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Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Rubyyy Jones's Young Feminist Whores' at Mimetic Festival, 29th November 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

Well with a name like that how I could I resist?  I figured if any show was going to get right up in my face with wide-eyed, experimental, angry-as-all-fuck political theatre it was going to be whatever Young Feminist Whores was.  As it turned out they were pretty young.  And they loudly shouted their 'whore-pride' (as the compère put it "you call us a whore it's a fucking compliment!") but feminist?  Well... I dunno. 

The evening turned out to be a relatively traditional neo-burlesque show, with the familiar old parade of tassles, sequins, pop music, glitter and elaborate (yet easy to remove) costumes. Our compère was Rubyyy Jones, a self-described "big fat fabulous queer Canadian", who did her best to whip the crowd up into a frenzy and laid out the basic tenets of the burlesque philosophy.  Prime among these is the notion that burlesque is an individual performative expression.  

From what I can gather, the ideal burlesque performance allows a woman to reclaim her body from patriarchal objectification.  In devising a performance that emphasises personal tastes, generally a cocktail of comedy, sexuality and forthright body positivity, you achieve a kind of personal liberation.  You're still being objectified, but in burlesque the performer chooses their own objectification, with the audience in the palm of their hand.  Elsewhere the power dynamic lies with the audience and their fistfuls of sweaty five pound notes, in burlesque it's entirely with the performer.

Problem is that all too often both boil down to the same thing: a roomful of people hooting and whistling at a woman furiously twirling sparkly nipple tassles.  So where does this leave Young Feminist Whores?  For long portions its an entertaining, if slightly predictable, burlesque evening.  So there's the sexy fan dance, a clown routine and a flamenco-y Spanish routine. All are focussed, talented performers, but we've all seen this before.  Give me novelty, dammit!

Pearl Grey at Burlesque Idol 2014
By far the best of the traditional performers was Pearl Grey, who just the previous night won Burlesque Idol 2014.  Dressed in a dazzling self-made Elizabeth I costume, sporting sky-high cheekbones and the haughtiest of haughty looks she dances to Lorde's Royals.  The sight of this sets off all my happy, smiley neurons, reawakening a hitherto forgotten teenage crush on Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II.  Just as we're settling into the rhythm of Royals, the act takes a swerve to the cheesy with a transition in Can't Touch This.  This is accompanied by a gold bondage vest and ass tassles, which I figure are hard as hell to get to swerve.  It's easy to see why Pearl Grey won big the night before.

That was great, but there was one act that stood head and shoulders above the rest, probably because it wasn't really burlesque at all.  That was Scarlett O'Whorea, who did a powerfully intense bit of mini-theatre confessional to what I instantly recognised as the supersecret hidden track tucked away at the end of Jagged Little Pill.  I was faintly astonished - I haven't heard or thought about this song in years.  Scarlett's act, much like Alanis Morrissette's vocal performance, works to strip away layers of performative bullshit and reveal an emotional core.  

Cards on the table, the 'art of the tease' doesn't really do much for me.  It's an archaic aesthetic, one designed by Victorian men in the late 1800s, deeply conservative and old fashioned in how it presents the female body. Scarlett busted this shit right off the map by quickly stripping down completely naked and staying that way for most of her act.  This feels like real body liberation, the raw emotion and matter-of-fact nakedness throwing a harsh light over the chintzy camp of the rest of the show.  But then, this wasn't really burlesque - more straight up kickin' rad performance art.

Scarlett's was the only act I'd unquestionably call feminist.  At this point you might be wondering: who the fuck does this guy think he is?  For me to imperiously march around waving my big review writing pen and saying that X is feminist and Y isn't is a bit rich.  If these performers feel liberated who is anybody to tell them they're not?

While I've got no doubt that performing burlesque can be an intensely liberating experience, it doesn't necessarily automatically make it a feminist one.  I guess the obvious counter-argument is that allowing women the space to make their own decision to perform how they choose is an intrinsically feminist act.  But while the act of choosing indicates autonomy, the actual choice made as a result of that autonomy isn't necessarily feminist. For example, I don't think a Tea Party Republican woman choosing to vote to restrict access to contraception is at all a feminist act.

Maybe I'm arguing in circles here.  My real problem stems from the compère angrily explaining that this definitely isn't one of those shows where women take off more clothes the more we cheer.  Instead it's one of those shows where the more clothes a woman takes off, the more we cheer.  The former is the epitome of misogynistic objectification, the latter is apparently an act of powerful liberation.  

Maybe this just isn't my kinda thing.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

'I AM / THE ISL△ND' by Cluster Bomb [Collective] at Wells Wall Pop Up, 28th November 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Cluster Bomb [Collective] have been dissecting and reassembling J.G. Ballard's Concrete Island for about two years.  The text has been chopped, screwed, slowed, thrown, mangled and fucked every which way; the artists treating it with the same ferocity as a pack of lions tearing apart a juicy antelope.  Some aspects change: the location, the duration, the style of performance and role of the audience.  Some remain static: scraggly red wigs, car parts wielded like religious artefacts, the repurposing of found objects.

Last night's performance took place in the shell of The Old Library in Burgess Park.  About fifteen years ago the building suffered a full-frontal lobotomy, the books, people and community emptied to leave a damp shell populated only by dead wasps and flies.  In the last few months fresh life has been breathed into these peeling walls, the council granting permission for it to be used as a temporary art space.  So with the boiler cranked into spluttering life and local beers available behind the counter a miniature urban resurrection has taken place. 

That makes it an excellent location to host a tale that sutures the personal to the urban, blends flesh and concrete into mutant forms and ponders precisely what separates man from his industrial creations.

We begin with a suit-wearing man taking the stage clutching the rusty wheel of a car.  He lies on his back, slowly spinning the wheel with all four limbs.  He's lit from below by harsh stage lighting, throwing a perfectly defined silhouette onto the wall behind him.  We're to see a number of odd hybrids tonight; and man/car is the first.  There's a whiff of Cronenbergian body horror in this Frankensteined combination of man and machine (as well as a smidge of 80s trash cartoon Turbo Teen - hey I never said all my references would be classy ones).

He's soon joined in the performance by a sinister, combative clown and the sexually aggressive Jane Shepherd.  The two of them toss him around the stage in inner tubes, manhandle him to the floor, squirt him with water and draw him down to some weird primal dirt-smeared caveman state.  

There's a very loose narrative, though telling a coherent story is obviously pretty low down Cluster Bomb's list of priorities.  What sticks in the mind are fragmented individual actions and interactions.  There's a moment where, drawn into combat with the clown, our 'hero' wrestles her to the ground climbing above her and sprays her with water.  There's a curiously sexually dominate tinge to this behaviour, as if in defeating his demons he's had to regress beyond human to the animal, figuratively marking his territory.

Though we spend much of the performance scrabbling around in the dirt and dust, there's the occasional moment of the divine that seasons the mix.  There's a tremendously powerful sequence where Robert's body is washed with water from a petrol tank by Jane.  The care with which she anoints his body with the liquid recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus Christ and/or the preparation of a sacrificial victim.

There's a ritualistic power in these motions, and even though we're never going to get a direct explanation the meaningful thrum and vibration of what's taking place is palpable in the air.  This peaks in the final sequences when Patrick rubs concrete dust over his wet, naked body.  It crumbles gently off his shoulders, falling to the floor in microscopic waterfall-like plumes.  Above him we see a looped film of a building failing to be demolished, ending up as half a building perched on top of its own ruins.  It's a nice series of parallels; linking the organic to the artificial and the biological to the mineral.

Afterwards I spoke to those running the space, who gave me a quick history of the location. Uniquely for London Burgess Park isn't some time old protected green space, but rather reclaimed urban land.  The Luftwaffe wiped out most of the housing here and rather than redevelop the land was bequeathed to the public as an open space.  The Old Library thus stands as it's own concrete island in the midst of the greenery.  Still, lurking just beneath the grass and trees lie dormant, buried networks of piping, cable and tunnel, the forgotten anatomy of the bombed out Victorian terraces.

It makes for a neat psychogeographic coincidence, the location elevating meaning - sprinkling a tiny yet welcome garnish of temporal grace onto an already fascinating performance.  I'm sure I'll soon see more reconfigurations of Concrete Island in future events.  Bring it on!

I AM / THE ISL△ND has it's final performance tonight at Chisenhale Dance Space London E3 5QZ.  Entry £6.  Doors 19:30, performance 20:00.

Friday, November 28, 2014

'Get Santa' (2014) directed by Christopher Smith

Friday, November 28, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Get Santa is probably the only Christmas family movie that raises this question: could Santa be a child molester? The scene comes early in the film, when precocious moppet Tom has discovered a creepy, bearded man passed out in his garden shed in the middle of the night. Calling his dad excitedly, Tom explains that he’s chatting to a strange man who “wants to show me his plan.

Dad’s eyes widen in horror, no doubt picturing his son becoming a victim of sick trouser-based rummaging. He hops in his van and burns rubber to the shed, threatening to beat the crap out of Santa if he ever so much as looks at another kid. It’s this skewed tone that fuels Get Santa, a film that can at least be given credit for taking Christmas cinema to bizarre new territory.


Get Santa is released 5th December 2014

'The Boy Who Kicked Pigs' at Mimetic Festival, 27th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In the end only one pig got kicked, and even that turned out to be a piggy bank.  Still, you're a fool if you feel short-changed after a four-strong show that features shark attacks, burning nuns, little girls being fed weedkiller, a crossbow bolt shot through the neck, rats chewing through a dying boy's guts, a suicidal fishmonger and a gigantic fireball consuming the entirety of Kent.  All this done in 75 minutes in the damp depths of the Waterloo vaults.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is a Kill the Beast production, adapted from a children's book by Tom Baker (yes that Tom Baker).  The show plunges us into a grubby, monochromatic universe where the characters skins are zombie silver, their outfits scruffily oversized and their behaviour?  Well, the general tone is set in the first scene when a blind man triumphantly describes how he heroically saved a young girl from a vicious badger attack. Worried that others might think he's telling tall tales he triumphantly whips out the badger's hide.  It's a pigtail.  To horrified silence he describes how the the grateful girl silently snuffled off into the undergrowth.

Then the blind man gets mown down by a car.  It's that kind of show.

From this promising start the action snowballs to increasingly demented heights.  At the centre of it all is Robert Caligari, "a nasty piece of work".  He's a cruel, utterly misanthropic young boy, consumed by hatred for his younger sister Nerys.  She's in possession of Trevor, a piggy bank and her imaginary best friend.  Patrick mocks her incessantly for only having imaginary friends, yet Nerys retorts that at least she has friends, even they are imaginary.

But all too soon Trevor begins talking to Patrick.  In a stentorian, upper-class accent he goads Patrick to new heights of violent depravity, daring him to become a 'proper' murderer; "to look his victim right between the eyes and make a pact with the soul you're about to take."  But Baker's violent universe proves to be a karmic one and this diabolical child soon reaps the consequences of his actions

Almost from minute one I knew this was going to be ace.  The aesthetic, which echoes the source material, moves like an Edward Gorey illustration shocked into horrible life.  The harsh makeup has the effect of making the performer's eyes manic and their teeth appear oddly skeletal and skull-like, (appropriately) echoing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  This is combined by a series of projections that paint a picture of a tortured, gothic, tattered old Britain.  In a queasily disgusting sort of way it's rather beautiful.

Things are further elevated by the magnificent performances from the cast.  These four, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson, Oliver Jones and Zoe Roberts, shuffle characters as expertly as a card shark with a fresh deck.  It's almost a theatrical magic trick how quickly they pop off stage and emerge a moment later in an entirely new outfit and persona.  All four have an incredibly tight handle on their body language, particularly when they're portraying children.  They move with stompy insouciance, jutting their backs, lips and knees into what amounts to a full body scowl.

This peaks in a dizzyingly impressive motorway pileup sequence.  Bending around each other like pretzels the four convey numerous groups careering into each other, terror washing across faces, bones snapping and flesh being consumed by flames.  They're so immaculately precise that it's like watching a barking mad piece of contemporary dance.

You can probably tell by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this.  It's not exactly the most meaningful and incisive piece of theatre but it is one of the most stylishly bonkers. There's a grim hallucinogenic weirdness that permeates the whole production, it's intoxicating to get swept up in it.  Easily one of the best things I've seen at Mimetic this year. Highly recommended.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is at Mimetic Festival on 28th & 29th November 2014. Time: 7:50:pm. Tickets £15.  Book here.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

'The Libertine has Left the Building' at Mimetic Festival, 25th November 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

About midway through The Libertine has Left the Building, Michael Twaits explains that the most terrifying affliction an artist can be struck with is happiness.  His example is Adele; a baby, a loving husband and fabulous riches have left her with precious little inspiration for heartbreaking music.  His argument is that personal turmoil is the crucial ingredient in producing wonderful art, and so, trapped in prison with the whole country hating him, Rolf Harris must be producing a series of utter masterpieces.

It's an astute observation and one that applies all too easily to Twaits himself.  At 33 he has a steady relationship, a well-regarded arts practice and (as he repeatedly reminds us) a mortgage.  Good for him.  He looks like he's earned a spot of domestic bliss.  Problem is, as with Adele, happiness hasn't left him with much to say.  

This results in a show that's a series of dislocated segments touching on things that Twaits is vaguely interested in.  We get an exploration of different styles of drag, a potted life history, a segue into philosophical mathematics, some ponderings on a painting, a lengthy poem and finally a "cabaroke" drag number.

Whatever he's doing Twaits is always a charismatic speaker.  He slides effortlessly from poignancy to irreverence, constantly making self-deprecating asides as he improvises his way through the loose material.  His personality is the main attraction; looking wholly confident in front of an audience and navigating his way through wordy material as nimbly as a mountain goat picking its way through dangerous crags.

But charisma can only carry him so far and doesn't come close to compensating for a weird absence of passion.  It's as if he's working from a memory of righteous indignation, trying to recapture what he used to feel so intensely but now slips through his fingers like mercury. What's left is a series of vaguely trivial jabs at the periphery of subjects.  For example he criticises the popularisation of drag terminology resulting from RuPaul's Drag Race, annoyed that now everyone knows what 'tucking' is.  This is extremely low-hanging fruit and has the whiff of a performer annoyed that what used to be underground are now mainstream.

The nadir is a lengthy poem about the miseries of being gay, in your 30s, well off and popular.  Moans include being expected to be constantly witty and dry, having women expect you to be their best friend and generally fitting into the proscribed heteronormative idea of what a gay man should be.  Granted these things must be deeply annoying (and fair enough they are symptoms of bigger problems) but as a subject for dramatic soliloquy it sounds unpleasantly like self-obsessed bourgeois whining.

It's as if having run out of issues that he really cares about, Twaits has settled into going through the motions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the slightly depressing climax in which he dons drag before our eyes.  He perfunctorily slaps on foundation, false eyelashes and lipgloss, explaining that he doesn't even need to put much effort into making it work. Then he sings through A Whole New World from The Little Mermaid and calls it a night. He even admits that he's ending the show this way because he can't think of anything else to do.

Maybe I'm a touch naive, but I'd like to imagine the process of getting into drag as a faintly magical transformation; an illustration of how apparently concrete things like personality, appearance and gender are pliable and plasticine. Twaits treats the process with as much passion as brushing his teeth.

If the Libertine really has left the building I wish he would come back.  What's left in his absence is an occasionally amusing but curiously hollow experience.

The Libertine has Left the Building is at Mimetic Festival on 27, 28 & 29 November 2014
Time: 9:40:pm.  Tickets available here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

'Marion Deprez is Gorgeous' at Mimetic Festival, 25th November 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Can you be beautiful and funny?  Cast your eyes around the dressing room of the average comedy club and you'll see a dowdy group of distinctly average looking bozos. Is being funny a way for those who'll never grace a catwalk to stand out from the crowd?  After all, if they won't respect you for your lumpy, misshapen body then surely they'll pay bow down to your razorblade wit and pinpoint comedy timing? And if you are beautiful, why make the effort to be funny when people will hang on your every word, no matter what you say?

This question lies at the root of Marion Deprez is Gorgeous, a show as smart as it is frustrating.  You see, Marion Deprez is gorgeous.  From the tips of her toes to the top of her head she's looks like she's stepped off the front of a yé-yé album. Throughout the show she continually strikes 'cutie poses', giving us a sugar-sweet smile and widening her eyes to gaze off at some indeterminate point in the upper right corner of the room.

Watching her is like leafing through a particularly stylish fashion magazine, becoming slowly intoxicated on her confidence, presence and beauty.  She strikes a series of coquettish poses, granting and denying permission for members of the audience to drool over her.  This is all done in a faintly comic hyper-cute French accent, allowing us an easy route to not only adore Deprez, but to fetishise her. 

But then this is supposed to be a comedy show and (in her words): "I don't need to be funny. Men need to be funny all the time.  I'm not funny."  She's (kinda) right, Marion Deprez isn't very funny.  Her miming is half-assed, her anecdotes trail off right before the punchlines and her skits are long-winded and predictable.  This makes for a slightly uncomfortable audience experience.  The laughs are few and far between and when they come, rather polite; some in the audience becoming palpably uncomfortable at this Kaufmanesque anti-humour.

You see, Deprez is being unfunny on purpose.  The idea is that we'll put with an awful amount of shit just because she strikes sweet poses, giggles girlishly and flutters her eyelashes.  It's a sophisticated concept for a routine and slightly brave in that for it to 'work' relies on the audience putting up with something that's purposefully crap.

Tucked away within all the sweetness and light are some rather acidic moments; the best being a moment where she picks someone from the audience she considers beautiful. Telling him to stand up she instructs us to look at him and marvel about how handsome he is; explaining that she wishes a hunk like this could be her boyfriend.  Then she asks him to take his top off.  Understandably he bridles at the prospect so Deprez shoots back the tart one-liner: "you're just not used to being objectified like me."

This cuts to the quick of what Deprez is getting at.  While "I don't need to be funny" could be considered a plus, it cuts both ways.  When she is being funny people still gaze on adoringly; preoccupied with the plumpness of her lips rather than the words that trip from them. 

What's most frustrating about this is that she's absolutely right, and I know this because I was doing that exact thing.  Frankly I would have enjoyed watching her read the phone book, and I was more than prepared to tolerate some shitty sketches purely because the person skipping through them was attractive. 

It's an odd experience to end a show feeling disappointed with your own shallowness, but that's what Marion Deprez is going for.  In those terms it's an unreserved success, but one that's more intellectual than actually funny. 

Marion Deprez is Gorgeous is at Mimetic Festival on the 26, 27, 28, 29, November 2014 Time: 8:20:pm. Tickets £9.50 available here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

'Paddington' (2014) directed by Paul King

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

At first sight, Paddington Bear looks monstrous, his creepy photorealistic fur bringing to mind 2010’s astonishingly misconceived Yogi Bear. You can almost hear the soft, squelching sound as audience’s hearts sink, the sound of teeth gritting as they prepare for yet another sacrilegious plundering of a beloved children’s classic. What nightmares are we going to have to endure? Is Paddington Bear going to have an attitude? Is he going to wear a puffa jacket? Oh god.. he’s going to rap, isn’t he?

This consuming sense of dread isn’t director Paul King’s fault. It’s just that we’ve been burned so many times by overblown, gagless, soulless cinematic abortions that we expect the worst; to look into the eyes of a CG bear is to see a grinning studio exec staring back (probably doing some warped approximation of the hated “Dreamworks face”).

This is a pity, because Paddington is secretly and surprisingly, really pretty wonderful.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

'Baby Lame: Don't Call It a Comeback' at Mimetic Festival, 20th

Sunday, November 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I suspect my perspective on what's normal and what's not has become irretrievably skewed. By way of an example: I'm sitting in a damp tunnel underneath Waterloo station watching an intensely bearded man screeching maniacally into a microphone.  He's smeared in clownish drag makeup, is wearing a Little Miss Muffet wig and a white wedding dress with shit-smears of Nutella down the sides and is vigorously pumping two very hairy arms. Accompanying him are two burly yet feminine slaves in moth-eaten, stained animal masks who periodically grimace from pools of darkness.  The soundtrack?  Miley Cyrus' Bangerz.

It's like Paul Dacre's nightmare brought to horrible life; a kaleidoscope of genderfucked midnight-movie sexuality and punk rock rotten-ness.  Me?  I'm sitting there in the front row drinking a beer and having a remarkably pleasant time.  Where oh where did it all go wrong?
Baby Lame exists within a very particular subset of trash exploitation.  The ur-example is obviously John Waters movies, Baby Lame aiming at being the spiritual successor to the outstandingly successful Divine.  These are big heels to fill; Divine having left in her trail a litany of self destruction, drugged/boozed out chaos and intensely sexually aggressive filth. There's also odd notes of Divine David aka David Hoyle peppered through the glitter, sweat and goo that fills the act.

To be disgusting and repellent on stage isn't as easy as you might think.  Audiences can smell fear a mile away, if you don't hurl yourself into this with palpable abandon then people might suspect that your heart's not in it, causing to terror to transform into its polar opposite, pity. Baby Lame doesn't have to worry about that though, the domineering, ultra surety that fills this performance has the effect of transforming her into a lion and us into frightened sheep.

In contrast with some of the other acts I'd seen at Mimetic who quickly built a chummy rapport with their audience, Baby Lame eyes them more as a resource to exploit and humiliate.  Two men are dragged on stage as part of the performance; one is given a face distortingly ugly half face mask and duct-taped to a chair while monstrosities cavort around, and the other is press-ganged into a warped marriage ceremony while Nutella is smeared over his face in an approximation of excrement.

Bubbling under the surface is a skewering of celebrity.  With the towering ego, tasteless attire and entourage of yes-things Baby Lame works as the logical conclusion to the shit you see on the front page of crappy celeb rags.  Video segments splice together Lame and Winfrey; responding to her sensitive questions by vomiting chewed up cake from her crimson lips and laughing like a clogged up drain.

It's nauseating, nasty and sinister stuff, the audience departing with the kinds of stares you see in the eyes of soldiers returning from wars.  But you can develop strange tastes over time.  Some sing the tasty praises of crunching down bull testicles.  Some find beauty in endless, industrially obnoxious, machinelike techno.  Some get their thrills from being trussed up and pissed on.  Some (like me) get their illicit thrills from mad-mental performances like this. 

By now you can probably judge whether you'd enjoy Baby Lame or not. I certainly did.  This kind of stuff is totally up my street.  But then I do live in a bad part of town.

'The Ruby Darlings' at Mimetic Festival, 19th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

As I walked home I was cheerily singing; "you can put it in my front-bum, but not in my bum-bum".  Thisearned me a few sideways glances but, well, when you've got an earworm you can't really help yourself.  This was what I was left with after The Ruby Darlings: a cheeky, sexy and very, very funny cabaret.  They are Ruby (Rachel Le Moeligou) and Darling (Lily Phillips), ably supported by David Tims, who provides both musical accompaniment and an excellent straight man.

Feminism and fun are two words that (unfairly in my book) don't tend to be found in the same sentence.  All too often tabloids, shit TV and arsehole media in general paint a picture of some hatchet-faced, humourless harridan out to spoil everyone's fun. Yet here, with smiles as smooth as quicksilver, machine gun fast innuendos and subject matter that leaves suspicious stains, we see a feminism that easily dazzles and thrills the crowd.

Ruby and Darling aren't ladettes, they aren't caricatured horny slappers and they certainly aren't sexually submissive waifs - they're simply open and honest about their sexual pleasures.  Capturing this tone successfully is like trying to pinch a housefly between chopsticks: trickier than it sounds.  Travel too far into depravity and you become a lech; relying in mere gross-out humour to earn your giggles.  Keep things too prim and proper and what's the point?

The critical factor at play here is intelligence, specifically in constructing wonderful feats of sexy wordplay.  Rhymes stack upon each other, the songs reaching to dizzying heights of cleverness and complexity.  In particular, a folk-esque pastiche about dongs (which sounds like it might have been sung by a drunk Joan Baez) seriously impressed; being simultaneously musically excellent, lyrically complex and funny as all hell.  

With a set list that covers pubic hair, naming vaginas, cocks, STIs, anal sex, bestiality, and queefing The Ruby Darlings are never going to get booked for children's parties and weddings (maybe really fun weddings), but it's worthwhile having a think about precisely which tradition they fall into.  With the sexy costumes and fucking-focussed tunes there's obvious parallels with burlesque, but they prevent such an easy classification.  Layered on are hints of the saucy beachside postcard, end-of-the-pier variety shows and Carry On films - all of which adds up an act that's intensely, powerfully, wonderful British.  We're reminded that we like talking about sex, especially when its wreathed in irony and humour.

I had a wonderful time at this show. All three performers were friendly, open and intensely charismatic.  They developed a conspiratorial rapport with the audience almost immediately; and unlike so many acts nobody looks terrified when they're asked to participate.  By the time we're in the final song about anal sex, the whole room is on its feet waving placards in the air.  The warm spaces under Waterloo are filled with drunk smiles and happy.

I laughed my ass off.  Be sure to check them out if you get the chance.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Hoke's Bluff' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 19th November 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Cultural osmosis is a strange thing.  I've never laid eyes on an American football player in full uniform, never watched a cheerleading demonstration and certainly never been yelled at by a grumpy yet also compellingly paternal coach.  And yet I've experienced all this countless times in film, television, literature and now on stage.  I know this iconography like the back of my hand and yet it's like something I've only dreamt about.

Hoke's Bluff is the theatrical realisation of that dream.  Every item of clothing, turn of phrase and social interaction relevant to high school sports has been fed into a kind of dramatic blender.  The company, Action Hero, hit frappe, and what oozes out is a kaleidoscope of ritualistic behaviours and intensely codified behaviours.  Given that high school sports is one of the purest manifestations of WASPish conformity it's faintly ironic that such an outright weird piece of theatre has been made out of it, let alone seeing it through a alien prism of Britishness.

The barebones plot revolves around the Hoke's Bluff Wildcats; a high school sports team in Everytown, USA.  The precise sport they're playing is slippery to pin down; one moment they're talking about quarterbacks and the next they're laying down on the ice.  Central to the plot is Tyler Purdem (James Stenhouse), star of the sports team and his cheerleader girlfriend Connie (Gemma Paintin).  Both are experiencing their own psychological turmoil. Tyler is under intense pressure to win this year, yet is finding it difficult to "release the ball" and Connie feels sidelined in her boyfriend's affections and objectified by cheerleading.

The two performers bring to life an extensive cast of characters; the entire cheerleading squad, the players on the team, the energetic mascot and the grizzled, motivationally addicted coach.  The only other person on stage is the Referee, played as a quixotic Greek chorus that communicates only in semaphore and garbled sportspeak.  Both Paintin and Stenhouse stay in constant, slightly sweaty, motion - always limbering up or running laps around the performance space (which is styled like a US high school gym). 

Easing into the warped world of Hoke's Bluff is a gradual process.  As the play starts you assume that this is going to a relatively straight performance of American rituals.  But then you begin to notice the cracks; none of the terminology really makes sense, the markings on the floor appear to spell out some kind of magical sigil and that everything is translated into some hyperreal distillation of reality.

There are constant digressions to strange poetic repetition.  Cheerleaders listing acrobatic moves or coaches laying out sports plays (my favourite being "The Immaculate Reception"). This is taken to a whole other level in the long, plaintive, slightly creepy, listing of names of places "Did you ever get blind drunk in Newtown?  Did you ever speak to a bereaved father in Barrel Gorge" and so on.  This shift into repetition is disorientating and, again, reminiscent of the cut-up half-thoughts that swim through a tired mind on the verge of dreaming.

These gentle drifts into the bizarre were some of my favourite moments in the play, closely followed swiftly by the intoxicating dance scene set to Major Lazer's Get Free.  It's in these stylistic flights of fancy that Hoke's Bluff comes close to nailing down the ambient sea of hormones, ambitions and fears that permeate this very alien world.  Dissecting small town Americana and presenting the mangled remains reminds me a bit of Twin Peaks; taking the melodramata and folksy, small town big heartedness as sincerely as possible without descending into mockery.

Not everyone is going to enjoy a show this fragmented.  The narrative is more suggested than shown and the characters are (intentionally) bland archetypes we've seen a thousand times before.  This means that if you want to get anything worthwhile out of Hoke's Bluff you're going to have to engage emotionally and analytically with the images, language and aesthetics on stage. 

Fortunately I love that stuff, so I had a great time.  This is maybe a bit too weird for mass consumption, but for me it was compelling, unique stuff.

Hoke's Bluff is at Shoreditch Town Hall until the 29th of November. Tickets £11, available here.

'Mummy' by Amy Gwilliam at Mimetic Festival, 18th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Watching someone rummage about in an attic for an hour doesn't sound like the most immediately tantalising prospect in the world.  Yet Amy Gwilliam's one woman show makes this process into a miniature psychological epic; complete with fierce battles against memory, delusion and procrastination.  

Skinny, spectacled and sporting a tousled blonde bedhead Gwilliam has a striking stage presence.   Her bony body is all angular jutting elbows and knees, her face rubbery and expressive, all capped off by two hugely expressive eyes that make you feel like you're caught in high-beam headlights.  She makes for an elastic, almost cartoonish, figure; one moment embodying a confident, independent woman in her late 20s and the next regressing down until we can spot the mischievous ten year old she once was.

The Spartan attic set comprises a handful of boxes labelled things like 'Elizabeth', 'Books', 'Home Vids' and 'Fancy Dress' together with a desk and an incongruous looking laptop. She's up here in an effort to find a calm, quiet spot to write the conclusion of her thesis, due in the following morning.  But with rain hammering down on the roof and the detritus of her past lying all around, she's easily distracted and falls into an archaeological investigation of her life.

Along the way she'll play hits from her parent's old record collection, dress up in her dead mother's clothes and become dismayed when she realises that her father has thrown away all her old Spice Girls merchandise.  More importantly she'll exhume the ghost of her childhood imaginary friend; a cheeky Australian goat named Cliff.  This all adds up to an episodic trawl through a life, with dramatic tension created by the pressure of an impending deadline hovering over her.

With this focus on procrastination, the appearance of dead relatives and the faint hints of craziness that run through the show, there's whiff of Hamlet at play here.  It's a very faint whiff, but it's there.  Sure there's no sword fights, murders or poisonings, yet the dramatic pressure of finding excuses to avoid doing doing something important, wrapped up with familial turmoil echoes similar pressures found in Shakespeare's play. That said, Hamlet never popped on velour leggings and a sequinned shawl and danced around to Madonna's Ray of Light.

There's a lot of consistent thematic meat to enjoy in Mummy; the thesis that's not being concluded is about formalising the process of death and dying, taking Cleopatra's efforts to immortalise her memory as a focal point.  In the attic Gwilliam is of course surrounded by the quasi-forgotten flotsam and jetsam that accumulates around a person - coming to playing Lara Croft as she raids her parent's tombs.  

It all ties together into the dual meaning of Mummy (as in ancient Egypt) and Mummy (as in mother); allowing us to get to grips with death and how objects can retain memory even after their owner is six feet under. This realisation layers in a decent amount of pathos, underlined by Gwilliam's emotionally accessible and vulnerable performance.  This, combined with some excellent lighting and sound cues makes for an occasionally powerful experience.

That said this is a work in progress and it's not without flaws.  The episodic structure means we move between dramatic ideas without a huge amount of continuity.  Not every segment of the performance is as successful as the rest; it takes a while to get into gear at the beginning and a fourth wall breaking bit of audience interaction is well played, but doesn't really gel with the rest of the performance.

Nonetheless I enjoyed myself.  I found it easy to get sucked into this dusty (well, talcumy) psychological microcosm.  Notably, every time I stopped to note that I thought things were getting a bit dull, something interesting happened mid pen-stroke and I changed my mind. Right now it's a good piece; with some judicious editing and the willingness to 'kill your darlings' it could be a great piece.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

'Miss Glory Pearl: The Naked Stand Up' at Mimetic Festival, 18th November 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

Two seconds in: "Wow, she's really naked!".  Ten seconds in: "I can't believe I'm watching a naked stand up comedian, this is so cool!".  Thirty seconds in: "Okay I get it, what now?". Miss Glory Pearl presents me with a somewhat annoying dilemma. See, I'm pretty much your stereotypical Guardian-reading do-gooder.  I live in London. I go on protests. I'm a vegetarian. I shop at Waitrose. You get the picture. Theoretically a naked feminist leftie stand-up comedian doing a show about body positivity is something I should go doolally for. So why was I so damn bored for most of the show?  

The routine consists of a potted history of the performer's life; outlining her history as a burlesque dancer, stripper, secondary school teacher and finally now stand up.  This is mixed with a talk about the legal ramifications of nudity, the body fascism of women's magazines and finally trying to salve the audience's own internalised self-disgust.

Credit where credit's due; doing a stand-up show butt naked takes serious gumption. I've done performance pieces in just my pants and wondered if I should be completely naked, but told myself it would distract from the rest of the performance (though there was a definite element of cowardice involved too).  So simply being so this confident while naked in front of a crowd earns Glory Pearl some kudos, if only for bravery.

Thing is, once we've gotten over the initial novelty of her nudity there's not much of substance here.  The routine has a tendency to slide into inspirational cliche - I can't argue with the basic sentiment that people should be happy in their own skin - but it's still a rather obvious observation and not a rich seam of humour.

The low points come in an excruciatingly awkward audience interaction bit where we're told to point to part of our body we don't like. Pearl singles out audience members at random to explain to us what we're ashamed of and why, followed by her awkwardly trying to explain that it isn't so bad after all.  A man pops his hand up with and says he hates his beer belly and gets told to think of all the times he's spent drinking with his friends and remember how much he enjoyed the takeaways he's eaten.  In essence to 'love his belly'.

I hate this feel good crap.  Self-loathing has always been a decent motivator in my book; if there's a part of your body that you're ashamed of, exercise and eating better do wonders for fixing that, not acceptance.  By the time Pearl is singing the praises of lying on the sofa, watching TV and eating a "dirty Dominos" I felt a little depressed.  I get that you can do whatever you want with your body and however anyone looks is basically okay, but that doesn't mean that motionless consumption of junk food is something to cheer on.  It just feels like a rather boring, limited and sad set of pleasures.

By the end any surprise at Pearl's nakedness has long-since vanished and we're left with a routine that feels a bit like watching an episode of Loose Women. As in it's not particularly funny.  So there was the odd polite chuckle, but never any particularly huge eruptions of laughter and the crowd didn't seem particularly enthused during the interactive bits either.

I'll grant you that I'm not the target audience for this show, but the impression I was left with was that the nakedness was a shock factor to conceal a pretty humdrum routine.

'What Not Cabaret' at Mimetic Festival, 18th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

I love hanging out in The Vaults under Waterloo Station. Over the years I've seen this labyrinth of tunnels accommodate a 1980s-themed apocalypse, a horror-themed circus and a psytrance hippy rave.  Now they're the headquarters for the Mimetic Festival; "a two week celebration of the very best emerging devised, physical and visual theatre, puppetry and cabaret".  I've got a bunch of tickets to these performances, which cover a huge variety of theatrical skills, tones and ideas.

So let's cut to the first act.  What Not Cabaret are half warped entertainment, half performance art with a tiny smidge of artist therapy dolloped on top.  Introducing us to this gaggle of weirdos is Boris Johnson.  Literally mop-headed, suit bulging with chub and mixing metaphors like it's going out of style, he takes us through a characteristically garbled interpretation of London life involving eggs and flapjacks.  Underneath this bumbling buffoonery is Saskia Solomons, whose impression of Johnson is so good it borders on creepy.

Next up is Tiff Wear with Pfft.  He emerges from behind a curtain, clear plastic pipes writhing around his topless body.  At one of the end of the pipes lie two balloons positioned above his head and on his hip.  At the other end lie two foot pumps, and stomping around the place they gradually pump up the balloons.  All the while Wear is staring at the audience and creepily wobbling his body.  The balloons gradually inflate and finally *pop* sending a jump of excitement through the audience.  This type of performance marks the tone of What Not Cabaret, quick, simple and effective realisations of strange ideas.

Next is Arkem Walton's The Cloud, in which he plays an Eeyore-ish personification of the Internet.  Perched atop his head is an enormous, glowing cloud.  He explains that it bulges painfully with the pointless trivia we upload every day; fake Kodachrome pictures of foot, cute cat macros and selfies with art masterpieces.  If all this were getting stuffed into your head you'd be miserable too, so Walton plays the internet like a sad clown, moaning his way through morose covers of Enter Sandman or Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).  The excellent costume combined with Walton's gloomy, "flummoxed" personality makes for a winning combination.

Things get even stranger with Domenico Trombetti's Untitled.  He shuffles onto stage with talcum powder white hair, white face paint and a big poofy white dress.  His head and one arm poke through the top and gaze curiously about.  He behaves somewhat like a gigantic kitten, playfully going through predatory motions as he explores the space.  Soon he's being assailed by his own red-gloved hand.  Trombetti's hugely expressive face and wide, staring eyes make for a striking combination, as does his flopsy body language.  God only knows what the genesis of this idea was, but I dug it.

Finally, Charlotte Wombwell closed up the cabaret as Scarlett Shambles with a ukelele song It Used to be Me.  With a few exceptions I hate ukeleles (the most twee of all instruments - my notes read "a fucking uke!?").  Fortunately I think this was taking the piss out of soulful ukelele pickers.  The performance consisted of a heartbreak song in which Wombwell collapsed into ever more melodramatic fits of emotion, eventually theatrically weeping and grizzling up into the sky. I really hope this wasn't a genuine cathartic display of emotion; I was laughing along with the rest of the audience at how ridiculous it was.

What Not Cabaret is an odd duck, the performances too weird to fit into traditional cabaret. It's main strength is its speed; you simply don't have time to get bored with any of the acts before something new and surreal is on stage.  I'm all about brevity; one of my pet hates is something dragging on for longer than it needs to, so this quickfire gallery of strangeness was very much up my street.

Tickets: £6 (£5 concs) Upcoming Dates: 19, 25, 26, November 2014. Time:  6:35:pm.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

'Seeing-I' at BL_NK, 17th November 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Every day we struggle to define ourselves in relation to the amorphous mass of humanity.  In a sea of styles, opinions, tastes and philosophies we compete to stick our head above the parapet and yell "I exist!".  What is a Facebook wall, a Twitter page, a culture website or an Instagram feed if not a way to to assert our individuality in a world where we're silently categorised by  pure demographics?  But what is this identity made of? How strong is it? Can you destroy it and don a new one?  Is who you are determined by what you do, see and hear or by what you think?

It's these questions that Mark Farid wants to answer.  That's is why he's spending 28 days with virtual reality goggles strapped to his head, vicariously experiencing someone else's life through twin HD cameras and microphones attached to a subject..  This is, to say the least, an ambitious project.  Questions arise almost immediately. How on earth can he spend a month in virtual reality? Whose life is going to be observed? How will he eat, shower or sleep?  Won't his eyesight get ruined?  Who's going to look after him? And so on and so on.

Well, the only criteria for the life to be recorded, known as the 'Other', is that they're a heterosexual male who is living with a girlfriend or wife.  It'd be interesting in itself to see how Mark would react to living in a woman's head for a month, but that arguably diffuses the focus of the exercise.  Having a partner allows the Other to explain what they're doing at any given time; for example rather than just going out to the shops he'd say "I'm going out to the shops to get some milk", allowing Mark to understand what's going on.

If all goes to plan the artist will be a silent passenger in a complete stranger's head: seeing, hearing and tasting everything they do.  This complete lack of autonomy sounds equally frustrating and boring, after all life can be dull enough when you're the one in charge of what you're doing.  I imagine what Mark wants to experience as being a very special kind of hell, stuck as the ultimate backseat driver; silently fuming at all the 'wrong' decisions, idiotic comments and wincing with embarrassment as someone makes a fool of themselves.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has made a series of predictions as to the psychological impact of this; "he might become more empathetic ... he might experience distorted perceptions and even delusions".  Mark himself predicts that "after five or six days my breakdown will happen, and then it becomes interesting."  I detected a slightly cavalier approach to mental health in this answer; so I asked Mark if he considers himself a masochist.  He denied it, but to my eyes anyone who will willingly subject themselves to something that comes close to torture for so long in the name of art must derive some satisfaction from inflicting pain upon himself.

After all, even though Mark will be viewing video through VR goggles, this is still a form of sensory deprivation, the duration and intensity reminiscent of the CIA's astonishingly unethical MK ULTRA experiments.  They'd take volunteers, remove stimulus (placing goggles on them that diffused light and headphones that played constant low noise) and confine them for extended periods of time to observe the psychological impact.  The most relevant of these experiments involved altering the receptiveness of the subject to new ideas; for example taking psychology students, removing external stimulus, and exposing them to recordings of voices expressing creationist, mystical and generally delusional opinions, notions that scientists could be expected to oppose.

What was discovered was that after prolonged periods of sensory deprivation the subjects would become overly vulnerable to any stimulation.  They'd would find themselves in agreement with whatever they were told, even if they were ideas that they'd have automatically dismissed as ridiculous prior to the experiment. 

Of particular note to Mark is a quotation from Alfred McCoy's excellent book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror: "Even short term deprivation produced a devastating impact upon the human psyche.  After just two to three days ... the subject's very identity had begun to disintegrate".  He later reports that the subjects "all suffered eerie hallucinations akin to mescaline use as well as deterioration in the capacity to think systematically and concludes by noting the potential for "serious disturbance" in the subject's life.

A CIA experimental isolation cubicle.
Long term impacts included, at worst, regression to a child-like mental state, though and former subjects had a worrying tendency to end up homeless, schizophrenic, drug addicted or victims of suicide (or any combination of the above).  Now, Mark, curator Nimrod Vardi and director John Ingle repeatedly underline that this is not a test of endurance, that they'll have medical professionals monitoring Mark and if its judged that he's experiencing permanent damage they'll stop the experiment immediately.  Even so, after a load of publicity, hype and fundraising there'll be obvious pressure to keep this going as long as feasibly possible.

Now I have absolutely no problems with someone harming themselves for the sake of art, it's Mark's body and as long as he's not harming anybody else he can do with it what he likes.  In addition I'm ghoulishly curious as to how long he can stand it (my prediction is that if the CIA's guinea pigs freaked out so quickly, he'll crack within the first week and the medical team will stop the experiment). 

A man exploring whether its possible to erase his own identity and live the life of another used to be the stuff of science fiction.  But with new technology, imagination, ambition and Mark's willpower and endurance we can explore questions that will become ever more relevant as we face a digital future in which apparently anything is possible.

I deeply hope Mark raises the money to fund this crazy experiment, if only because I want to live in a world where things like this can happen.  To my eyes he stands like an explorer of old confronted by an infinite ocean.  What's on the other side? You may have to sacrifice your safety, health and sanity to know (and maybe the ocean really does stretch on forever), but sometimes these sacrifices are truly worthwhile.

More articles to come as this experiment develops.

Kickstarter here.

Website here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'An Evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger' at the Lancaster London Hotel, 15th November 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The best metric of fame is that people immediately know who you're talking about just from a mention of their first name.  Mention Michael, Diana or Brad and people just know.  There are few people this applies more to than Arnold 'Arnie' Schwarzenegger.  From the deserts of Afghanistan to the jungles of Zambia you say "Arnold" and you'll get a swathe of cod-Austrian voices saying: "I'll be back!" or "Hasta la Vista, baby".

And now I'm in a couple of feet away from him.  This is An Evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which fell somewhere between motivational lecture, bodybuilding convention and religious fervour.  Devised by Rocco Buonvino, who has previously presented evenings with Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta, the evening consisted of an hour's chat with compere Jonathan Ross and a Q&A from the crowd.

Even before Arnie shows up the (mostly male) crowd is whipped up into an adoring fever. There's a perceptible buzz in the air as the crowd collectively leans forward in their seats, craning their neck to try and get their first glimpse of the big man himself.  After a few false starts he strides in and everyone goes bananas.  The entire room leaps to their feet in paroxysms of joy; a bearded bald man sitting in front of me is weeping and people begin waving pictures of muscle men in the air like illuminated icons.

And what of the man himself?  Even at 67 he's gigantic.  His enormous skull looks like something you'd find bolted onto a piece of construction machinery, his fingers sausage thick, his shimmeringly white grin vaguely predatory.  Even his watch is enormous (and no doubt costs more than I make in a year). This all adds up to a man than has something of the dinosaur to him; his extreme confidence, leathery hide, thumping frame and roaring laugh bringing him about as close as you can get to a humanoid Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Though Jonathan Ross is no doubt being handsomely compensated, Schwarzenegger is so chatty this must be one of the easiest paycheques he's has picked up for a while.  From just one question, Schwarzenegger launches into a twenty minute spiel that covers his childhood, bodybuilding career and gets as far as starring in Terminator before he's told to slow down. There's a sense that these well-worn anecdotes have been doled out at California dinner parties, awards ceremonies and campaign fundraisers for the last twenty or thirty years.

But then Schwarzenegger on autopilot is still pretty fun.  He works himself up into a mild frenzy, fiercely gesticulating with those butcher's shop window hands and staring around the large room and trying to give the room their money's worth.  Everyone eats it up; the crowd breaking into spontaneous fits of frenzied applause at the slightest triumphal statement from Schwarzenegger.

And, to be fair, his life is genuinely inspirational.  It's easy to take it for granted in retrospect, but for a kid to grow up in postwar Austria to climb to the top of the bodybuilding world takes some serious drive and ambition.  Then for that bodybuilder (with an iffy grasp of English) to become Hollywood's top grossing star in an era where skinny, fast-talking men like Dustin Hoffman were sex symbols, with an unpronounceable name like Schwarzenegger?  Oh yeah, and then after becoming famous for primarily playing a murderous robot to go and spend eight years as Governor of California, the eighth largest economy in the world?

It's a literal rags to riches story and is far from boring.  This tale provides the bedrock of Arnie's staunch, instinctive Conservatism; his position that if he can drag himself up from poverty by sheer force of will alone why can't everyone?  He peppers his tale with fortune-cookie aphorisms; "The difference between winners and losers is that losers don't get up when they fall down!" or "Pick a vision and don't let anyone tell you that you can't achieve it!".  

It's easy to get caught up in these go-getterish American Dreamisms, but there's a brief moment where they're exposed as symptoms of selfishness.  In an early anecdote he recalls his Dad criticising him for spending so much time working out.  He tells the young Arnie; why don't you chop wood and deliver it to people's houses rather than pumping iron in a gym?  Arnie guffaws; from his point of view his Dad never 'got it'.  But why not deliver wood?  He later talks a lot about the importance of public service in his life, but it's all too easy to see his public and charity work as part of him climbing to the next rung on an apparently infinite ladder.

Thing is, he's so charismatic that I actually feel a little guilty criticising him like that,. He's surprisingly ready to talk about his failures as well as successes; notably chatty about how he knocked up his maid, fathered an illegitimate child and was divorced by his wife.   Even so, you get the impression that the goofy, happy, guffawing Arnie is a useful role, and that lurking just under the surface is a man who's ruthlessly, perhaps even pathologically, driven to succeed at all costs.  

Perhaps this is why he plays such a riveting Terminator: "He can't be bargained with. he can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever."

It was a hell of an interesting night and despite my best efforts I got a little bit caught up in the excitement of being in the midst of genuine celebrity.  That said I would have felt a little cooler about the experience had I paid to to be there (the cheapest tickets were £126.50, and should you want to shake Arnie's hand and get a photo you'd have to stump up a jaw-dropping £2,100), especially as there were some extremely restricted views in the huge room.

Arnie is a die-hard combative Republican who cheats on his wife and stars in boneheadedly gory action films.  Logically I should hate his guts, but I can't.  It's vexing.

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