and leads us on a subtle and disturbing descent to reveal a controlling and manipulating women who rivals Sweeney in evil intent.

Francisco del Solar bubbles with energy as Pirelli, the flamboyant charlatan and rival barber.  One of the few truly vibrant and colourful characters, del Solar embodies him perfectly.  Ruben Van Keer is convincing as the hot-headed lovestruck sailor Anthony Hope.  We’ve always thought his keynote song ‘Johanna’ as little strange for a love song ‘I feel you Johanna/I’ll steal you Johanna’ but Van Keer infuses the it with genuine warmth and pure passion, leaving us in no doubt that this is one couple who have a chance of a happy ending.  Charlotte Clitherow does a great job of capturing the bizarre beggar woman with a big secret.  Veering between haunting pleas for ‘alms’ and some pretty vivid invitations to more carnel pleasures, her delivery is spot on.  It’s impossible to mention everyone, except to say that the ultimate success of this production rests on its ensemble and the atmosphere they create.  The music and action is multilayered and constantly shifting, demanding a great deal of musical and acting prowess.

One of the things we love about the RAM Musical Theatre department is their apparently unlimited ambition.  Fortunately they also seem to have unlimited talent….





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A little more than kin and less than kind: King Lear at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Saturday 15th June 2016

King Lear is not a play we would go to see lightly – it would take a pretty special actor to get us out to see it.  And finally, after teasing us with a New York run of the play, Michael Pennington has been touring with a production in the UK.  He is one of the very few actors who really fits the bill, with his vast stage experience and particular Shakespearean pedigree.  If Dances with Death was a nice warm-up to playing the tyrannical old man, this was the main event, and he does not disappoint.

Thanks to the BBC’s ‘Hollow Crown’ revivals, we’ve had an intensive grounding in the History plays.  But King Lear is new to us, and a fascinating study of the relinquishing of power rather than the acquisition of it.  Lear learns a hard lesson in what it really means to be powerless, and the play itself has a difficult and powerful message about unintended consequences.

King Lear expects the world to revolve around him and Pennington achieves this effect through sheer magnetism.  He is mesmerising, and his crisis is our crisis right from the start.  He demonstrates the overwhelming self-absorption that seems to have somehow managed to shield him from any suspicion that his two elder daughters and their husbands might have their own plans for his ‘retirement’.  His interpretation makes Lear’s madness the only sane reaction in an insane world.  In Pennington’s hands, the madness never descends into ranting, and however insane his words may seem to the outside world, he is mentally processing every sentence and giving it some kind of internal logic.  He keeps us guessing throughout.  Is this just the ‘infirmity of age’, or a quite natural reaction to all boundaries being removed, as if he is truly seeing the world for the first time.  He brings a preternatural energy to Lear’s journey, and if there was ever a case of never being too old to learn, this is it.  He ends the play truly enlightened, not self-pitying any more.

It is hard to describe the intensity of Pennington’s performance, and inevitably there is a drop in dramatic tension when he is off the stage.  Perhaps it is an intrinsic fault of the play, but many of the other characters seem underwritten.  It also seems plot-heavy compared to the poetry of Lear’s internal landscape.  However, there are some enjoyable performances.  We are told early on that the fool is pining for Cordelia, and Joshua Elliott really does convey the melancholy of a comedian who has lost his sense of humour.  His routines come from a place of pain and we can imagine how unwelcome his newfound honesty will be.  Shane Attwooll appears relatively briefly as the Duke of Cornwall and immediately establishes himself as a bruiser looking for trouble.  Catherine Bailey is a convincing Goneril, plausible as the concerned older sister who just wants the best for her father’s dotage, and gradually sucked into far more sinister motives almost in spite of herself.  Tom McGovern plays Kent, the loyal servant who is banished but decides to stick around by disguising himself with a new hat, a Scottish accent, and no glasses.  It works surprisingly well, and there is something touching about the liberation that he experiences once he is no longer bound by court rules – taking on the character of a tough and unpredictably violent commoner, he enjoys the licence of beating people up in the good cause of protecting his master.  The return to reality for him is abrupt and shocking.

There is no point in trying to hide it – we came for Michael Pennington and he made the trip to Cambridge worthwhile.  But we did wish that we had seen a production which really got to grips with the play – we just didn’t feel as engaged as we should have done.  To return to one of our favourite bugbears, what was the purpose of the vaguely early twentieth century costumes?  We struggled to work out what resonance there was supposed to be with this time in history.  And later in the play a Doctor appears with stethoscope and a red cross armband.  Sometimes these things can work, but we felt in this case the slightly random costuming was a symptom of a wider lack of focus in the direction.

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Going for Bold: ‘The Busker’s Opera’ sets up its pitch at the Park Theatre

Saturday 30th April 2016

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from ‘The Buskers Opera’ at the Park Theatre. The idea of an updated version of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ caught the imagination and we were familiar with the name of Dougal Irvine from the ‘Perfect Pitch’ showcases at the Trafalgar studios back in 2009. When we found out David Burt had joined the cast that was the clincher. We booked.

Not content with updating the original, Irvine has asked some interesting questions of it, and about the role of satire itself.  His ‘anti-hero’ is a musician who is very good at satirising the failings of the society all around him, but not very good at taking responsibility in his own life.

No knowledge of the original is needed, as we are treated to a nicely Brechtian rundown of John Gay’s version, then Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny opera’, setting the scene for a twenty-first century reboot set during the 2012 Olympics.  It can’t be called the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ because the beggars have been cleared off the streets in preparation for the games, and so the ‘Busker’s opera’ is born.  The London Olympics is a clever choice – identifiably modern, yet instantly nostalgic.  The Olympics became a magnet both for rampant capitalist greed and angry protest with the occupy movement and their rallying cry ‘We are the 99 percent’.  The morally bankrupt establishment is represented by Mr Peachum, a newspaper mogul, and Mr Lockitt, the Mayor of London (any similarity to a certain living person most definitely intended).

Irvine is a writer to watch.  He is multi-talented, producing lyrics, book and music.  His songs are prolific and cover a whole range of emotion – from the cynical ‘Love Song’, the madcap protest song ‘The tale of the rat’, the catchy ‘Do you want a Baby, Baby’, the sweet ‘Make Believe’ and the rousing ‘Change’.  He certainly has a different way of looking at things – it’s not often you go to a musical and hear a song called ‘The Invisible Hand’, a skillful deconstruction of Adam Smith’s economic theory.  You can sample some of the songs here and Irvine’s propensity for speaking in rhyme here.  What we really liked about this musical was that it genuinely had something to say – rather than try to shoehorn a well-known story into the modern world Irvine wants to ask some serious questions about modern so-called ‘civilisation’. Not everything about the story fits perfectly, but the plot gets us where we want to be, and captures some home truths about the Summer of the Games.

Casting director Charlotte Sutton has done an excellent job finding a group of talented actors, singers and musicians.  George Maguire looks the part of the modern Macheath – with just a hint of Russell Brand about him, his carefully manicured scruffiness is a facade for the privileged posh boy underneath.  He skillfully walks the fine line between charm and fecklessness, and slowly unpeels the layers of an all-too-familar character to reveal both insecurity and a genuinely surprising glimmer of hope.

Natasha Cottriall literally struts her stuff as Lucy Lockitt – think ‘Legally Blond’ but with attitude.  She gives a standout performance of the catchiest song ‘Do you want a baby, Baby?’ and perfectly captures the vacuous shallowness of the poor little rich girl.  Lauren Samuels as Polly brings warmth and sweetness as the feisty protester who is a genuine dreamer, rediscovering her artisitic inner self to escape the reality of being daughter of an obscenely rich newspaper magnate. The only character with no real cynicism, she makes us believe she might be able to reform Macheath as she clings to her version of their whirlwind romance in ‘Love Song’ and dreams of a better world in ‘Make Believe’.

John McCrea has a lot of fun as Filch, the childhood sweetheart of Polly, manipulated by her father into impersonating Macheath.  His transformation from willing office lackey to grungy musical hero is a delight as he grabs his moment in the limelight.  As the two capitalists, David Burt and Simon Kane play up their villainous mischief to the max.  David Burt, always in control and frankly irritated by the idiots around him, brings a sinister edge to proceedings as Mr Peachum, whilst Simon Kane has a nice line in buffoonery, including some excellent ‘Dad dancing’, just occasionally bursting into tantalisingly operatic pomposity.  Lotte Wakeham directs with clarity and pace, expertly co-ordinating the chaos.

As Dougal Irvine himself has pointed out in an interview, this subject provides an instant challenge to the writer – if you write about the poor and succeed, you risk becoming one of the ‘1%’ on the back of other people’s suffering.  What Irvine does bring to the table is an added layer of hope by focusing on the potential of the individual, in the finale ‘Change’. Yes, by Macheath’s own admission it is cheesy, but it does tap into Gandhi’s exhortation to ‘be the change you want to see’.  And you can’t get much more sincere than that.  A bold ending indeed!


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The Painkiller leaves us numb at the Garrick Theatre

Saturday 2nd April 2016, matinée

As we made our way to the Garrick Theatre for our second in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season, we wondered how we would fare with our severely restricted view seats this time.  We had changed things up a little by choosing the opposite side of the theatre in the Grand circle, and as the set of ‘The Painkiller’ consists of two adjoining hotel rooms, occupied by the two central characters, we couldn’t help but play a game of ‘Kenneth or Rob?’.  Since we could only see the right half of the stage, surely we would only be able to enjoy one of the performances?  The good news is that there is enough adjoining door action to allow a pretty good view, and it didn’t take long to realise that this isn’t the sort of tightly plotted farce where missing a bit of business will ruin your experience of the play, even if we did miss a few laughs along the way.

The Painkiller is adapted by Sean Foley from Francis Veber’s original and has an intriguing set up.  Two professionals occupy rooms in a hotel next door to each other – one is a hitman on his final job, to assassinate a famous criminal who is in the courthouse over the road from the hotel, the other, a photographer, is suicidal after being abandoned by his wife.  When the photographer causes a commotion by breaking the plumbing in a botched suicide attempt, the hitman realises the only way he will be left in peace to complete his assignment will be to offer to ‘take care of’ the distressed man himself.  Sean Foley hit the target with his last West End show as Director, The Ladykillers, but on that occasion he was assisted by Graham Linehan.  Would he be able to repeat his success here?

We can see why Kenneth Branagh wanted to include this play in his new season.  He is able to let rip and show off his technical prowess, with that famous vocal dexterity, and a wide-ranging talent for slapstick and silliness, which contrasts nicely with his steely hitman persona.  As he descends from ruthless killer to gibbering wreck courtesy of some overly strong horse tranquilizer, it is a joy to see the inner conflict play out as the willing spirit is repeatedly let down by the ever weaker flesh.

Rob Brydon uses his legendary loquaciousness to excellent effect too.  Self absorbed and passive-aggressive, we can see why his wife left him for another man who turns out to be obnoxious and arrogant in equal measure, and why the hitman is all to happy to assist him with his suicide.  Our only comment would be that while he has a brilliant line in the kind of shallow, brain-numbing, running commentary that drives everyone to distraction, Brydon doesn’t quite convince as a loser.

Ultimately, the show is not only less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts themselves were defective.  The plot is paper-thin, which in itself wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t overburdened with a vast amount of extraneous business.  The situation is so surreal that it is very difficult to give it the weight of familiarity which makes for really visceral comedy.  Somehow we were just in the wrong mental place to enjoy the silliness.  And the comedy is certainly that.  We suspect that even schoolboys might turn their noses up at the endless disrobing, contrived sexual shenanigans and over-choreographed violence.  The issue is not so much that the action is implausible in itself, but that the plot doesn’t really have an internal logic driving it.

Of course there are moments of hilarity, and Mark Hadfield leads the supporting cast with relentless comic energy in his role of the hotel concierge Vincent.  Overall, though, it felt as though a cast (and Director) this talented should have had material that better enabled them to show off their talents.

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Ich Liebe Dich (Nicht!): Cosi Fan Tutte at the King’s Head

Saturday 5th March 2016, matinée

As non-opera buffs, we’ve been amused to read about the way that serious opera commentators have tied themselves up in knots in the past over what seems to be the ‘Cosi’ paradox – how could the musical genius Mozart have lent his talents to such a scurrilous story?  It was resolved by the apparent discovery of the rich and subtle satire of the piece, but if Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ is to be believed, the answer is obvious if unpalatable – Mozart had the sense of humour of an overgrown schoolboy – what can you do?

The plot involves the cynical Don Alfonso, who is trying to convince two soldiers, newly engaged, that all women are faithless.  He proposes to give them a substantial cash sum if he fails to trick their fiancées into being unfaithful.  Mayhem ensues of course as he cooks up a scheme where the soldiers are obliged to disguise themselves and seduce each other’s sweethearts.  Now, what modern scenario might Director Paul Higgins use as a vehicle to update the story, we wonder?  The answer, a perfect solution for the cosy King’s Head Theatre, is reality TV.  The soldiers find themselves on the popular TV show ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, complete with neon heart logo and name badges, with most of the action taking place in a big brother style house complete with diary room.  The creative team have cleverly come up with a modern-day scenario that makes sense of the action – it doesn’t take much tweaking to turn Don Alfonso into a manipulative host who literally stage-manages events, aided and abetted by maid-turned-floor manager Despina, who quietly enjoys torturing those who think they are superior to her.  Faye Bradley’s kitsch lovers’ suite and TV screens add some nice touches and move along the action, but the analogy is not overworked.

Musical Director Elspeth Wilkes presides over a cast of six who are not only impressive singers, but skilled enough actors to extract maximum humour and pathos from the story. The two lads, Laurence Panter as Ferrando, and Jevan Mcauley as Guglielmo, make an excellent ‘Dumb and Dumber’ double act, each fancying himself the better catch. The two sisters Dorabella (Ailsa Mainwaring) and Fiordiligi (Stephanie Edwards) are also a great pair, leading each other astray whilst trying to justify their behaviour.  Edwards is particularly powerful in her sung protestations of moral certitude, whilst Mainwaring has a delightful charm and naive curiosity which makes it no surprise that she is the first to weaken.  As Despina, the floor manager and orchestrator of the ever more far-fetched machinations, Caroline Kennedy is full of knowing humour, but also brings a nice touch of bitterness as she takes vicarious revenge on her female charges.  As Don Alfonso, Steven East perfectly captures the shallow, smooth smugness of a minor TV personality purporting to occupy the moral high ground while he quietly brings everyone else down to his level.  Of course we forgive everything when he starts to sing.  Freddie Merrydown completes the picture as a silent security guard whose carefully choreographed forays on to the stage are designed to inflame trouble as much as soothe it.

We could hardly call this piece deep – it is entertaining though, and a pleasure to hear the music of Mozart so beautifully sung.  The modern setting does bring a satirical edge which is subtly disturbing – on the one hand it allows us to separate the characters from normal life, but on the other, it reminds us what an appetite there is in modern times for watching formerly happy couples destroy each other.  We think Mozart would have loved it.

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Carmen fails to seduce: Operaupclose at the Arts Depot

Saturday 27th February 2016

We’ve been fans of Operaupclose for a while, and we’ve always admired their style, taking classic operas to tiny venues.  In fact, we were a bit nervous that the Pentland Theatre in North Finchley’s Arts Depot, at nearly 400 seats, might be a bit on the large side for this intimate style of performance.  However, you can’t get much more ‘classic’ than the ever-popular Carmen, so this was a must-see for us.

A big factor in the previous successes of Operaupclose productions has been in finding a good concept, as in the casting of Madame Butterfly as a Thai Ladyboy, or the Jane Austen-esque setting for the Barber of Seville.  The dilemma here is, how do you reinvent an opera based on a thinly plotted melodrama full of misogyny and crude racial stereotypes?  In Robin Norton Hale’s version, the answer is to strip away the glamour and superficial trappings of the original.  So, the colour and vivacity of Spain is replaced with (we are told) an urban and dust-filled desert in South America.  The costumes are deliberately downbeat, and there is little sense of class or ethnicity.  The broader milieu of society is not present, and that is not just because the cast is small – the chorus just has no clear identity, and there is no help from the set either.  Knowing how skillfully this company has previously evoked whole cultures from the smallest of objects, this was surprising.

The problem with this approach is that it was difficult to understand the action without clear visual cues, but more importantly, the physical setting seemed like a vacuum draining the emotion out of the music instead of amplifying it. Carmen should be a feast for the senses – all the senses.  This also hampers the characterisation of Carmen herself, whose flirting seems to be a joyless performance.  This is one way of reading the story, but it is alienating.  It doesn’t seem as though the audience is ever meant to be seduced by Carmen.  Meanwhile Don Hose, the soldier whom she seduces and then tires of, is portrayed as a clown rather than just a naive young man, making it very difficult to see why Carmen is drawn to him in the first place, and making her behaviour seem manipulative and overtly cruel by removing the appearance of a romantic connection between them.

Which brings us to the question of whether you can put a modern reading on this piece without destroying its essence.  Robin Norton Hale, who both directs and has written the English libretto, has a clear reading of the story, published on the Operaupclose blog.  For her, a fatalistic approach, and the idea of a ‘crime of passion’ didn’t work.  But for us, the framing of domestic abuse diminishes Carmen.  It is interesting that Don Hose is said to kill her in a fit of jealous rage.  Suggesting that Carmen had all the warning signs and chose to stay or was unable to escape, completely changes the story and makes us wonder, why not just tell a different story and tell it fully?

What strikes us about Carmen is that she has the sexual mores of a stereotypical male – she seduces men and leaves them when she gets bored, and she takes no responsibility for the vagaries of ‘love’ – it’s all in the ‘Habanera’ that introduces her.  In a patriarchal society, that is crime enough, but she also makes the fatal mistake of ‘Hubris’, that key element of Greek tragedy where the hero (mostly but not always male) defies the gods with excessive self-confidence.  She thinks she can control other people, and although of course she doesn’t deserve to die, as the heroine of a tragedy, why should she not suffer the same fate as a tragic hero would?  Surely, to make her death the product of patriarchal power perversely undermines her by turning her into a victim instead of a flawed human being, especially when the scenario is so sketchily drawn and lacking in depth.

Perhaps one of our biggest frustrations was that, as we expect from Operaupclose, the quality of the music was so high. Harry Blake’s condensation of the orchestral score for a quartet of musicians is in itself a tour de force, and Flora McIntosh’s vocal dexterity and versatility as Carmen is striking. Ben Thapa as Don Hose has a rich and emotional vocal quality which belies the action, and as Escamillo the Toreador, James Harrison, dressed down in casual chic, still brings with him that charismatic aura of the bullfighter with a beautifully relaxed and warm vocal rendition of that most famous of songs. He alone seems to rise above this interpretation with a glimpse of romance and excitement.

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