Saturday, 16 September 2017

Know before you go - Vienna


August was a busy month. An insanely crazy month actually. Most of which was taken up with all the Edinburgh excitement - which you can view in the diary I kept below - but that was the end of the month. The beginning saw me travelling too, spreading my wings across the sea, over the continent and into Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. I fell instantly in love with the beautiful Vienna which was my base and I thought I would share some of my adventures with you. Whilst at the same time, letting you know some of the things I learnt about Vienna so you can make the most out of your own trip. Because I am assuming that you will want to take a trip to Vienna as well if you haven't been. I don't really understand why you wouldn't. Buy plane tickets now. Well, after this --

Vienna houses the most beautiful library in the world.

I had to put this first because it is worth visiting Vienna for the library alone. Especially if you are a booklover like me. Or if you have just watched Beauty and the Beast and you have become consumed by library envy and a wish that it was real. This will help cure that for a little while at least.


The Austrian National Library is situated behind the Imperial Palace and the Spanish Riding School, and is actually really easy to miss, even if you are looking for it. We walked around in circles for about 10 minutes, following the different signs until we realised that we were actually walking up and down in front of it. But it was worth the continued search. It was breathtakingly beautiful. 200,000 books were crammed in here. Yet they weren't crammed at all. Nestled is probably the better word. Nestled into a beautifully decorated, aesthetically pleasing long gallery. It was a total dream. I could have stayed there all afternoon, just gazing around. It left me with a feeling of such peace. Books have that effect on me. 

The buildings are just breathtaking.

It wasn't surprising really that the library was so beautiful. Everything about Vienna was beautiful. I couldn't take my eyes off every building that I passed. It was all so grand. But there was a friendly feel to them. As if they were inviting you inside, tempting you to explore similarly wonderful delights within their interiors. There is a lot to entertain you within Vienna (for instance there are about a hundred museums, you can barely walk down the street without bumping into one) but it is enough to simply walk through the city. That was entertaining enough for me anyway. Being surrounded by that style and grandeur had a similarly soothing effect to the library. It's a wonderful place.


Jaywalking is a finable offence.
However, when you are walking around, be careful not to cross the road until you are told to. Bossily, it is actually against the law to cross on your own volition. Examine the traffic lights as you wait because there is a surprise for you...


Everything is within walking distance...
There's no need to pay for those expensive tourist buses. Great!

...except for Schonbrunn palace...


Even though it's 5 miles out of the centre, Schonbrunn Palace is easily reached by the metro and SO worth a visit. The day we spent there was possibly my favourite day of the trip. It had the most beautiful gardens you could imagine. Which was just as well because when we arrived we were told that we had to wait four hours to go in. That's right. Four. We had already queued for an hour to get tickets by this point so there was no way we were going to say no and proceeded to explore every inch of the gardens.


We paid to have the privilege of access to all of it (I might have pretended that I was a princess strolling in my grounds) but actually I would advise that you don't need to do that. Just buy a ticket for all the rooms of the palace because a decent amount of the gardens is open for free. And do leave a good amount of time for them because they are extensive and utterly wonderful. Four hours was actually perfect timing in the end. We ambled around, had lunch, visited the maze, and the fountain and the Gloriette. The Gloriette was potentially my favourite part of them because not only did it give us beautiful views over the parkland and the palace, but also, as it was on a hill, it offered us a wonderful view over Vienna itself. It was a great day. And the palace was so interesting too. I definitely need to read up more on the royal family of Austria. The little taster it gave me and the importance of the palace within history was absolutely fascinating.


...and the Danube.
The other long walk we had was when we tried to find the Danube. Which runs straight through the centre of Vienna so isn't hard to get to at all. Except we didn't go the easy way. Instead we decided to go this super long way around, via the Stadtpark, first of all, (to visit Strauss. Who I thought was Mozart. But is definitely Strauss) and then all the way down to Augarten and then through some dodgy ghetto area to finally find the Danube.


We almost didn't make it. We were so close, we could practically sniff it. But between us and the river, completely blocking our view, was a huge main road and a train line that we could not work out how to cross. Google maps was telling us to walk over this huge flyover that was definitely cars only. And then we saw people. Supposedly hovering in mid air. It was a footbridge, it was a footbridge, it was a footbridge. I can't tell you how excited it made us. We walked along the main road until we saw steps and then we were there. And this was our view.


The Danube is big. Really big.
What was really cool about the Danube was it was absolutely massive! I mean HUGE. In Vienna alone it could be called big, so much bigger than the Thames, but then it is long as well. We visited three countries on this trip - Hungary, Austria and Slovakia - and we encountered the Danube in all of them which was pretty awesome.

Bratislava

Our first day trip out of Austria was to Bratislava in Slovakia. After the neat grandeur of Vienna, Bratislava was like it's messy little cousin. It was definitely charming with its narrow alleyways and colourful cute buildings but it was very understated.


To get a proper view of the city, (and of this new part of the Danube) we climbed up the hill to the castle. Which wasn't a hard walk but in the 39 degree heat wasn't particularly comfortable. It was definitely worth it though to get that beautiful birds eye view over the rooftops.


The other exciting thing about Bratislava was I found an English bookshop/coffee shop. Which is an amazing idea - to have the tables in amongst the shelves. We settled there after we had made it back down from the Castle to cool off with a mint lemonade. And could I resist a book or two? Definitely not.


Budapest
The second of our day trips was to Budapest in Hungary. We arrived in good time but we were on a tight timeframe. We only had 8 hours to blitz the place. Two of which we then wasted by walking in the wrong direction out of the train station. Don't even ask how we managed to walk for that long without realising. All I will say about that is we made it to the very end of the metro line. The end. Thank goodness we didn't go any further or we would have had no idea how to get back into the centre.


Once we had metro'd it back, we conveniently enough managed to get off by the Parliament Building. Not because we are clever or anything (you can tell that we are a little geographically challenged from the previous paragraph) but just accidentally. And now it finally felt as if we were experiencing the real Budapest.


Again this was architecturally a very beautiful city. It was a little less well looked after than Vienna but had the same kind of grandeur. St Stephen's Basilica was probably my favourite but we weren't allowed to venture far in there as there was a wedding going on. Imagine getting married somewhere as huge as this. It was beautiful and the bride was beautiful. I did stay and watch for a while despite not understanding the language.


The main thing I did notice about Budapest though was I heard a lot more English voices when I visited. It is quite an up-and-coming place for English tourists who are attracted by the cheap beer and copious amount of clubs/bars. I personally was glad that I wasn't staying over in the city because the whole 'going out' aspect did not interest me at all. And I was more than happy to return to the slightly more chilled out, Vienna for tea and cake and lounging around in the sweet little pubs.

Get to know the locals
While I was in Vienna I did actually make a few buddies throughout the week, much to the amusement of my friend who I was with. Which actually, if you can manage it yourself, was a great way to receive advice and recommendations on what we shouldn't miss. Either in terms of how to entertain ourselves or, perhaps more importantly, for what/where to eat. I always feel when it comes to eating, insider knowledge is always essential. I am forever at a loss what with all the choice. Plus I never know if a restaurant is genuinely good or just touristy. So a few recommendations are always helpful.

The food is gooood
Really good. It was like my kind of a dream. There were beautiful cafes EVERYWHERE. Because going out for tea/coffee and cake is kind of their thing. We visited this absolutely beautiful café called Café Gerstner where we sat in a booth and had a latte and a chocolate torte. Oh it was wonderful. The old fashioned atmosphere, the beautiful interior, the paintings, the little booth. It couldn't have been more perfect.


The only other day that we had time to treat ourselves to afternoon tea was when we were at the Glorriette in the Shonbrunn grounds. On the top of the hill, you could see nothing out of the window except sky and it was just delightful. Until we got plagued by a bluebottle who was determined to try some of my cake.

Our evening meals were mostly spent at the Naschmarkt, which was just round the corner from our hotel conveniently. This really was the perfect place. It is the oldest/biggest market in Vienna and the little wooden huts housed pretty much anything you wanted from bars to restaurants of every nationality. We tried a different one every night, just picking whichever one had space and looked decent.

The churches are super gothic


Almost everything in Vienna had the air of tradition and old school romanticism about it. And this was especially the case of their churches and cathedrals. I adore gothic architecture with it's sharp lines and impressive spikey fronts so I was in my element. I think the pictures do it enough justice here.


The gardens are pretty


I have talked about the architecture a lot within this blogpost but Vienna wasn't all buildings. There were some really wonderful gardens as well. We did find that they were mostly quite structured in their layouts with long straight paths being lined by trees. But a little more flowing was the Volksgarten and this was definitely my favourite with its stunning roses. The Burgarten was also wonderful and it was where we met Mozart, finally, after I mistook him for Strauss in the Stadtpark. Which was vaguely stupid.


You might not want to come home
Have I sold Vienna to you yet? I think if you aren't intrigued by it now, you probably never will be. I did learn that you should be careful what you wish for on this trip though. After lamenting, the whole journey back to the airport how I didn't want to go home, I almost didn't make it. That airport is a proper maze. The signs are little help, leading you on long looping circles. And it has the odd addition of security being situated at each individual gate. So you only go through security when you are about to get on the plane. For someone who is a bit anxious about security and likes to get it out of the way as soon as possible, this is so not good. Especially when you have to go through it twice because they decide to move your gate after you have already made it through to the airport lounge. So irritating. Maybe I should have simply stayed. Would have saved me a lot of aggravation. And I couldn't imagine a better place to get stuck in.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 7


The final day has arrived and I think us folk who have been covering/working/performing the Edinburgh Fringe (delete as appropriate) have all made it in one piece. In the morning I bid my wonderful fellow NI Critics a very melancholy farewell and then went on The Potter Trail to cheer myself up. Which worked perfectly.

It was quite simply, brilliant fun. Led by the enigmatic Richard, we were taken on a mini romp through Old Town, talking about all things Harry Potter related. Starting at the Greyfriars Bobby statue, he led us into Greyfriars Graveyard, back out and along Potterrow, down to Spoon and then back to the Royal Mile before we ended on Victoria Street.


There aren't actually that many sites, but this isn't really the point of the tour. What Richard does is immerse you into the magical world, not only through facts about JK Rowling and her life in Edinburgh but also through his extensive knowledge of the books. Clad in a robe and brandishing a green umbrella, he scattered the tour with such interesting information, some of which even I didn't know. Which surprised me a lot as I was 90% sure my Harry Potter nerdiness was at a high enough level for me to not learn anything new. Apparently not.

The tour was pretty huge, which isn't overly surprising considering it's free, and it had all ages covered from young children to adults to the elderly. It was particularly great for children and they hung off Richard's every word as if he was Harry Potter himself, the adoration clear in their faces. The robe was probably helping. And the glasses. But he was brilliant with them, teaching them a very successful spell for changing the colour of the traffic lights (it worked every time no matter who tried it), offering them a house competition and even sorting one of the children into a house.

Considering that Gryffindor took every single point for the house cup, I feel there might have been a tiny bit of cheating going on. Which wouldn't surprise me from Gryffindors. You would never find that kind of thing going on in Hufflepuff but still the mick are taken out of us constantly. And that's the only complaint I have -- there is far too much Hufflepuff racism. Everyone knows that it's actually the best house, the one that everybody wants to be in if only they were so lucky. Yes really.


It was the perfect way to end my Fringe coverage. After the tour, feeling vaguely inspired by JK Rowling's success (as I often am when I am here in Edinburgh) I wandered down to the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens. Here I settled myself with a book and my writing and with a wonderful view of the Old Town on the hill, I said goodbye to this city that I adore. Every time I come here, I feel more and more at home. It really has been the best week and I am sure I will return soon.


The Potter Trail runs throughout the year. Check website for details. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 6


My coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe is almost complete. I have two days left with two wonderful things to share with you all. The first of which this morning was The Book Lover's Tour.

The tour runs throughout the year but Allan Foster, writer, tour guide and literary expert, puts on extra during this crazy month to meet the demand. Saying that though, I do believe this tour to be vastly undersold. Although Foster himself said that he prefers to keep tours small in order to offer the group a personal attention, it deserves more. And it really is the perfect way to compliment your Fringe experience.


Over the past 5 days, while I have been running around the festival venues at top speed, I have found that I haven't really been paying attention to what is around me. What Foster did was take us back in amongst those buildings and streets, making us look at the real Edinburgh which has been almost completely obliterated by the Fringe plonked on top of it. The square miles of the tour is not massive, mostly staying within the Southside and completely keeping to the Old Town, but he led us on an interesting journey through the maze of back streets packed with little gems you would definitely miss if you didn't know what you were looking for.


We did not go to the Scott Monument or the Burns Monument or Heriot Row. He did not need to take us there, you can find these for yourself. Indeed, if you are able to miss the Scott monument, I would be impressed as it is the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world. Instead he took us to pubs and medical buildings and random houses and to a rhino. And all the while he spouted fascinating facts (I took extensive notes), dispelled myths and namedropped. Heavily. It seems he knows everyone on the current Edinburgh writer's circuit. Or at least pretends well enough that he does.

This tour is hugely enjoyable, not just if you are a literary nerd like I am, but to see a part of Edinburgh that you wouldn't notice otherwise. Foster draws you in and invites you to become a more integral part of the city he clearly loves so well, offering us history and personal anecdotes on top of the facts. A fun 90 minutes you should definitely attend if you get the chance.


To continue the literary nature of the day (and, frankly, to escape the crowds of the Fringe for a couple of hours) I wandered over to Stockbridge to visit the lovely Julie in Golden Hare Books. I visited them last year for the first time when I was on my Bookshop Tour but since then we have been chatting a little within bookstagram which is why I love that corner of the internet so well. It was wonderful to meet Julie in person and talk everything bookish with her.


As I was trying to restrain myself slightly, I only bought one book which I took for a wander down the river to the beautiful Dean Village. Such a picturesque part of Edinburgh which is so perfect it looks fake. It was peaceful and tourist-free with just a few dog walkers around the place much to my delight. So I settled myself down into the most glorious reading spot to relax for a couple of hours. It was a break I definitely needed.

Edinburgh's Book Lovers' Tour runs all year round. Check website for details. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 5


Tiredness is getting to me now. I think it is getting to everyone. You can see it on the faces of the flier-ers on the Royal Mile and in the voices of the buskers. Town was insane, as it was the last Saturday of the festival to the point where you had to stick out your elbows at 180 degree angle from your body just to be able to pass down the street. And everyone was feeling it.

With this in mind, I chose something very lighthearted for my penultimate show of the day - All's Well That Ends As You Like It. To sum up this production you have to think - what do you get if you put a manic Shakespeare loving director in charge of an am dram group and attempt to do justice to the Bard's great work? Chaos is what. Obviously.

Everything that could possibly go wrong with this play, does go wrong (intentionally I hope) with absolutely hilarious results.There was sword fighting, broken bones, death, more death. So even though, it isn't a real Shakespeare play, it is kind of beginning to sound like one isn't it? Plus the play within a play subject matter was an excellent, if slightly unoriginal, way to insert many comedic aspects.

The 'director' of the fictional play, who potentially spends more time on stage than any of the 'actors' who are meant to be working for him, is vocal in his love for Shakespeare and exasperations that his colleagues are destroying it for him. He was the most entertaining character of the show who's quip 'Remember if it's not in Iambic pentameter, I can't hear it.' was my favourite line of the show. He did an excellent job of entertaining with a variety of sarcasm and farce. Plus his little breaks into Shakespearean verse was well performed and I am glad that there was a little bit of Shakespeare which survived the mutilation. For the director's sake as much as anyone else's.


I then moved on to Sylvia Plath, Your Words are Just Dust, another last minute choice but one of my favourite shows of the entire fringe. Having only read The Bell Jar a few months ago and been profoundly effected by it (as you can see from my blogpost in May) I was interested to see someone else's take on her words. Because to enter Sylvia Plath's head and speak her words with conviction is difficult. She felt things so deeply and you have to feel those same things just as deeply in order to give her the justice her words deserve.

Alice Sylvester was perfection. Every movement she made, every breath she took, every look, every word was thoroughly thought out and meant something. It was intensely powerful. Hypnotic too. And there wasn't anything which broke that hypnotism. She didn't didn't hesitate or stumble over her words, but spoke with an engaging confidence which meant she inhabited Sylvia Plath.

A mixture of Plath's words and her own, Sylvester brought her back to life. She acted a charming scene from The Bell Jar, which led to the title of this performance. A heartbreaking and slightly ironic title for such a troubled author. We followed Sylvester's interpretation of Plath's childhood to her marriage and birth of her children and finally to her decline and suicide. It was expertly done, and beautiful to watch. In fact, it was impossible to look away from and the way Sylvester would seemingly stare straight into your eyes, it was like you were seeing Plath's soul itself. Leaving the audience a little shell shocked. I now need to read the entirety of her poetry. And have a drink. I definitely need a drink.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 4


Apparently, sprinting down the royal mile worrying that I am going to be late for my first show, is how my Edinburgh Fringe days must start. Every day. Without fail. It's the law.

But there was no way I was going to miss The Testament of Mary. It was a very intense way to start the morning but my goodness what a hidden gem. The number of people in the audience was not a reflection of how brilliant this production was and it deserved so much more.

I read this little novella a few years ago and it really stuck with me as such a powerful story. A story of pain and love and loss and conflict. And all of this came across in the play. It has never been the religious element which has attracted me to The Testament of Mary although being based around Mary's view of Jesus' crucifixion, this could be considered odd. But I think the religion aspect isn't what it is about. It's about the people. In the process of watching the story unfold you forget how famous Mary is, and what she is famous for. Instead you are drawn into her head and you simply think of her as a mother. A mother who both loves and loathes her son. A mother who is hugely conflicted and living with a guilt that just spills out of her. Jean Wilde did an incredible job on pushing us along this journey.

It was inclusive and intimate. With audience members on all four sides, we became a part of the play itself. She sat next to individuals, speaking to us so personally and in such a way you never felt you could take your eyes from hers. The harsh blue lighting was an unusual choice but it fit so so well for this production. Not only did it reflect the blue that is always associated with the Virgin Mary but it also was extremely stark. It made you feel vulnerable and slightly on edge. Exactly what you should feel during the show. Spot on and a beautiful thing to experience.


In a contrast that couldn't have been any stronger if it tried, I then headed over to Voodoo Rooms for a fun little adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine. Co-written and performed by hilarious duo Laurence Owen and Lindsay Sharman, it was set in the 1950s with Owen retelling the famous classic for a brand new radio production. Complete with adverts and a theremin, (if you don't know what that is, don't worry; I didn't either. Go to the show to find out) they injected a tonne of humour which was exactly what I needed.

Owen was truly excellent. His humour came across endearingly throughout the production and he was extremely skilled switching between characters and voices with apparent ease. The wordy songs were incredibly catchy and they are still stuck in my head now, hours later. He and Sharman bounced off each other perfectly and the effect of the entire thing was very very entertaining. Not one single person left the room without a smile on their face. Another little gem that should not be missed.

As I walked the Royal Mile following the conclusion of The Time Machine (an essential part of my Fringe day to catch up with the buskers and see a whole range of tasters for other shows that I may not realise are going on!!) I got chatting to the lovely boys at Semi-Toned who then invited me along to their show Stay Tuned, that evening. I had heard their mini sets on the Mile a few times but that didn't prepare me for just how talented this acapella group is. Especially because I had missed them when they won The Choir: Gareth's Best in Britain which aired on the BBC last year.

And this is what their hour long set is based around. The plot and the acting which interspersed the singing was a touch on the cheesy side but it gave the performance a structure that was definitely necessary. However, without that it would have still been so entertaining in its own right. These guys are seriously talented. The venue does not allow for any mistakes, as you can hear every single note from every single person and they were all perfect, moving together like a well oiled machine. You can tell that they know each other well and are good friends as there is an unforced camaraderie on stage that was vital for the intimate songs they are singing.

The songs were well picked too including a wide variety that catered for the entire range of ages within the audience. From beatboxing to their very own version of the Pokémon theme tune to Candle in the Wind and everything in between, it was an enjoyable mixture of modern hits and older classics. Similarly they got the balance right between the dancier numbers and the more staid songs. Both had their charm. While the slick dancing was very entertaining to watch, it was the vulnerable, slower pieces which showed off their true unarguable talent.

Stay Tuned was ultimately just pure fun and they showered me with their infectious high energy that kept me going through the rest of the evening. It was the perfect way to end the day.

If you would like to see the shows I have seen today you can see:
The Testament of Mary at C Cubed from 26-28 August at 11am.
The Time Machine at the Voodoo Rooms from 26 - 27 August at 1.45pm
Semi-Toned: Stay Tuned at Space Triplex on 26 August at 5.05pm.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 3


I'm not gonna lie, I did not feel fresh this morning. One whiskey turned into 7 (I reiterate...when in Scotland...) and suddenly it was 4am. But what better way to kick the hangover off than with Shakespeare for Breakfast. Best idea ever.

This was a hilarious retelling of Macbeth. Or, as I should call him because that name is a banned word on stage (for good reason apparently - the usage of it at the beginning had disastrous consequences); Macgary.  Five actors performed multiple roles and in a cast which is that intimate and needs the amount of energy, there is no room for a deadweight. Or error. I assume the 'errors' that were present were completely purposeful. But as it didn't seem contrived I couldn't be 100% sure. They were an entertaining bunch and I enjoyed their humour which ranged from puns to farcical to more delicate forms of funny, meaning it could be enjoyed by all involved.

The plot worked really well, set on an allotment with Macbeth, (sorry Macgary) and his ambitious wife Linda, (NOT Lin), wanting to become president of it. It was a suitably silly alternative for a show that was suitably silly for that time of the morning. But little phrases of the original text did sneak in and that was equally joyous. The cast handled the balance perfectly and were just as talented with the bard's writing as with their own. I loved all the modern references which ranged from a 'To thee, to thou, to thee to thou' sequence to a vote being won in a 'landslide victory' of 52%. Both these particular references made me chuckle.

Expertly written and executed it really was the best wake up to start my day of theatre, that I could have hoped for. Plus I was offered a croissant and even though the characters didn't enjoy them, they worked for me.

I then had about an hour to nip around the corner to Alice in Wonderland at the Underbelly. There are several different adaptations of Alice this year and unfortunately I chose a mediocre one. The thing about Alice is that it is meant to be magical, with the creatures and characters and atmosphere all contributing towards this crazy, wonderful world. And it just didn't cut it.

The costumes were lovely but the lack of realistic props and the dark space that the performance inhabited counted against it. In addition, the acting was so overemphasised it seemed forced and fake. And the music which was incorporated was flat and frankly unnecessary. I did think the children in the audience enjoyed the interactive element but it didn't occur often enough to make any real impact and appeared to be some kind of time filler. Which was odd considering the plot was swept through so speedily that it didn't have enough time to develop into the magical land that Wonderland truly can be. A bit of a shame.


In contrast, I hugely enjoyed Adventures of the Improvised Sherlock Holmes. This is a wonderfully talented trio who asked us, when we were in the queue, to make up a suitable case title for a Sherlock Holmes story. They picked one at random out of the hat, and the fun began, with them making it all up as they went along.

Which had absolutely hilarious results. They were laughing at each other and forgetting things and going back to things and repeating things. We were laughing with them and the plot just kind of rolled along. I guess they might have had some vague formula in the back of their heads to make sure they finished within the hour. If you look at the Holmes stories, they all run in a similar vein, a vein I assume they used. But if they did it wasn't obvious. I do actually want to go again to compare what it would be like on another day and see just how different each of their plays are.

They didn't have an easy time with the idea that they chose either. The title was so long and involved that I can't even remember exactly what it was but it was something to do with a surly boar in Old Mowbary. The group in front of me picked it, so I know for a fact their improvisation was genuine. I am so envious of how fast their minds work and how naturally comedic they were. It wasn't the perfect production. It didn't have to be. That wasn't the point of it. They changed their minds and backtracked slightly and it never felt as if it was filling time. It was very very entertaining and the entire audience was in stiches. Definitely worth a visit.

My final show of the day was 12, an interpretation of Twelfth Night. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I was pleasantly surprised by how well they stuck to the text. There were some little modern twists, like the addition of a drag queen for example, but on the whole the Shakespeare was really well performed by this group of students. The speech itself was largely untampered with and was pronounced in such a way that made it understandable for the audience. The trick with Shakespeare is to make it relevant for modern audiences and you can doing this using the original speech if you understand it well enough yourself to give the proper emphases and meaning. Which the 3Bugs theatre group clearly did

The drag/singing/cabaret aspect of it, which easily could have easily been overwhelming, was a unique and fun addition to the text. I think with any other Shakespeare it wouldn't have worked, but considering the confusion and the gender swaps that are already present within the text, it was ideally suited. At first, it did make the characters a little less obvious and it took a while to work out who was who but that is my only criticism. It was a really fun and lighthearted evening.

If you would like to see to shows I have seen today you can see:
Shakespeare for Breakfast at C Venue 34 from25-28 August at 10am
Alice in Wonderland at Underbelly, Cowgate from 25-27 August at 12
Adventures of the Improvised Sherlock Holmes at Just the Tonic Community Project from 25th- 27th August at 3pm
12 at theSpace on Niddry Street from 25-26th August at 9.10pm

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 2


I always think that I am a super organised person. Actually that's a lie. I believe I can be a vaguely organised person. Sometimes. But the Edinburgh Fringe is reminding me that I am not even that. Despite waking up at silly o'clock this morning, I was still in a rush to make it over to the beautiful Assembly Rooms on George Street for my first show of the morning -- The Truman Capote Talk Show.

When I was booking my shows around the book adaptations specialism, I have mostly found them to be plays depicting the book. But the whole time I have been on the lookout for things that are a little bit different. Which this certainly is. It is a one man performance, an informal chat really, by the talented Bob Kingdom who depicts Truman Capote as alive but dead but alive. As nonsensical as that sounds, you will see what I mean if you see the show. Kingdom, who not only performed it but wrote it as well, depicted Capote in a gloriously entertaining way, admitting at the beginning that 'I died'. This allowed him to make allusions to the modern world throughout, therefore keeping it relevant.

This was particularly important because he wasn't just simply speaking as Truman Capote, using his voice to tell us about his life and his relationships with other authors (although these were great, especially as a book addict who had read most of 'his friends'). He was also commenting on celebrity culture and writing in general.


Sometimes I wasn't actually sure whether it was Capote speaking or Kingdom himself. He said 'I was obsessed with words' and being a writer himself, could have applied to Kingdom as much as that famous author who we had all become entranced by. Similarly he said 'I was physically, emotionally, and mentally drained to produce the style that everyone called simple' and I thought this was so poignant. Because it's true. There are a few authors out there who do write deceptively simply; yet that does not mean, by any stretch, that they spend less time on their writing or that it is any easier to produce.

And actually that can be applied to Kingdom's show as well. Yes it was deceptively simple. He was sitting for the majority of it; there was minimal use of lighting. However, he talked to us with a fluent ease that made it seem natural, not overrehearsed and he did make us fall a little bit in love with Truman Capote by the end.

As he said, 'it's what we do to heroes, we love them to death.' Yes we do.

And as the room went dark, Moon River played around us. We all took a little pause to pay homage to this wonderful writer. One of my favourite writers whose name I have finally learnt how to pronounce properly.


After the rush of the morning I had a long break - practically the whole afternoon to enjoy the addictive buzz of the city a little more before I went to see Death in Venice early in the evening. It was a semi-powerful adaptation of the novella, which used contemporary dance, ballet and mime to tell the story. However the words are the power in this short tale so to lose them was to lose the main essence of the story and I found myself to be disappointed until the end. The end, where the very physical climax occurs, was portrayed well and in a heartbreaking way. But the main themes of the novella -  love and loss and jealousy and obsession - were lost on me throughout the short performance.

There was some beautiful dancing hidden within the piece. I found my eyes continually drawn to Kasumi Momoda and I wish she had been given a bigger role than that of the strawberry seller. However, the rest I found to be either out of time with the music or with each other. In addition there were often too many dancers for the space available. Which may have been a purposeful decision to accurately display the claustrophobia of Venice alleyways but simply came across as slightly chaotic.

Now having completed Day 2, I am off to try the local whiskeys. This could end badly. But when in Scotland and all that...

If you would like to see the shows I have seen today you can see:
The Truman Capote Show at Assembly Rooms from 24-27 August at 11.05am.
Death in Venice at Greenside @ Nicholson Square  from 24 - 26 August at 7.45pm.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Edinburgh Takeover: Day 1


For this little theatre addict, Edinburgh Fringe has always been held in a kind of reverence. A personal mecca if you will. Considering just how much I adore the theatre and how I have professed Edinburgh to be my favourite city in the world, this shouldn't be that surprising. I don't really know why I haven't made it up here before, to be honest. Needless to say, when I was offered a place with the Network of Independent Critics to join them in their final week, I was completely over the moon. And I thought it would be fun to bring you all along for the ride. So I hope you enjoy experiencing the festival along with me. 

At the time of writing this, I have been in Edinburgh almost exactly 12 hours, having caught the Cali Sleeper up from London. And my goodness the buzz up here is infectious. I am glowing with the craziness and the creativity. It is totally wonderful. There is just so much going on and I launched myself into the fray at once.

Considering there are 3,398 shows to choose from, I am glad that I have been given a specialism to cover while I am up here, or I think I would find it all a bit overwhelming. And the specialism I have been offered, couldn't have fit more perfectly into my personality if it tried -- I am covering shows centred around Book Adaptations. I know right? Books and theatre in this lovely city? What could be more perfect?

The first show I rushed off to see within a couple of hours of arriving, was And Then There Were None, in the Greenside @Nicholson Square venue, just off Potterrow. This intimate venue fitted perfectly for the suffocating nature that Christie inspires through her story. You were not only close to the other members of the audience, but close to the action as well, drawing you in even more deeply as if you are part of the hunted group yourself.

The unobtrusive use of lighting and sound effects also helped with this a lot. Changing from soft golden light to softer eery light to red threatening light (and back again!)according to the action that was happening, kept the atmosphere constant throughout. You barely noticed the background crashing of waves that was present throughout yet it would have been weird if it wasn't there. Too quiet.

The cast were unexpectedly young and, considering the majority of the characters are more mature, I was thrilled at how talented they were. Particularly Miss Brent and Lombard. They all became their characters in such a convincing way and I particularly enjoyed the respective snootiness and arrogance that were portrayed by the two actors playing these parts. It was very entertaining to watch. Despite the fact I knew the book well (as it is one of my all time favourite classics), I was still surprised as the events unfolded. Which is the mark of a good production. And, judging by the gasps of those sitting around me, so were my fellow audience members.


Following a quick drink with a cousin, I then sped on to my next show which was Cold Comfort Farm, in the Lower Theatre, at theSpace on Niddry Street (which coincidentally is where I spent the rest of the afternoon. I didn't realise I had been quite that organised). Again, this was a young cast taking on a classic novel that I am extremely passionate about and I think they did a reasonably good job at catching the lightly humorous nature of the book. It is so lighthearted but an understated comedy that a little boy did not understand at all, saying to his mother that he 'didn't get any of the jokes'. I did though and was delighted with it. Because the space was small, it was perfect for capturing some of the less obvious looks and expressions which would have been lost in a larger venue.

The plot was reasonably well interpreted but due to the shortness of the adaptation, I think the characters could have been better realised. There just wasn't enough time to get to know them all and enjoy their little quirks which made me love them so much when I read the book.They fell a little flat and at times the production felt rushed because it was sticking to the plot so rigidly.

I then had an hour before I was back in theSpace to watch Private Peaceful which I filled by simply wandering the Royal Mile. My goodness it was as if this whole city has gone nuts and I love it. I saw everything from magicians to an Acapella group, to puppeteers to someone sitting in a massive blow up balloon. And everything else inbetween. They were all promoting various shows and it displayed to me yet again just how many shows there are out there. There really is something for everyone, many of which you don't actually realise that you NEED to see until you have a giant balloon person handing you a leaflet.


Private Peaceful was truly wonderful. As I am a puritan when it comes to book adaptations, I do strongly believe that they shouldn't have changed the ending from the original but my goodness I loved this beautifully crafted one man show. It was performed by the very talented George Stagnell who skilfully portrayed not only the title character, but a range of other minor characters. These varied from females to children to old people and he did it with such ease which left the audience in no doubt who he was trying to depict to us.

He sucked you into the emotional story right from the beginning and you were left wrapped up in his/the story's spell until the end. He made complete use of the space, moving purposefully around the stage to incorporate every single member of the audience into the story that he was telling. This was essential to ensure that the emotive nature of the story was realised to its full potential and it worked. It really did. The audience followed him through the journey of childhood boy to teenager in love to conflicted soldier, embracing fully the opinions and tragedies that Stagnell depicted within Peaceful's life.

It was a very slick production, which, despite having the time flipping forwards and backwards (in what could easily have been a very confusing way) was easily understandable. The use of carefully considered lighting and pretty, perfectly timed music helped to frame each section of the production as well as the change in Stagnell's performance which clearly showed how he grew and developed throughout the show.

The music was an underrated part of Private Peaceful that some of the audience didn't even realise was live until the commencement of the follow up piece straight after Private Peaceful. A Shropshire Lad is worth seeing in its own right but if you come to see Private Peaceful, it is essential. George Butterworth's music, performed on the piano by Sam Johnson, is slipped into Private Peaceful to signal certain important moments. And here it accompanies the poems by AE Hausman that are sung by Sam Hird. His rich baritone voice, added extra emotion to all these already emotive poems. I have never come across Hausman's poetry but now I definitely need to read them. Despite being written 20 years before WW1, you can definitely apply the range of emotion to the war years and it is even more poignant when you find out he was shot in 1916 at the Somme.

In addition to his emotive singing, Sam offered a little bit of background to each of the songs which was useful for us to understand the motivations behind them. It was clear how deeply Sam had thought about his performance and you could see as well as hear how much the words meant to him. It was a short, heart wrenching performance which, in addition to the rollercoaster of Private Peaceful, left you feeling slightly emotionally drained. In the best way. Just what you want from theatre really.

If you would like to see the shows I have seen today you can see:
And Then There Were None at Greenside @ Nicholson Square from 23-26 August at 11.40am
Cold Comfort Farm at theSpace on Niddry Street from 23-26 August at 2.30pm
Private Peaceful at theSpace on Niddry Street from 23-26 August at 4.35pm
A Shropshire Lad at theSpace on Niddry Street from 23-26 August at 6.00pm.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Ofsted Report: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Image result for ofsted
Ofsted - Raising Standards, Improving Lives

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Inspection Report for Boarding School
Unique Reference Number MAG1C51331
Inspector Charlotte Coster

Note - This is the first Ofsted Inspection carried out on the aforementioned school. 

Brief description of the service
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is an independent coeducational boarding school accommodating girls and boys between the ages of 11-18, who all board. It has 4 boarding houses, housing a mixture of female and male children up until 6th form. Although grounds are extensive, all houses, living areas and the majority of the classrooms are located within one building. The school aims for children with a specific talent to discover their full potential and trains them to learn a specific set of skills, within a safe environment.

Summary
This was an announced inspection and the data was collected through a combination of school documents, discussions with staff and pupils, observations and guided tours of the school.

The senior management team at the school has a wealth of knowledge and experience to successfully support both staff and students at the school. 

The staff team work effectively at gaining the trust of the students and advocate them in a positive manner. The children seem to enjoy the lessons they undertake and achieve the standards that are required within the school. 

There are a number of key areas that require improvement. There are major concerns expressed regarding the recruitment process, the subject matter of the curriculum, and the safeguarding of the pupils attending. In addition there were issues expressed concerning the inconsistency of staff and the lack of supervision the pupils in terms of behaviour and routine. 

The overall quality rating is inadequate. 

Helping children to be healthy
The provision is satisfactory.

Boarders' health is maintained by one individual who is knowledgeable and efficient. Medical supplies are kept securely by this individual. No records are kept either of the supplies held or of pupils' known conditions and illnesses, although the matron was obviously proficient in these. Records should be updated and secured in time for next visit. 

There is one dormitory for the use of sick pupils and staff alike. Consider expansion to separate males and females and staff. 

No medical education is offered and there are no drug/alcohol/smoking policies accessible although there have been no breaches of the zero tolerance rule. Policies should be made available by time of next visit. 

Boarders are offered an excellent choice of meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner and all pupils without exception enjoy the food. The catering staff were extremely welcoming and friendly, spoke highly of their relationships with the rest of the teaching staff and some pupils. The inspector sampled several meals over the course of the inspection and they were found to be truly excellent. 

Sport is virtually unavailable. Only one sport - an unknown game named Quidditch - is offered and past the first year, an individual can only participate if they are one of the seven members of the house team. This is unacceptable and more physical education should be made available. Quidditch itself is enjoyed by those who play it but is highly dangerous. The inspector witnessed several pupils falling from great heights, almost swallowing the balls and being bludgeoned by other balls. 

Protecting children from harm or neglect and helping them stay safe
The provision is inadequate.

Pupils and parents respect the skill of the staff who are charged with their care. There are high walls on all sides and only one entrance that remains locked at all times. Visits from outside persons are few.

However, most pupils have offered that they do not feel safe.  Despite these precautions pupils have reported an inappropriate, dangerous individual who has managed to gain entry to not only the grounds but to one of the boarding houses. Despite there being an alert and further precautions taken with the removal of pupils from the house, he managed to escape and could not be found within the grounds. In addition, another dangerous individual has been reported to have gained access several times throughout one pupil's school career which resulted in the pupil being kidnapped once and injured multiple times. This is unacceptable. Security needs to be updated at the perimeters and at the castle entrance with security men and cameras by time of next visit. 

There is an additional lack of safety within the curriculum taught at the school. This includes interaction with dangerous beasts, plants and some instances where they are encouraged to harm each other as part of a lesson. This is unacceptable. 

Bullying has been reported to be common throughout the school, and individual have to endure both from other pupils and from staff. There are no bullying policies. The behaviour observed was generally good. The reward system of house points is well maintained but some pupils have reported that one house has an unfair advantage and lots of teachers are biased in their offer of points. Punishments are varied and inconsistent Corporal punishment was used by one teacher, one punishment put the pupils in mortal peril and most simply used lines. Consider revising and standardising. 

The house system is well established although there seems to be little support of the younger pupils from the older and minimal form of induction offered. Only one teacher runs each boarding house and is rarely seen there, with rooms far away from their assigned house. There is a system of prefects and a head boy/girl although it is unclear how these are chosen and what their duties are. Some exhibit abuse of their power. 

The houses themselves are adequate and secure with good accommodation that the pupils (without exception) felt was inclusive and comfortable. There are no fire policies or equipment throughout the entire school which is essential considering the wide use of fires and candles throughout the premises. This needs to be amended at the first possible opportunity. 

Recruitment processes have been lacking in consistency and this has proved a risk to pupils when several unsuitable individuals were employed. Credentials need to be more thoroughly checked, qualifications strictly adhered to (none of the teachers hold qualifications, some did not finish school) and a policy of recruitment implemented as soon as possible. 

Helping children achieve well and enjoy what they do 
The provision is inadequate

Boarders receive an inconsistent level of support from teachers which is based on favouritism rather than policy. Although many pupils find (off their own volition) a teacher who can offer them the personal support they require, there are many others who do not. Consider revising. 

There is a high regard for each boarder to be treated with equality. However there is no strict policy which is adhered to and some individuals are treated differently by both staff and pupils because of the nature of their birth. 

Routines are not strictly enforced which means bed times do not exist and standards of work are not as high as should be expected. Quality of teaching is highly inconsistent, no planning documents could be offered at all and the curriculum content highly irregular. The teachers are all very specialised and do not adhere to the national curriculum or its standards. 


Here concludes the results of the Inspection. Recommendations will be offered verbally and within another document. All recommendations should be carried out within 3 months, when a follow up inspection will be instigated. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Scotland June 2017


Scotland is one of those places everyone needs to visit more! Me included for sure - I tell myself so every time I do make it all the way up there. It really is the most beautiful country but for me personally, it is kind of awkward. I live on the South Coast of England so actually France is easier to reach than Scotland is. It's way too far to spend a weekend there and if I have the time off to take a proper trip somewhere, I tend to flee the country like every single other Brit. However, for the past couple of weeks I have been on a 2 week staycation, travelling across Scotland and I thought I would take this opportunity to share my adventure with you. I am sure it will persuade you that you should definitely give Scotland the time of day.

Loch Ness and Inverness
I started my tour in the pretty highlands with an explore of Inverness and the surrounding countryside, which I headed into in order to search for magic and the mythical Nessie. I never realised just how big Loch Ness is and how far away it is from Inverness: 22 miles of beauty, which we drove by at about 11pm as the sun was going down. It was truly stunning and the little snapshot that we experienced that weekend was not enough. I could have stayed there for weeks.


We went Nessie hunting the morning after we arrived. As we walked by the glittering Loch we knew that this was where mythical creatures dwelled. I decided to believe that the sparkling surface was little to do with the sunlight bouncing off the water and more to do with Nessie sending up her twinkly mythic magic.


There are plenty of picturesque walks around the villages which surround Loch Ness, not just by the Loch itself. We were staying in the village of Drumnadrochit, nestled in a valley. We climbed one of the surrounding hills to find the beautiful Dhivach Waterfall which apparently used to be a haunt of JM Barrie's. Which I can totally understand - it is magical here as well and you could totally imagine Tinkerbell living there.


That day we walked about 12.5 miles exploring the beautiful countryside. It may sound like a lot but we could easily have walked more if it had not been for our inappropriate shoes (only bringing heeled boots was potentially the worst packing mistake I have ever made. Except perhaps the time I forgot all my underwear. Moving on...) and the interchangeable weather. It would literally change without any warning at all. The candyfloss clouds turned an angry grey and sank on to the top of the hillsides, obscuring them from view. And then the heavens would open on us. We got poured on - by the rainclouds themselves and the puddles. Some arse drove through an enormous one really fast, on purpose, just as we were passing it. It was a proper Bridget Jones moment which we could have done without really.


So obviously we had to go to the pub to warm up with a whiskey - when in Scotland, you must drink whiskey. Isn't that how the saying goes? The bar tender was delighted and he seemed to enjoy talking all the different whiskeys over with me, advising me which ones to try. I am very proud to say that I did it the proper Scottish way too: straight with only the littlest amount of water. I was a bit worried that if I had asked for coke with it, the locals would have lynched me. It turned out to be reasonably pleasant though and did the job of warming me up.


The next day started off fine but as we bussed it back to Inverness (a stomach churning experience considering our whiskey-induced hangovers. I genuinely thought I was going to chuck up all over the couple in front of me! Which would have set my friend off. Not ideal.) the sky got darker and darker and darker. It was pouring again by the time we reached town.  So we hid in a coffee shop called So Coco which only did THE best coffee and cake ever. And by the time it had revived us, the rain had stopped and we could explore the town a little.


Aberdeen and Stonehaven
Aberdeen too was extremely wet (you can see a theme developing here) so I spent most of the week, hiding in coffee shops with my writing and my books. And much as I wish the weather had been a little better, it wasn't a bad way to spend my days. I found a few really unique ones, most memorably, Cup and Books & Beans. Both were decorated absolutely beautifully. If you are a tea addict you will be in heaven in Cup which has every type of tea you could imagine with suitably cute little teacups to go with it. Books and Beans is more of a coffee haven and if you are a book lover - which I imagine that most of my readers are - this is a must. You actually sit amongst the bookshelves which makes the books all the more tempting.


The grey city/the granite city should not be dismissed. Yes the rain can make it look a little dismal but it is really striking. Old Aberdeen in particular is something else. This is where you can find most of the sights such as St Machar's Cathedral (which is unlike any other cathedral that I have seen before), Aberdeen University, including the beautiful King's College Chapel, Seaton Park and Brig O Balgownie which is one of the oldest and most unusual bridges in Britain. All are situated within about half an hour's walk of each other. And along the way, I strolled past these absolutely adorable houses. I was basically house hunting as I went and any of these would do nicely.



Speaking of cute cottages - Footdee is well worth a visit as well. It is just the most adorable little place on the edge of Aberdeen, only about half an hour's walk from the centre - so unexpected amongst all the quays and the constructions sites where they work on the huge ships. It is only a tiny square and apparently there is a waiting list that is years long for one of these cottages. Which doesn't surprise me at all. Just look at them.

Most of what is attractive to see in Aberdeen are the parks that are scattered across the city and because it was raining for the majority of my stay, I could not really appreciate them. I walked around Seaton Park pretty briskly because the clouds were starting to look threatening (I really couldn't cope with getting caught in the rain again!). The afternoon was much brighter though so I wasn't as worried when I walked over to Duthie Park. It was just windy (I climbed the mound in the corner of the park and was genuinely a bit worried I was going to be blown over the edge. I hung on to the flagpole very tightly) and cold. Therefore rather than relaxing outside on the grass, after my stroll, I plonked myself down in the greenhouses which housed the Winter Gardens. They were seriously pretty and as I couldn't feel the wind, I could just enjoy the bright sunshine which had finally appeared. In fact, it made the greenhouses so warm that I found myself dozing off, much to the amusement of a pair of old ladies who walked past me.


On that one day where the weather let up a little bit, I also grabbed the opportunity to whiz over to nearby Stonehaven. This rugged coastline is something that I just don't see down here in the South of England. The sea was such an unbelievable blue - I always think that the North Sea looks so much bluer than the English Channel that I am used to. It is a royal, electric kind of blue which looked amazing. Almost good enough to swim in, although that would have been tricky considering I was at the top of a cliff. And I would imagine that it would be a little on the cold side - the three seals which tuned up, didn't seem to mind so much though and looked like they were having great fun, playing with each other, within the waves. We thought it would be a better idea if we went for Fish & Chips and Ice Cream instead though, which we ate right on the beach. Perfection.




Edinburgh
I obviously couldn't take a trip up to Scotland without visiting its capital. It is one of my favourite cities in the entire world and being back within the view of its beautiful architecture reminded me of that. I so so badly want to live here.


I first visited Edinburgh last October and during that stay I explored most of the touristy sights (check out last year's Edinburgh blogpost here) so this time it was fun exploring more of the nitty gritty intimate life of the city.


Shopping is not usually top on my list of priorities when I go away. But during that weekend in Edinburgh I had a wonderful time being 'dragged' around vintage clothes shops. There are some such beautiful ones, like Armstrong's on Grassmarket and when you visit them, you never want to visit a High Street store again. You just want to stay immersed in that walk-in treasure trove, exploring every single nook. You can find some absolute gems hidden in its depths. In return, my friends came with me to one of my favourite bookshops in the world, Armchair Books. Last year I had visited pretty much all the bookshops that Edinburgh had to offer and I declared Armchair Books to be my favourite of the bunch. With its floor to ceiling bookshelves and hidden little corners, it had this friendly feel that was really hard to drag me away from. It's basically my idea of heaven.


In addition to shopping we also spent our time, contentedly eating and drinking our way through the city and I was excited to sample the nightlife for the first time. I hadn't been brave enough to go out by myself when I visited last year but now, with an ex-Edinburgh student leading the way, we took in the nightlife scenes in both the New Town and Old Town. Garibaldi's was potentially my favourite; an underground intimate bar just off George Street that had a small dance floor which contained a pole. For pole dancing. You can imagine just how exciting that is, when you have drunk 8 vodkas. We ended the night swaying gently and trying to find our way home in the maze of streets and little closes that make up the Old Town. But as we crossed North Bridge, we realised that the sun was beginning to rise so we stood there a while, chatting to a scotsman in a kilt, and watching it slowly appear to light up Calton Hill.  It was a perfect way to end the night, although it would have been slightly more sensible to head to bed a touch earlier, considering how little time we actually had for sleeping before we had to check out. I am 99% sure I was still drunk.


I think I have basically summed up the excitement of my trip but quickly before I go, I thought I would also share with you -- I tried Haggis. Yes I did really. And I didn't hate it  I am ever so slightly proud of myself. In fact, taking this into account, on top of the fact I drank my body weight in whiskey in the course of 12 days, I think I can basically call myself Scottish now. And I wouldn't mind that at all.

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