The Long Way Home

James Whitney in "The Long Way Home"

James Whitney in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s
“The Long Way Home”
© Lisa Tomasetti

When I think of a soldier taking “The Long Way Home” I think of the lyrics of that old Scottish song “O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye”.

By tradition it’s sung by a Scot wounded on an English battle field to his mate. He’s going to die and the fairies will take him through their land along the low road back to Scotland while his friend will walk.

The same is true in modern war. Those that die find their way home long before those that live.

One of the things we have come to realise in modern warfare is that coming home often does not stop for the soldier when he walks off the plane from the battlefield.

So the play “The Long Way Home”, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and sponsored by the Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley, explores both the reasons and the problems of Australian soldiers as they come back both physically and mentally from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The play was written by Daniel Keene after a many week workshop with returned soldiers who now fill almost all the roles in the production. The soldiers do an excellent job, it’s impossible to tell these amateurs from the professionals.

It’s hard to write critically about this piece of theatre since a weakness in a performance, a badly delivered line or bad stage movement, are both forgivable and almost unseen through the strength of the connection between audience, the performers and the work.

A simple set and simple costumes are enhanced by some vivid video and lighting changes. The production is well designed and well directed.

Almost from the first “The Long Way Home” deliberately grabs the audience and plays with it’s emotions, moving us through fear, sympathy, understanding and sometimes even love. The playwright and the performers have not shrunk from the task of making the audience understand all the dark times and feelings these men and women go through as they come back.

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Review: Adele Live At The Albert Hall Blu-Ray

English: Adele performing "Someone Like Y...

Adele performing “Someone Like You” during a concert in Seattle, Washington on 8.12.2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last Blu-Ray I reviewed on this site was KD Lang ‘Live In London’ and it is hard not to make a comparison. Here we have two strong female vocalists with strong emotional connections to their music and an obvious love for their craft performing in the same town. We also have two performers who rely on their voice alone with no large bands, light shows or a dozen backing singers.

Technically this is an excellent production with clear, well balanced sound across all five channels. The publisher has even thrown in a CD for you. Unfortunately the direction is off, the cuts are too fast for Adele’s style of music and the Director is throwing every trick in his book at this DVD. Luckily Adele’s performance is so good this is still watchable but half the cameras and a quarter of the editing would have produced a better video.

I have never seen Adele live and after this Blu-Ray she is high on my list of must-see performers. Her songs are highly personal and she gives a personal performance connecting with both the music and the audience chatting amicably and honestly with the crowd throughout.

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Review: One Man, Two Guvnors

The band, "The Craze", before the play (Photo: Jessica Williams)

The band, “The Craze”, before the play (Photo: Jessica Williams)

Last night I saw One Man, Two Guvnors, a production of Britain’s National Theatre bought to Sydney by The Sydney Theatre Company.

The show had hugely successful runs in London and New York before coming out to Australia for the Adelaide Festival and now Sydney.

Shifting the action of the Italian play A Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni to 1963 Brighton with visually bright sets and costumes. We are really only left with the plot of Goldoni’s play, but a superb plot it is.

This production is a masterpiece. From the moment you take your seat to the skiffle music of the house band you are entertained. The band will be back several times, often accompanying a cast member or three, during set changes and after interval giving the show a slightly vaudeville feel.

The play itself is a masterpiece of visual and verbal comedy, though the second act after interval doesn’t have the strength of the first which is a marvellous slow build to the last scene which had me laughing so hard I was in danger.

Owain Arthur as the servant, Francis Henshall, gives a brilliant performance throughout. He is backed by a marvellous ensemble from whom it is difficult to find a standout performance as all do so well though Mark Jackson, as 87-year-old waiter Alfie, is a classic clown with some superb physical comedy.

This was by far the funniest play I have seen on a Sydney stage in decades. It is the humour of Goldoni filtered through classic British comedy of slapstick, farce, sight gags and often just plain silliness.

My one complaint is that the sound was terrible with lines lost in some scenes and the lyrics to the songs often impossible to understand. Why it can’t be done better in production that has toured to many theatres is difficult to understand, both the production and the STC should have done much better.

Kindle Paperwhite Review

Kindle Paperwhite

Kindle Paperwhite (Photo credit: Zero2Cool_DE)

The Paperwhite is my second attempt at using an e-reader and I have to say I am seriously impressed. Until now I have been doing my e-reading on an iPad after I found an earlier version of the Kindle not to my liking and the difference is much more than I thought.

I bought the WiFi only unit (my iPhone can be a hot spot if I really need connection on the road) with the “faux leather” cover. The cover slightly increases the weight and about doubles the thickness but gives two advantages, the first is that it has a magnet that turns the Kindle on and off, useful since the power switch is small and inconveniently situated on the bottom edge of the Kindle, and it keeps the screen clean when shoved into an untidy bag. Even at double the thickness it’s still thinner than the average paperback. It’s easy to get the Paperwhite into the case but harder to get it out, I wouldn’t want to be doing it all the time.

The screen on the Paperwhite is very good. At 212 pixels per inch and with the built-in front-light text is easily readable at quite small sizes. The screen is actually three layers; at the bottom is the e-ink display and on top of that is the capacitive touch screen and finally the system that illuminates the e-ink below. The illumination system uses LEDs at the bottom of the screen and there is some slight shadowing right at the bottom but I quickly got used to that and now only notice it when looking for it. Put together it is high-contrast and easy on the eyes, it is by far the easiest to read I have ever seen. Text, no matter font or size looks crisp and clear.

Using a touchscreen for the interface works but does have some drawbacks. The first is that unintentional touches of the screen can turn the page. The other is that the processor in the Paperwhite is obviously as dumb as a post and as slow as a snail so I sometimes find myself touching the screen and wondering if the Kindle had felt me as there is a noticeable delay, not so much when turning the page which works well, but when browsing through my books and collections. It’s most noticeable when typing something using the on-screen keyboard, you have to be slow and steady or you will miss letters.

The storage on the Paperwhite is 2Gb rather than the 4Gb of the Kindle Keyboard. Given that 2Gb is enough to store hundreds of books (Amazon says 1100 and I wouldn’t argue with that) I think that you would have to be a grinch to complain about that.

Amazon claims a battery life of 8 weeks but that’s with WiFi turned off and the light set quite low and only an hour a day of reading. Given that I set the light higher than that, left WiFi on all the time and often read for more than an hour a day I found it was more like two weeks. Still, that is considerable more than you will get with any tablet and plugging it in to recharge once a week or so is no hardship.

One of the newer additions to the Kindle operating system is the idea of “Collections” to organise your books. Given that I have over a hundred books in my Amazon account and most of those are needed on my e-reader then some way of organising everything is a godsend.

Shopping for books on the Kindle is painful. It can be done if you know what you are looking for but any sort of browsing is slow. On the other hand there are a huge selection of books on Amazon for the Kindle that are free and I don’t mind shopping on my computer or iPad. The same is true for the “Experimental Browser”, it’s slow and painful to use. If you want a device for the web then this is certainly not it.

Adding other e-books is easy. I have a bunch of software e-books I bought from O’Reilly since they offer a cheap e-book if you own the paper version. Getting them onto the Kindle just required plugging the Kindle into my Mac where it pops up as a drive and copying them across. As a PDF reader the Paperwhite is not the best but if you can get a book in Amazon or Mobi format then transfer away.

In conclusion, if you have been on the fence about buying an e-reader then Amazon have finally produced something that will probably sway you toward purchasing, if you have an e-reader that is a couple of generations old then an upgrade to the Paperwhite is well worth considering.

A.C. Grayling and Things

Cover of "The Reason of Things: Living wi...

Cover via Amazon

Recently I have been re-reading two of philosopher A.C. Grayling’s books, ‘The Reason of Things’ and ‘The Form of Things’. The books are mainly comprised of short essays based on his weekly articles in ‘The Guardian’ between 1999 and 2002.

Grayling is a philosopher and academic of some standing having held many senior positions at both Oxford University an the University of London. He has even been a judge for the Booker Prize and a representative to the UN Human Rights Council.

Writing in a populist environment allows him to step out of the academic questions of his academic career of knowledge, metaphysics and logic, and into the other realm that interests him greatly, ethics or, as he puts it, “How should one live?”

One of the joys for me in reading Grayling is that we come from fairly similar positions. Atheist, humanist, secular and left leaning. Grayling is perhaps a little more vehement in his opposition to religion than I am, but he’s had more time and freedom to work up a real rage.

The joy comes in seeing ideas from slightly different angles and to see them so well played out. He covers a multitude of topics but is never far from ethics while he covers art, education, religion, war, love, modern dance and beauty.

Grayling is so obviously highly intelligent, well educated, well read and practiced at thinking and talking. Even when I disagree it is hard not to be drawn along in his thought and logic.

Make no mistake, this is no “pop” philosophy, Grayling looks at fundamental questions in deep ways often quoting from and referring you to the philosophers of the past. At the same time it is easy to read, understand and follow.

These are book that will get you thinking, they also have me sketching out my own essays on some of the topics touched. I find that they are best to be read in small chunks, two or three chapters at a time, and I also find myself going back and reading a chapter a day or two later. They deserve some deep thought and introspection before a re-read.

There are four books in the series, it seems I will have to hunt out the other two.

‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith is a difficult book to describe or characterise. It is an autobiography through the lens of a sometimes brilliant and sometimes hurtful relationship.

I could start by describing it as raw since the tale it tells is certainly a raw one. I could call it unadorned since the language is simple and unadorned. At the same time it is romantic since it is above all dedicated to Smith’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe. We could also add honest since Smith does not gild the lily and honestly tells of stealing and cheating.

Smith quickly moves through her childhood and only really gets into detail when she tells of falling pregnant, being dismissed from teacher’s college and giving up the child for adoption at the age of nineteen. Soon after she leaves New Jersey for New York, already seeking the life of an artist and immediately runs into Mapplethorpe who shows her a place to sleep and then disappears before resurfacing when they meet for the second time at the bookshop Brentano’s.

What follows is a love story, a love of the artistic life, of New York, of the times and the artists that inhabited it but most of all a love of Mapplethorpe that changed but did not decrease when they stopped as lovers and he realised his homosexuality. Nor did it seem to change as both climbed the ladder of fame and success.

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Review: Signs of Life

Tim Winton has over the last twenty years engraved himself into our culture. He arose out of the waves of Western Australia and has risen all the way to Living National Treasure. A superb and unique author.

It is only recently that he has turned his pen to playwriting, “Signs of Life” is his second play after last years “Rising Water”. It is a co-production of the Sydney Theatre Company and the Black Swan State Theatre Company from Perth.

“Signs of Life” is unmistakably a Winton work, it’s concerned with place, identity and belonging. It reminded me strongly of the English “kitchen sink” dramas of the sixties, it felt as if you came into an ongoing story at some random moment and left it the same way while in between you saw lives unfolding with all the difficulties and pasts that life holds. It is a somewhat sequel to his novel “Dirt Music” which I must admit to never having read. That may have to change.

Heather Mitchell, Pauline Whyman and Aaron Pederson do a marvellous job supported by George Shevstov. The men have a difficult job in this play as neither character feels really central and well developed, it is the two women who carry the play forward while the men have roles that are more explanatory and narrative. Pederson, in particular, has a difficult job as he and Mitchell have most of the dialogue while he shows only a little of himself and little variation in character. When his character shows it is important, large to him and so subtle. He is, in a word, superb. Shevstov looks right, an ageing hippy, but somehow never seemed right to me.

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The Pirates of Penzance Review

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at the Sydney Theatre Company.

This is a production imported from the UK and directed by Sasha Regan with an all-male cast.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, I suspect it’s one too many poor productions in a suburban theatre and I’ve never been a fan of opera in any of its forms.

On the other hand when it is done well it is marvellous theatre with hummable tunes, a nice plot and good comedy and make no mistake this is G & S done well.

It starts with the simple set that allows the production to move swiftly from scene to scene. The costumes are equally simple, which means that the chorus can quickly change from pirates to daughters to police and back again as required.

The all-male cast is refreshing in the the way that it is not men in full drag with wigs and false bosoms but merely men wearing dresses and singing in a high register, in fact with faces fairly devoid of makeup and hairstyles that could only be described as short back and sides it is their singing, plain white dresses and movement that define them as female characters. It is an all-male cast without being overly camp. The first appearance of the daughters gets a laugh but personally I mostly forgot they were men when the chorus were playing daughters. There were moments with Mabel and Frederic however where it was impossible to deny that you were watching two men romantically involved.

The major characters are well performed and well sung. Alan Richardson’s Mabel is an amazing performance with his ability to sing up to a high D flat. The Act I finale is a just amazing with Richardson demonstrating a brilliant voice at such a high register for a man.

Musically it is just a single piano played by the Musical Supervisor Michael England and it fits the simplicity of the rest of the production like a glove. All the simplicity and paring back work wonderfully to leave the musical and its songs and humour to stand out.

My other stand out performance was Joseph Houston as Ruth. It was a performance with humour and style. Vocally my ear is not good enough to split Richardson from his co-star Mathew Gent as Frederic, Gent has a slightly easier task since he sings an octave or two lower but his voice is warm, rich and clear. He is, I am told, also “incredibly easy one the eye”. Some of the actual acting from the chorus was a little stiff or a little overdone but it is a fine line to tread in a comic opera.

The choreography was good with several moments of style and some of genuine humour. It was an excellent mix of a slightly modern style and the classic plonking G & S style, it certainly added to the humour of songs such as “Modern Major General” and “A Policeman’s Lot”.

Taken as a whole this was an enjoyable, watchable and fresh production – G & S for the 21st century and a modern audience.

Review – The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion Box Set

“The Dark Side of the Moon” spent an incredible 15 years straight in the Billboard Top 200 album chart and another two when it was re-released in 1994. It has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. It’s hard to explain it’s significance, hard to explain it’s huge appeal.

For such a massively popular album it must have been written quite quickly. Roger Waters put the concept of an album that dealt with things that “make people mad”, a topic close to the band given the illness of former member Syd Barrett, when they assembled in December 1971 prior to touring and they first performed the material at the end of January 1972. The band continued to refine the material through rehearsal and tour performance before first recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios from 24 May to 25 June, setting out on the road again and completing the album in January 1973. The album was engineered by engineer/musician Alan Parsons, the band give him a great deal of credit for the eventual album.

If you are one of the many people who has spent far too much time with your consciousness altered in some way listening to “The Dark Side of the Moon” (DSotM) then it may be time for you to take strong hold on your wallet. This is because the most expensive boxed set version of the album has now been released. The good news is that this set offers the most amazing quality and most comprehensive collection ever assembled for a Pink Floyd album.

At the core of the set is 6 discs; 3 Compact Discs, 2 DVDs and a single Blu-Ray disc. Disc 1 is a CD of the 2011 remaster of the album. Disc 2 is a CD of the live performance at the Empire Pool Wembley in 1974. Disc 3 is an Audio only DVD containing the 5.1 surround mix from 2003 in two sampling rates, the 1973 LPCM stereo mix and the 1973 4.0 Quad mix from 1973 also in two different sampling rates. Disc 4 is an Audio-Visual DVD of the Pink Floyd concert in Brighton in 1972, The Dark Side Of The Moon documentary from 2003 and the Concert screen films in the original LPCM stereo mix and a 5.1 surround mix. Disc 5 is a Blu-Ray containing all the material from discs 3 and 4. Disc 6 is a CD of previously unreleased tracks including demo versions of ‘Us And Them’ and ‘Money’ and an entire early mix of the album. Obviously if you have a Blu-Ray player you can consider this a 4 disc set as the two DVDs are replaced by the single Blu-Ray.

Along with those disks you get a bunch of memorabilia and stuff including a facsimile concert ticket and back stage pass, a book of photos from the DSotM tour, some marbles, art cards, drink coasters and a scarf.

Make no mistake if you have a good stereo system and Blu-Ray player then there is no better way to hear this album than popping disc 5 in and spending a day trying to decide if you prefer the 1973 quad mix or the 2011 5.1 surround mix, personally I prefer the surround one. The 2011 remaster has in my opinion taken some of the sound out of the bottom, making the softer passages clearer, and added better channel separation and some top end clarity. You will need a good sound system, good speakers and patience to hear the difference. I tried hard to tell the difference between the Blu-Ray and DVD versions and convinced myself I could, but failed on a blind test given by a friend.

When you have done that then glorying in all the other material such as the live performances and concert films is another joy. Make no mistake, it is entirely possible to lose more than one entire weekend on the extra material. One of the joys of this material is the way you can follow the progress of the album from the original ‘demo’ recorded by Waters in his garden shed studio through the live material to the eventual album.

This boxed set is a total essential for the dedicated Pink Floyd fan.

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K.D. Lang ‘Live in London’ on Blu-Ray

Let’s start with the technical aspects of this recording.This Blu-Ray was recorded by the BBC for high definition broadcast and you can tell. It is for recordings like this that I spent so much time and money getting my home theatre just right. The audio is a DTS Master Audio 16 bit/48khz 5.1 mix. The  quality is superb, the balance across all 5 channels is excellent and the sound stage is massive. There is a slight echo in the vocal that perfectly suits the look of the room.The picture is incredibly clear high definition captured in a well lit studio with great camera work throughout. The BBC should be proud of the job they did on this Blu-Ray.K.D. Lang’s performance in this small venue is remarkable, stellar, superb. She is enjoying herself here, with her usual band at the time backed by an orchestra courtesy of the BBC. There is not a single song that does not show off her remarkable voice and stage presence. The BBC concert Orchestra add a lush, full feel to most of the tracks and seem to fade into the background in others.Lang walks the stage, at times her eyes closed as she reaches for that perfect pitch and tone at others her smile is so wide that it threatens to split her face. Here is a true vocal talent, a true performer doing what she loves.

Even if you don’t love K.D. Lang you may well enjoy this just for the quality. I can imagine high end home theatre stores owning a copy just for demonstration purposes.

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