Hull farce stands Stratford test

The Hypocrite at the RSC. Dir. Phillip Breen. Writer: Richard Bean

Rating: ★★★★★

'The Hypocrite' by Richard Bean
Caroline Quentin & Mark Addy led the farce (Peter Le May/RSC)

Having swept up lavish praise in Hull, the question was whether this bawdy farce could continue its towering run after transplanting to Stratford-upon-Avon.

From the opening sequence showing Sir John Hotham’s untimely end, any doubts were emphatically swept aside on the night.

Mixing true events based on Hull’s contribution to the Civil War in 1642 with elements of a sex farce, this was a chest plate-thumping march into Shakespeare’s heartland.

Rarely can the English Civil War have inspired such hilarity.

One-liners were delivered with superb pace and timing by a cast half from Hull, City of Culture, who were led by Caroline Quentin in great comic form and Mark Addy outstanding as the conflicted Sir John.

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Caroline Quentin & Neil D’Souza (Duncan Lomax/RSC)
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Rowan Polonski & Martin Barrass also shone (Duncan Lomax/RSC)

The political side of the play drew in the Ranters, Levellers and Millenarian non-conformist movements and songs powerfully delivered by a kind of folk-protest band.

The co-production was also a physical piece, well suited to the intimate nature of the Swan Theatre, with magic and stunts aplenty, not least in the opening scene featuring the beheading of Sir John. Fittingly for a ‘world turned upside down’, the play starts at the end.

Speaking at a pre-show discussion, writer Richard Bean revealed that as a native of Hull, he returns frequently for material and inspiration and although the play has political elements, he differs in his source material, say, from David Edgar “who hasn’t written 15 plays about Bexhill On Sea”.

The award-winning playwright said events behind the production, when researched, “read like a Feydeu farce”. The songs (by Grant Olding) “play a different role”, bringing balance and “reminding you it’s a political play”.

As for any message for today, Bean said “you can read into it what you like”.

A major concern was “will it work in Stratford?” but he found that after the first week all had gone well, with the Swan “working very well as a venue” and “the Hull jokes working fine in Stratford”.

The audiences, Bean noted, are ‘”treating it as a play rather an event”.

So it proved, with a production that was a bawdy cannon shot through the pages of Shakespeare and of Hull’s tumultuous past.

By Much Ado reviewer

For tickets and further information visit the RSC’s website

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Angels of the road mark record year

A Blood Bikes group delivering emergency medical supplies across the Midlands carried out a record number of journeys last year, hitting the road come rain or shine.

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The Midland Freewheelers completed 1,186 jobs for the NHS, including marathon relays with other volunteer riders across the country.

The charity said it was “extremely proud” to have saved potentially thousands of lives through the free service which began in 2009.

The tally includes 850 out-of-hours deliveries for hospitals and 322 for Birmingham Women’s Hospital collecting and delivering breast milk.

The Freewheelers also had their busiest day ever on February 4, completing 18 journeys – with one rider clocking up almost 200 miles.

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They have also reached a total of 5,000 calls for the NHS to date, providing a free service that is often faster than using an ambulance or courier.

Chairman Lorraine Gough said: “Having hit the five thousand milestone on the same weekend as our busiest ever day is a golden moment for us.

“We are continually going from strength to strength and the purchase of our new fleet last year has enabled us to provide a growing service to the NHS at a time when their funding is under such pressure. Five thousand times we have provided assistance at no cost to the NHS and five thousand times we have saved them crucial funds.

“Add to that the possibility we have helped five thousand individuals with their treatment.”

Mrs Gough praised riders who give up their spare time to ferry emergency supplies across the region. “Each and every one of our members has helped us reach this point with their tireless enthusiasm to help others and volunteering their time for free,” she said.

“Not only the riders but also our members who help coordinate the jobs and those who give up their time to fundraise to keep our service going. And of course to the public who support us so brilliantly. Every member, past and present, should be extremely proud of this achievement.

“I know I am. Our sights are very much set on the next five thousand jobs.”

The Freewheelers are also taking part in an NHS clinical trial called RePHILL, testing whether casualties with traumatic injuries are better off having blood products administered rather than saline solution.

Since the project launched in December the bikers have completed 14 jobs involving delivering blood products and plasma to the Midlands County Air Ambulance at RAF Cosford and the MERIT critical care team in Oldbury.

Another regular delivery takes supplies from New Cross Hospital eye infirmary in Wolverhampton to Warwick University Science Park in Coventry.

The Freewheelers raised funds to purchase four new motorbikes last year and take part in marathon relays with other groups.

The most common run is to meet volunteer riders from Wales, handing them breast milk to take to Cardiff and Swansea.

The Freewheelers’ previous record was 1,002 jobs in 2015.

Nationally Blood Bike groups are saving the NHS millions in transport costs that would been incurred using its own vehicles or couriers.

They distribute items including tiny blood components called platelets, donor breast milk, patient notes, theatre equipment and anything that fits on a motorcycle.

Demand has increased exponentially in recent years, relieving pressure on the NHS.

For more information about the Freewheelers visit their Facebook page or website

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Berlin shares its garden of plenty with the world

Travel: Going green in Berlin

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The Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin’s inner-city

Berlin is not so much a city on the go as a garden of fresh ideas.

The German capital is an engine room for unusual pursuits, from a burgeoning urban gardening movement to Cold War car safaris.

In the space of five days I made ‘seven herb vodka’ in a sprouting vegetable patch, turned Belizian cacao into dark chocolate, drove a Communist-era Trabant and danced under the stars.

For sure, frothing steins, Bavarian sausages and roadside trays of currywurst are still being dished up with abandon. Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag parliament building, the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Cathedral also remain easily accessible must-dos for any visit.

But the city has more fresh additions to the travel guide than you could shake a selfie stick at. One of my first outings was the ‘Green Berlin’ tour, which began at an urban garden combining a hip approach – think flat caps, beetroot juice and wooden decking – with strong community ties.

The Prinzessinnengarten, in the rejuvenated Kreuzberg district, has turned a grey, bombed-out wasteland into a glorious splash of life and activity.

Resident bees hover around rows of plants while the centre of human activity is a minimalist wooden structure named after our own House of Commons.

My guide Luisa Weyrich, of tour company GoArt!, said: “Many children grow up in Berlin only seeing tomatoes in the supermarket.

“Here they can take part in educational programmes and see how a tomato or a strawberry grows. You can also listen to musicians, hang out at the bar, get involved with gardening projects and buy plants. It’s just a really nice oasis in a field of concrete.” Luisa also showed me the nearby Original Unverpackt health food store where nothing – not even spaghetti – comes in packaging.

At another urban garden, named Himmelbeet, I was greeted by general manager Felix Lodes – clad in sandals and sun hat – who picked seven herbs which I mixed with sugar, vodka and water to create my own liquor.

Seven herb vodka

The rows of plants are all on raised beds, as the hard ground is unsuitable for growing, making the breathing space look like something between a Chelsea Flower Show installation and a pop-up market in Digbeth. I assume my jam jar liquor (right) is still distilling at the urban farm, which breaks up the housing blocks in Mitte.

My green credentials disappeared in a puff of smoke as I took a ‘Trabi-Safari’ around Berlin’s places of note.

I got behind the wheel in a convoy of the much-derided cars that gave Communism a bad name.

A guide leading in an electric vehicle spoke to the group over radios but my mind was more on mastering a leopard-print former East German vehicle that makes the Ford Capri look like a blueprint from Virgin Galactic.

Berlin is putting visitors in the driving seat – whether it’s driving a two-stroke Trabant or making artisan chocolate.

So it proved at Belyzium chocolatiers, where a workshop began with the story of adventurous founder Andrei Shibkov tracking down the ideal cacao in Belize.

No other beans are used under the confectioners’ ‘tree to bar’ philosophy, which you can indulge in at their shop to the north of the city centre.

Surrounded by sacks of the crop I poured and mixed my own bar which proved to be the richest, most intense dark chocolate I have ever tasted. Less calorific eating is available through the slew of vegan restaurants that have sprung up around the city in recent years. I also tried more familiar dining at craft beer pioneers Lemke Berlin, where I supped the house Bohemian Pilsner and ate a giant schnitzel seated next to a copper microbrewery.

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The Brandenburg Gate is one of the more familiar sights on the map. Picture: Till Palme

I totted up further units later in my trip at the BierLieb craft brewery in the eastern suburban of Friedrichshain, joining a home brewing workshop with ample tasting thrown in. The front-of-house offers some outstanding drops you can try on the premises while a room at the back holds court to the merry tutorial. Tipping out of BierLieb in fine spirits I headed for Birgit & Beer, a collection of bars and court yards in the heady canal district to the east of the city centre. The area is a huge draw for thousands of young people who lash their bikes to railings and party to techno, hip hop and retro pop music.

The thirst for new ideas is also evident at the exuberant Neun street food market, which gets underway on Thursday nights in Kreuzberg.

Crowds descend on the grand hall where steam rises into plastic canopies and concept food meets national dishes from around the world. I grabbed a glass of white wine at Monsieur Collard, where the bartenders hold court in spotless aprons, and also found room for oysters, an artisan pastrami roll, Nigerian rice and veg and an ocean-fresh seafood roll.

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Neun street food market draws good-natured crowds to the grand hall. Picture: Till Palme

Working off the excess is straightforward in a bicycle-friendly city and the next day I joined a tour around landmarks, parks and markets. Many grand buildings and more recent landmarks are wrapped in steel and wood as municipal renewal continues apace. I flew back to Birmingham feeling I not only visited a city on the go – but had joined it for the ride.

By Much Ado reviewer

*Flights: Return between Birmingham and Berlin Tegel with FlyBe www.flybe.com

*Hotel: The Crowne Plaza Berlin City Centre  www.crowneplazaberlin.com/en/

Snowfall and haunting performances are a seasonal high

Review: Snow in Midsummer at the RSC. Dir. Justin Audibert

Rating: ★★★★

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Katie Leung cast a ghostly spell as the wronged Dou Yi. Picture: Ikin Yumi

The first instalment in the RSC’s cultural exchange with China opened up to Katie Leung’s Dou Yi engaging in playful interaction with the audience. Playing the role with searing conviction, Leung immediately had the audience captured like one of the paper birds in her hands. Any illusion that this was going to be an amble through an ancient tale, however, quickly fell away with the soothing landscape backdrop.

A mechanical techno beat and dancing citydwellers brought in a modern world commanded from overhead by a beastly DJ in a neon-lined mask.

Snow in Midsummer then set about the 13th Century themes with some daring, not least through some blue language from the cityfolk. Leung delivered monologues of tremendous power, her chant of justice and piercing gaze cutting through the ages.

Dou Yi , executed for a murder she did not commit, had predicted that if she was innocent, snow would fall in midsummer. This it did, the divine justice being realised through some deft technical staging. The play explored sexual taboos and – aided by dark, oscillating notes – spared no soul in telling the full wretched story of the accused’s short life.

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Emily Dao as Fei-Fei and Wendy Kweh as Tianyun. Picture: Ikin Yumi

Leung was a ghostly head and shoulders above most of the cast, her lines resonating in a modern age where injustice is in plentiful supply around the world.

Among the support roles Emily Dao shone in the demanding guise of Fei-Fei, an exuberant young girl intermittently possessed by the spirit of Dou Yi.

Daniel York, switching between a conflicted doctor and a brutal, lecherous father, put in a sparky turn. There was also fluid interplay and iPhone-aged banter between Andrew Koji, Jonathan Raggett, Richard Rees and Kevin Shen as they flipped between playing police officers and factory workers. Colin Ryan was another stand-out as he scaled peaks and crashed through waterfalls of emotion as Handsome Zhang, a young entrepreneur in love with Rocket Wu (Andrew Leung).

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Dou Yi and Handsome Zhang (Colin Ryan). Picture: Ikin Yumi

Their merry dance on the road to tragedy included several gay kisses and a marriage proposal, something it’s hard to imagine being greeted with much enthusiasm by the current Chinese authorities.

Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and directed by Justin Audibert (The Jew in Malta, 2015), this was a highly auspicious start to the RSC’s Chinese season.

*Much Ado attended the performance on March 6. Snow in Midsummer opened on February 23 and runs until March 25. For tickets visit www.rsc.org.uk

When one of history’s great spies checked into a Midlands hotel

A clandestine meeting in a venerable Birmingham hotel was the unlikely setting for a real-life spy yarn that experts say was a key factor in the Cold War. The story of how Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, came to betray his secrets to the West continues to unfold more than 50 years on.
Penkovsky
The Red Army’s great traitor: Oleg Penkovsky
The Soviet colonel gave Western spies a vast trove of Cold War military secrets in a Birmingham hotel, newly-released documents show.
Oleg Penkovsky, a military intelligence officer, provided detailed insights into the nation’s war machine at the former Midland Hotel.
Penkovsky talked at length about missile technology, air defences around Moscow and even asked for a pistol.
Ostensibly touring Britain on a scientific delegation, he slipped away to meet the secret agents at the city centre venue, which is now the Macdonald Burlington Hotel in New Street.
Penkovsky had been tasked with gathering information for Russia’s GRU intelligence service – but had decided to betray his countrymen.
The inside man is named only as ‘S’ in the files, which were among millions of documents posted online by the CIA earlier this year. Though many have been previously released, this is the first time they have been easily searchable.
Phil Wood, head of the School of Management and Professional Studies at Bucks New University, confirmed ‘S’ was the famous Russian spy.
Mr Wood said: “Oleg Penkovsky was effectively offering himself as a spy to the CIA and MI6.
“He was saying how loyal, committed and bonafide he was in wanting to provide information.
“He then talks about a guy called Greville Wynne, who was a businessman but also an MI6 asset working in Moscow and as handlers and subjects often do they had become quite close.”
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The documents show how Penkovsky was eager to win over his handlers
Penkovsky had contacted Western intelligence in Moscow, where he was involved in ‘dead drops’ of letters, including one using a toilet cistern.
He was in touch with MI6 and the CIA, with one or both represented at the meeting in Birmingham, where the delegation visited refrigeration plants.
The Russian was taken to meet his handlers in a meeting room after walking into the lobby at 9pm on April 27, 1961. Handed pictures of military technology, he identified rockets and the altitudes and launch methods involved in their deployment.
Penkovsky also discussed tanks, submarines, the Sputnik satellite and Red Army personnel right down to the insignia they wore and the family life of one officer.
Mr Wood said: “He was giving away information on the disposition and nature of military formations that allowed our people to put a picture together about where these organisations were based and the terminology that could be picked up through signals and intercepts. He also talks a lot about missiles, including the V-75 and the R2, which was a bit like a version of the V2 rocket from World War Two.”
Though Penkovsky went into great detail – and even invited his handlers to kill him if they doubted his loyalty – he divided opinion among Western agents about his usefulness and motivations.
However the military intelligence officer’s information is said to have helped the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis and to have eased Cold War tensions.
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Phil Wood – ‘the story still asks questions’. Pic courtesy Bucks New University
The Soviets had no doubts about the betrayal and Penkovsky was shot by firing squad in 1963, with Wynne eventually being exchanged for a Russian spy.
Mr Wood said: “This is the classic world of spies and businessmen, with dead drops and marks on lampposts to indicate things have been left behind.
“The story asks questions still relevant today about the passage of information and the drivers people have for it. “Penkovsky liked the shiny and attractive things in life, such as women, alcohol and money.”
The files have been released amid heightened tensions between NATO and Russia and a resurgence in Cold War spy games, especially in the cyber realm.
“This stuff still goes on,” Mr Wood said.
“There are people who sell information, give information and the collection of intelligence carries on as it always has. Dead drops still happen and the old techniques are still in use, because they are effective.”
Penkovsky’s ashes are thought to have been dumped in a mass grave in Moscow.
But the Red Army’s great traitor has been given a lofty epitaph by the CIA, which considers him one of the most valuable assets in the agency’s history.
View the documents here

Chinese snow falls across two ages on the Avon stage

Another bridge is being built in Stratford-upon-Avon, one that extends far beyond Shakespeare’s county.

Snow in Midsummer is the first instalment in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Chinese Translations Project, a cultural exchange aimed at bringing the Far Eastern nation’s classics to a modern western audience.

With so much British mass culture going the other way – as several West Midlands football clubs can attest to – it makes a welcome counterpose to have some of the China’s time-honoured dramas heading to Warwickshire.

The ancient play has already opened to warm reviews at the Swan Theatre, and is Much Ado’s next RSC ticket.

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The story follows a young widow, Dou Yi, who is executed for a murder she did not commit, but not before swearing that if she is innocent snow will fall in midsummer.

From the early reviews, RSC audiences are being served a fresh and engaging if somewhat slow-burning tale that dates back to 13th Century China. 

Directed by Justin Audibert (The Jew of Malta, 2015) and billed as a new take on a haunting story, Snow in Midsummer should be a fitting way to welcome the dragon.

www.rsc.org.uk/snow-in-midsummer

How a buried sheet of brewery history found its place at the bar

A piece of metal unearthed on an allotment ended up as one of the more unusual items on display at a pub in Rugby. Much Ado retells the story of buried breweriana…

Dating back more than 100 years, the brewery sign took pride of place in a pub after being dug up on an allotment by volunteers helping people overcome drink and drugs.

The giant enamel sheet – still retaining its colour and showing a portly gentleman enjoying a jar of stout –  was sold for £1,080 on eBay after attracting 13 bids.

Standing 5ft high, it was uncovered in 2015 at a plot in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, taken on by ESH Works, which helps people to recover from addictions.

The sign, advertising the former Leamington Brewery and another called Lucas, Blackwell and Arkwright, was put on display in Rugby at The Merchant’s Inn.

General manager Scott Whyment says: “We collect specialist breweriana and we hadn’t come across this brewery at all, so we thought it would make an interesting addition to the collection we have already got on the walls. One of our business ethics is to preserve some of the long forgotten breweries and indeed some of the fantastic artwork that these breweries commissioned. It’s very striking, it’s a fantastic acquisition for the pub.”

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ESH Works allotmenteers with the unearthed pub sign

The advert was polished and put on display at The Merchant’s Inn, a real ale pub with one of the largest collections of breweriana in the UK.

ESH, a community enterprise based in Leamington, used the sale to continue to help people overcome addictions, with half of the money given to St Mary’s Allotment Association.

“It’s incredible really to think that something that old and a bit rusty round the edges could be pulled from the earth and end up on the wall in a pub,” says chief executive Paul Urmston. “We can’t put it up in our office because it’s not the best reminder for the people who use our service, but the money is a real bonus and will buy us a few more things for the allotment and help us to fix up the shed.

“It’s a great result from an unusual find.”

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The brewery sign on display at The Merchant’s Inn in Rugby

Lucas, Blackwell and Arkwright bought the Leamington Brewery in 1885 before changing its name to Lucas and Co in 1897. The company went into liquidation in 1966.

The original brewery building in the town was acquired by Ansells of Birmingham in November 1928 amid fierce battles for the Midlands’ drinks trade.

The allotment plot is one of the activities organised by ESH, which is peer-led by people who have had addiction problems and are in recovery.

The volunteers celebrated their find with a brew back at the office.