Review – Cinderella, Lighthouse Theatre, Kettering, 23rd December 2011

CinderellaSecond Christmas show of the season and it’s off to the Lighthouse Theatre in Kettering for their production of Cinderella. If the mark of a successful pantomime is how much the children enjoy it, then this one is a winner. I have rarely seen such unbridled delight in a theatre packed with under-10s. Barely any conversation between the characters misses the chance to involve the kids – I’m sure “what do you think, boys and girls?” must be the most commonly found grammatical clause in the script. The little boy to my left spent the evening apoplectic with excitement, and the huge and largely deserved round of applause at the end was down to how much the evening had been geared to the kids.

Neil HamiltonIf there’s a slight reservation about this, it’s possibly that the adults were perhaps not so lured into the script as they usually are in a pantomime, especially in the first half. I feel the key to a really successful panto is that while you’re keeping the children on a constant simmer of entertainment, every so often you need it to boil bubbles of adult innuendo to keep the grown-ups engaged too. A lot of the first half was very scene setting and it wasn’t really until after the interval that the script seemed to remember there were adults present too. Mind you, when the adult innuendo did appear, some of it was delightfully near-the-knuckle; the type that actually makes you catch your breath before you laugh as you remember the family company that surrounds you!

Christine HamiltonIt’s rather a nice joke to have Neil Hamilton as Baron Hardup and Christine Hamilton as the Fairy Godmother. You wouldn’t describe either of them as “actors” per se, but actually their commitment to the show is palpable. CH bounces visibly as an excited fairy who can’t wait to Do Good and is enormously keen to engineer a Happy Ending; Tony Howeswhilst NH bumbles ineffectually against the onslaught of the Ugly Sisters, but in a benign sort of way. CH has a smile and an enthusiasm that spreads more joy than you would reasonably imagine, and NH’s interfacing with the custard pie department is both funny on a superficial level and strangely rewarding in a natural justice sort of way.

Millie BanksTony Howes’ Buttons connects with the kids in a head-on engagement of rude noises, funny faces and playground abandon. I could personally have done with a slightly more sophisticated interpretation of the role – but 200 screaming appreciative kids can’t be all wrong. Millie Banks is a beautiful young Cinders with a great voice and a warm stage personality. She scrubs up well as Princess Crystal and it’s no wonder Prince Charming falls for her.

Stephen McCarthy Cinderella’s vicious step-sisters are played by Stephen McCarthy and Gerry Tebbutt; two delightfully over-the-top performances laced with a dash of utter filth. In fact there was quite a lot of groping going on at one stage, which kind of made me wonder about their moral upbringing. I’m sure at Gerry Tebbuttone point one of them referred to their stately home as Hardon Hall by mistake. They pitched the balance of quite hard-hitting brutality and farcical ludicracy very nicely. One of them actually reminded me of one of my old Headmistresses.

Danny Young In the role of Prince Charming Danny Young just about gets away with it by virtue of his cheeky charm, although he appears to be dressed in a costume way too big for him. I did however like his scene where he danced with all the young ladies at the Royal Ball – mainly because instead of it being a rather formal Cinderella Waltz type affair, it was a cool disco dance that updated it very effectively.

Nicki FrenchEurovision’s own Nicki French gives a super performance as a cross-dressing female Dandini who thinks – erroneously – that she might herself be in with a chance to win over the Prince’s heart, and who provided the show’s strongest musical content including the treat that is her version of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

The structure of the show is a little imbalanced as most of the laughs and best scenes are after the interval, which is well worth holding on for. Whilst this is a relatively modest production in terms of staging, costume and effects, it’s bang on the money if you simply want to give your kids some Christmas fun.

Review – Aladdin, Derngate, Northampton, 21st December 2011

AladdinIf you’re looking for a bright and brash pantomime this Christmas, Aladdin at the Derngate in Northampton completely fills the bill. Lavish sets and costumes, beautiful dancers, a very funny script and some star performances mean this year they’re definitely on to a winner.

At first, I was a little dubious about booking, as we were going to at least one other Christmas show this December – as it happens, we’re now going to four – and I thought this one might be overkill. Then they announced that Basil Brush would be in the show, and as Mr Brush and I are old friends (we met in 1971) I couldn’t resist seeing the foxy little chap again. And I’m very pleased we went.

Boom! Boom!I can’t quite get my head round Mr Brush’s new voice – he must have had training from a new vocal coach. Once you can forget that, he’s as funny as ever, being cheeky with the rest of the cast, ad-libbing inventively when things go wrong, and bopping along to all the songs on top of his box. He’s simply irresistible, and got a huge cheer at curtain call.

Bobby DavroTop of the bill is Bobby Davro as Wishee Washee, who I’ve never seen live before and who never particularly appealed to me as a TV performer – nothing against him, just not really my style. But I have to say he works the audience like a demon! His act is full of impersonations that give the story an extra dimension, as and when people like Harry Hill, Bruce Forsyth and Ozzy Osbourne suddenly appear and become part of the tale. He delivers his funny lines with panache and confidence and is the main source of the great energy that runs through the entire show. His version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which he performs with Jeffrey Holland’s Widow Twankey and an uncredited performer known as Pinkie (I think I worked out who he is), is really hilarious. It involves a lot of audience participation and a sou’wester would be useful!

Jeffrey HollandTalking of Mr Holland, we saw him last year in the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Dick Whittington when I felt he was crowded out by some more outstandingly performed and written roles. I’m pleased to say that in this Aladdin he’s extremely funny – his costumes are great, he delivers the more adult lines with deft aplomb, he’s full of energy, and he’s a great bonus to the production.

Brian FortunaAladdin himself is played by Brian Fortuna, which enables the show to play up the dancing element of the entertainment to great effect. For someone to whom panto must feel a very foreign genre, he throws himself into it with infectious enthusiasm. His interaction with the others, especially Messrs Davro and Brush, is very funny, David O’Mahony and he conveys Aladdin’s over-confidence extremely well. Plus there’s a great salsa!

One other terrific performance comes from David O’Mahony as Abanazar (bless you). He exudes disdainful evil from the word go and is haughtily dismissive of the delightful Scheherazade Charlotte Bull(Charlotte Bull) whilst playing up the “Oh yes I will/Oh no you won’ts” with childish glee. He gets the level of camp absolutely perfect.

There isn’t a weak link in the show; it all moves forward at a cracking pace and it’s a brilliant entertainment for the Christmas season.

South America – Brazil – Rio de Janeiro

Copacabana BeachAnd finally we come to the last stage of our South American jaunt, two nights in Rio de Janeiro. I’m sure when you think of Rio, you think of sun drenched beaches, beautiful people in skimpy swimming costumes, carnival extravaganzas, and all that kind of thing. Well we were in Rio for what was apparently the last two days of winter; and although you can have winter sunshine, it isn’t guaranteed! We were lucky for our first afternoon but the last two days were overcast, misty and a bit drab. Nevertheless I had reserved my jolliest sunniest shirts for these days in Rio and I wasn’t going to be deterred from wearing them.

Porto Bay HotelOur hotel was the Porto Bay and it looks a little like an office block from outside; actually it feels a little like an office block on the inside too. The rooms are functional rather than exquisite; but the rooftop swimming pool and bar has a wonderful view over Copacabana beach, even though we had to experience a Force 10 Gale to witness it. The dining room also overlooked the sea and our balcony did have a side view of the beach, which did feel rather special.

Copacabana Beach from the NorthOur travel guide was a very hearty lady who hated Argentineans. It was because of the football, she said. The Argentineans hate the Brazilians equally, she opined in self-justification. I’m not sure if she was expecting a barrage of post-Falklands War approval of this stance from a busload of Brits, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I looked on in slightly disturbed bemusement. Regrettably I can’t remember her name, but she was also very concerned for our safety on the big bad streets of Rio. Once we had all checked in to our hotel rooms, she insisted on walking us round the block – which took maybe all of ten minutes – showing us which shops were safe to use, where you could change money, where it was safe to eat, where it was safe to cross the road…. If we weren’t worried about crime beforehand we certainly were afterwards!

Nice view to have lunch bySo what else could we do having arrived in Rio on our first afternoon – where there were indeed some rays of sun – but have a wander on Copacabana beach. It was a bit of a challenge to get something gluten-free for lunch, so we ended up with a couple of plates of chips and a glass of wine adjacent to the sand. It was slightly bizarre to be having chips, and the wine was frankly disgusting, but the whole experience was strangely lovely. Cheerful beach sellers peddled their souvenir wares; for the most part a happy “no” sent them away merrily. People were drinking – a non-alcoholic drink apparently – out of hollowed out coconuts. It all looked very exotic.

Fun on the beachWe thought we’d go for a walk on the beach. Dear reader, this world is divided into two types of people: people who naturally look great on beaches, and people who don’t. Regrettably, Mrs C and I fall into the latter category. We kicked off our shoes, still wearing shirts and jeans, and picked our way past all the bronzed beauties wearing costumes barely wider than a shoelace. We couldn’t have stuck out more if Mother Teresa were playing beach volleyball with us. Nevertheless, walking on Copacabana beach is Something You Have To Do, it’s very comfy sand, and it was fun.

Copacabana Beach by nightWe met up with some of our fellow intrepid co-travellers for pre-dinner drinkies at the posh hotel next door, the Copacabana Palace. The “Rock in Rio” festival was taking place at the time, and many of the performers were staying at the hotel. I think Elton John was there. He didn’t go down for drinkies though, which is a shame, because I think he’d have liked it. We did; it was all very elegant and pampering, and you felt privileged and refined simply by being there. For dinner we decided to try the rather brusquely named “Arab” which has a good reputation for its Middle Eastern and Indian food. It’s certainly true that the food was delicious – but we had no idea what we were eating as nothing that we ordered from the menu appeared to arrive on our plates. Talk about confusing! When you look at the food you’re offered, and then you check with the description on the menu, and nothing seems to tally, you wonder if you’re mad or they are. It’s also hell for a coeliac, so rather than risk a nasty attack I think Mrs C pretended she wasn’t hungry and survived the whole evening on some plain rice and a plum. And it took for ages to come. And they got the wine wrong; in fact absolutely everything about it was a disaster apart from the actual taste of the food, which was great. Most bizarre. The waiter laughed about it afterwards. Lucky to have such a developed sense of humour.

Christ the RedeemerNext day was our Grand Tour of Rio. In the mist. It didn’t occur to me that going all the way up Corcovado to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer and its stunning views over the city isn’t going to have quite the same effect when you can barely see three feet in front of your face. The train ride up is full of hope and expectation – mutterings like “it will clear” and “it’ll still be exciting” and “well we’ve been very lucky with the weather so far” abound – but actually at the top it was cold and bleak. There were still hundreds of people up there all jostling for the best photo position. Instead of concentrating on the stunning view, you look up and feel very dominated by the statue of Christ, which takes on a rather eerie nature as it looms up out at you from the grey. I expect in the sunshine it’s quite a reassuring sight. In the mist it felt a bit scary.

Cable Car on the Sugar LoafOur chummy guide reminded us that the weather was going to deteriorate later on, so she wanted us to press on and go up the Sugar Loaf Mountain “whilst there was still some point in doing so”. You ascend the Sugar Loaf by cable car and jolly exciting it is too. Actually, the weather wasn’t so bad at this point and we got good views all around. There is one particular viewpoint where you can pose with your loved one and Rio unfolds behind you in a most picturesque way. There was quite a queue for this vantage point, but, undaunted, our guide hustled and bustled her way to the front of the ledge. With one hand she refused entrance to other lesser tourists and with the other she took Pulitzer Prize winning portraits of her group. Borderline aggressive she may have been, but she sure had her uses. There’s not a lot up there on top of the Sugar Loaf to be fair; it’s mainly to say that you’ve seen it, and the views are magnificent. After about twenty minutes or so you’re happy to re-descend and go for lunch.

Downtown RioLunch was at a magnificent place, the restaurant A Mineira. I realise now that it is one of a chain so I can’t say which branch it was that we visited, but it’s an extensive authentic buffet, absolutely full of delicious food, and you pay one price to eat as much as you like. It was absolutely gorgeous – we’d really recommend it. Our guide firmly told us we had to try as many different types of unusual food that we could find; so I was only obeying orders.

Cathedral Our next stop after lunch was the cathedral. It’s a very modern affair, and rather put me in mind of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. It’s an interesting shape, like a huge wigwam. The stained glass windows are astonishing; vivid and huge, soaring up the sides to heaven itself. From inside, you look up to the centre of the ceiling to see a large stained glass cross, The cross in the ceilinga most effective use of the medium. The bell tower outside looks rather weird – a little like one of those emergency staircases at a firestation. Well worth a visit. Not far from there is the Theatro Municipal, adjacent to a nice little square where some kids were learning samba. Very jolly, it offered a nice photo opportunity.

Escadaria SeleronThe final sight we were taken to was the Escadaria Seleron. This is a big set of stairs that the artist Jorge Seleron has decorated with colourful tiles from around the world. It’s a burst of vibrancy in an otherwise dull neighbourhood, and it’s fun to inspect the tiles and see if you can find any from places you’ve been to. You can clamber all over them too. It’s an unexpectedly bizarre source of cheerfulness and pizzazz that attracts lots of visitors. A cautionary tale though: one of our intrepid co-travellers was photographing the staircase when a passer-by tried to steal her camera by simply pulling it from her hand whilst she was taking the picture. Fortunately she had the cord wrapped around her wrist, so they didn’t get away with it. Hurt her wrist though, I think.

Samba kidsWe found a very nice place for a drink round the corner of the hotel – an authentic wine bar type place called La Fiducia. It’s obviously an annexe of the pricey looking restaurant on the other side of the road. It looked quite expensive but very smart; and according to the wine list they had wines at all prices so I thought we’d try a bottle of something mid-priced. They didn’t have it – in fact we had quickly realised that nowhere in Rio has half of what they put on their menus. But they suggested an alternative similar bottle, whisking the wine list away from under my nose as they went off to get it. They brought it to the table. Fortunately, before I they started opening it, I recognised its name from the wine list as being one of their most expensive wines (something like £70 a bottle). NO NO!! I shrieked, that’s ridiculously expensive! There was a distinct look of disappointment on the waiter’s face as he realised he’d been outwitted. I chose again and managed to get away with a (relatively) cheap bottle at about £30. Phew. That was close to an International Rip Off Incident that could have had Unfortunate Consequences.

Copacabana on Sundays For dinner we thought we’d try one of the places further along Copacabana beach and after a few false starts, found a little gem called Deck. The food, drink and atmosphere were all great. They also spoke English well, a surprisingly rare commodity in Rio. It was just what we needed – so much so that we decided to go back there for lunch the following day. It’s not sophisticated; just seasidey and welcoming.

Only in Rio That takes us to our last day in Rio – and indeed in South America – which was a Sunday. From Monday to Saturday the main road that separates Copacabana beach from the hotels and restaurants on the other side of the road is a maniacally overcrowded thoroughfare, requiring adept powers of traffic prediction and heaps of good luck to get across safely. On Sundays, they change the city’s traffic flow so that this road is pedestrianised. And what a welcome sight it makes! Joggers, pushchairs, dog walkers and even tourists all have a day of safety and free movement. Copacabana MarketWe walked to the north end of the beach and around the little headland that offered a great view back on to Copacabana. On our way back to Deck for lunch, we stumbled upon a local market, selling all sorts of day to day stuff for locals – food, kitchenware, haberdashery, even goldfish in little plastic bags like you used to see at the funfair. Our trip back to Deck didn’t disappoint, and we sauntered back to the hotel to await our transfer coach, sad to leave Rio and South America behind, but satisfied in the knowledge we’d had an excellent trip.

Ten never-to-be-forgotten Eurovision songs (that have been somewhat forgotten)

Here’s an article I wrote for the most recent edition of Vision Magazine (the magazine of OGAE UK, the UK Eurovision fan club, if you didn’t know). I thought I’d trot it out for you kind blogreaders to read as well, AND you get the benefit of the youtubes in glorious Technicolor© too.

Of course, this is just about as subjective as it gets. Here are (IMHO) ten songs that should always be within reach of your mp3 player or stylus depending on your vintage. Over the years the bloom may have faded a little from their petals, and their stalks may be wilting, but they’ve still got stamens of gold. And if that’s too much botany for you, I’d like you to consider my first suggestion, Beş Yıl Önce, On Yıl Sonra, that catchily-titled group from Turkey, with their 1984 offering “Halay”. Watch the video beneath, and check out their incredible dance moves, basically comprising of syncopated hand holding and then gentle release. It looks like one of those more careful exercises your chiropractor might teach you. It’s a fabulous little song about Turkish country dancing, but it’s the secondary elements that stay in the mind – those enviably turquoise jumpers, ties and dresses; the sassy swaying of the girls to the front of the stage – just the once, don’t want to get us too excited; and the chap on the right who looks like he’s sending a secret message to Ankara by morse-coding with his eyes.

Back to 1979’s curtain raiser and it’s Manuela Bravo (no relation to Juliet) with Sobe, Sobe, Balao Sobe (Rise, rise, little balloon, rise). Back in those halcyon days we could rejoice in the simple pleasures of little balloons, no Finnish monsters or hamster wheels of death then. Of course it’s not a real balloon. It’s a metaphor for a nation growing in confidence after the dark days of fascist repression when all you could look forward to was a Sing-a-long-a-Fado night. The golden balloon rises with love and optimism for a great future. Alternatively, it just might be a real balloon. Manuela’s and the girls’ dresses were all courtesy of the pastel end of the Dulux Colour Chart, and the orchestration under the baton of Thilo Krassman proved surprisingly raunchy. I always expect her to break into Andy Williams’ “It’s my happy heart you hear” but she holds back just in time. So if you’ve forgotten this one, have a listen and give your ears a treat. And there was no truth in the rumour that the following year she wanted to sing a song about rolling a hoop with a stick.

“Man gewöhnt sich so schnell an das Schöne” is one of those titles that make you think you haven’t enough time left to listen to the song. It was the German song for 1964, sung by Nora Nova, Bulgarian by birth and one of the founders of the National Movement for Stability and Progress, which tried to return the old Bulgarian Tsar to power about ten years ago. Jolly and entertaining though it may be, the juries’ memories weren’t as long as the title and it was certainly forgotten by the time the votes came in, getting a resounding nul points, although it wasn’t the only song that year to be so devastatingly ignored. Once the dullish introduction is behind you, it’s a rather showy big band sound that wouldn’t be out of place in Strictly Come Dancing. Nora is in her mid-seventies now but I’m sure she could still rock the joint if you asked nicely. Especially if you invite the Tsar.

And now 1970. No, not quite Tales of the Unexpected, but “Je suis tombé du ciel” from the elegantly ruffled dress shirt of Mr David Alexandre Winter. If that’s a French accent, I’m a Dutchman. Actually, he’s the Dutchman, and has clearly been no closer to Paris than the Amsterdam branch of Délifrance. Not even Frenchifying the spelling of his middle name is convincing, but then he was singing for Luxembourg. This classic nul pointer came last despite being an uplifting hymn to the joys of young love and I particularly enjoy the environmental dichotomy behind the line “tu es ma ville et tu es mon village”. David is largely forgotten now, and according to wikipedia (so it must be true) is a car dealer in the United States. So revel if you will in the bounciness of this spirited song. Believe me, it’s great in the shower when you can get at least five syllables out of the phrase “fou de joie”.

1990 is one of my favourite years at Eurovision, and if you look towards the neglected end of the middle-runners on the final board – kind of 7th batsman level – you find the dippy delight of the Cyprus entry, Milas Poli by Haris Anastazio. Terry Wogan told us he had a dance studio in Limassol. Anastazio a dancer? This is the laziest dancing you’ll witness this side of the Troodos Mountains. Dressed by the Nicosia branch of St Barnardo’s, fortunately he was backed up by two pert and cute girls who showed what denim was made for and to cap it all they nicked the Herreys’ boots and spray-painted them platinum. The conductor and co-writer was Jon Vickers, whose love-child has to be the Go-Compare man. There’s a moment at the beginning of the second verse where Haris does a cutesy facial finger waving routine, and for some reason I imagine him wearing Donald Duck’s sailor outfit at this point – best not go there. The song and orchestration are pure good mood music and it’s one of those three minutes that defines why Eurovision is so smashing.

Tucked away in those mid 1990s contests when songs from eastern Europe started to make their mark, you will find the debut entry for Slovakia in 1994, Martin Durinda and Tublatanka with Nekonečná Pieseň, satisfyingly translated as “Never ending Song”. Slovakia has yet to set the world alight, eurovision-wise; maybe if they stuck with their tuneful rock like this they might have done better. Hard on the outside but with a soft centre like a Dairy Milk caramel, this was always going to become a period piece. After the plaintive strings, Martin starts accidentally singing the Bee Gees “Words” (Smile, an everlasting smile…) but hurriedly manages to change it back to an almost original song, before the chorus kicks in and he just avoids going into Renaissance’s “Northern Lights”. Tublatanka have been around for Donkeys Years and show no sign of slowing down. It’s a nice little song, and perfect for those moments when one more schlager would have you reaching for the Rennies.

A funny thing happened on the day before Arnis Mednis’ marriage in 2001 and he chose to write about it in that year’s Latvian entry, Too Much. And looking at the lyrics he was probably wise not to give us Too Much Information. In this packed three minutes, he takes on infidelity, drink dependence, drug taking and frigidity. Ah yes, I’ve been to Riga too. It’s all set to a rousing beer-cheery tune, with a join-in chorus (“we’ll see”), a manic accordionist and backing singers who you’d guess were at the pub last night. Arnis starts off behind the dark glasses, probably out of embarrassment, but later discards them in an attempt to look cool. A mish-mash of ingredients but somehow when you put them together you get a feelgood song of Bierkeller proportions. Unfortunately Arnis has suffered very bad health this year, so let’s hope he gets well again soon and composes the sequel.

Very much a child of his time, do you remember Kojo from Finland and his Nuku Pommiin? Back in 1982 we were all concerned that the world would go up in a puff of nuclear smoke, and we all had “nein danke“ auf our Parkas genäht. His message was sleep and a bomb will come and get you. Well there wasn’t a great chance of sleeping while Kojo was on stage. Backed by Blues Brothers rejects, and wearing a subtle suit of Burnt Sienna, Kojo interpreted the song as if his life depended on it – and I suppose given the lyrics, it did. You can’t dance to this; you can’t really sing along to it, yet it’s a favourite nul-pointer in my book. I guess he just came over a little over raucous for the genteel inhabitants of Harrogate. If you haven’t heard it for a while, give it another listen – it’s actually more tuneful than you remember. Do you think the way he knocks his head with his hand in time with the drum beat signifies that nuclear war is a no-brainer? Or do I need a lie down?

Here’s one of those songs that sounds a lot better in a foreign language when you haven’t got a clue what they’re on about; and then you hear the English language version and you think “oh no, how lame”. “How well I merge with this world that dazes me, how I’m absorbed in time that doesn’t exist”. Oh Cole, really, do give over. It’s the 1993 debut entry from Slovenia, Tih Deževan Dan, a rather dreamy and relaxing number that works perfectly well with your eyes shut. Cole Moretti fronts the 1 X Band, wearing a jacket ruined by mixing his colours in the wash, with three backing girls symmetrically mimicking music box dolls doing a 20km road walk. The chorus features some backing girl chants that sound quite nice in Slovene (Kaj bi?) but sound daft in English (What is?) Largely forgotten by the juries on the night it scraped a draw 22nd place, though Cole’s guitar solo was obviously the inspiration for Jemini’s riff ten years later.

And finally the second oldest song in this selection, the cheekily Mary Quant-like Kirsti Sparboe and the first of her Eurovision gi-normous smash hits, Karusell. What an innocent age 1965 was. Kirsti and her two suitors play on a merry-go-round, her comparing the two chaps in terms of size (steady) and temperament, all of which Kirsti then goes and tells her mother about, and finally she concludes she loves one and can’t be bothered with the other one. And then we can all go home for teacakes and soda pop. In this way, generations are created. All set to a lovely little cha-cha-cha of the type you might hear in Craig Revel Horwood’s dressing room. Can’t see the likes of Lordi getting down to this. Kirsti would of course wow the Eurovision stage with future efforts but this little beauty of a song is a charmer and easily overlooked when you’re making up Eurotastic compilations for the car.

So what conclusion can we draw from this look at easily forgotten masterpieces? That the juries know nothing? That the old days were better? That the orchestra gave an added dimension? Probably or possibly none, or all, of the above. Still, no matter how much we may enjoy all the new offerings every year, there’s always a tasteful reason to stroll down memory lane.

South America – Argentina and Brazil – Iguassu, Iguazu or Iguacu Falls

Sheraton HotelCuriously, for a resort that appears to have only two hotels within its boundaries, Iguassu Falls benefits from two airports. Coming from Buenos Aires, we touched down on the Argentinean side around noon and swiftly found our way to our hotel, the Sheraton, the only hotel in the Argentinean side of the resort. It’s a beautiful place to stay, and it’s worth forking out the extra packet to have a Falls view room. This provides you with a balcony looking out over the back of the hotel, towards the paths that lead down to the Falls, as well as a distant view of the Falls themselves.

Iguazu Falls Our afternoon tour was to have an optional extra, namely getting on a boat that would take you as close to the underneath of the Falls as it dared. Take this option, we were advised, if you want to have some fun and excitement, and also if you want to get extremely wet. In for a penny; we therefore opted to wear swimming costumes for our trek down to the Falls. As we were looking at a distinctly open-air day, with little in the way of spending opportunities – or so I thought – and the prospect of much drenching – I took no credit cards and just a modest amount of cash.

Iguazu Falls at a distance So here is my salutary tale. Our afternoon guided tour of the Argentinean Falls started with a non-included lunch. On the way down to the little railway halt that takes you to the main paths there are a few “restaurants”; the inverted commas hopefully sum up the quality. We were to have our lunch here before heading on. The choices were a fast food outlet that was a complete misnomer as the queues to the counter were about thirty tourists deep; or an aircraft hangar buffet restaurant, where at least there was no queuing. We chose this option. The food was below average, the atmosphere zoo-like, and the cost exorbitant. Having just brought what I thought would be sufficient for a light lunch, I found myself in the embarrassing situation of not having enough pesos to pay for this culinary delight, thus having to throw ourselves on the mercy of one of our intrepid co-travellers to bale us out of our spot of cash bother. Considering we had only ten minutes earlier left the welcoming sight of the Sheraton’s quietly elegant dining room, the bill for which could easily have been signed away without needing to take any dosh out, the decision to plonk us in this tourist trap hellhole was appalling.

Hordes heading towards the Garganta del DiabloSo therefore it was in a rather disgruntled mood that we hit the queue for the little train, which was a surprisingly hit-and-miss arrangement, but we did eventually reach our first destination, the Estación Garganta del Diablo, from where we take our first real trek to the Falls.

It has to be quite a wide path in order to cope with the large numbers of people heading out to the Falls and back again, so at first you don’t get an uplifting sense of being near to an exciting bit of nature – at least not quite yet. But as you get closer and closer, the view of the wide river gives way to a sense of the rocky Falls beneath you. Iguazu in all its gloryAnd the noise begins to rise; and what had been a very fine spray begins to thicken; and rainbows emerge; and you are completely taken in by the incredible energy that this wonderful natural phenomenon creates. It’s mesmerising to watch a waterfall from above – your eyes pick on a little bubble of water and follow it along the top of the river till it reaches the crest and starts hurtling down an incredible 80 metres. It’s an extraordinary sight.

Of course there are plenty of places to view the Falls. Garganta del Diablo is the usual first port of call as it’s convenient for the railway and you get close up to this enormous plunge. Circuito InferiorBut there are also the Circuitos Superior and Inferior which provide different aspects at varying heights and proximity to the water. On the whole, the paths on the Argentinean side of the Falls take you to closer to the water itself, so they tend to be louder and wetter; on the Brazilian side you tend to get a more panoramic view over a wider area from slightly further back, although you can get up close and personal as well. In theatre terms, in Brazil you get the front row of the dress circle and in Argentina the front row of the stalls.

Would you get in this boat?We took the Circuito Inferior to reach the little boat that would navigate us extraordinarily close to the second largest fall, Salto San Martin. It’s a fun, easy walk, with the chance to see lots of little jungle critters, like the omnipresent tapirs, maybe even a toucan if you’re lucky; you get close to the foot of several small falls, and, when we were there, loads of stunning rainbows. It’s with no little nervous trepidation that you stumble upon the boat that’s going to take you for your spin. Well prepared tourists take out their see-through ponchos, raincoats, sou’westers and what have you’s. Some will have parted with their last pesos to get an umbrella back at the tourist shop. My advice: what a waste of time. Without poncho, you get 100% wet. With poncho – from our observations – you get 98% wet. It really isn’t worth the 2%.

All aboardLife-jacketed out of recognition, you stumble into the boat (maximum 30 passengers), sit down in the puddles left by its previous incumbents, mutter some unexpectedly heartfelt prayers, and head off into eternity. Vultures look down expectantly from the tops of the trees. You desperately hang on to your camera, or your partner, until you’re so buffeted around and shaken from side to side that you can only hang on to one of them – so it’s up to you to choose which is the more valuable. You go right underneath the Salto San Martin, genuinely within a few feet of where the water comes crashing down on you. Screams of delight and terror abound. You are drenched but you don’t care. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

An interesting talk when you're dry and warm....The downside of this, is that you get off at the end like a drowned rat, desperately hoping that the sun will dry you off as quickly as possible as there isn’t a towel in sight; and just when you want to be whisked back to your luxurious Sheraton en suite, you end up sitting in the back of a truck where an enthusiastic lady is going to take a good half an hour to tell you all about her favourite nature species in the jungle. To be fair, her talk was interesting and we enjoyed it – but it would have been a whole lot more enjoyable if we’d done it first!

Eventually civilisation hove back into view and we were able to shower, rest up and prepare for a Sheraton dinner. I’d describe it as good quality hotel food, if you get my drift. Service was borderline relaxed/slow, but it’s not a problem, as we hardly wanted to get ready to go clubbing.

Entrance to Brazilian sideThe next day we were to tour the Brazilian side, so we crossed the international border, passports at the ready, from Iguazu to Iguaçu. At the border was an opportunity to use an ATM to get some Brazilian Reals. My Portuguese is not good, and the ATMs had no translation into any other language. Thus three of our intrepid co-travellers and I spent what seemed like half-an-hour, inserting cards, getting error messages, getting cards rejected, forgetting PINs, panicking about lost cards, pressing the first button that came into our heads, until eventually some local chap felt sorry for us and showed us how they worked.

Viewpoint on Brazilian sideAs soon as you emerge at the entrance to the Brazilian side, it’s clear how much wealthier the local economy is. The Brazilian entrance is sleek, modern, stylish and attractive. Colourful open-top buses drive you along well tarmacked lanes to the first viewpoint. The Argentine side, in comparison, and the Sheraton apart, is basic. It would be like comparing Le Gavroche with Newport Pagnell Service Station. Once you get to the viewpoint, it takes a good 90 minutes to wander along the path, and with a new Falls panorama every fifteen seconds or so, your camera shutter finger gets worn out quickly. There’s a shop and shelter area at the end of the walk; and, depending on the wind, you may well be drenched again.

Inside the helicopterEarlier we had forked out lots of our new Reals for an optional helicopter ride over the Brazilian side of the Falls. It was just to be Mrs C and I, plus two of our intrepid co-travellers, Niri and Ratna. And the pilot of course! I suppose on a cost per minute basis it’s a bloody expensive form of tourism. But we thought we’d push the boat out, if that’s not mixing my metaphoric forms of transport, and I’m very glad we did. It may be stating the obvious but you do get a fantastic view over the river and the falls, and from a distance things appear different from how you would expect. There’s so much bright green jungle, for one thing. The flat-water surface on the other hand takes on a muddy green hue, almost looking motionless and jellified. The waterfalls appear artificially from nowhere, just where the land has for no apparent reason crumbled away. A fascinating perspective, and the fastest eight minutes of my life!

From the airBack from Iguaçu to Iguazu, we returned to the hotel, then escaped again to take a last minute private walk along the Circuito Superior. A very attractive and not too crowded walk; if you thought you hadn’t seen enough waterfall, it treats you to yet more views, so that you come away feeling satisfied that you saw as much as you possibly could. A visit to Iguazu is an exceptional experience. We loved it.

Review – Henry V, Propeller Theatre Company, Milton Keynes Theatre, December 1st 2011

Henry VThis was our first experience of the Propeller Theatre Company, of whom I had heard Good Things, and I can understand the hype. They tackle the text head on, making those Shakespearean words as meaningful as possible; and involve the audience and indeed even the theatre building itself as much as they can, which gives the play instant impact and keeps it relevant to today. The programme describes the company as “an all-male Shakespeare company, which mixes a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I loved the ways this production broke down barriers: physical ones. Members of the company dressed in terrorist style combats infiltrated the bar and lobbies of the theatre before the show starts. The company accessed the auditorium through the public entrances, emerging on to the stage from behind the audience rather than coming on from the wings or the back. They sang songs in front of the box office during the interval. They chatted with audience members from the stage and from the aisles at the beginning of the second half. It’s all very involving and inclusive. You felt that the actors actually realised we were there with them, and took us personally into account when they performed. Obviously, it’s all rehearsed but nevertheless it has a spontaneous feel to it. Director Edward Hall and the company must all have a terrific relationship together, providing a strong ensemble element to the production whilst the individual actors still all have their own separate and well-defined characters.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart Nowhere is this better utilised than in Henry V’s Chorus. A difficult one to get right, I feel. Is it an everyman character? Perhaps a lone soldier? A courtier? The Chorus plays an important role in moving the play forwards, stage by stage, location by location, and keeps explaining the progress of the play in a most helpful manner. In this production, the entire cast take on the role of the Chorus, each taking individual lines. It’s a good way of introducing the main players in each scene, and commenting on what will unfold in each act. In Act Two, for example, the Chorus identifies the three traitors who will be executed, and the three actors who play the traitors, don their costumes as they are introduced, making it visually clearer what is going on. A Brechtian approach, 300 years before Brecht.

Chris Myles The use of music within the production is also strong and telling. Many of the performers are skilled musicians, and more barriers are broken by use of modern songs – I loved the use of the Clash’s London Calling, for example. And then there is the depiction of violence. In an era where computer games have created “death-lite” and its horror is losing its impact, this production aligns the violence in the play with an additional visual device, making it slightly less violent in reality but not in effect.

John DougallFor example, when a soldier is being attacked on the battle field, the attacker is shown hitting a punchbag at the side of the stage, and at the sound of the impact, the victim falls or reacts to the punch centre stage – but there is no actual violent act depicted on the actor himself. The most effective use of this device was the beheading of the three traitors: the executioner dramatically wields his axe into a wooden stump, and at the sight and sound of the blow, the three traitors behind all drop down in instantaneous lifelessness. Really different – and a really stunning effect.

Nicholas Asbury I felt there were only two aspects of the production that could have been improved. One of them is Shakespeare’s fault. This is a play about a warrior nation, led by a warrior king, and there are lots – and lots – of battle scenes. About halfway through the second half, it all began to get a bit samey. As we had been treated to so many visually intriguing devices and characterisations, maybe we had been a bit spoiled by what had gone on so far. The continuous battlefield stuff just got a little dull for me. In fact Mrs Chrisparkle allowed herself forty winks during this period. But I blame Shakespeare. He didn’t always get it right.

Gunnar Cauthery The other slight problem for me was the performance of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Henry V. There are at least four aspects to the warrior king – the warmonger, the negotiator, the magnanimous victor, and the ham-fisted lover. Working backwards, the final “love” scenes with Katherine were light, gauche, awkward and extremely funny. Mr Bruce-Lockhart was perfectly cast for that aspect of the part. As the magnanimous victor, he was also extremely convincing; a very noble king, keen to hear the names of the fallen in battle and that their names should be given due reverence. His refined bearing helped enormously in giving the impression of fairness in battle, and decency in triumph. As a negotiator with the French King and the Herald, his diffidence didn’t always quite make sense to me. I didn’t get a sense of his motives or the justice behind his claim. And as an actual warrior, I’m afraid I wasn’t really convinced at all. His voice and characterisation was for me too mild. I didn’t get the feeling that he would motivate me on the battlefield to go off and do his bloody work for him. I think maybe he was just a bit too nice.

Karl Davies Other members of the cast though hit exactly the right note. I particularly liked Chris Myles as the Duke of Exeter, a purposeful soldier with a touch of Field Marshal Montgomery about him, shrewd eyes pointing withering looks to the French Herald. John Dougall’s French King had an excellent superior disdain in his dealings with the English in the early scenes and had diminished nicely to vanquished status by the end. Nicely stated supporting performances by Nicholas Asbury as the effete French Herald Montjoy, Gunnar Cauthery as the Dauphin, but particularly good I thought as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Karl Davies as Scroop and Katherine, all gave the production additional power and resonance.

A strong production performed by an excellent ensemble, touring into next summer. I recommend it.