The Weir. Lyceum Theatre

Last night I went to see The Weir, by Conor McPherson, directed by Amanda Gaughan at the Lyceum Theatre. Before I get on to the meat and potatoes of the play I have to also say I sat in one of the worst audiences I have ever been in.

We were in the upper circle, and had a pretty good views of the stage.  Once the performance started though it was like at least 50% of the upper circle were conspiring to break any dramatic tension or concentration.  There was the woman who told someone off very loudly and aggressively for using a phone, and other people for talking, but thought it was ok for herself to turn round and comment to us loudly about the swearing in the play.  There were a group of school children, who I think maybe did not have English as a first language, who spent a lot of the time whispering to each other.  There were then the multiple times people got up to speak to the ushers and complain, move seats, come back to collect bags, the ushers (who were obviously having a tough performance) coming down repeatedly to ask people to switch off phones or to be quiet.  Then the school children left, loudly and slowly.  This was all in the first twenty minutes and completely ruined the part of the narrative where we have the place, character and relationships set up.

The play is set in a rural Irish pub.  I was with a Irish friend who commented afterwards that the Irishness of it was rendered accurately.  It is a wet and rainy night, and a new member of the community, a woman, comes to this pub populated by men, and the telling of ghost stories ensues.

The telling of ghost stories is just a vehicle though to say something larger about story telling itself.  What the play ultimately tells us is that when we tell any story (in whatever genre) we are really talking about ourselves.  Whether it is the self as an individual of the self of wider humanity.  It’s not just the telling of stories that gives us this information though, it’s how we chose to hear the story, how the hearers reacts, that informs that informs the continuing unvoiced dialogue between people.

The atmosphere was beautifully accomplished, with the splashes of rain in puddles visible to the audience, and a slow sunset and rising moon in real time creating the kind of attention to detail that is the foundation of the illusion of theatre.  The cast, while having a challenging performance due to the audience carried on professionally, and their skilled performances easily brought whole, and familiar, lives and characters of the pub customers to life.  Special mention has to go for Lucianne McEvoy’s gripping monologue, and to the whole cast, for one of the best silences I’ve ever heard.

The version of humanity that McPherson shows us in this play is one which at times is a little pompous, a little scared, kind and with a tender interior.  Most of all it is a humanity which is a little broken, a little battered, a little rough around the edges, but one where hearts can recognise and sing their sadnesses to each other – and this in itself is ordinary, mundane, and slightly beautiful.

The Weir: Four stars

Upper circle audience:  No stars

 

 

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DIY Body Lotion

I’ve been feeling a little stressed recently, and my body has been dealing with a combination of reoccurring infections and strong antibiotics which is leaving it feeling unhappy.  I find one of the ways to effectively relieve stress is generally to be creative and make something.  My body also normally feels better if I show it a little love and attention.  So I decided to make some more of my home made body lotion.

The key to this body lotion is to get the solid to oil ration right which should be 75% to 25%.  I personally really like coco butter as my solid – it smells fantastic, and coco butter softens at body temperature.  Coconut oil also softens easily and the combination helps the lotion melt into the skin.  the coconut oil is also key to helping it whip up into a light mixture during the whisking stage.  I’ve tried this recipe several times with other oils, and coconut so far gives the lightest whip I’ve found.  I also added a bit of sweet almond oil to this mix, mainly because it was hanging around unused on my bathroom shelves, and a mix of my favourite essential oils.

The wildcard in today’s recipe was the addition of rosewater.  I hadn’t used this before but I basically love Turkish delight, so thought I’d give it a try.

Ingredients

7.5oz coco butter

2oz cconut oil (yes, I sometimes weight liquids on scales, it makes it easier).

0.5oz sweet almond oil

essential oils

100mls rosewater

You can view how each of the following stages should look in the slideshow above.

Step one

After measuring out the coco butter and oils I put them in my slow cooker on low and gently allow them to melt.  If you don’t have a slow cooker a home made bane marie can be made by placing a glass bowl on the top of a saucepan with gently simmering water in it.  Don’t let the bowl touch the water (I don’t know what happens if it does, but I’m assuming because you’re told it so often it’s the cooking equivalent of crossing the streams in Ghostbusters).  The important thing at this stage is to melt slowly, as a lot of heat will damage nutrients in your ingredients.  Once all the ingredients have melted together, place them in your fridge.

Step two

After about an hour the ingredients should have set solid.  This is time to start the whipping process.  If you are in a very cold country, or you have left your ingredients in the fridge too long you may need to warm them slightly by setting them on the ban marie again.  There is no need to melt them complete though, but you might need to whisk for longer to remove lumps and achieve a smooth texture.  I wouldn’t do this by hand.

Step three

At this point I add my essential oils.  You’ll know what’s best for you.  Whip it all up again.  the texture should be like whipped double cream.

Step four

I was less sure of this step as I hadn’t added rose water before.  The key here is to add it slowly.  About a capful at a time is enough, and make sure it is well combined before adding the next.

Step five

I treated myself to some kilner jars, and stuffed the body lotion in with a spatula.  I’d avoided these jars for a while as I’d assumed they would be expensive.  However getting them at the supermarket or somewhere like TX Maxx isn’t too bad.

And voi-la!  I now feel a bit more pampered, calmer and ever-so-slightly more blissful.

Black Velvet by Tony Ramsay

For a short time only Tony Ramsay’s radio play Black Velvet is on the BBC iplayer.  This is one of my favourite radio plays, and is also a great example of how incredibly the horror genre can work on radio.

The forty-five minute play follows Master Richard and servant girl Annie, as they are alone in Thoresbey Hall, where Master Richard compels Annie to play at being mistress of the house.

What Black Velvet demonstres so well is the real intimacy of radio, which has lead it to being an enduring medium no matter how technologically eclipsed it is.  It’s not horror’s sexualised intimacy as in the creepy vampire voice whispering temptation in beautiful virgins ear.  It’s intimacy of character and mind.  Because of the lack of visuals you have to make them up in your own head, and that is the snuggest place any story can ever fit.  It’s also the most scary.

In a few short scenes we gain a lot of knowledge about Master Richards psychological state, it’s frailty and his background.  Over the course of the play we become uniquely entangled in Annie’s plight.  It’s as though we have been welcomed into parts of these characters lives and predicaments that we could only witness if we were really there, really part of the story, as much as the characters within it.

When you come across a really well written piece of radio it always feels as though it is speaking uniquely to you, not at you, but speaking right inside of you.  Everything else fades away.  If you’re only going to listen to one piece of radio this week, this well measured, paced, characterised and structured piece should be it.  I recommend listening in the dark.

Jago by Kim Newman

I loved An English Ghost Story so much I decided to leap straight away into another book by Newman, Jago.  While Jago deals with some of the same themes it is a very different book altogether.

Jago is set in the fictional Somerset village of Alder.  It is a baking hot summer and the temporary and permanent residents of the village, including a local cult headed by the titular Anthony William Jago, are preparing for an annual large music festival.  Alder contains a mix of characters, some who’s families have been in the area for generations, others are incomers for the season, and several thousand descending for the festival.

Of course, it’s not all going to go smoothly, you find this book in the horror section after all.  I was in no way prepared for quite how badly it would go.  The area around Alder has a history of supernatural manifestation.  There are several locals who could be described as pshycopaths before anything unusual starts to take place.

At the centre of all that happens is Jago.  We meet him for the first time half way through the novel, and he only speaks once.  His silence and inaction while unusual for a central character, perfectly fit Jago.  After all he makes things happens, he doesn’t need to talk to people or make connections, he doesn’t need to explain himself – his greatness should be evident to all.  As with all people who believe themselves great, the only thing that is evident is an imbalanced mind and a possible personality disorder.  However Jago has more abilities than most self-serving narcissistic cult leaders – he literally can make your fantasies come true.  He’ll bring out the worst in you.

This is the major theme  in both Jago and Ghost Story.  The evil, it’s inside you.  There are no monsters, other than the ones we create ourselves.  However while Ghost Story illuminates this point with elegance and restraint, Jago does exactly the opposite.  It’s kind of like Hironimous Bosch on the worst trip possible.  Two thirds through the 678 pager and I felt confused, disorientated, wasn’t sure what was going on, or where to turn to for help – like 98% of the characters.

Really good horror isn’t just about fear.  The genre would be called Fear if it was.  It’s a potent mix of fear AND disbelief.  It’s the disbelief that Newman really mines in Jago.  If he’d told the story of just one of his characters, there would be miasma, but the multiple view points result in miasma and discombobluation.  It’s a binge of disbelief, and like all binging, you’re going to feel icky afterwards.

Ultimately if you want to feel more comfortable with your horror, go for Ghost Story.  If you want to feel impossibly lost in a vision of the world that is relentlessly overwhelming with no chance of stabilisation, Jago is you man.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling..?

I bought this wee book as a stocking filler for my daughter.  She’s pretty Harry Potter obsessed – which I put down to having read all the books while I was on maternity leave, so she somehow osmosed them in the womb.  Or, she could just be a pretty normal child who’s imagination is fired up by a well developed fantasy world.

The book contains five tales, collected from Beedle the Bard, a figure who is part of the padding of the Harry Potter world, who we know little about.  A real world equivalent would be Blind Harry.  Beedle collected the only evidence we have of myth, folklore or legend in the Harry Potter world.   It of course includes the well known Tale of the Three Brothers – an important part of the last two books, explaining the legend of the Deathly Hallows.

In the original HP series JK Rowling’s fantasy world works so well because the contemporary events of the second wizarding war, are firmly embedded in the first wizarding war, a generation before.  The real world equivalent is World War One and Two.  There are more than enough charactor/event similarities between those real world events and the Harry Potter ones for it to be no coincidence.  However apart from the odd scrap of wizarding legislation or anecdote, Beedle is one of the only people in the world to be implanted more than one or two generations before Mr Potter himself.

The stories in Beedle fall into two different categories.  The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, the Fountain of Fair Fortune and The Tale of the Three Borthers, are a sort of morality tale.  A real world equivilent would be the Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Tales designed to impart wisdom, or teach a lesson, that will help the hearer – most likely a child – behave in a certain way, or understand the world within the bounds of a specific morality.  These kind of tales are often neat and to the point, having a very clear message.

The other two stories are, Babbty Rabbity and her Cackling Stump and, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.  Hairy Heart is my absolute favourite in the whole collection.  Immediately after reading it my eight year-old’s question was “Why would anyone put that in a children’s book?”

Fairy-tales, before they were collected by the middle-classes were not nice moralistic tales where sweet women behaved passively and were rewarded with the hand in marriage of a handsome nameless prince.  Real fairy tales gave voice to the the voiceless.  Not just a voiceless underclass, but often the voiceless within that underclass.  Those who’s mouths were taped over by the privileged and ruling classes, and vocal chords pulled out by anti-children elders, patriarchal attitudes, poverty or plain selfishness within their families and surrounding society. Real fairy-tales are gruesome and bloody ordeals, inhabited by people of moral ambiguity, murderers, incestuous fathers, absent or selfish parents, vain and egotistical relatives, vain and egotistical rulers, abusers, manipulators and the indifferent.  In other words, it’s full of real people, and real situations.  Albeit filtered through the magical, to make the trauma of real life more palatable to those who have suffered it, and those who are being warned.

While the other three stories may be more benign, and Babbity Rabbity just being a bit weird (another feature of original fairy-tales given mistranslation and changes in cultural symbolism) Hairy Heart is the tale that really stands out.

Although the tales are so-so what really brings the magic to the book are the notes by Albus Dumbledore.  In each of the notes Rowling gently unfolds a little bit more knowledge about the HP world and Dumbledore.  Many readers will bask once more in the glow everyone’s favourite teacher.  Rowling gently guided us through the HP world, which developed with every book – much in the way we develop a deeper understanding of our world on the journey between 11 and 17, as her main characters embodied.  The notes just add that little bit more to this unfolding.  It’s a top up for those eager for more, and make the tales more than just a curiosity.

There is only one thing that breaks the magic.  The fact that JK Rowling is credited on the cover as the author.  Yes, she did write it.  However, the title page says the book was translated by Hermione Grange from original runes with notes from Albus Dumbledore – which adds to Rowlings carefully woven world.  To then have Rowlings name proclaimed on the front cover breaks this conceit.   After all, as much as the best fairy-tales reflect the genuinely arbitrary nature of the world, the best magicians continue their performance until they have walked off stage.

My weekend in baking

It’s been a doing things inside kind of weekend.  Which in our house translates into a lot of baking.  Here’s a run down of all the recipes and non-recipes I tried this weekend, with additional commentary from my eight year-old daughter, Milla.

Jack Munroe’s Peanut Butter Bread

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I have a great fondness for a lot of Jack’s recipes as she’s all about what I call low anxiety cooking.  Don’t have all the ingredients, use a substitute, not quite perfect, never mind, adjust it next time.  While I love food made for pure indulgence of the senses, I also have to live in the real world, and Jack lives and writes there too.

I took the original recipe from her new book, A Year in 120 Recipes but substituted 50g of the 300g of flour with rye that is sitting unused in the cupboard, the rest as plain white, and also added some cranberries that were left over from Christmas.  The addition of the fruit moistens the mix, and a further 15mins needed to be added to the overall baking time.  As Jack uses a liberal tablespoon of baking powder rather than yeast, the bread has a slightly more scone-like texture than breadish.  The result is a batter rather than a dough, and therefore is resistant to being rolled and cut into shapes.

The scone like crunch of the crust goes brilliantly well with the softness of the inside, and the tart taste of cranberries is contrasted by the sweetness of the peanut butter, with none of the claggieness of the original spread.

Milla’s opinion:  “Disgusting”.

Polenta chips (with Jack Munros’ Butch Romesco Sauce)

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I tried making polenta many years ago, and while the top of my polenta looked great, it always had a soggy bottom – so I gave up.  A couple of times in 2015 I tried polenta chips when eating out, and I enjoyed them enough to feel I could give it another shot.  I’ve also been keeping in mind that I’m going vegetarian for a month this year.  I’m on the look out for more fun, vegetarian (or adaptable) recipes that I can get Milla into, so I was hoping Milla might enjoy this.

I made the polenta with 800mls water to 250g polenta.  Simmered it in a pan until it started coming away from the sides.  Took it off the heat and chucked in a couple of handfuls of grated cheese.  I then poured the mixture into a shallow tin that was lined with cling-film and went to mend the washing machine.

Washing machine mended the polenta had set in a rubbery consistency that in no way looked appetising.  Once turned out the tin could be cut into thin strips.  Rather than frying, and in a rather un-vegetarian move, I coated them in left over goose fat from Christmas and baked them in the oven until crisp.

I loved the romesco sauce, which can also be found in Jack’s new book.  It is full bodied, rich, sweet, sticky and sour.  Paring both together makes for a highly indulgent, but healthy, alternative to chips and ketchup.

Milla’s opinion:  “Ok-ish.  But I’m not even going to touch that sauce!”

Savoury swirls

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I made a chicken and tarragon pie for Sunday lunch, and after rolling out the shop bought puff pastry and putting it on the pie I had two large pieces of puff which had been trimmed off.

I rolled the puff again, spread it with left over romesco sauce and scattered some grated cheese over them.  Then rolled up the pastry swiss-roll style, cut it into slices and baked in the oven at 200c for 20mins.

Milla’s opinion:  “No.”

Amber Roses’ Cinnamon and Banana Cake

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I went through a massive Amber Rose phase a few years back. I’ve rather fallen out of love with alternative flours and sugars now, for various coming to my senses reasons, but this cake and her polenta cake have remained staples of my baking.

When following this recipe I soak my sultana’s in rooibos rather than earl grey.  I had run out of maple syrup so used honey instead, and rather than using wholemeal spelt had a half plain white and half rye mix.  It still tasted great.  The smell of vanilla and cinnamon mingling and wafting through your house is worth the wait alone.

Milla’s opinion:  “It tastes different somehow.  But I suppose it’s still good.”

 

Lip scrub. Really?

I got the latest Lush lip scrub Santa Baby, as a present this Christmas.  It was a seasonal red, made from sugar, and had tiny, tiny little hearts in, almost as though it was designed to appeal to just me. Like every Lush product it smells amazing (of cola bottles), and unlike most of them this one is edible.  Really though the question I was left with after using it was, do we really need lip scrubs?

Our lips have some of the most delicate skin on our bodies.  The other delicate skin area is round the eyes – and I wouldn’t want to rub them all over with hard grainy sugar.  Our lips also don’t have any sebaceous glands, and therefore don’t produce oil and moisturise in the way other body areas do. Therefore when it is dry (i.e. winter and the radiators are on) the skin on your lips dries out.  So the flaking that many people experience is really to do with lack of moisture rather than large amounts of dry skin building up on your lips.  With the cycle of skins production and replacement taking 28 days it’s hard to imagine how in between daily eating, drinking, washing and anything else you might be doing with your lips, dead skin would have time to build up.

If your lips are like mine when they get chapped they also start getting sensitive.  Again, I just don’t really want to rub hard grainy sugar on any sensitive area.  If you’re really having problems with chapped, flaky lips then I’d recommend Lush’s Honey Trap lip balm and/or some aloe vera gel.  It’s far kinder.  If you still want to scrub your lips then using a wash cloth or old toothbrush will be much cheaper.

When it comes to the need for lip scrubs this one really has been a win for the marketing people.