Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: Master Class

Famed opera diva Maria Callas was a troubled soul, known earlier in her career for a large range and perfect pitch, and later on for a deteriorating voice and narcissistic ramblings.

Between 1971 and 1972, Callas gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard School in New York. These form the basis of Terrence McNally’s Tony award winning play.

We are the audience at Juilliard, watching this once great diva rip students to shreds and harp on about how her talent is unparalleled. The thing with this particular egomaniac is that she has the talent to back it up. Tyne Daly brings her to life beautifully, demonstrating an acting range as wide as Callas' voice; from Opera diva to passionate Greek to miserable, childless wife.

We see her perfectionism come through in the way she lectures the students, as though none of them could possibly have worked so hard or sacrificed as much as she did. Although the script is occasionally overwritten, it does paint its picture beautifully, and the several scenes where Callas' slips back into her memory are delicious to watch if you're prepared to overlook the cheese factor.

Overall, it's a solid performance that provides a worthwhile behind the scenes look into the life of the greatest Diva in modern history. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Life Lesson #41 - The Court Jester

Today I learned what not to wear to court.

It all started in June last year, when a rude official knocks on my door saying we haven’t paid our TV licence (who knew there was such a thing!?).

I explain that our landlords are responsible for it, to no avail. We automatically fail the test, because he can see a TV behind me. So, I show him that it doesn’t work. He barges past me into the bedroom and points at the TV in there. I turn it on to show him it has unbearable reception, which is why we’ve never watched it.

He disagrees; “it looks fine to me”.

“Would you really watch this?” I ask incredulously.

“Yes, of course”.

Not his first lie, and not his last. We throw him out.

Fast-forward seven months. I receive a letter from the West London County Magistrates’ Court. It says “FURTHER STEPS NOTICE” in big bold lettering, then goes on to tell me that I have been fined £250.

I call the next morning, the moment the office opens. It’s about the TV licence. Apparently because I moved house, I missed about a hundred demand letters telling me about my impending court date. Somehow, they tracked down my new address 7 days before obliterating my credit rating permanently.

Would I like to pay with MasterCard or Visa?

She sounds irritated when I tell her that there’s been a series of mistakes and I’ve never actually failed to pay a TV licence, telling me I need to call another court for that.

I call the other court. They have no idea what I’m talking about and abruptly tell me to call another department, then hang up.

I google the other department, but their phone number is disconnected. Luckily I discover there’s a government helpline for people in my pickle.

I am cut off immediately, and an automated American voice says “the other party has ended the call” on loop.

I try again several more times over the next few weeks with the same result.

Eventually, I write a letter outlining my plight. Before posting it, I decide to call one last time.

Finally, my call gets through. Someone very helpful tells me that I must make a statutory declaration to say that I was unaware of the proceedings against me. This will invalidate the previous case, overturning the conviction and withdrawing the fine. But it’s not all over – the TV Licence people are free to start all over again (and probably will).

To make this statutory declaration, I must show up to the court in person between 9:15 and 9:45 on any weekday. I’ll fill out a form and sign it, then be on my way.

Luckily I have a very understanding boss. She is happy for me to go the next morning, and tells me she was in a similar situation a few years ago. All I’ll have to do is fill out a form and swear on a bible.

The next morning, I head to the courthouse for 9:15 sharp. Being casual Friday, I’ve dressed down. I’m wearing brown corduroy trousers, scuffed grey shoes, bright aqua socks (which are visible), a pale grey jean jacket, and the loudest T-shirt I own. It’s bright orange. Basically I look like either a confused hippy or a colourful hipster.

I fill out the form. I sign my name. She hands me my paperwork back. Great, all to plan.

“Ok Mr Allen, you’re in courtroom one”.

The blood drains from my face. I feel faint. Say, what?

But she’s moved on to the rioter behind me.

I find my way to courtroom one and sit down by the door.

An hour later, I still have no idea what’s going on and nobody has gone in or out of the courtroom. I decide to seek help, and eventually find a security guard.

He offers to check to make sure that I’m on the courtroom schedule, and pops inside. When he comes out, he tells me to go into the courtroom. Apparently I’m up next.

To muffle noise from the corridor, there are two doors to get to the courtroom. In-between them, the guard pauses and says to me “I should probably tell you that this judge is a real bulldog. He’s the meanest one here. Just thought you should know”.


In the courtroom, the guy who was ahead of me in the statutory declaration queue over an hour ago is standing in the box, quivering before the magistrate. He’s wearing what I would assume is his only suit, and his white shirt is transparent with perspiration.

Bulldog was an inspired metaphor for this judge; both for looks and character.

After daydreaming about Law & Order for roughly five minutes, I am snapped back to reality by a nasal voice calling “Allen, Mr Andrew James”.

I assume this means I should approach the witness box. Is that what you call it? Am I walking too fast? How would an innocent person walk? Perhaps I should have left my bag on my seat. But someone might have nicked it. This is a courthouse, after all.

The magistrate is holding my entire file (both pages). He glares at my orange T-shirt and says nothing. He doesn’t have to.

After a pregnant pause, he starts barking questions about the form I completed downstairs. He makes fun of me for writing “February 2012” in the field ‘date learned of court proceedings (approx)’

“Awfully specific, aren’t we Mr Allen”. Why did it say approximate next to the question then!?

I explain that I don’t know the exact date I received the final notice letter off the top of my head, but I can find it if he’ll give me one moment to refer to my sent email folder.

I take his eyeroll as acceptance and start furiously scrolling through emails on my iPhone, looking for the one I sent my former landlord the day I found out (who of course denied all responsibility).

While I do so, he scans the paperwork in front of him.

“You’re lying.”

“Pardon me?”

“May I remind you, Mr Allen, that everything you say here will be checked out by the court, and I am empowered to charge you with perjury and hold you in contempt of court.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I have your court records in front of me. You rang on the 24th of January.”

Obviously the cow who hung up on me actually bothered to record the call.

“Oh, that must be the date I got the letter then!”

He doesn’t look amused, and just stares at my shirt.

I apologise for getting the date wrong by one week, and explain that I wasn’t aware I needed to supply the exact date – because the question said 'approximate'.

He still says nothing. I button up my jean jacket.

I point out that the case against me was several months ago. Whether I found out about it on the 24th of January or in the month of February doesn’t change the fact that I was unaware of its existence until after it had concluded.

He glares. Everyone else in the room is staring at me open-mouthed. I’m not sure if they were more shocked that I talked back to the judge, or that I wore orange to court.

“I’m going to sign it” the bulldog announces, abruptly.

“But if I find one word of your testimony was false, I will come down on you with the full force of the law”.

It wasn’t a question, but he seems to be waiting for an answer.

“It’s all true, your honour”.

“This removes your previous conviction. However, don’t think you’ve gotten away with it. You will receive another summons to a new court date. And may I suggest that you don’t rip it up and throw it away. This time.”

He should write a lecture on condescension.

I assure him I won’t, grab my bag, and hightail it out of there – orange shirt and all.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Murder Mystery Weekend

I loved Cluedo, and I love Downton Abbey. So the idea of a live-action murder mystery in a big old English country manor was irresistible. I bought us a pair of tickets on the spot back in June, but was somewhat bemused, when I rang, to find out that they were so popular there were no available spaces for eight months! Somehow these things do come around though, and sure enough, eventually the day came.

We hired a car in Central London, which almost didn’t happen when I forgot to bring my passport as ID. The guy behind the Sixt desk had a crooked moustache and a permanently furrowed brow. There was no chance of discretionary pity. I disappeared around the corner looking for a decent 3G signal to download the passport copy I’d saved months ago, in the hope that he would deign to accept it.

At that exact moment Paul rocks up (we’ve both been out of contact and a little anxious due to phone network trouble), and for some strange reason he’s chosen to bring my suitcase instead of his. My suitcase which has in it my passport! A complete fluke that saves the day when the walrus behind the desk finally consents to let us drive away.

Soon we’re in the car driving north to Down Hall Country House, with Agatha Christie’s short stories in the CD player keeping us entertained on the journey. It’s meant to take 45 minutes, but it’s a good thing I allowed extra for traffic because it ends up taking over two hours! We arrive five minutes before the mystery begins, quickly rush our cases up to our room and then traipse around the house in search of the large drawing room where our dramatic evening starts taking shape the moment we arrive.

We meet a smarmy auctioneer, who informs us that Down Hall Country House is up for sale, following the suspicious Mediterranean drowning of its owner, whose cheating wife is set to make a pile off his life insurance. A police officer, with dodgy connections to a former maid in the house, is investigating.

Within ten minutes, we discover that he's not really dead. We're not sure what's happened. The auction is off. His wife ushers us into the dining room to apologise for the inconvenience with a meal.

Only, before we've even finished our entrées, he's gone and died again. This time right in front of us. He was poisoned. But how? And by whom? That's our challenge for the next 90 minutes, over dinner and dessert. 

The actors circulate the room. We're given an envelope of clues in the form of newspaper clippings, letters and business cards. We're free to ask the actors any question we can think of. I enjoy trying to trip them up by asking absurd, backward questions.

After dessert, each table guesses the murderer and method.

Ours, on a hunch following the admission of an affair with the former maid and a leaked email exposing a penchant for mind-altering substances, decide that the cop is crooked and place the blame squarely on him.

Every single other table believes it's the auctioneer. Amateurs.

Once all the cards have been collected, the actors burst into the room for one final showdown that ends with the wife discovering her lover has been cheating her for money, the appearance of a mysterious knife-wielding hairy man, and the auctioneer admitting guilt before shooting the cop and running away. Only to be stabbed by the hairy guy.

In other words; we were the only table to get it wrong.

We retreat to our room with wounded pride, yet glad that we made the effort to get out of the city and do something a bit different.

The next morning, after sleeping in, we explore the grounds. It really is like spending a night in Downton Abbey.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: The 39 Steps

Director Maria Aitken's interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic spy farce is the most self-aware show I have ever seen.

And I mean that in the best possible way. The show has two layers of humour: one from Hitchcock's "dashingly good" show itself, the other from cheeky actors making light of absurd theatrical conventions. It's only natural to poke fun, considering four actors play 136 roles in 90 minutes.

I knew I was going to enjoy it from the moment two menacing Russian gangsters ran on stage right carrying a lamppost and quickly froze against it looking stern, just as the hero glances out his window. When he looks away, they run off as conspiciously as they arrived.

Another gem includes two actors playing both motel owners and policemen at the same time, each switching back and forth continually to further the conversation.

Throughout the play, the audience feels as though they're in on a secret. It's the theatrical equivalent of winking at the camera.

Under the wrong director, this would be played for laughs (a la Shrek), but Aitken's staging is classy enough to deliver this layer of theatre in-jokes without distracting from the heart of the original story.

By jove it's a thoroughly enjoyable night, and I shan't spoil it for you by giving away any more of the plot, I'll just say that it's jolly good fun.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Life Lesson #40 - The £5 Couch

I just bought a new life on eBay.

When we found out our bid for the new flat we wanted in King's Cross was successful, I went OCD fast. There were lists. Within hours, I had saved hundreds of bargain priced fridges, rugs, vacuum cleaners, microwaves and couches to my watchlist. Each time I won an auction for something big, I added it to my map for moving day. Before long, there was seven hours worth of driving to do, picking up everything we needed.

The highlight was a £5 couch.

When moving day came, I got up at 7:30 and caught the train to King's Cross to pick up the van. It was just casually -6° at the time. Then I got lost for 20 minutes in East London while the GPS figured out I wasn't still in Italy, crossed just about every bridge straddling the Thames, was briefly caught up in a film shoot on Vauxhall Bridge, and eventually picked up a fridge in Chelsea.

By 11:00, Paul and I had loaded all our possessions in the back of the van, in a three dimensional puzzle around the fridge. We did a final idiot check, bade farewell to our home of five months, and continued on our way.

Drove back across town. Picked up keys in Islington. Got call from Virgin when we were 5-10 minutes away; "we're on our way to connect your broadband, we'll be there in 5-10 minutes". Drove faster. Beat Virgin. Couldn't unlock door. Rang landlord. Used correct key. Let ourselves in less than 20 seconds before Virgin arrived.

Our broadband was up and running before we had a single box inside. Beats the five week wait we had last time!

We got a workout getting all Paul's books and the fridge up the stairs. No prizes for guessing which weighed more. Before we had the chance to sit down, we had to keep moving because we were already running late for all the eBay pickups I'd scheduled.

At 4:00 we picked up the TV, about an hour west of London. At 5:30 we picked up the £5 couch, about an hour south of London. It came from a beautiful old enormous country manor, still dusted in snow. The father who helped us load it into the van said he was going to miss how comfy it was.

At 6:00 we picked up the microwave, just over halfway to Brighton.

At 7:00 we drove past Costco and decided to go in on a random masochistic impulse. At 7:10 we left Costco, too overwhelmed to try.

At 7:30 we arrived at IKEA. At 10:00 IKEA closed. At 11:00 we finally left IKEA. At 11:45 we arrived home, feeling like we'd sold our souls to Swedish elves wearing perfectly starched blue and yellow aprons.

It didn't fit.

Try as we might, our comfy £5 couch was too wide to squeeze up the stairs.

So we did what any tired antipodeans would do under the anonymity of darkness. We gifted our £5 couch to the city.

Unfortunately, our night wasn't over yet. We still had to fill up the van and return it. Not too difficult, considering the car hire place was less than a kilometre away. Except London is very busy at 1am on a Saturday night. And the first petrol station the GPS sent us to was closed. The second was cash only. The third looked abandoned. On our way to the fourth, somewhere in St John's Wood , we finally drove past one. I broke multiple road rules swerving in, determined not to let this one get away too. We bought a ribena sipper bottle to celebrate.

By the time we got home to our new flat, it was well after 2am. Exhausted doesn't scratch the surface. Surrounded by boxes, we unwrapped the new mattress we'd picked up from IKEA for our landlord, and slept on the floor.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Waitangi Snow

I hear Zoe shriek with excitement. Rushing into the living room, I realise she’s peering out the open window at a thick haze of spiralling snowflakes.

Horizontal snow fogging the lens on Westminster Bridge.
Like a true antipodean, I put on my warm clothes immediately. Before I’ve finished, I’ve had an excited txt from Kat (despite being sick in bed), seen countless facebook updates about the snow from fellow London based Kiwis, and noticed that ‘#uksnow’ is already trending on Twitter.

How interesting to watch modern communications reflect that most basic feeling of joy that every antipodean feels when they see flakes begin to fall. It’s like being nine years old again.

I’m soon on the bus, bundled up tight. I get off at Westminster, determined to see Big Ben under snow. Of course I’m a little premature... 20 minutes of snow isn’t really enough to whitewash parliament!

The central city is filled with rowdy Kiwis, all dressed as sheep or wearing marmite T-shirts. Today was the infamous Waitangi Circle Line Pub Crawl. They're all as obsessed with the snow as I am. I yell "kia ora" and a guy with a full face tattoo smearing across his cheeks grins and calls back "cheers, bro!"

I meet Paul at the National Gallery, where we have tickets to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in an hour (see blog post here).

We fill in the time skidding along Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square under a layer of snow.

One of the infamous Trafalgar Square Lions.

Snow continues to fall heavily the entire time we’re at the exhibition. By the time we leave, London is covered in a thick white blanket. It’s late, dark, and freezing, but people everywhere are running, shouting, and having snowfights.

The fountain in Trafalgar Square is icing over.

We're standing on a pedestrian island halfway across the road, walking towards our bus stop, when I see a an out of control van skidding towards us in what felt like slow motion.

The driver is tooting his horn and looks terrified. I realise he's skidding on the fresh ice, and dive out of the way. He smashes into another guy, and then Paul, then about half a metre later is stopped in his tracks by a traffic light.

Meanwhile, the momentum of being hit by a car has pushed Paul backwards. Spooked, and trying to keep his balance, he runs backwards. Across the road. I hate to think what could have happened if the lights hadn't been red at that precise moment.

On the other side of the road, he promptly slips and falls on his bum. Then stands up and yells at the driver. There's the Paul I know and love.

I go to comfort him. He's white as a sheet, cold, wet, and shaking. He didn't realise the van was skidding on ice until well after he'd been hit.

Our bus stops only halfway home and everyone has to get off. Apparently London transport isn't very well equipped for snow. We walk the rest of the way.

Paul is fine the next day and has barely more than a few bruises to show off, but we both have trouble sleeping from all the adrenaline pulsing through our veins.

Leo in London: Part II

I've heard about nothing but da Vinci all week. Ever since missing out on tickets on Saturday, Paul's been miserable.

But he's got a plan.

eBay. Where everyone's a winner.

We agree on a top price and only get into one argument during the bidding. I even pause Glee to find out if we've won.

I'm a little disappointed when we find out that we have. I’m sure my first car cost less than these tickets. A bargain at only three times face value.

eBay. Where winning isn't really winning.

But we go. And they let us in despite the fact that neither of us looks much like a 'Shahzad Malik'.

And, in the understatement of the century: it's great.