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Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: 'Divine Chaos of Starry Things' at the White Bear Theatre, 27th April 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Divine Chaos of Starry Things reviewed by David James

Rating: 1 Star

Paul Mason: award-winning journalist, best-selling author, and now the writer of a terrible play. This one hurt. Not because it's exceptionally, eye-wateringly, bad, but because I'm a big fan of Paul Mason's writing. I adored PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, an exceptionally well-written book that analyses contemporary economics with supreme clarity and confidence. I hold the guy in such high regard that when I was invited to see his foray into playwriting I leapt at the chance.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is the story of the deportation of French anarchist Louise Michel. She was a key player in the Paris Commune, a socialist revolutionary government whose control of Paris (from 18 March to 28 May 1871), was bloodily ended by the arrival of the French Army. The captured Michel was unrepentant, daring her judges to sentence her to death, saying: "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance." Badass.

Instead she was deported, along with fellow Communards, to New Caledonia a remote Melanesian island 1000 miles off the coast of Australia under French colonial control. Mason's play chronicles her time on the island as she forms a relationship with the native Kanak people and refuses to let isolation dim her revolutionary spirit.

That's the skeleton of what's on stage, though if you went into this show completely blind you'd be oblivious to most of this information. Divine Chaos of Starry Things is supremely unconcerned with establishing a narrative foundation, assuming the audience is already familiar with Louise Michel and the events of the Paris Commune. Perhaps sadly, this an assumption too far. After a brief opening scene we're unceremoniously taken to New Caledonia, where the particulars of the regime our characters have to suffer under or even their living arrangements are never clearly defined. 

A mitigating caveat, the opening of the play was supposed to have scene-setting projections telling us when and where the action takes place, but technical troubles meant these didn't appear. I'm not sure what these would have said, but it's reasonable to assume they would at least have helped establish the scene. But hey, you can only write about the play you've seen.

This lack of clarity quickly undermines the characters' political zeal. It's difficult to get fired up by Michel's revolutionary ambitions if you're not really sure what system she's battling against. This isn't helped by the lack of an on stage antagonist: the cast of characters limited to four women ex-Communards and two Kanak warriors. These characters amble through scenes with the propulsive energy of a rubber duck, breaking the rule of show don't tell by describing interesting sounding events that we don't get to actually see.

Worse, Louise Michel's dialogue is declamatory and overly didactic, with little insight into her as a person rather than a cold vehicle for revolutionary rhetoric. She's frequently put in the unsympathetic position of hectoring her fellow prisoners on showing insufficient revolutionary zeal by even considering accepting pardons. It's obvious that Mason holds Louise Michel in high esteem, but his dramatic interpretation lacks basic charisma. If this was your first exposure to Michel, you'd wonder what the fuss was about.

Performances follow a similar trend, with the personalities of the characters indistinct and the dialogue stilted. It's telling that by far the best performances are delivered by Jerome Ngoadi and David Rawlins as the Kanak warriors. Once you get over their liberal-baiting costumes they're a striking on stage presence, often balefully observing from the edges of the action. It's telling that the sharpest emotion I experienced all night came courtesy of them shooting silent accusatory stares into the audience during the interval.

That brief moment of excitement aside, this is an indigestible play populated by uninteresting characters who don't do much of anything and whose conflicts take place off-stage. As the first half hour trundled by I got to experience that horrible feeling of anticipation (awesome, a play by one of my favourite journalists!) evaporating away, with the hope that things might improve shrinking by the minute.

Mason is attempting to use Michel's inspirational actions as an example to contemporary audiences that we don't need to silently put up with the shit ladled onto us, and that even in the most desperate of circumstances liberational revolutionary action is achievable. That he's absolutely right doesn't change the fact that Divine Chaos of Starry Things inspires first disappointment and then eventually just boredom.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is at the White Bear Theatre until 20th May. Tickets here.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: 'Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways' at the London Canal Museum, 26th April 2017

Thursday, April 27, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's 1943. You're a young woman eager to assist the war effort but bored of desk-based drudgery. You spot an advertisement from the Department for War Transport asking for women "of robust constitution" to work on the canals, hauling tonnes of cargo - steel, food, Spitfire parts, coal, munitions- around the country. Sounds like an adventure, right?

Judging by the fondness with which the women who answered the call recall the experience, it was. But it was also tremendously hard (and often filthy) work: a world of dirty water, poor sanitation, oil, soot and gross green canal slime. On top of that, they had to deal with territorial boat people who'd spent their lives on the canals and were deeply suspicious of these untrained young women arriving on their patch. Their badges had IW (Inland Waterways) emblazoned on them, initials that have given rise to another name - Idle Women.

But judging by the stories that we hear at the London Canal Museum, they were anything but idle. They come courtesy of a double-bill performance by Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin, under the auspices of Alarum Theatre. Both women are steeped in waterway life; Heather having spent many years with her family aboard an ex-working boat and subsequently campaigning to save canals from extinction; Kate having lived on a narrowboat and been telling stories about the waterways for 18 years. A chance meeting on Twitter made them realise that their two short pieces about the Idle Women would make an excellent double-bill. 

Which leads us neatly to the London Canal Museum. Despite having spent an awful lot of time on the canal tow path (I've run from Limehouse to Rickmansworth via Bull Bridge and up the Lea Valley) I've only been on a narrowboat once and know very little about what life on the water entails. This made the evening a rapid education in waterway terminology. Evocative terms are bandied about - stemmed up, windlass, snubber, breast-up, and butty - with a glossary on the back of the programme a huge help.

But, fortunately, not knowing much about canals puts me in precisely the same position as the women who signed up to the war effort. Kate Saffin's Isobel's War kicks off the night, an evocative overview of one woman's experiences on the water. Told through the framing device of a daughter discovering her mother's wartime diary, it's a recollection crammed with historical detail and interesting personalities. The backbone is Isobel's growing confidence in her abilities, which quickly expands from the individual out to the rest of the wartime women workers.

Heather Wastie's piece, Idle Women and Judies is more abstract, a collection of poems fused together from phrases from archive recordings, interviews, books, and news media. These pieces vividly, bring to life the sounds, smells, and texture of waterway life. We sense a collective can-do personality from women, who're eager to prove their competence and enjoying proving their mettle in a masculine industry. There's also a charming singalong at the end, with a seriously catchy chorus.

Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality and linguistic virtuosity. But the performance is the mortar that's holding the bricks of an extremely interesting history lesson together. Walking into the Canal Museum I was completely clueless about the Idle Women. Two hours later I felt as if I'd absorbed a hell of a lot of information, painting a picture of the domestic wartime victory achieved on the backs of unglamorous hard work and refusal to conform to traditional gender roles.

Kate and Heather are currently touring the waterways of England on their narrowboat Tench (details of their upcoming stops here). It's well worth stopping by, and if you're particularly interested in the domestic front of World War II or women's history it's a no-brainer.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: 'Braille Legacy' at the Charing Cross Theatre, 24th April 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Braille Legacy' reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

You'd be forgiven for assuming that a blind three-year-old boy in early 19th century rural France had a pretty miserable life ahead of him. At best pitied (and often mocked), the blind were considered ineducable, fit only for the most basic menial work. And yet that boy, Louis Braille, managed to create an alphabet that unlocked literature, communication, music for blind people worldwide and ended up buried in the Panthéon alongside Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. 

His life is the subject of Braille Legacy, a new musical written by French musician Sébastien Lancrenon, translated by acclaimed translator Ranjit Bolt, and directed by Thom Southerland, whose previous musicals Titanic, Grey Gardens, and Grand Hotel received positive reviews (though they didn't exactly set my world on fire).

Set in Paris' Royal Institution for Blind Youth, we follow the young Braille (Jack Wolfe), a bright young boy frustrated by the inadequate 'embossed type' books for the blind. Doctor Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) sympathises with his plight, though he's primarily concerned with securing government funding to renovate the dilapidated school. 

Parliament simply does not see the point in assigning funding on teaching blind children to understand literature, history, and music - an opinion they share with cruel teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn). Things look pretty bleak for the children, until Braille receives an experimental system of "night writing" that an army officer thinks could benefit the blind. Braille soon realises the idea might have potential.

Watching Braille develop his alphabet makes for some pretty compelling theatre, with songs like 'An Alphabet' ably communicating the thrill of discovery and applied thought. Wolfe does an excellent job highlighting Braille's heroic nature, making him intelligent, kind, and selfless without sacrificing his more human nuances. He's got a fantastic voice and stage presence and is pretty obviously a performer to watch.

When Braille Legacy is zeroed on its subject it works gangbusters, an entertaining history lesson on the origins, key developments, and gradual acceptance of Braille in France and around the world. But bubbling away in the background of the first act and coming to the forefront in the second is an unsuccessful B-plot revolving around the villainous Monsieur Dufau, played with Disney villain broadness. 

This feeds into a distractingly lurid missing children mystery, which eventually reveals that they've been murdered as human experimental subjects in an effort to cure the blind. As far as I can tell, this is a fictional conceit to ramp up drama in the final acts of the show (there were unethical experiments conducted around the same time, but as far as I can tell not fatal ones), and ends up distracting from the show's putative subject.

It's bewildering that most of Braille's life is relegated to a rushed narrative epilogue - especially considering he went on to become a renowned musician. After all, this is a musical about him, and we never see him perform a single note. 

Then again, Braille Legacy's book is nothing much to write home about - full of musical-theatre-101 melodies and thuddingly obvious forced rhymes. You'd think a story about a boy devising a new alphabet would indicate a bit of musical experimentation in the book - surely it'd be better for Braille's unique alphabet to be communicated in the musical structure rather than just sung about in the lyrics?

On the upside Braille Legacy is a concise and uplifting biography of a fascinating historical figure that gives a broad overview of how he invented his alphabet. It's well performed, nicely staged, and doesn't demand too much from the audience. On the downside the unnecessary second act subplots distract focus and it's weak tea musically. My verdict? A bit touch and go.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: 'Compagnie XY presents It's Not Yet Midnight' at the Roundhouse, 11th April 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Compagnie XY presents It's Not Yet Midnight' reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Great acrobatic shows are as much about the personality of the individual performer as the quality of the tricks. After all, if I wanted to see technically precise gymnastic routines I'd just pop along to a sports competition. But French circus collective Compagnie XY's personality isn't focused on an individual performer hogging the spotlight but on the personality of the company as a whole.

Their latest show, It's Not Yet Midnight, is a classily minimalist demonstration of the group's skills and guiding philosophy. Whether they're writhing around one another like a centipede-limbed gestalt or spiralling through the air in defiance of Isaac Newton, it's genuinely thrilling. How can your jaw not drop when you see people stacked four high on top of one another: if they were to fall their only crash mat is the waiting arms of a fellow performer or the hard stage floor.

Despite this, it's easy to get blase about acrobatic shows. Yes, it takes years of pain, sweat and dedication to be able to do this stuff and yes, it's intrinsically exhilarating to see the human body flying through the air. But let's face it, if you've seen one person doing a handstand on someone's head you've pretty much seen them all. This is where circus shows can founder: the audience will probably be familiar with the impressive feats, and showing them something new requires elite levels of skill and heightens the danger to the performers (if your star acrobat is nursing a broken leg it kinda puts the kibosh on a tour).

What smart companies do is layer the tumbling and tricks on top of a firm intellectual skeleton - giving us a bit of context. And this is precisely what Compagnie XY do - giving us a physical argument of the merits of cooperation and trust vs paranoid individualism.

Which is why we open with a mass brawl. One performer strolls onto the stage looking pleased with himself, before being roughly tackled and tossed across the stage. He lands with a thump, gets up and launches himself at his assailant. Soon the room is full of tussling performers, all beating the crap out of one another. It's an eye-opening start and a fine contrast to an evening in which life and limb hinges on trust. Would you hurl yourself backwards from a second story building on the promise that someone will catch you?

It's Not Yet Midnight stacks people on top of one another like they're pieces in some gigantic Lego set, coming up with all kinds of unlikely configurations, or using the performers as counterweights to launch backflipping people high into the air from a seesaw, or as the legs of a multi-tiered human wedding cake. This combination of strength and grace impresses even the most sourpuss cynic - the audience audibly gasping and breaking into spontaneous applause throughout.

There's a few mistakes here and there (at one point someone painfully thwacks into the floor), but the flaws only underline the point that these people or not so different from you or I. This is helped by them all wearing muted smart casual - if you saw them on the street you'd probably think they were refugees from a GAP photoshoot rather than high-octane circus performers. That these normal looking people can execute such jaw-dropped acrobatic manoeuvres only amplifies the message - we are stronger together than we are alone.

Maybe the only fly in the ointment is a slight sense of twee-ness that pervades the latter half of the show - men with lumberjack beards, suspenders and ties energetically lindy-hopping teeters right on the edge of hipster self-parody. But quibbles aside, this is a powerful, effective and concise show that's pretty much guaranteed to please. It's Not Yet Midnight gives us acrobatics where the brain is at least as important as the bicep.

It's Not Yet Midnight is at the Roundhouse until 23 April.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: 'Macbeth' at the Brockley Jack, 6th April 2017

Friday, April 7, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Macbeth reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

There's a strange forced jollity to The AC Group's Macbeth. Sure, the foreground is 'yer usual parade of ambition, violence, guilt and madness but in the background people strut around with instruments, strumming out jaunty tunes that at first seem at odds with the Thane of Glamis' bloody ascent to the throne of Scotland. They play as if they know everything is rotten, but maybe if they can just sustain the party long enough everything will work out okay.

It's an uneasy interpretation suited to our uneasy times. You sense that the servants and musicians of King Macbeth's court are fully aware that their new leader is lapsing into paranoid delusion, and are trying to figure out at what point they should abandon ship and save their own skins. I imagine this situation to be playing out in the White House right now.

Macbeth has always been one of the most accessible Shakespeare plays - the witches, scheming and bloody murders entertaining 2017 audiences as much as they did the groundlings of 1606. It's a narrative that can sustain a remarkable amount of streamlining and has at its core a juicy philosophical pondering on prophecy: did the Weird Sister's message to Macbeth spell out an unavoidable future or did they kick off a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Here we see a trimmed down, two hour production that whistles energetically through the narrative, produced with a obvious focus on emphasising physical movement and adding texture through live music. William Ross-Fawcett's Macbeth is an appropriately frayed, proud man who, nonetheless, finds himself on a murderous path and feels duty-bound to see it to its end. Amelia Clay's Lady Macbeth is a sleek, stylish creature - almost but not quite able to suppress her humanity and falling apart in effectively moving fashion. Both are deliver their lines in a Scottish accent- which you might think would be a given in 'the Scottish play', but in my experience is actually rather rare.

They both deliver competent, moving performances but for my money the best of the show comes in the supporting cast, each of whom plays multiple roles. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain, primarily playing Malcolm (but also a Witch and Macbeth's assassin), has a slightly hoarse throat, but makes it work for her: a strained voice is entirely appropriate given what these characters are going through. Nell Hardy as MacDuff (and another Witch) is a performance it's difficult to tear your eyes away from. Hardy was the best thing in Pandemonium Productions' Alice in Wonderland and Fear of the Dark, and her angular body language and striking physical presence communicate precisely as much as her dialogue does.

There's a clear drive for austerity in Thomas Attwood's direction and Reuben Speed's stage design. There's no scenery save for a couple of gauze sheets and hardly any props. This has mixed results. On one hand the existing architecture of the Brockley Jack's theatre quietly evokes a medieval hall in miniature - on the other (what I'm guessing is) a restricted budget saps impact from key moments. 

So, swords and daggers are replaced with Stanley knives, which look too small on stage to properly intimidate. The final act swordfights eschew weapons completely, with the actors apparently instructed to do faux-martial arts. Though the actors commit to this, it's doesn't really look like the characters really want to kill one another. Similarly, it's a really small thing, but when MacDuff tosses what's supposed to be the severed head of Macbeth onto the stage it's clearly just a light ball of rags. I want the weight of the head to thump onto the stage - a grisly full stop to the chaos.

It leaves The AC Group's Macbeth as a compelling theatrical experience that never bores, yet teeters on the edge of real quality. A couple of nips and tucks - or simply better props - and this'd be a worthy mini Shakespeare. As it is it's 'merely' good.

Macbeth is at the Brockley Jack until 22 April. Tickets here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: 'Chinglish' at Park Theatre, 5th April 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Chinglish reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Two smart businessmen how to say different options, you can compete for top level transactions? Clear enough, right? Ah damn, what I wanted to say was 'How do businessmen who speak different languages negotiate deals with one another?' but, understandably, it gets garbled in (Google) translation. This muddling of words is the nub of Chinglish, a very funny clash of cultures farce that opened last week at Park Theatre.

Originally staged on Broadway in 2011, David Henry Hwang's play opens with a businessman giving a seminar on doing business in China. This is Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy), representing Ohio Signage, a firm with ambitions to tap into the Chinese construction boom by promising that their translations will avoid awkward/funny meme-friendly mistranslations like "deformed man toilet" instead of "disabled toilet".

Standing in his way is the regional Minister for Culture Cia Guoliang (Lobo Chan) and his Vice-Minister Xi Lin (Candy Ma). Dealing with Chinese officials whilst not speaking a word of the language proves to be a deeply confusing experience, the conversation surreally swerving between topics with no apparent rhyme or reason. Fortunately, Daniel has employed the skills of English immigrant Peter (Duncan Harte), to guide him through this unfamiliar morass of business customs.

Over two hours, the play twists and turns as misunderstandings pile up upon one another with increasingly funny results. On paper, the troubles of a failing sign manufacturer, the vagaries of Chinese business and gags about economics don't sound like particularly fruitful comedic territory, but Hwang's play draws a near constant stream of giggles from the audience.

The lion's share of these laughs are down to the mismatch between what the characters want to say and the surtitles projected above their heads. You might think that the straightforward gag of someone saying, for example, "I love you" and reading that what they've actually said is "cold sea mud" or "my fifth aunt" would diminish over the course of the play. It doesn't.

This is aided by a cast that has the intimidating job of having to be funny in two languages at once, with most of their performance unintelligible to the vast majority of a London audience. The stand out is Candy Ma, who is not just hilarious, but weaves in some emotive strands of isolation and longing into her character. Watching her gently alter her demeanour and body language depending on the situation she's in communicates precisely what her character is about, despite her tendency to angrily yell at people in fast-paced Chinese.

Running underneath all this is a critique of the differing economic strategies of China and the US. The spectre of Enron (and the 2008 economic crisis) haunts the latter half of the play - the behaviour of Kenneth Lay et al being treated more as modern business mythology in China than as a disgrace. By the end, we've realised that Chinglish presents us with a confusing paradox - the surface level behavioural conflicts between East and West are not as forbidding as they initially seem, but the deeper, ingrained cultural philosophy is almost irreconcilable.

Pondering aside, Chinglish is a pleasantly open comedy with an appropriately light touch. My barometer of good comedy is whether it gets three genuine laughs from me - this play had achieved that by the first scene change. This might not be breaking new comedic ground, but I left smiling.

Chinglish is at Park Theatre until 22 April. Tickets here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

'Posh' at the Pleasance Theatre, 3rd April 2017

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

POSH reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Laura Wade's POSH made its debut during the 2010 General Election, where the last farts of New Labour did battle with the preeningly self-styled 'compassionate' Conservatives led by David Cameron. With all that's happened since it's difficult to remember the Cameron advertised to us during that election: a man with green credentials who once went dog-sledding to examine melting glaciers, or urged the public to 'hug a hoodie'.

Wade set out to reveal the 'real' David Cameron, along with his cohorts George Osborne and Boris Johnson, in her loosely fictionalised peek into their student activities in the Bullingdon Club, a dining society that reportedly requires new members to burn a £50 note in front of a homeless person and are famous for practically demolishing the buildings they hire out.

Taking inspiration from the club's 2005 trashing of an Oxfordshire pub, the play introduced us to a gang of predatory rich boys who use the club to act out their frustrations. Though not a direct dramatisation of Cameron, Osborne, and Johnson's time in the club, it was all too easy to draw parallels between the bastards on stage and the bastards on the news.

Now POSH is back, with a twist. This is an all-women production, advertised in hot pink lettering with a punky lipstick smooch. The script remains the same, with masculine pronouns, the characters talking about jizzing and grabbing their cocks, and the misogynistic entitlement all preserved.

The immediate effect is that the club's already self-conscious masculinity becomes utterly ridiculous. It was ridiculous in the original too, but this step away from realism underlines how desperately these rich boys are trying to paint themselves as alpha male leaders of men, that are born to rule, in spite of their poisonous cowardice and inferiority complexes. 

POSH shows them hilariously failing to live up to their own standards - their much-vaunted ten bird roast is missing a guinea fowl, the prostitute hired to crawl around under the table and suck their dicks departs in disgust, and the landlord's daughter casually punctures their Wildean pretensions of wit. It leaves them looking deeply silly: women pretending to be boys pretending to be men.

The all-women cast also goes someway to dispelling the hate and disgust you feel towards the characters. When they're played by men the overriding feeling is of privileged revulsion - you start cheerily imagining the resurrection of the guillotine. But it's difficult to hate women with the same intensity. That probably shouldn't be the case, but at least for me, it is. 

What that meant is that you I felt a tiny morsel of sympathy for these monsters. Nobody's pulling out handkerchiefs, but, as they explain, they're trapped in a world that laughs at them behind their backs, are generally denied the respect they feel entitled to, and their childhood homes are full of wandering National Trust members. I mean, boo fucking hoo, let's break out the tiny violins, right? But this does at least give the Bullingdon Club a sense of purpose - to allow its members to act out the privilege they're generally forced to suppress.

Cressida Carré's confident direction ensures that this is a handsomely staged and performed production. The dinner takes place around a wooden table that subtly paints the diners as a modern Camelot, and is lit in a way that draws impressed gasps from the audience once it's revealed. A revolving floor solves any problems of blocking, as well as conveying the increasingly boozed-out state of the participants.

Performances are top class too, the cast clearly having fun with the blustering testosterone hip thrusting. My highlights were Alice Brittain's would-be Flashheart Harry, Serena Jennings' demagoguish ogre, who appears to take oratory cues from Enoch Powell, and Verity Kirk's club newbie, who provides the lion's share of the show's laughs.

The only downside (aside from some crap stage fighting) is that the show's white-hot relevance has definitely cooled with the departure of Cameron and Osborne from front-line politics (though Johnson continues to squat uselessly in the Foreign Office like some great toad). Theresa May, for all her faults, carried out a necessary purge of toffish public schoolboys when she took office, with the majority of her high-profile ministerial briefs attending state school.

Despite the programme attempting to place the play within the context of Theresa May's government and, more vaguely, alongside the Trump-induced Women's Marches that took place around the world in January, it doesn't quite fly. While it's nice to see women performing anti-feminine parts, the intention feels less to make a political point and simply that cross-casting is an interesting theatrical experiment.

And sometimes that's more than enough. POSH is a pacey, entertaining play with a barb as sharp as a scorpion's tail. Two hours and forty minutes fly by in a hail of bodily fluids, broken tables and bruised egos, the cast summoning up the thick fug of frantic performative masculinity that Wade's writing demands. Though its edge is dulled by the departure of the Bullingdon boys from Number 10, POSH is still a fearsomely crafted weapon.

POSH is at the Pleasance Theatre until 22nd April. Tickets here.

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