If Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti rang a helpline…


Sam: Samaritans… can I help you.
Christina: I’ve got a secret.
Sam: Mmmhmm?
Christina: Do you want to know what it is?
Sam: Only if you want to tell me.
Christina: You’re too curious.
Sam: My name’s Jo – can you tell me your name?
Christina: It’s Christina. And I’ve got a secret.
Sam: OK. I’m here to listen, if you want to tell me.
Christina: ….
Sam: Take your time.
Christina: My heart is like a singing bird, but my life is like a frozen thing.
Sam: That sounds difficult to deal with – how does it make you feel?
Christina: Why are you asking me these questions?
Sam: It’s absolutely fine if you don’t want to tell me. There’s no judgement.
Christina: There is only one Judge. I will meet Him one day and all deep secrets shall be shown.
Sam: Uhuh. Can you tell me any more?
Christina: Perhaps some languid summer’s day.
Sam: OK.
Christina: It’s been very pleasant talking to you.
Sam: And you too, Christina. Please call back if you feel you need to.
Christina (a bit huffy): Why would I need to? I don’t need to. Nothing wrong with me.
Sam: I only meant…
Phone goes down. Sam sighs.

Dante Gabriel
Sam: Samaritans… can I help you?
Gabriel: I’ve just seen Lizzie… oh my god… how can that be?
Sam: Can you tell me who Lizzie is?
Gabriel: My wife, but she’s dead… I destroyed her, and because of me she’s dead.
Sam: OK… take your time. Can you tell me any more?
Gabriel: She was my muse. Well, my first muse. Well, my main muse. Apart from Fanny. And Jane. And the other ones… um…sorry, can’t remember half their names.
Sam: OK. My name’s Jo, can you tell me your name?
Gabriel (getting a bit flirty): Do you have red hair? I could paint you.
Sam: Are you a painter?
Gabriel: (getting a bit arsey): Yes. Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, hello?
Sam: Sorry, Rossetti… is that your name?
Gabriel: Dante. Gabriel. Rossetti.
Sam: Which do you prefer to be called?
Gabriel: Depends who’s asking. You can call me Gabriel.
Sam: OK… Gabriel. Can you tell me any more about Lizzie? You say you just saw her.
Gabriel: Did I? She’s dead, you know. That would be ridiculous. Oh my god… am I going insane?
Sam: It’s OK Gabriel, I’m here, take your time.
Gabriel: You sound cute. Can I have your number?
Sam: I’m afraid that’s not possible.
Gabriel (pouting): You’re no fun. I’m going to visit Jane instead. Or was it Fanny?

So – what is it you actually do up there?

This was the question my mother asked when I said I was off once again to North Wales to do crazy stuff with Clwyd Theatr Cymru Theatre for Young People – the community strand of Theatr Clwyd.  “We take over a school for a week,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I haven’t been singing Sondheim in a freezing schoolyard since 8am.”

My first encounter with Theatr Clwyd was when I went to do Beatrice in A View from the Bridge.  I love Miller and could happily spend my entire career in his plays, interspersed with Sondheim musicals.  It was also my first encounter with Tim Baker, the director.  Tim is (and I’ve told him, so it’s not like I’m hustling for another job or anything) the best director I’ve ever worked with.  Not only because he is creative, imaginative and understands texts from the inside out, but because he trusts his actors.  Towards the end of the third week, during that traditional floundering time when actors go ‘what the fuck am I doing?’, Tim cancelled rehearsals and told us to go away for three days. I took my script up Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwydian Range (thanks Wiki), and the following Monday came into rehearsal with a fully-formed Beatrice.  I had literally gone up a hill and come down with a character.  I loved it.  I loved that he trusted us to get our arses in gear.  Not everyone loved it but hey.

Fast forward several years and Tim rings me up. “What are you doing for the next six weeks?”  Given a bit more notice than three days, I might have been able to say ‘whatever you want’, but I’d already got work lined up for much of it.  However, for the last two weeks of Tim’s new project, called The Hub, I turned up as a visiting artist and, with the core team of five actors and several other visiting artists, we did indeed take over a school.  Two schools, one for each week.

So what is it then?  To quote Tim’s press release: “The team consisted of a core of five actors and a host of visiting artists that included a street dancer, performance poets, musicians, visual artists and events were created (as much as 40 per day) all over the school – in the corridors, at lunchtimes, at break times, and in the halls and classrooms.  The Hub was always conceived as a creative ‘handshake’ with young people and we consistently challenged students to respond to our interventions with their own creative work, through e-mailing us, through drop-boxes throughout the school, through workshops and other activities.”

All the schools have been secondaries, not always OFSTED (or the Welsh equivalent) 5 starred.  That’s the point.  To go to places that don’t get this sort of stuff, that don’t get a stage fighting workshop, or a bunch of people coming into your classroom, performing an extract from Lord of the Flies or Macbeth and melting away again.

A visitor from ACW (Arts Council of Wales) said: “This reminded me of why i work at the arts council.”  It also reminded me of why I love being an actor.  Tim gave us the freedom to wander round doing pretty much whatever we wanted – ooh look, there’s a classroom just waiting for a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird/a poem/a song/a breakdance/a guitar solo.

I remember walking down one corridor peering into classrooms full of bent-headed students and feeling like Puck, or the Trickster.  We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom.  I hated school up until the fourth year – I’d been stuck in a different class to my friends and was miserable and bullied by the cool kids until we joined up for O Levels.  One day, out of nowhere, two actors from the RSC turned up to give us English Lit students a short performance.  And those actors?  Ben Kingsley and Bob Peck.  In our classroom.  Othello and Iago.  To this day I have no idea why they turned up, who had got them there, but I have never forgotten the awe I felt.  And yes, that consolidated the ‘I want to be an actress’ path.  Up until that point I wanted to be an astronaut, but as I could do neither Maths nor Science, it seemed unlikely.

Perhaps it was the same for these kids – actually, I know it was for some, because they told us, they tweeted, emailed, gave us flowers and in Nia’s case, a Valentine’s card.

This last project – as if the schools weren’t ambitious enough – took over a whole town, Connah’s Quay, the largest in Flintshire.  For five weeks, interventions were staged everywhere from a care home to primary schools, in Morrisons, on buses, on roundabouts.  Seven people in blue boiler suits managing to make red and blue umbrellas a must-have fashion accessory.  The blues were the core team, the red boiler suits were the visiting artists.  I’ve never discovered why the boiler suits – we are called Artists@work, maybe that’s why, or maybe it’s because they are unflattering to absolutely everyone – but they are certainly distinctive.  And have a lot of pockets for phones, pens, scraps of paper, the complicated schedule.  Ah the schedule. 8-8.45 – in the corrider, singing to welcome the kids and staff.  Everyone else doing their own thing in and outside. Lesson one performing arts, crossover between lessons, make a cup of tea, no time to drink it, come back and it’s cold, oh look I’m in English next, shall I do a poem or a song, or a workshop, quick sandwich for lunch if you’ve got a spare 15 minutes to eat it….  more classrooms, workshops, singing, poems, tea gone cold again, then we wave them off until the next day.

Each day we handed out cards with themes on them: Friendship, fear, love… and the kids responded with lyrics, poems, monologues, scenes which we then performed back to them.  We got amazing stuff.  One girl had written a science fiction novel – two of the actors did a scene from that at the closing concerts.

Each of the visiting artists gets to do a party piece at the closing concerts. For the two previous Hubs, I’d gone with Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd.  My props were a fake pie and lots of rubber cockroaches that I chucked into the audience to much screaming.  This year, always up-to-the-minute, I went with Last Midnight from Into the Woods.  Thanks to my niece Sarah, my prop was the Elder Wand from Harry Potter (she got it for me at a knockdown price when she worked at the Harry Potter Studios).  Gods but that was fun.  I lose track of how many pupils I scared during that song, but it was a fair few.  And quite a few sidled up to me during the week and muttered “You’ve got a great voice, miss” before sidling off again.

There have been so many highlights to this brilliant, insane project, but here’s some from the latest.

1.  Playing the cajon for the first time in public, and jamming with some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.  OK, I’m not the best cajon player in the world, but it was bloody marvellous.

2.  Taking Mark Grist and Mary Oliver poems into classrooms and watching the pupils’ faces go from resignation to genuine pleasure.  It doesn’t always have to be Wordsworth, kids.

3.  Introducing the three (I know, JUST THREE??)  A Level English Lit students to Primo Levi and truly shocking them as we spoke about how the doctor’s pointing finger meant either the gas chambers or sort-of-life.  And then we worked on a stunning poem called Explaining the Declaration. “Ever done any acting?” I asked.  They looked at me with trepidation, but half an hour later, having split the poem into one line each, they performed it as though they were angry drunks at a bar, and loved every second.

4.  Touring the maths classrooms with a song composed by Tim based on a riddle written by one of the teachers.  I still have no idea what it means even after about nine renditions (the median’s the… the mode is the… oh whatever) but apparently I made maths sound sexy.

5.  Singing a love song about a hedgehog (the girl who wrote the poem was in the audience was overjoyed, hands clasped to her face, her friends either side of her nudging her with glee).  Nia, Claire and I LOVED the hedgehog song.  “I’m in love with a hedgehog.  I’ve never felt this way before.  I’m in love with a hedgehog, and every day I love her more and more.”

6.  And of course, triple threat girl (actor, singer, dancer) whose name turned out to be Ellison.  At going home time the afternoon before, this sweet, shy twelve-year old picked up the mic and sang – brilliantly – with the musos.  She was in the audience at the second of our third concerts and I thought ‘she has to sing in the final gig’.  So Tim and I asked her if she fancied joining me on the blues he’d written to lyrics by Reece.  Reece, cerebral palsy, wheelchair, sharp and funny, had loved every second of us being there, following us around, chatting and when he knew we were doing his song, was beside himself.  Anyway.  She got ten minutes of rehearsal and to end the concert, we called her up on stage and she improvised with me like a pro.  We harmonised, we played vocal games, she was phenomenal.   “Thank you so much,” she said afterwards.  “I never thought I’d get a chance to do anything like this.”  Watch out for triple threat girl, she’s’ going to be huge.

Any downsides?  Well, trying to belt out music theatre numbers while you’re still virtually asleep was tricky, but then hey, that’s your job.  It’s incredibly tiring, but I was only up for three days this time and the core team had been non-stop for six weeks.  I genuinely don’t know how they were still standing.  Our green room was like a plague village – circling germs jumped from one to another as everyone coughed and sneezed like the last act of La Boheme.  Seat of the pants at all times as we zoomed from place to place, often making things up as we went along.

But what a great gig, with the loveliest bunch of people – talented, focused, funny and at all times serving the job and not our egos.  “You’ve transformed the school this week ” a teacher told me. “I’ve seen pupils who never join in and never engage dancing, laughing, talking to the artists.”
And we get paid.
See you soon, Team Clwyd x


I am the Bold Thunder

Our fantastic English Lit teacher, ex-actress Jenny James-Moore, had taken a group of us to an RSC production of Coriolanus at the Aldwych, their London home at that time.  I’d never seen nor heard of the actor playing Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or Cor-aye-o-lanus as they decided to call him) but the moment he was flung up on spears, blood-spattered and leather-clad is as indelibly etched in my memory today as it was then.

There are a variety of ways to say the line “I banish you”, but only the towering, idiosyncratic brilliance of Alan Howard could summon up this version: “Aiiiieeeee banisssshhh yeeeouuuuuuuu,” the words strung out, snarled with utmost sneering contempt.  I was smitten, remained smitten, and when I heard with great grief yesterday about the death of this giant who I had worshipped from that moment on, was instantly transported back to my first sighting of the tall, pale-faced imperious figure dressed in tight red leather (a common Howard costume design, not that I nor my friend Pip were complaining) stalking around the stage withering the senators with one myopic, penetrating glance.


Alan Howard was 77 when he died, no age at all really.  He has taken with him a major part of my teenage crush years.  Alan Howard made me fall in love with Shakespeare as well as him, although his extraordinary way of verse-speaking wasn’t to everyone’s taste.  He sang the words, tasted the syllables, found ways to deliver a line which you would never consider in a million years.  Sometimes the music of his voice took over the sense – he would rattle off lines so fast you could barely keep up but then he’d stop and cut you to the bone with one single line or word.  “Alone I did it.  Boy.” is another Cor-aye-o-lanus classic.

He worked extensively with Terry Hands and the designer Farrah – their productions were glittering, mesmerising, often with a coldness at their heart that perfectly matched his performance.  He was amazing at the nasties –  Corayeolanus, Richard III, Richard II…

My personal favourite was RII – Big Al in gold lame crying “Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon… In the base court?  The base court, where kings grow base, To come at traitors’ calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
down, king! For night-owls shriek where mounting larks
should sing.”

No-one I’ve ever heard since has managed to get so many interpretations of the word ‘base’ into that speech.  Nor ‘down’ for that matter.   The first time I worked at my beloved Theatr Clwyd and met Terry Hands, I told him what an impression those productions had made on me, how they’d given me a love of Shakespeare that has never left, the sheer joy of those words and Alan Howard giving them to us (clad in gold lame/red leather/black leather).

But he could also do funny – John O’Keefe’s play Wild Oats was another classic Howard moment – as Jack Rover, declaring “I am the Bold Thunder!” cheers rang out from the auditorium.

The rasp of his voice had a Richard Burton quality to it, possibly due to the chain-smoking.  Big Al (as Pip and I called him) would rarely be seen without a cigarette holder as he wandered around in jeans and a denim jacket.  How did I know this?  Pip was working in the RSC bookshop at the time and managed to get me a part time job.  Those hours were magical, despite the presence of the raving bonkers woman, known as Grim, who also worked there.  Grim was obsessed with Ian McKellen and I do mean obsessed.  In a stalker-type way.  One day in a fit of post-McKellen pique (he’d done something to upset her, probably ran away as she loitered outside his house) she ripped up a picture of Big Al that we kept on the till.

But still, there I was, with a like-minded friend, stacking books, endlessly re-arranging photos of Big Al and best of all, watching to see when he’d walk past the shop on the way to the theatre.  Or on very rare occasions, come inside.

Notoriously shy, with all the small talk of Helen Keller, we could so rarely get a word out of him that we used to make and wear badges with his sayings on them.  “They’re all watching News at 10” came about when we were talking about audience numbers and how they’d dropped off a bit.   When we saw him lope past the door, I was always allowed to get our lunchtime sandwiches from the Aldwych Green Room, so would instantly shoot out, follow him round the corner and stand behind him in the queue.  He always smiled and said hello.  I don’t consider it stalking, not for one moment.  He could barely see me anyway – being incredibly short-sighted he always wore lenses on stage making his gaze even more penetrating.

Pip and I were also at that time creating our ideal cast list for The Lord of the Rings.  Big Al was of course Aragorn – and how lovely that he ended up playing the Voice of the Ring in the films.  We feel that we can take a little credit for that.

The last thing I saw him in was in the frankly awful Oedipus at the National.  He was, however, extraordinary and even when still (especially when still), nobody else existed on that stage.  RIP Big Al.  You were and are unforgettable.  Thank you.


Time to talk

Today, 5th February, is Time to Talk Day 2015. Time to Talk was started (I believe) by Rethink and the idea is to spend five minutes talking about mental illness – how it affects you, or people around you. It’s about breaking the silence surrounding mental health issues. This will probably take a bit longer than five minutes to write, but hey.

Now you might think that there is no longer silence – mental health issues seem to be constantly in the news; pleas for more funding, need for better care, testimonies from people and their families or friends. The official statistic is that one in four people will be affected by mental health issues every year. That’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t always have to be the biggies – your schizophrenia, your bi-polar disorder, your depression. It can be insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks. It can be bereavement, post-natal depression, work or relationship stress. Mental health issues aren’t fussy, they’ll take anything that’s going. And we all have mental as well as physical health, it’s just harder to talk about the former.

Mental health problems affect the way we feel about ourselves and others, they affect our sleep, attention span and productivity. This in turn will affect our work, so wouldn’t it be better to ‘fess up rather than try to hide it?

There is a history of depression in my family down my father’s side. My mother’s side has given us short-sightedness, thanks for that. I have had quite a few bouts of depression, and I’m not just talking ‘ooh a bit miserable today’. I’m talking dark, exhausted, grey, agoraphobic, can’t move, can’t talk, can’t think depression. I’m talking suicidal thoughts. I have, in my time, wondered what it would be like to… what would be the easiest way to… it would be so much easier if… oh well at least one day I’ll be…

So far, I’ve got through these periods without doctors or prescribed medication. Perhaps one day (if you’re good) I’ll tell you some of the stuff I do that helps. But today is the time-to-talk moment, to actually come out and say: yes, me too.

The first time I got hit by it, or at least knew what it was I’d been hit by, I was in my mid-twenties. I was terrified, because it had (seemingly) come out of nowhere, this cloud of grey that removed taste, smell, joy, desire and left me bewildered and lost. “But what’s wrong?” people were asking. “There must be a reason.” Well actually sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes there you are. And no-one can hear you banging on the glass – but one person did, a friend who (I then found out) also suffered from depression. “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. You can see out, but no-one can hear you calling.” Just to hear that, to know she got it and more than got it – was the moment I began to come to the light again.

Many people – even friends – don’t get it. If you haven’t experienced it, don’t understand that it’s not always quantifiable, there isn’t always a reason – often isn’t a reason – watching someone drift away or hide is not an easy experience. “But you’re always so strong, so up, so glass-half-full.” Yes, most of of the time. Except when I’m not. Sometimes I’m not strong, I can’t be strong all the fucking time, I can’t put the face on all the fucking time. And that’s when I talk to the people who really get it, who have either been through it themselves or have the empathy and care to let me be where I am.

One of my closest friends was felled by post-natal depression after her first child. She and I have always laughed at the darkest, most inappropriate things, but when I went to see her in hospital I couldn’t believe the same person was lying in the bed. My friend had gone and someone new and blank had taken her place. She’s one of the people I can talk to and I often cite her particular form of loving bollocking which goes something like this: “I know you. You never say, but if you don’t say how the fuck do I know what’s going on?”

So here we are, Time to Talk day. Mental health is as real as physical health, and as deserving of the same respect, sympathy and treatment. Nobody asks to have a mental health problem any more than they ask to have a physical one. Be kind. To use that oft-quoted tag – the person you meet might be fighting a battle you know nothing about.



One about writing and the Word Factory (with some shameless name-dropping)

“So when did you start writing seriously?” someone asked the other day.  Drawing a veil over the ‘novel’ I began when I was around fourteen, dealing with the invasion of the UK by Germany during WW2 (move over Robert Harris), I suppose it was when a friend and I began what we called The Comic, but could probably be better described as Fan Fiction.  I do not propose to speak a word about what went on in The Comic, but we then progressed to writing a novel based entirely on multiple choice.  As I recall, we were on a rowing boat on Regent’s Park lake when we began mapping it out thus:

1.  It is set in a) 20th century b) ancient Rome c) Medieval Tymes.  (We chose c).

2.  The hero is called a) Dickon b) Robin c) PanPot.  (None of those, though Robin did end up as a subsidiary character.)

You can probably imagine the rest.  We loved writing it, even though it was shite.  Never ones for much research at that time, we decided one character needed a wheelchair and duly ‘invented’ it.  The anti-hero was a necromancer, so it was pretty easy for him to do (his name was Gui, in case you’re wondering).

Then I went to India for 6 weeks, my first time travelling alone.  A couple of years later, I saw that Bill Bryson, whose writing I love, was the judge for the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year competition.  “What the hell?” I thought and entered with a piece about a 24-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali.  Dear Reader, I won.  The prize was a round-the-world air ticket and a posh camera that I dropped in the Okavango Delta whilst escaping from a hippo.

Still,, I never seriously considered writing as an option, although I did a lot of freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, mainly about travel, sometimes not.  Not even when my then-flatmate (name-drop alert) Michael Grandage wrote me a letter – yes, we did write letters then – to say: “I’ve just seen three people on the tube reading your article.  I wanted to shout ‘I know her!’  It’s brilliant.  Be a writer.  Why would anyone want to be a poxy actor anyway?”  Michael, as we know, gave up being a poxy actor and pretty much took over the world as a director.

Still I didn’t consider it as an option.  I loved being a poxy actor, I still do, though have diversified quite dramatically into all sorts of other things.

And then I wrote a novel.   One that I think is good enough to be out there (and which is currently being read in its entirety by two agents), and that is not based on a multiple-choice scenario.  And I met other writers, all incredibly generous with their time and advice.  One is Stella Duffy (name-drop alert 2) and she introduced me to the Word Factory one Saturday night at the end of January, where she was reading one of her short stories.

Now, I’ve never really got short stories.  I mean, I like them and all, but offer me a novel instead and I will take it.  But the Word Factory showed me what short stories could be.  This is what the website says:

“In the beginning was the Word Factory – a series of intimate short story salons bringing brilliant writers and readers together for wine, conversation and great work.”

And when it says “brilliant writers” it isn’t kidding.  Since January I’ve heard Val McDermid, Toby Litt, Alex Preston, Evie Wyld, Vanessa Gebbie and more read their fantastic stories.  And if that weren’t enough (for £12 including a glass of wine), you can also go to the free Short Story Club for an hour before the salon.  Each month, clubbers are sent a story which we then discuss, fairly politely.  I’ve been introduced to George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor thanks to the Short Story Club, and can’t believe I’d not read them before.  And as if THAT weren’t enough, there are Masterclasses to sign up to on the Saturday afternoon.

I love the Word Factory.  It is welcoming, friendly and relaxed and that’s thanks to the organisers – Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and team – and I always come out of a salon inspired to write more, write better.  Every writer needs a Word Factory in their life.  And the wine is excellent.



All creatures will make merry

Fantastic piece on the Tories’ latest masterplan to take benefits away from those with mental health issues.

It's not the despair

You can tell three things about whoever thought it might be a good idea to take away benefits for unemployed people who refuse therapy for depression.

First, they have never been unemployed. Second, they have never been depressed. Third, they have never been unemployed and depressed.

Since I have, I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t work that way. Unemployment makes you depressed, even if you weren’t depressed. Unemployment makes depression worse, if you’re prone to it. Unemployment and depression is a dark spiral in which your diminishing self worth is constantly attacked by the evidence around you of your failure. Failure to work, failure to stop being depressed. Failure all round.

Another reason I can tell whichever person scribbled this fag packet proposal down has never been through depression is that you can’t just get therapy. You get put onto a waiting list. Depending on your postcode…

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Songs without words

I was doing OK. I hadn’t cried. No emotional involvement, lots of interaction and smiling. But there was this one woman, well-dressed and beaming, not that old. She didn’t sing along but she was loving the music. Next to her was a younger woman (her daughter, as I later found out – the lady had only been moved to the home days before). She was holding her mother’s hand and smiling at her whilst tears poured and poured down her face. I had to walk away and do an impromptu tango in the middle of the room.

Lost Chord is a charity which uses music to increase awareness and self-esteem in dementia sufferers. Dementia is without doubt one of the most devastating diseases of our century. The training day for Lost Chord took place in Nightingale House, a Jewish residential home, beautifully-maintained, full of care and consideration. Any of those residents could have been my relatives. One man remembered the bakery our family used to own in Edgware. I was physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day, and pretty nervous about how my first tour was going to go. So I planned. Oh, I planned. Hours of shuffling music around, putting medleys together, discarding, adding and also borrowing bits of percussion from all over the place.

We had four gigs booked for one day, scattered over Suffolk. Four care homes, all with different rooms and acoustics, all with residents of differing stages of the illness. In one home a budgie in a cage sang along with me. I wanted to let it out and set it free – I hate seeing caged birds. And what a cliche that turns out to be. The lovely residents, many of whom danced and clapped and shook maracas or sleighbells were as caged as the budgie, trapped in an illness that has no cure, only a slow decline of every faculty you have.

The room was a mixture of early and late-stage dementia and probably the most challenging of the four gigs – around 40 people (plus staff and visitors), and the Lost Chord ethos is that you interact with each one of them, pretty much all through the hour-long concert.  So I ended up doing laps, making sure I didn’t miss anyone out and if they can’t move or dance, you hold their hands, kneeling down in front of them and making the strongest connection possible.  There were two men, one maybe late 60s, the other a lot older.  They both held toys.  The younger man had a stuffed tiger, the older one a plastic doll.  They cuddled them like children, they held them as protection and perhaps as the last thing left to them, either in reality or wherever they were in their memories.

I wanted very badly to engage these two fractured men.  None of the songs I’d done so far (mixing up show songs, bit of classical, bit of Elvis) seemed to touch them.  Then I played the mastercard – a World War 1 medley I’d pretty much cobbled together the night before.  I’ve avoided WW1 songs in all my other seniors sessions – it feels patronising to go ‘oh you’ll love this’.  Why would they?  Most of them weren’t even born then.  One brilliant woman said when I rolled up at a session in Borehamwood “Please don’t give us any of that war rubbish – we’re bored to the back teeth with Vera Lynn,” so they get Elvis, Bill Haley, the Rat Pack and Barry Manilow.  This was different.  I started with Tipperary and the room lit up.  Everyone was clapping, smiling and singing.  I homed in on the man with the tiger.  He almost smiled.  He started to mouth the words. I stayed with him for the rest of the song.  Then I went to the back where the man and his doll were.  I knelt beside him, sang “If You were the Only Girl.”  And he looked at me, and began to mouth the words.  It was the same in all four homes – those were the songs that did it.  I was talking to my mother about it afterwards and she said, “But all those songs were in films when we were children.  Their parents probably sang those songs to them.”

So what happens to our generation?  What songs will we get?  Blur, Adele, Elton John?  What are the songs that bind us, that will make a room a place of collective joy.

There are countless studies being done on the effect of music on people with dementia and Alzheimers.  It’s a bit of a thing at the moment, lots of money being earmarked, and that’s brilliant.  And everyone wants to do their own thing, have their own spin and that’s brilliant too.  But Lost Chord has pinpointed the thing that matters most.  These are individuals – they had lives, joys, loves and griefs.  They had more stories than we can ever know.  They sit with dolls and toys and their thoughts are god knows where.  But when I knelt beside them, and held their hands and sang into their eyes, they lived joyously within that instant, if only for that instant.


The cancelling of Klinghoffer

As a left-wing, liberal Jew, there is one subject I rarely discuss in private, let alone publicly, let alone in a blog.  The Israel/Palestine situation is heart-breaking, anger-making, painful and divides Jews all over the world.   Violence cannot and never will be the answer.  The hatred on both sides fills me with despair. Of course,  fear of the other, intransigence in opinion and belief in the rightness of the cause is not confined to Israel/Palestine, but because of who I am, because the bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful in the world and because people I love live in that tiny country, it feels personal.  Of course it does – I’ve never hidden either my Jewishness or my political beliefs, but part of my history – my personal history – lives there.

Today, the Metropolitan Opera said this:

“After an outpouring of concern that its plans to transmit John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer might be used to fan global antisemitism, the Metropolitan Opera announced the decision today to cancel its Live in HD transmission, scheduled for November 15, 2014.”

Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, says the following:

“I’m convinced that the opera is not antisemitic. But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising antisemitism, particularly in Europe.”

For those who don’t know, The Death of Klinghoffer deals with the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Front) and subsequent murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.  The opera is devastating on many levels;  difficult and challenging as the greatest art is and should be.  Since its first performance, Adams has been vilified by both sides, being accused of being both antisemitic and anti-Palestinian.  Or rather, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli.  In my opinion it is neither.  It is raw, it is grief and despair. It doesn’t romanticize terrorism in the slightest – I often wonder how many of those baying for its closure/banning have even seen or heard it?

I had the privilege of recording the soundtrack for Penny Woolcock’s superb Channel 4 film of Klinghoffer – I was singing with the London Symphony Chorus at the time.  John Adams conducted his own work and we recorded just days after 9/11.  No-one who was there will ever forget how it felt to record Adam’s beautiful, heartbreaking score at that time.

Mr Gelb says he is convinced that the opera is not anti-semitic.  However, he is also convinced that to transmit the performance would be inappropriate.  I’m not sure how that works.  How can you be convinced of those two things at once?  And the bigger question – if you are staging it at all (which of course you should) why should the rest of the world be denied the opportunity of making their own minds up?

I am not denying for one second that there is rising anti-semitism across the world – similarly who can deny that there is anti-Muslim feeling across the world?  But how can censorship of great art be the answer?


What is the difference between an opera and a musical?

I’ve had three singing teachers.  The first was a Bel Canto specialist, an opera term meaning ‘beautiful singing’ in Italian.  I stopped going to him after he stuck his fingers down my trousers and told me it was a secret technique to help me access my emotions and therefore I wasn’t to tell anyone.

My second teacher was a woman at drama school who ruined my voice for years until I found the wonderful Penni Harvey-Piper who completely changed the way I sang by basically teaching me American music theatre singing crossed with opera technique.  Never looked back from there.

In the Indie on Saturday, David Lister’s column contained a piece about the head of English National Opera’s announcement that ENO will be staging some musicals alongside operas.  David Lister largely approves of this, but says: “It’s a move always certain to have detractors among opera-goers.”  It’s also got one detractor here and I say this having spent much of my career to date in musical theatre, but also singing opera for odd recordings and in workshops.  I am very fortunate that I can do a pretty good cross-over, but in no way would I consider myself an opera singer.

Which brings me to the problem of opera houses doing musicals.  I love ENO and I’ve seen some of the best opera productions there – Peter Grimes, Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China, Rodelinda, etc etc.  I will draw a veil over The Passenger, but kudos to them for giving it a go.

Some musicals work well in opera, which is David Lister’s point.  Bernstein’s fabulous Candide, for example, is pretty much an opera anyway.  But I’ve seen two opera houses have a crack at Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd.  Opera North was acclaimed by many, but not by me.  The difference between the musical theatre performers (Beverley Klein as Mrs Lovett for example) and the pure opera singers was jarring.  It didn’t work.  Imagine Sir Donald Wolfit trying to do a sitcom.  Worlds not so much colliding as passing one another in bemusement.

And as for the Royal Opera House’s execrable attempt… well, those of us who were there still speak of it in  hushed tones.

The best Sweeney I ever saw was at the National Theatre, with Alun Armstrong and Julia Mackenzie.  Not everyone in the cast was the best singer, but god did they know how to perform Sondheim.  And it’s not about how well you sing.  It’s not about making a lovely noise.

The ROH production pointed this up perfectly.  You could see them thinking ‘oh how hard can this be?  It’s not exactly Wagner, is it?’  Well, guys, let me tell you, musical theatre is bloody hard work – yes I know, so is opera, but at least you don’t have to do it 8 shows a week, every week.   And it’s not just the stamina required, it’s the stylistic understanding of another genre – and most importantly, respect for that genre.  If you think you’re slumming it by singing one of the greatest musicals ever written then perhaps you should put a dep in.

Having said all that, I was fortunate enough to be standing directly behind Bryn Terfel in the opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall concert performances of the musical.  He had his back to the audience, head down right next to me as we’re sending our terrifying top Cs into the stratosphere.  And then he turned round and that voice belted out ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…’ It was stunning, not only because he can sing like a god, but because of his total commitment to the piece.

So – good luck ENO.  I have no objections to your doing musicals, and even less objection to being in one of them, so long as it’s done with the respect that it deserves from all concerned.


Music as transformation

A close family friend died today, very unexpectedly.  I’d known her for years, and music was a shared part of our knowing, as her husband sang with the Zemel Choir, a mixed-voice Jewish choir that has been part of my life since I really knew what music was.  My father was Concert Manager for 25 years, and the whole Eckman clan (Jewish Von Trapp Family Singers) have sung with Zemel.  My mother and niece still do.  My father died 21 years ago.  It hurts to write that, even now.

This afternoon, I went off to run a workshop at a homeless centre.  I wasn’t looking forward to this at all, partly because I wasn’t in the singing zone and partly because last week’s session had been a shambles.  Fortunately, following a – shall we say stern – email from me, things were different this week.  Chairs set out, heating on, floor cleaned, Clavinova back in place,  support staff member present and, most importantly, participants who were up for anything, including a rhythm lesson, lots of improvisation and some harnessing of their inner hippie.

I’d chosen the music carefully (i.e. planned a whole two hours in advance instead of as often happens, in the car or the train down when I haven’t had time to think about it.  Honestly, it’s always fine.  Really it is.)  I wanted to cheer myself up.  We’d been doing some work on Ravel’s gorgeous, magical opera L’Enfant Et Les Sortileges, but I wasn’t in the mood  for it today, so I went for the sunny, flowers-in-your-hair Aquarius from Hair  and Gershwin’s equally sunny, joyous, I Got Rhythm.  They both went down a treat, and at the end of the session I was dreading, I went home buzzing with its success, but more importantly, with music.

Music is so much a part of my life that I don’t often listen at home.  When I do listen, I try to do so with attention, not as an adjunct to something else. Unless it’s baking, since nothing says chocolate brownie like Seth Lakeman.  Next month, I perform my first gig with the inspirational charity Lost Chord, which sends musicians and singers into dementia care homes.  The training day for this was in a Jewish care home in South London and was gut-wrenchingly, heart-breakingly hard and also beautiful.  Any of the residents could have been members of my family.  I sat with a lovely man who actually remembered our family bakery in Edgware, although he couldn’t remember that he was 91 that day.  “How old am I?” he asked.  “How old do you want to be?” I replied.  “21.”  So he was 21 every time he asked the question.

The residents loved the concert – they recognised songs, they danced, they laughed, wept and clapped.  As part of our induction day, we had to come up with a ten-minute performance.  I’d chosen Jewish songs, ones that I’d sung with Zemel, that are part of my history, and theirs.  They joined in and cried and danced.  It was lovely, apart from the mortifying  moment when I said: “I’m sure you’ll all remember this one…”

The more time I spend running workshops, the more I realise how astonishing music is.  It bonds people in different ways.  It is memory and emotion and feeling.  It can lift you out of sorrow, it can take you away from the fact that last night you slept on the streets and will do again tonight.  For a couple of hours, you can be somewhere else, with jazz, opera and musicals.  I’ve done Britten and Sondheim, Gershwin and Elvis.  I’ve watched people sob as I sing something that reminds them of who knows what?

It’s not the same as doing a musical, a play or a gig.  It’s endless challenge and thinking ahead all the time in case something’s a bit shit and you need to change it before they get bored/fall asleep/go for a fag. But the music glues it all together.

There are people in the world who never listen to music, don’t get it, don’t like it.  Too bad for them.