He's behind you!

Sunday, December 24, 2017


Finally, I went to a panto (short for “pantomime” which nobody ever ever says anymore). Like Bonfire Night, this has been on my list for ages. And like Bonfire Night, it took the arrival of the Intrepid Raul to spur me on. I mean who wants to go to a panto alone? That's just sad. Up to now, when I told friends in the UK that I’d never been to a panto they were mostly astonished. I guess for them it’s such a part of the fabric of growing up it’s impossible to believe someone could reach adulthood without having experienced the phenomenon. A bit like a Canadian never having seen “Hockey Night in Canada” or got their tongue stuck to a frozen tetherball pole.

For those non-UK readers for whom the term "pantomime" conjures images of Marcel Marceau, here’s how Wikipedia describes things, summing it up so well I’m not even going to try to paraphrase, which is what I usually do.
"Pantomime (informally panto) is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed throughout the United Kingdom, generally during the Christmas and New Year season... Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers." - Wikipedia
Pantomime isn’t just a fun tradition, it can also be a lifeline for theatres. Many commercial and subsidised theatres rely heavily on strong ticket sales for the panto to keep them going throughout the year. A good panto can help keep the doors open. And what comprises a good panto? I’m glad you asked. Here, as far as I can tell, are the Ten Commandments of panto, as defined by someone who has seen exactly one but has years of experience in making things up and advanced Googling skills:

1. Thou shalt base thy panto on a traditional story:

There’s a very small canon of stories that make up the accepted pantomime repertoire, chief among which are: Dick Whittington and his Cat, Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. (Mother Goose, Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio and a few other stragglers crop up occasionally but it’s very much a closed shop.)

kayla-meikle-cow-and-the-young-ensemble-in-jack-and-the-beanstalk-lyric-hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton
I saw “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Lyric Hammersmith (running until January 6th so it’s not too late, Londoners!).

While the bare bones of the story were very familiar - cow sold for magic beans, giant, beanstalk, golden goose etc. - there were obviously a lot of liberties taken. It seems that most of the time panto scripts are written or re-written yearly to keep them current and hyper-local, which brings us to the second commandment:

2. Thou shalt pepper thy panto with local and topical references:

My “Jack and the Beanstalk” was naturally set in London, where Jack and her (Wait... her? More on that later) mother are forced to sell the family cow because their rent is spiralling out of control. It doesn’t take a PhD in sociology to see the topicality in that little detail. The script was also littered with references to Hammersmith, and gentrification, and to the general lack of vegetables in the modern diet, among other things.

And why is the rent so high? Because they live in Hammersmith! Also, their landlord is a textbook villain, the next Law of Panto.

3.Thou shalt have an over-the-top villain:

Panto baddies are really really bad, requiring the audience to hiss and boo loudly at them. The Lyric’s baddie this year was Squire Fleshcreep (truly excellent name) played with occasional corpsing* by a woman, Vikki Stone. The real estate mogul Fleshcreep bore a none-too-subtle resemblance to a certain US politician, especially with her moulded orange bouffant wig.

(*Corpsing is a theatre term to describe the phenomenon of an actor being seized by a fit of the giggles while performing. Often this occurs as a result of deliberate sabotage by one’s fellow actors, though in this case I think Ms. Stone basically cracked herself up, so ridiculous was the character. In fairness, a panto is probably the one place where you could corpse in every performance and it would only add to the show.)

'Jack and the Beanstalk' Pantomime performed at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London, UK
Vikki Stone as Squire Fleshcreep. Love the hair. Love the moustache. Just love. The fact that the bad guy was played by a woman brings us to the next commandment:

4. Thou shalt employ gender-bending casting:

Traditionally there’s a lot of cross-gender casting in panto. The hero boy is usually played by a woman (in the style of “Peter Pan”) but the Lyric this year pushed things further. I’ve already mentioned the baddie was played by a woman, but in this production the hero Jack was not just played by a woman (Faith Omole) but was written as female. And Jill, Jack’s love interest, was male. And of course there was the Dame, the next piece of the puzzle.

5. Thou shalt have a Dame:

Every self-respecting panto needs a Dame - a role for an older woman who’s usually the mother of the hero. And almost always, the Dame is played by a man in drag. (Think Lady Bracknell on steroids in a much sillier costume.) It’s a long and proud tradition.

Besides taking a role in the narrative the Dame for “Jack and Beanstalk” also did a bit of stand up comedy, sang and danced several musical numbers, tossed candies into the audience, and read out birthday wishes and random greetings to people in the audience (a bit like having your name on the scoreboard at a hockey game). In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, the fourth wall is utterly non-existent in panto.

Kraig Thornber (Dame) in Jack and the Beanstalk Lyric Hammersmith
Kraig Thornber as Dame Lotte, who had more costume changes than Madonna. The Dame is also often takes the lead in another critical element.

6. Thou shalt subject thy patrons to Audience Participation:

The introvert’s nightmare. Audience participation in a panto takes several distinct forms:
  • 6.1: Shouting out, including two important stock phrases:
    • 6.1a: A character will be accused of something and cry out “Oh no I didn’t!” (Or, alternately in the third person: “Oh no he/she didn’t”) and the audience responds with “Oh yes you did!” And the character says “Oh no I didn’t!” And the audience comes back with… well, you get the idea.
    • 6.1b: The second shout-out is wrapped up another essential element, the Ghost Chase (6.1b.i), wherein characters are stalked by a ghost/villain/random miscreant who lurks out of sight while the the audience shout themselves hoarse screaming, “He’s behind you!” only for the lurker to disappear just before the character turns around. Naturally, this sequence gets repeated many times. “He’s behind you!” is part of the cultural fabric of the country, like “Only Fools and Horses” or complaining about the trains. 
    • (Note that both 6.1a AND 6.1b must be present. In fact, I’d say if you didn’t get both you’d be well within your rights to demand a refund for your ticket and possibly write a sternly worded letter to The Times rebuking the theatre management, starting with the phrase, “Am I alone in thinking…?”.)
  •  6b: Singing: Besides songs performed by the cast, there is traditionally a front-cloth sing-along wherein the audience is divided into two halves and exhorted to out-sing the opposing side. This year at the Lyric we did “Ain’t no mountain high enough".
  • 6c: Being dragged up on stage: The ultimate in audience participation is being plucked out of your seat to become part of the action. Again, the Dame is often involved in this, singling out a make audience member for special attention and referring back to him throughout the evening, culminating in having him hauled up on stage, dressed in a silly costume, and made to perform some sort of action. (There’s a good Guardian piece here from the point of view of the hapless victim.) At the Lyric, in addition the to adult victim, they also brought a little girl up on stage who got to chop down the beanstalk!
Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 1.15.22 pm
The Guardian columnist Tim Dowling in his appearance in Cinderella at the Hackney Empire. He brought it on himself, poor sod. At least he didn’t have to do a musical number, though there were plenty because you can’t have a panto without music, therefore:

7. Thou shalt have lots of music:

I’ve already mentioned the sing-a-long, but we got a lot more music in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. And in true panto fashion, a lot of it was filched from current popular music charts with adapted lyrics, many of which featured another panto staple.

8. Thou shall not shy from the use of awful puns and innuendo:

A panto is family entertainment, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little something for the grown-ups. This usually takes the form of not-so-subtle double entendre. The Dame is frequently implicated in this, often along with whatever hapless victim has been plucked out of the audience. And puns. Oh lord, the puns. It’s probably best not to mention them, which in “Jack” were largely vegetable-themed. Lettuce just skip it. (*rimshot*)

And of course along with the puns comes the physical equivalent - slapstick.

9. Thou shalt make a mess:

This tradition has its roots in Commedia dell'arte. (Actually, pantomime in general grew out of Commedia, so there’s your dose of real culture for this blog post.) These days pantos are liberally sprinkled with physical gags, but one form in particular is a panto staple and is often simply known as The Messy Scene. Often involving baking, it’s an excuse to make a big mess and (hopefully) pour goo all over your fellow actors. (I didn’t specifically notice this on the night I saw my panto, but I’m guessing the Messy Scene is often followed closely by what we in the industry like to call The Interval.)

The Milking Scene from “Jack and the Beanstalk” - a very credible variation in the form. Clearly they’ve done this before, because they spread a tarp on the stage and put on protective clothing in preparation.

10. Thou shalt cast minor celebrities:

You know how half-remembered celebrities in America used to wash up on the Love Boat or Fantasy Island? In England they do panto. Sometimes a theatre will snag a genuinely leading light (Sir Ian McKellan played the Dame the Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s a production of “Aladdin" in 2004) but too often you get someone from "EastEnders". It’s like the theatrical equivalent of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

And there you have it - the Ten Commandments of Panto. A truly great fun, silly, frantic, loud, crazy traditional holiday treat. I had a fantastic time at “Jack and the Beanstalk” and will definitely be going back next year for whatever is on the cards. Making certain, of course, to get tickets safely tucked in the back of the stalls, or possibly the 7th balcony, well out of the audience participation zone.

This Old Boat

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I mentioned last time that November was a busy month here at Go Stay Work Play Live World HQ on board the Lucky Nickel. As I said, I was working on some fairly extensive interior renovations on the boat, and am pleased to report that things are looking decidedly more ship-shape these days. Not wanting to miss a chance to show off the boat, and ever mindful of the small percentage of the vanishingly tiny number of regular GSWPL readers out there who are keenly interested in all things boaty (Steve G, are you still out there?), I thought I’d do a little Before & After, and tell you a little bit about what it’s like to live in 200 square feet (18 square metres) while renovating large chunks of it at the same time. (Spoiler alert: Difficult and annoying!)

Back when I bought it, the boat was not exactly the slickest looking thing on the canal. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember the outside was a nasty shade of worn out green. And they’ll also remember the exciting moment when I got home from the first Azerbaijan gig to the freshly painted boat and later when I had the sign writing done. That was the first step.

Boat exterior - Before and After

Then I went on to tackle some of the more egregious interior fittings, eventually getting to a point where things were in all cases functional and in some cases even sort of normal-looking.

Like here in the bedroom

Living Room
And here's what the living area looked like on the day I bought the boat, and what it looked like a few coats of paint and several years later.

All of these were relatively simple upgrades. Paint does wonders, and replacing the Unabomber style rough-edged wooden shelving in the kitchen with clean white timber was easy and had a lot of impact. But there were still a few things that I knew were going to be a much much bigger job.

The kitchen area is better than it was, but still, those open shelves and rough drawers were just not up to scratch.

And the floor. Ah... the floor. It was a mottled mish-mash of very worn cork tile glued over wood-effect vinyl glued over the plywood subfloor. Mostly. Some areas had no cork. Some had no vinyl either. And there were a number of worryingly squishy soft spots that I’d simply covered with patches of plywood reasoning that I’d fix when I dealt with the floor in general. Because no number of trips to IKEA or coats of paint were going to make that floor anything that I wanted to continue to live with.

As I said, I've been planning this for a while. I estimated things would take about a month and resolved to simply settle in at my far-flung mooring for the duration. There are some significant advantages to the mooring. First, I can plug into mains power, which is critical even if you only consider the amount of vacuuming I had to do. Second, there’s a B&Q just down the road (for Canadian readers, substitute Home Depot for B&Q). There’s also a large Tesco nearby so I could easily keep myself fed. (I had lunch most days in the Tesco CafĂ© where they do a pretty credible tuna mayonnaise jacket potato and nice raspberry brownies). The marina is also an easy place to receive deliveries. In fact, I got quite adept at driving the boat backwards from my berth to the slipway near the carpark making it relatively simple to get large amounts of stuff on and off the boat.

Like this! Here’s the lovely men from the stage company loading up the ridiculously small amount of worldly goods I sent away to give myself a bit of working space.

I probably could have managed with a slightly smaller storage pod.

The marina also has one significant disadvantage: it is so poorly located for transport that I have to allocate about 90 minutes to get anywhere more exciting than Acton. Even though I’ve moored at places that are geographically much further from central London, the particular corner of the world where my marina is happens to fall inconveniently far from any tube or rail station and is served by a single circuitous bus route that seems to spend most of its time stuck in traffic. The cursed Route E6 doesn’t even have the self-respect to use double-decker buses, which is a dead giveaway that you're not exactly at Piccadilly Circus. I reasoned that the difficulty of escaping the area would simply concentrate my efforts to finish up and be free.

So it began. With extraneous materials removed, I dismantled the old bed frame and the bedroom officially became the workshop. And what does any self-respecting workshop need? A good power saw of course!

The workshop. Check out that saw! It’s a chop saw that is also a table saw! Bloody brilliant. I’m very very very happy with this device. I even built the new bed frame so that the saw fits exactly underneath it. I love this saw. But it did make a LOT of sawdust, hence all the vacuuming.

First on the list was re-building the front step to turn it into a much larger, more stable and more accessible storage area, and next was a new bed frame that hinges up for easier access to the storage underneath. Then it was on to the floor! I decided to use the same engineered laminate flooring through the whole boat, though not the posh kind that’s got a layer of real wood on the top. Mine has a very attractive picture of wood on it, and some fake embossed texture to add to the illusion. It’s nicer than it sounds, really. What was NOT nice was getting 150kg of laminate flooring from B&Q onto the boat.

This photo was taken part way down the long road between B&Q and the marina, with me hauling that cart every inch of the way. Then I carried each of those surprisingly heavy packs to the very very end of the pier to my berth and then stacking them in the boat. And then I trudged the empty cart back to B&Q. Tough day. I repeated this process for other materials too. It was kind of not fun.

The flooring install was ok. Mostly it was all just… tricky. It’s such a tiny space to work in that I was constantly stepping over things and having to shift stuff around just to be able to make progress. I think I probably spent about half the time working and half the time getting ready to work or shifting things around to prepare a next step or vacuuming and tidying up at the end of each day. The end of day clean-up was the most dispiriting. By the time I was ready to call it a day, sometimes it looked like this:

Holes in the floor, tools and debris everywhere, vacuum constantly in a place to be tripped over, and temporary structure holding stuff up. And odd bits of normal life interspersed, like the aloe plant in the middle of the chaos and a suspicious tin of lager on the counter...

There was only one room in the boat that was relatively free from building detritus - the bathroom. Every morning I had to dismantle the temporary bed (three couch cushions, three blankets, two pillows and a spare sleeping bag for extra insulation), and stack all the bedding on top of the bedroom drawers that lived for a month in the shower stall. 

Couch cushions went in front of this and then shelves and folding chair and whatever else was in the way.

It took me about an hour every night to get all the tools stowed, exile the debris to ever-growing piles on the pier outside the boat, and vacuum and vacuum and vacuum some more. Then I could open up the bathroom and rebuild the bed and then, finally, think about making some supper. I did get into a bit of a rhythm but really, it’s not an ideal way of working. It was, however, very very cheap. No added living costs and no commute time to get from bed to workshop!

I feel like I’m getting things out of order here, but that’s kind of how it happened. I started the floor and got it laid through the bedroom, bathroom and hallway before I had to start dismantling kitchen cabinets in order to get the new flooring into that area. Plus, because both the stove and the fridge have flexible gas connections, I was keen not to have to disconnect them because that would mean getting a certified gas engineer in to re-connect them. Instead I carefully shifted them from side to side, accessing tiny areas of floor then shifting again for the next tiny area. There were times when the only way to get from the work area to the rest of the boat was to climb over the stove.

And then it all went a bit wrong. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers may recall me mentioning worryingly squishy bits of floor in the kitchen, which I cleverly ignored for a few years by laying some plywood and pretending it was all fine. Now though, it was time to see what was really happening under there. And it was not pretty. Oh no. Not at all.

This is what was underneath. Rust so thick it made me feel a bit sick.

I sought advice from the guys at the marina, who found my distress a bit amusing. “It’s a steel boat, of course there’s rust”. One of them came over to have a look and made my heart stop by poking at the bottom plate with a screwdriver. I had visions of it going straight though whatever was left of the steel, creating a geyser of canal water in the middle of the boat. But it didn’t, and he declared that what was left was strong. Based on what? I don’t know. Probably based on him not wanting to make me cry. (And yes, there's definitely an argument to be made that it was maybe not smart to do a whole lot of interior work on the boat if the actual integrity of the hull is suspect. Too bad. I've never claimed to make particularly practical decisions when it comes to the boat. Why start now?)

So I got stuck in. Scraping out all the loose stuff with a putty knife (there was lots and lots) and then vacuuming and scraping more and then brushing it all with a rust inhibitor which had to dry for two days. Then painting to protect the steel that’s left. And then the whole subfloor had to be replaced. The area pictured above is less than a third of the area that needed this treatment. Bearing in mind the whole thing preceded like this: shift the fridge/stove two feet, cut out old flooring, scrape out rust, vacuum, treat for rust, allow to dry, cover with new subfloor, shift fridge/stove onto new subfloor, repeat for area recently covered by fridge/stove, etc…Then repeat for the painting, then add 50mm thick styrofoam insulation panels and then permanently fix down the new floor, then, and only then, actually finish laying the new laminate flooring.

And then, at last, it was time for the final step… the kitchen! I’d already been to IKEA to order my new cabinets, which arrived in 37 boxes (Not kidding. Literally 37 boxes). Here too, it wasn’t as simple as just assembling and shoving them into place. Of course not! There’s nothing simple on a boat. Instead, I took each of the 60cm deep cabinets and carefully trimmed 50mm off the back of each piece with my magic saw before assembling them, thus gaining a small but very significant bit of extra space down the centre of the kitchen. And then I added temporary countertops because I haven’t really decided what I’m doing about countertops yet. And I reinstalled the old sink because until there are new counters there no point in a new sink. And there are still other bits to add and fix and it’s not all perfect but…

Look! Real drawers!

And this! All my grubby coal and kindling is neatly corralled in a drawer under the sink. And the front panel of the fridge turns out to be a much more interesting colour on its back side. And I’ve got a proper upper cabinet, and more counter space, and room for a handmade-long-packed-away mirror and a poinsettia and an Advent calendar!

And the floor. Oh the floor. What a difference.

Of course there's more to do. The kitchen countertops. A few more drawers. One narrow cabinet. A new system for the recycling. And the sink in the bathroom. And the floorboards all need to be secured better. And the fireplace surround needs serious attention and and and and… But I decided after a long month of hard work and dust and Tesco jacket potatoes I deserved to enjoy my new space and relax a bit before the Christmas Holidays. So cleaned everything up, and organised things in my lovely new cabinets and called some men to haul away the mounds of rusty rubbish and aimed my boat back at central London where I’m now whiling away a couple of weeks with Christmas shopping and stoking the fire and having people over to ooh and aah over my lovely new home.

 And, most importantly, not vacuuming for two hours a day.