Review – Glen Campbell, Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2011

Glen CampbellWhen we heard that Glen Campbell was doing a few dates in the UK, and that, extraordinarily, the Derngate in Northampton was one of them, we leapt at the chance to catch him.

You may have read that he is now diagnosed with the dreaded Alzheimer’s. I believe there was some criticism that his family were making him go on this tour almost as a last attempt to wring some cash out of the old chap’s reputation. Well, having seen the show I would entirely refute that claim. Yes, he clearly isn’t as mentally strong as he used to be, but there’s nothing but pleasure in this evening of celebration of his showmanship and his wonderful songs.

I’m showing my ignorance, but I had no idea he was such a great guitarist. I remember those stirring guitar solos on Wichita Lineman and Galveston, but I always assumed they were some backing musician, and that Glen was purely on vocals. Not a bit of it, and I tell you last Monday night he really made that guitar sing.

I’d forgotten how cynical By The Time I Get To Phoenix is, and he gave it a great performance. But why pick out one song? He was all masterful all evening. His classic hits still send shivers down your spine and the packed audience was mightily appreciative.

Instant PeopleHis backing group, Instant People, includes three of his children who subtly keep him on the correct course for the whole show, ensuring his guitar is in the right key, and that he has clear view of his monitors for reassurance. Musically they are great, and their half hour introductory set certainly put you in the mood for some good old country rock.

It was an honour and a privilege to be there, and the great man clearly enjoyed himself too. Well done the Derngate on getting such a great booking!

Review – Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd October 2011

Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala ConcertThis was the first of our annual subscription classical concerts at the Derngate for this season – we had to miss the opening Beethoven concert as we were in South America. Usually it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing here, but as this concert was the culmination of the Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival that had taken place over the entire weekend, this time we were treated to the joys of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. Or to give them their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra.

If you like your Malcolm Arnold, the whole weekend must be a rare treat. All nine symphonies were performed, as well as some other wonderful classical nuggets. Looking at this from a Eurovision fan perspective, you could call it an Arnoldbash. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that reference.

John Gibbons In a quirkily effective piece of structuring, the programme started with a big symphony and ended with an overture. So first up was Arnold’s 9th Symphony, to which the conductor, John Gibbons, told us to listen with fresh ears – if we were familiar with it – and if it was new to us, just to relax in its delicious musical lines. The only Arnold I know is the Cornish Dances and the St Trinian’s theme, so I was prepared to let it wallow over me.

And it is indeed a beautiful symphony, discordantly tuneful in its opening movements, and slowly majestic at its conclusion. I particularly loved the use of the brass section, with mellifluous horns and a soothing tuba, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. It’s also notable for the way the harp is used to pluck highlight chords that accompany other instruments – it’s a very impressive orchestration. Much is made of the positive use of the final D major chord, which certainly does make for an optimistic ending.

Nicola BenedettiAfter the interval, it was Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor (Op 102). Again this was a piece with which I was unfamiliar, but it’s packed to the rafters with attack and attitude. All this was second nature to the superb soloists. Nicola Benedetti, stunning in a long green figure-hugging dress,Leonard Elschenbroich played the Earl Spencer Stradivarius (c 1712) with serious drive and flair. Leonard Elschenbroich, on the wayward side of bohemian, attacked his 1693 Goffriller cello to vivid effect, pom-pom-pomming along to the orchestra as he went, loving every minute of it. They dovetailed perfectly, and it was a really exhilarating performance.

Ending up with an overture was not as bizarre as it sounds, as Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet contains a famously lush romantic tune and a satisfyingly thumping climax to send you off at the end of the evening on a Russian high. Considering it was the concert I was least looking forward to in the season, I found it a very entertaining night, and the Worthing Symphony Orchestra proved themselves to be top quality. There are some tantalising concerts coming up between now and next summer – it’s going to be great!

Review – One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two GuvnorsWe booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.

Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).

James CordenJames Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.

Oliver ChrisThe final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.

Daniel RigbyHe has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. Claire LamsHis pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!

Tom EddenTo be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.

Fred RidgewayMy only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.

This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.

South America – Bolivia – Copacabana, Lake Titicaca and La Paz

Lake Titicaca from our roomThe early morning sun rising over Lake Titicaca as seen from our balcony was a beautiful sight. Peaceful, gentle, relaxing; I could have easily spent a day just looking at it. But there’s no time to relax on this holiday. So it was quickly on to the coach for our two hour drive to the Bolivian border.

ChucuitoEn route we passed the town of Chucuito where there are two great faces carved into the rock either side of the road, signifying a gateway to Lake Titicaca. Although it looks Disney, it’s the real Incan McCoy. We also stopped at Juli, a little town noted for its four Colonial churches, and which was founded by the Dominicans in 1534 as a hub for training missionaries for Paraguay and Bolivia. We saw one of the churches – it was quite attractive.

KasaniThe road to Bolivia was remarkably underdeveloped – considering it’s an international border, it’s little more than a dirt track. The Peruvian travel agency were leaving us here, in the little town of Kasani, and we were (hopefully!) going to be met by their Bolivian counterparts On The Other Side. When you get off a coach, and have to march with your belongings along the road to a border you always feel a little like the subject of a hostage situation. There are always loads of bits of paperwork to complete going in and out of South American countries, and it’s easy to get confused as to who needs to see which form, whether they stamp it or not, whether they keep it or not; and the advice you’re given is always the same – who cares if you lose your passport, it’s no problem, it can be reissued. If you lose the little piece of paper given by immigration – then that’s a problem. There was a bit of a hoo-haa with two of our intrepid co-travellers, Kannen and Kala, because they were travelling on American passports. But once they’d handed over an additional hundred dollars, everything was plain sailing.

Copacabana ChurchOur first stop in Bolivia was the town of Copacabana; and yes indeed this was the place that gave its name to the famous Rio beach. The main sight in the town is the church. Actually not so much the church itself, which is pleasant and spacious, but what happens on a daily basis outside. Rather extraordinarily, people gather from miles and miles every day to get their cars blessed. Bless this carThere are rows of stalls outside the church, selling everything celebratory from fireworks to champagne, from balloons to bunting. The vehicles arrive clean and wildly decorated; a junior priest has the job of blessing them; and then the celebrations begin. It’s almost as though they were getting their vehicles confirmed. It certainly does put a new perspective on the idea of taking your car in for a service.

Lake Titicaca from Moon IslandFrom there we strolled down through the market to the lake where we were greeted by our hydrofoil; and off we went cutting a dash through the waves over Lake Titicaca. I can’t stress enough how beautiful it is. The highest navigable lake in the world, it has crystal clear water, a backdrop of stunning snow capped peaks, and attractive little islands. Our first stop was Moon Island, which was where the Incas believed the Moon was born. There is an old monastery still in existence here. Religious happeningBut more interesting than archaeological relics was the sight of a group of young people all sat round and listening to the wise words of a local shaman. They were having a little open air religious ceremony all by themselves in a corner of the monastery grounds. It was very reminiscent of the kind of thing you would have expected the Beatles to have done in India in 1968. Although I think they are worshipping the sun or moon or maybe Mother Earth, I’m not sure.

Sun IslandWe moved on to Sun Island (you guessed it, where the Sun was born), which was where we were to have our lunch. It was a fantastic setting, for a rather bland meal, but you can’t have everything. We took a walk up to see the “Fountain of Eternal Youth” – you can’t turn a chance like that up – but in reality it’s more of a puddle of eternal optimism.

Dried potatoBack on board the hydrofoil we were shown dried potato – look, there’s one – and taught the local way of saying “cheers” (which of course we couldn’t do without a glass of the local firewater). It goes “Arriba, abajo, al Centro, al Dentro” and over the four stages of the chant you move your glass from your forehead to your tummy, back to your face and then you knock it back. Of course you have to do several rehearsals to become word perfect.

A reed boat off the floating islandThen came the highlight of the day – a visit to one of the floating islands. Chisawa Island is really tiny and probably has a population of about ten. When you walk on the island, it feels spongy and bouncy beneath your feet. Not surprising really, as it is made purely of reeds. The people live in little reed huts, they do their cooking in a communal kitchen reed hut – and have to be very careful not to set light to the reeds – and the only industry apart from selling reed-based souvenirs (we bought two tablemats) is fishing from boats made of, you guessed it, reeds. The people were charming. It was an honour to visit them.

CookingWe ran out of time to visit another island, as had originally been intended; and also to see the brothers involved in making the Kontiki raft – but I always thought it was a hugely ambitious programme for the day. We arrived in Huatajata in darkness and there was still a 90 minute coach ride to get to La Paz.

La PazIt was a shame that we never saw La Paz by day, as I am told it is a stunning sight. It was about 8.30pm when we arrived and checked into our hotel, the Hotel Europa. Such a shame we couldn’t stay longer as it was a beautiful hotel and we had a massive, very well appointed bedroom. But we made the most of our time and decided to skip an evening meal (yet again) and simply go for a walk in downtown La Paz and watch how the locals enjoy a Saturday night. So in the company of intrepid co-travellers John and Vicky, and fighting breathlessness (at 3600m above sea level, it’s pretty goddam high), we ventured on to the Avenida M Santa Cruz to check out the city.

CathedralIt was very lively! People of all ages, singles, couples, groups were all out for a good time. The majority were very well dressed and I realised this is a much more sophisticated place than I had expected. There was a party bus, mind you – a big bus driving along the streets and inside everyone was partying. I remember a very nice looking girl leaning out of a back window, glass in hand, cheering and smiling at everyone as she went by. I’m sure she had a good night. The well lit buildings looked stately; there were late night markets everywhere; it all felt very safe and secure; and we were definitely the only westerners on the streets. There are no McDonalds in La Paz – it’s the only capital city in the world not to have one, apparently. Burger King is, indeed, king. Although I bet there isn’t a McDonalds in Pyongyang either.

Avenida Santa CruzWe couldn’t stay out for too long as we were being collected at 5am. 5AM!! So we barely had eight hours in the city, and most of them would have to be asleep. Definitely a city and country I would like to return to; to see it by day, and maybe to visit Sucre too. Something for the future. But as far as tomorrow was concerned – Argentina calls!

Review – The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the marquis de Sade, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 19th October 2011

Marat/SadeOr, the Marat/Sade to be concise; not that concise is a word that comes to mind when thinking back to Wednesday’s preview. At a good hour and three quarters before the break, having just witnessed a feast of anal rape, the interval Shiraz should be available through the NHS.

But I’m giving away the plot. Actually the (full) title tells you all you need to know. The Marquis de Sade really was imprisoned at the asylum in Charenton and really was allowed by the director Coulmier to stage plays acted by the inmates. So the story created by the writer Peter Weiss is a perfectly legitimate fantasy, and it was originally produced in the UK by the RSC as part of their Theatre of Cruelty season in 1964.

Herr Weiss is no longer with us so we cannot tell what he would have made of the liberties taken with his text. It’s certainly been updated, with additional speeches by Marat, Roux and the Herald (there may be more); his descriptions of his characters’ attributes and their costumes have largely been ignored; and Weiss was very minimalist with his stage directions, which allows the director Anthony Neilson, pretty much Carte Blanche to do what he wants.

Some of these liberties are very successful. Coulmier controls the inmates through a system of mobile phones and the piercing sound of ringtones has a startling effect throughout the play. A dangerous ploy – it would kill the atmosphere if a phone accidentally went off in the audience. Marat himself prepares his speeches using a laptop in his bath – in fact the whole production couldn’t have gone ahead without the late Steve Jobs. Lisa HammondThe Herald is no longer a male clown-cum-harlequin, but the role is performed by an actress with restricted growth who often uses an electric wheelchair to move around the stage. She’s quite an arresting sight, and often has a glint in her eye that she can turn to evil effect; it’s a very good performance from Lisa Hammond.

Mrs Chrisparkle, however, is less charitable of the director’s motives. Her reaction to the production was that he had a checklist of faux offensive activities he wanted to ensure were included, and that he wouldn’t be satisfied until every one of them was ticked off.

The programme makes much of the play’s parallels with the Arab Spring of today and its relevance to the 21st century. There are some excellent lines (in the original text) about having trust in “our minister of war” and also the irony of “calmly watch these barbarous displays that could not happen nowadays”. All that on the week that Colonel Gadaffi was killed. You couldn’t make it up. It’s true that the play hasn’t dated at all – I think it was probably always timeless. Amanda WilkinThere is some surprising use of the hijab, and Khyam Allami’s stirring and atmospheric music for the production lends an eastern lilt to the play. The four asylum inmates who act as singers in the production are in excellent voice and contribute to making the music one of the highlights of the play. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Amanda Wilkin as Kokol.

Lanre MalaoluIn fact one of the really strong points of this production is the excellent ensemble work of the actors playing the inmates. They provide a really credible image of they type of people who might inhabit an asylum – their walks, their tics, their habits are all well observed and totally believable – apart perhaps from Lanre Malaolu’s Duperret, who really does masturbate an awful lot (tick). I felt that was probably only so they could often call him a “w**ker” (not in the original text) (tick), so I’m not blaming him.

Whether it’s the play itself or the specific production, it’s hard to determine, but I have two main problems with the show. Firstly, it’s way too long, particularly in the first half. A lot of that is Weiss’ fault. In the text, the first act covers 69 pages, the second act, 30. But there’s a lot of self-indulgent activity in the first act that could either be completely removed or drastically cut down – the anal rape (tick) scene goes on and on, and on… and on. One feels that he’s proved his point; now can we get on to something else please. Many of the speeches by Marat and Sade are very heavy and wordy – to the extent that you stop paying attention and focus on the stage activity instead. As they haven’t treated the text with reverence, I think it some of these speeches could have done with extra pruning. The result of all this is that there are many sequences that are just plain boring.

Secondly, basically, it’s a play that hates its audience (which is one of my pet hates). A member of the audience gets approached by one of the cast which results in their being called a c**t on stage (tick). Members of the cast variously insult and moon at the audience (tick), people have popcorn chucked at them like a weapon, a black actor turns to a white man in the audience and says “Death to the White Man!” (not in the original text) (incitement to racial hatred? Tick), the dildos that are used in the anal rape scene are then waggled in the faces of elderly ladies in the front row (tick). I’m sure you get the picture. There is a moment when Marat walks down an aisle asking patrons if any of them can speak French, because he wants them to translate something for him. Only a fool would offer to help, because God knows what trick would have befallen that person. I certainly kept schtumm, as did everyone else. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a legitimate way of challenging an audience, or if it’s merely taking the Mick.

Having said that, one thing I did like at the end of the first act was how Arsher Ali’s Marat started deconstructing the piece. Voltaire and Lavoisier do their interminably dull speeches to the audience and frankly no one is paying any attention, at which point Marat says, “you’re losing them, it’s no good, stop now, they all want the interval, they all want their ice-creams” and then he starts to go around the front row taking ice-cream orders. Nice. That’s what I call subversive, much more than the bizarre over-use of jockstraps (although that did reveal a curious tattoo of a map of Africa on one person’s buttock).

Jasper Britton What of the main roles? I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Jasper Britton’s Marquis de Sade. Weiss’ description makes it clear that he should be an imposing figure. But I didn’t find him that imposing. I found him very human, very flawed; to be pitied rather than to be in awe of him. They’ve made him into a cross-dressing chameleon, taking on a different persona almost every time he comes on. I wasn’t very convinced by him as an American cowboy; but he was absolutely right as Mary Portas. There’s also a scene where he comes on dressed as the Herald, in her wheelchair, and with shoe attachments on his knee so that he can mimic her stature when on all fours. In the first act her character abused an audience member who had been tricked into patronising her disability. In the second act, the production itself patronises her. You can’t have it both ways, Mr Director. Which is it to be?

Christopher EttridgeChristopher Ettridge’s Coulmier is every inch the respectable director and on the face of it a world apart from the general madness surrounding him. The coup de theatre at the end is effective but not in keeping with Weiss’ original; and it’s been done before in Rocky Horror. Actually, the whole meaning of the end of the play is changed – in the original version the play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier attempting to restore order by striking his patientsNathaniel Martello-White much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Not so in this production. I also very much enjoyed Nathaniel Martello-White’s performance as Jacques Roux, who has a very commanding presence, natural authority and moreover a voice as clear as a bell. This is his RSC debut season; I think he could become a bit of a star.

Imogen DoelImogen Doel as Charlotte Corday looks very much the part, but I couldn’t always understand the words she was saying; and this production has the character played by an inmate with sleeping sickness (which is quite funny) whereas Weiss described her as a somnambulist. Do you think someone ought to have checked the dictionary definition?

Arsher AliArsher Ali as Marat was very convincing, spoke clearly, and I admired the clever make up job that makes him look like he’s had part of his head shaved. Was it entirely necessary to have him sitting on the toilet at the beginning of the second half? Was it just so that one of the inmates could smear themselves in his excrement? (tick).

A number of people left at the interval. To be fair, a play like this isn’t doing its job properly if at least some people aren’t motivated to prefer their own more polite company. The audience reception at the end was more rapturous than I expected, although a lot of it was from some whooping girls who had got more into the sex and nudity elements of the evening than might otherwise be deemed dignified.

So in conclusion I’d say yes to its still being relevant; yes to its ability still to shock; yes to the overall standard of acting; but no to a feeling of overall satisfaction. A plucky failure? Probably, but often that can have more artistic value than an unambitious success.

South America – Peru – from Cusco to Puno

Andean ExplorerIt was with some trepidation that I faced the prospect of the ten hour train journey to Puno. Having felt really lousy the night before I gingerly crept my way out of the hotel towards the coach for the short trip to the railway station. Fortunately, the Andean Explorer train across the Altiplano is comfort personified. I’ve not been on the Orient Express but this is the nearest thing to it I’ve experienced. Elegant surroundings, comfortable chairs, top quality yet friendly service – it was lovely.

Snow covered peaks of the AndesI was also very appreciative of the two Diamox tablets one of our intrepid co-travellers gave me. Our GP hadn’t said anything about the possibility of taking tablets, but several of our group had been given them before leaving home. I took half a tablet that morning, the other half in the evening, and then the same dose the next day, and it relieved me of all my symptoms apart from the breathlessness, which is easily coped with. So I would definitely recommend investigating these little beauties if you’re susceptible to the old altitude sickness. Not that I’m used to accepting drugs off strangers; don’t do this at home.

Inside the Andean ExplorerI feared the journey might be boring, but instead it was exhilarating. Fantastic views of Peru’s Canyon Country pass before your eyes as the train inexorably chugs its way towards Lake Titicaca. Big picture windows in the carriages help you to enjoy the view, but there is also a delightful observation carriage at the back of the train with more glass and an open air section which really allows you to become at one with your environment.

La RayaAt La Raya, the highest point of the journey (4313 metres above sea level) the train makes a brief stop so you can get some air and visit the little market which sets up alongside the railway line. Unsurprisingly the stallholders are pretty desperate to sell you something and occasionally the interaction between traders and customers got a bit aerated. Nevertheless it’s a pleasant little stop.

Peruvian musicianBeing a Peruvian train, naturally there was a fashion show – which we missed – and a folk music and dance troupe, which we saw. They were very good, but no match for the CDs of Andean music I already possess. They were also asking a ridiculously expensive price for their CDs – can’t remember exactly but it was way out of proportion – and unsurprisingly I don’t think anyone bought one.

Across the AltiplanoAnd then there are the Pisco Sours, which were well worth the imbibing, the splendid lunch, and the afternoon tea (which was perhaps a trifle underwhelming.) Mrs Chrisparkle and I sat opposite intrepid co-travellers John and Vicky and spent most of the day putting the world to rights, drinking, laughing, eating and drinking again, to the extent that when we got out of the train at the end, people were walking past us saying things like “you enjoyed that, didn’t you” and “we’ll forgive you”. Oops. Were we noisy?

Approaching PunoAs you approach Puno, for the last half an hour or so the track follows alongside local roads which intersect a few small towns, so it’s almost like being on a luxury bus; it’s a good opportunity to see how the locals live and go about their daily business. When we finally arrived in Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca, it was 6pm and already nearly dark. But we were not prepared for the welcome. Plaza de Armas It was the anniversary (50th I believe) of the local university and the students were using it as an excuse for a folkloric party and parade. It seemed as though hundreds and thousands of people were on the streets. Our guide who met us said it had started earlier in the day and would finish shortly. Shame, we thought.

Puno crowdsOur hotel for the night was the Casa Andina Private Collection, which was very comfortable and had large bedrooms; good breakfasts and a cosy bar. It did however also contain a rather grumpy receptionist. It has a most picturesque location nestling alongside the lake. With just a couple of hours to spend, we decided to skip an evening meal (again) and take a taxi into the centre of town to see what could be seen.

Puno paradesThe parades were still in very full swing. We found the Plaza de Armas, (every town in Peru seems to have one), and it was packed with locals watching the parade – and indeed with all the parading students too. There seemed no end to the extravagance of the costumes – a mixture of folklore, fantasy, tradition and glamour. An incredible carnival atmosphere everywhere, all captured by TV Lima.Colourful costumes The side streets were equally busy, as this is where paraders were gathering before joining the procession. Although I think we were almost the only tourists in evidence, I have to say the whole place felt very safe and very welcoming. However, it was difficult to gauge how attractive or otherwise Puno is, as all the spectacle detracted from the town itself.

Side streetsAfter a couple of hours, and with no sign of the celebrations coming to a halt, we followed the advice of the hotel and made our way to another Casa Andina hotel in the town centre and got them to ring us a taxi to get back. They were more than happy to do so, which I thought was excellent service. Safely ensconced back in our hotel we set about packing our cases as the next day we would be leaving Peru for Bolivia.

South America – Peru – Pikillacta and Sacsayhuaman

Grateful for a good night’s sleep we awoke refreshed and ready to see more of the Inca Heartland around Cusco. Today was the day for the “optional tours”. The choices were to see Tipon, Pikillacta and “The Sistine Chapel of the Andes” in the morning, or to visit Sacsayhuaman in the afternoon. Or both. We had avowed to fit as much in as we possibly could, so “both” was our obvious default position; especially as our guide had recommended the morning one, and I had already decided I definitely wanted to see Sacsayhuaman.

Schoolkids love a paradeOn the way out of town, we saw loads of schoolkids waiting patiently at the side of the street for a procession to pass by. Anywhere in the world, children love a parade; Peru is no different. In the end it seemed to be a land rover bearing a religious icon that had arrested their interest; not sure that would have been so captivating back in Northampton.

Pan Chuta loafAlso en route we stopped to see a bread shop. Yes, I kid you not. This is because they bake very large circular flat loaves, and they are apparently the talk of the valley. Mrs C can’t do bread, so it was of limited fascination to us. But if you like your loaves, check out the Pan Chuta in Oropesa.

San Pedro de AndahuaylillasThe Sistine Chapel of the Andes is so called because of its incredibly ornate interior. God knows it as the parish church of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas. The building is undergoing some San Pedro de Andahuaylillas - crossesrestoration and there were many talented artisans working on bringing the interior up to its former glory; unfortunately we weren’t able to take any photos. LocalsThe three crosses outside the church are rather outstanding in a stark sort of way, and it was a peaceful place to observe the locals with their children selling their wares.

PikillactaHeading back towards Cusco, our next stop was Pikillacta. This is (was) a pre-Inca city and the ruins are still in pretty astonishing condition. You can only imagine how imposing it must have been in its heyday. Mindful of not overexerting ourselves, so as not to exacerbate the altitude sickness, we spent a very pleasant half hour gently wandering around. Not much trade hereOurs was the only tourist coach there – you can imagine Pikillacta spends many winter days rather deserted. One felt sorry for an elderly couple trying to sell basic tourist rubbish from their groundsheets to the occasional tourist; a hard way to make a living.

We were due to visit Tipon on the way back. Described as a picturesque set of stone canals, terraces and stairways that are thought to be part of a royal hacienda, it sounds lovely. Unfortunately workmen had taken the road up and there was no way for a coach to get to the site. Never mind, it’s always good to have a reason to return.

SacsayhuamanAfter a brief lunch we were all ready for our afternoon trip to Sacsayhuaman. The site covers a large area and its main feature, the mound of three large terraces that zigzag over each other, is outstandingly impressive. The huge chunks of granite that form the ramparts take your breath away (literally, at 3600m above sea level) and you can only imagine Incan arch(in fact you can’t imagine) how they managed to get the granite into place. The stones all interlock, which is why the construction has stood so strongly over the years. The stones also all take on different shapes and sizes – it’s like a pre-Incan vertical version of crazy paving.

View over CuscoWhen you climb to the top you get a magnificent view over Cusco below. While we were there, a group of traditionally dressed Peruvians descended on the viewpoint with gusto and huge delight to see the view. Presumably they were tourists in their own country. They were as excited as little kids who have just heard the ice-cream van.

TambomachayOur entrance ticket to Sacsayhuaman also let us into several other smaller sites. Tambomachay is a series of platforms and fountains and is meant to be in honour of the water deity. My memory of our brief visit was watching a very formally dressed father virtually abusing his very formally dressed son by making him pose for endless very formal looking photographs in front of the ruins whilst the wife/mother uncomfortably looked on. Puka PukaraEvery sulk and scowl from the boy was counteracted by an even more vicious sounding vocal diatribe from the father. Most odd.

Then we visited Puka Pukara, which means “Red Fort” and is a rest stop complex of rooms, plazas, aqueducts and look outs. QenkoFinally we saw Qenko, Quechuan for “labyrinth” which was a site where sacrifices took place. All very interesting – and hilly. Too late I remembered the advice about not overdoing it if you want to avoid altitude sickness. By the time I got back to the hotel I sank into an oblivion of headache and nausea. And tomorrow – oh joy – we would be undertaking a journey that would climb up to over 3800m high.

South America – Peru – Cusco

Casa Andina Private Collection CuscoAfter the entertainment of the train trip from Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo, the coach connection on to Cusco was rather boring and tiring in comparison. So it was that, along with our fellow intrepid co-travellers, we arrived in Cusco in the late afternoon for three nights at our hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection. Having stayed at their hotels in Lima and Urubamba, we had high hopes; but this hotel is a conversion of an old manor house and not purpose-built like the others. This means that although it has more character, it also offers less comfort.

Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco courtyard On the good side, the staff are friendly and helpful, the location is excellent, breakfasts were fine and it has the most welcoming bar, complete with a roaring fire which you really need for late winter/early spring in Cusco. On the other hand, our meal in the restaurant on the first night wasn’t cooked very well and was cold – considering the menu was 95% the same as the restaurant in Urubamba which was top quality – the food just didn’t taste that nice. Also our bedroom only has one window, which looks out into the central corridor. So the room is dark, claustrophobic and airless – which doesn’t help when you’re trying to combat altitude sickness, as you need as much oxygen as possible! Also the soundproofing is virtually non-existent, so it’s important to keep your bedroom activities as silent as possible when you’re on a group tour.

Cusco balconyMrs C had altitude sickness on the first night which surfaced as a severe stomach upset; and I had it on the last night in the form of nausea, headache, extreme tiredness and lack of appetite. I found breathing was very difficult on that last night so we asked for some oxygen to be sent to the room. Very helpfully they brought it as soon as possible; but the cylinder they supplied was virtually empty. I puffed on it for about ten minutes till it gave up the ghost.

Grand doorsFortunately, on day two, Mrs C had recovered and I wasn’t affected yet, so we managed to have a good day in the town. An organised tour was arranged for the afternoon, so in the morning we took our little map and went on a general wander round the backstreets and into the squares, trying not to see too much of the sights we had been promised for later. Great knockersCusco is a very picturesque city, with charming Peruvian architecture – the classic colourful balconies that we saw in Lima are here in abundance, as are grand doors on the streets that imply the presence of untold beauty inside. Gargoyle-type faces stare out at you, daring you to rap at the door with their elegant knockers; this is all very imposing stuff.

Plaza de Armas fountainAt the heart of the city is the Plaza de Armas. Lined on four sides by balconied shops and restaurants as well as the Cathedral, this is where Pizarro claimed Cusco for Spain. It’s delightfully green, has an elegant fountain, and is an obvious meeting place for friends, colleagues and lovers. It’s also quite expansively large; Cusco’s other streets and squares seem cosy and bijou in comparison. PlaygroundWe observed the daily activities of the ordinary people of Cusco town: the children in their smart bright blue uniforms played in the school playground; an old car lolloped along a bumpy road and then went up in a fizz of steam as its radiator burst, its driver getting out, his head in his hands in despair; Police transport we saw the municipal police getting about the place at speed on their little scooter jobs with two chunky tyres; and we saw dozens of people patiently lining up outside a government building, we suspect to receive some kind of benefit payment.

Bar Cusco We stopped for an early lunch at the Bar Cusco, in Plaza de Regocijo. We only wanted something light and easy to digest – and everything we ordered turned out to be a massive portion. I can recommend it for a very good value, very tasty lunch; friendly staff, clean toilets and a spectacular Coca Tea.

Coca Tea Our gentle wander round the town had been in pleasant sunshine, and whilst not really warm, it was good enough to consider ourselves “lucky with the weather”. Come the afternoon, as we left the hotel on our organised tour, the heavens opened, the temperatures plummeted and we dashed to the Santo Domingo convent as quickly as we could.

Santo Domingo It’s a really interesting place as it’s a church and convent built on top of an Inca shrine. A lot of the original Incan architecture is still plain to see, and it makes a fascinating contrast with more modern Spanish colonial designs. There’s a lovely central courtyard with cloisters all around, and everywhere there are notices saying no photos allowed – but everyone was ignoring those notices so I thought I wouldn’t be the only one not to take the opportunity. As I was photographing the courtyard, the rain struck up a gear and turned to hail. Completely underdressed for the afternoon, we couldn’t believe how freezing cold we were.

CathedralWe also spent a good time in the Cathedral, which is very beautiful; has an extremely ornate reredos; a couple of black Christs on the Crosses, and Zapata’s splendid painting of the Last Supper, Cusco style, where the main course consists of roast Guinea Pig, they’re drinking Corn Beer and Judas’s face resembles Pizarro. We took the short coach journey to the San Blas district to visit the San Blas church, which has a wonderful ornate pulpit that is an homage to Baroque woodcarving. And as a payback for all that religious sightseeing, we ended up at a llama/alpaca clothes outfitters, where most of our travel companions found themselves in gift shopping heaven, and we picked up a couple of pairs of cheap gloves as it was proper perishing.

Atmospheric CuscoBack to the hotel for a much needed power nap. Then it was dinnertime. Feeling distinctly once bitten twice shy, we saw no reason to give the hotel restaurant a second chance, so decided to forage on the streets in the hope of finding a decent eatery. And we did. It didn’t take us long to chance upon Sara, The Organic Café Bistro at Santa Catalina Ancha, 370. Service and food were both excellent, and the wine list looked yummy but we were still being good and not having any. It was only a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, so we got back, not too late, with contented tummies and sleepy heads.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2011

We’ve had to miss a couple of Screaming Blue Murders recently so it was good to get back into the comedy club groove last Friday. Dan Evans was compering, and it’s been the first time we’ve seen him for a few months. A new experience: he encountered a little difficulty with the audience for repeating the same material he’s used here before. He started a joke and a member of the audience shouted out the punchline. The ironic thing was, we’d not heard the joke before, whereas earlier he had told his Travelodge joke that we’ve heard at least a dozen times. Dan you are very funny comedian and a great host, but we do need a bit more new material!!

Raymond and Mr Timkins RevueFirst act was the Raymond and Mr Timpkins Revue. I think I can safely say this is an act like no other. 95% mime – or maybe that should be 95% larking about – these two guys act out the lyrics from about a hundred or so cut and pasted pop songs in one long musical stream; mainly with the aid of big aide-memoir type cards. Some of it is incredibly inventive; some of it is heavily telegraphed; some of it is a bit gross; for us, all of it was belly-laugh funny. You’ll either get this and love it, or you won’t and hate it. By far the majority loved it. With some cleaner material you could see this going down a storm at the Royal Variety Performance. Excellent!

Jen Bruster Next we had Jen Brister. She had a great rapport with the audience and some excellent material about being a lesbian with a Catholic Spanish mother. She got good humour out of taking the rise out of posh locations and also does some great Australian observations. Extremely good.

Bennett Arron Headline act was Bennett Arron. His rather quiet and slightly dour Welsh persona made a nice contrast with the maniacal Raymond and Mr Timpkins and the brightly confident Jen Brister. He had some very good observations and funny scenarios and one of the best put-down lines I’ve heard: “I’m always happy to accept a heckle from a pretty girl – so Shush!” But about five minutes before the end he lost it and couldn’t think how to end the act – which kind of killed the energy. He did come up with something but it felt like a detached coda. The audience were kind however so no harm done to the jolly spirit of the evening. Three very good acts, who you’d be very happy to see again.

Review – Al Murray, Barrel of Fun, Derngate, Northampton, 13th October 2011

Barrel of FunA packed house at the Derngate to see Al Murray, the Pub Landlord, in action. I predicted the bars would be ten deep and I was right. Fortunately we got there early enough to get the rounds in, and hopefully no one noticed that I broke the drinking rules and that white wines are not necessarily just for the lady.

It’s not hard to see why he’s so popular. His ability to remember details about the audience members with whom he interacts is extraordinary. And talk about thinking on your feet – his brain must be racing nineteen to the dozen to enable him to react so quickly and inventively to anything the audience throws at him.

The first half seems to have barely any prepared material. He comes out on stage, spills some beer, hits an instant rapport and talks to almost everyone in the first few rows. Those he admires (a proper job, a British name, a pretty girl) get respect and gentle joshing. Those he doesn’t, get ridiculed hilariously. It’s all really funny – even if you’re one of the people he picks on (I think!)

What you don’t realise is that he’s gathering material for the second half. He weaves everything into a story about how, not only is God Save the Queen the Very Best National Anthem Ever, but also how God personally intervenes every time the Queen is in trouble. It’s a brilliant comic sequence, and I guess will be completely different every show.

Al MurrayIn addition to this you have a very funny audience interaction sequence regarding Pippa Middleton’s arse; a great revelation about the Ancient Anglo-Saxon Gods of Luck, Disbelief, Guilt, etc; and his mission to help an audience in need. Cue Henry, aged 13 and 364 days. Poor Henry. Henry was one of the young chaps virtually abused on stage in the Popcorn routine by Jason Byrne a couple of weeks ago. Anyway he was back for more punishment; he obviously has a sign above his head that reads “Comedians please pick on me”. Al Murray got him up on stage to give him a demonstration of how to attract women, which involved pretending to be a shark and scouring the auditorium for fanciable females. He’s such a good sport.

Unlike most other stand-ups, who tend to reveal their innermost self in their material, Al Murray has his Pub Landlord persona that he can both use to express himself and also hide behind. Staunchly British ad absurdam, no foreign reference goes unmocked. Additionally, most other comics will talk about sex a lot, and usually let you into the “most private” secrets of their bedrooms. Al Murray, on the other hand, has a rather schoolboy attitude to sex, mainly consisting of lusting after the ladies with a few “Corrr”’s. He never speaks of a partner, and apart from the fact that he has a pub, you’ve no idea about what he does offstage. It actually makes quite a refreshing change.

If I have one criticism – and I do – it’s with the Questions and Answers session at the end. The act basically ends on a high note, at the end of a very funny routine which I won’t spoil; he leaves the stage, you think it’s all over, and then he comes back for another 20 minutes of Q&A. Whilst there were some funny questions, which gave rise to some funny answers, it somehow sapped the energy of what had gone before, and I felt like it was a slight let-down. I wonder if there is a way of integrating it more into the structure of the show. But this is a minor quibble on what is otherwise a really funny night with a gifted and brilliantly spontaneous communicator. Highly recommended.