Salome, Olivier Theatre

 

2/10

I have only myself to blame for the fact that I ended up sitting through Salome last night. I visited the NT website three times and decided it was not for me, before thinking “Oh, go on then…” For this, I am a fool.

Salome, in case the reference escapes you, is a Biblical tale. Salome, the favoured niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, causes the execution of John the Baptist by requesting his head on a platter as a reward for some particularly fine dancing. Author and director Yaël Farber‎ has taken this as a cue to produce something that is part political allegory, part interpretive dance, part performance art and all nonsense.

We are introduced to two Salomes. The narrator, old Salome, has been imprisoned under the temple. Young Salome doesn’t speak for most of the play, she just watches. Old Salome is at great pains for us to know that she wasn’t just a princess and the cause of John the Baptist’s ruin, she was a revolutionary in an occupied territory, and her story has been suppressed. John the Baptist wears nothing but some very tight underwear and speaks only in Hebrew, while the rest of the cast speak English. The subtitles for his lines are sometimes obscured by a giant ladder, which, depending on your interpretation, is either headed down to the dungeons or up to heaven. Sometimes it disappears and becomes a table, which is all well and good at a small theatre with a tight budget, but at the National it’s just indulgent. Jesus is a man in a loincloth who does interpretive dance and every now and then utters garbled pronouncements – a bit like the sort of ‘preachers’ you see outside Aldi on a Sunday afternoon.

In Farber’s interpretation, Salome is a revolutionary. Sexually abused by her uncle (Paul Chahidi – the high point of the show, more of him, please) she feels an affinity with the outsider John, and finds comfort in his teachings. John baptises her as one of his disciples and her decision to dance and to ask Herod for his head are all part of her plan to ensure he is martyred and remembered forever instead of kept forcibly alive in obscurity by Herod’s guards.

Farber seems to be trying to give a female perspective to the male-dominated stories from the Bible. And yet, there is a heavy dose of male gaze about this production. John baptises all his disciples fully clothed, except for Salome, who must first do a striptease and then submit to a sensual bath. From this point onwards, she frolics in an airy, transparent shift, frequently revealing her breasts. Breasts are lovely, but this seems a little unnecessary, to say the least. And somewhat unlikely behaviour for a character who gets raped about five times in 90 minutes. Her famous ‘dance’ consists mainly of rubbing her nipples and gurning. It feels like titillation, rather than appropriate nudity, and I certainly wouldn’t offer her anything unto half of all my kingdom for it.

The political allegory is strong in this one. The word occupation comes up a lot, often spoken a bit louder than the rest of the dialogue for the benefit of the dim ones at the back. In case there is any lingering doubt whatsoever with regard to the parallel being drawn here, Farber ensures that at one point the Hebrew soldiers arrive on stage armed with guns, adopt poses familiar from news footage, and talk about occupation and possession of land. HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?

The show is littered with the ridiculous. During one of the sexual abuse scenes, Herod gropes Salome while telling her that “Your saliva is the special sauce of my life” – possibly the worst line I have ever heard uttered in the Olivier and something that even the most negligent porn director would probably strike from a low-budget script.

Salome’s big draw is meant to be the stage direction, but I found it a bit crowded. There’s a lot going on. Any players who aren’t centre stage get involved in the interpretive dance, fanny about with drapes, or stand on a carousel and spin around the action. Every now and then they all gather around a table and mimic The Last Supper. It feels heavy handed and worthy – like those Eurovision songs that tell of the beauty and independence of some minor beleaguered state in an attempt to distract their more fortunate neighbours from the joys of glitter and lurex.

Fifteen minutes in, I’d had enough of heavily declaimed poetry, floating tablecloths and interpretive dance and was longing for the interval and blessed escape. Except that like most theatrical abominations these days, Salome has not interval. Of course not. Because then its victims might leave before the ordeal was quite done. I was trapped in the Olivier for a further 90 minutes. I knew how Salome felt in her dungeon, I can tell you.

It’s possible, of course, that this was a wonderful performance and I am merely more of an Old Testament Philistine than a New Testament revolutionary. The woman to my right wept when it really got going, and I think she was genuinely moved rather than bitterly regretful. However, take my experience as a warning, and do not buy a ticket to this show unless you can get an aisle seat.

Review: Judy! Arts Theatre, Covent Garden

6/10

Judy! is the latest in the procession of those shows about Judy Garland that pop up every now and then, the most notable among them being Over the Rainbow which had most Garland fans wetting themselves with excitement. This is not that show.

The basic premise  – you can’t call it a plot – around which Judy! operates is that the audience is watching Garland at three stages of her career: the action weaves in and out of the lives of Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and CBS Judy (Helen Sheals).

Sheals is magnificent – by far the best thing in the show – and captures all the fascinating, almost dangerous vulnerability that made Garland’s television performances so compelling. She quips her way through the recording of her TV series, fighting over its format, and scaring off producers while grappling with unscrupulous agents and Sidney Luft’s debts. Sheals has clearly both studied her subject meticulously and made the character and performance her own, allowing her to really enjoy giving us ‘her’ Garland. Her Judy is world-weary, but still sassy. The Judy captured by the likes of Rufus Wainwright and watched by millions of fans on YouTube. I was enthralled.

Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose) has yet to make her big break, is being made miserable by her mother and the studio for not being enough like Shirley Temple and only has an older, sympathetic gay colleague on whose shoulder to cry. Foreshadowing, for those unfamiliar with Garland lore, her alleged penchant for marrying gay husbands. Penrose’s physical performance can feel a bit stiff and overdone at times, but she captures Garland’s awkward, self-conscious “ugly duckling” phase beautifully, with jerky, overly theatrical movements. Her segment has the closest thing to a plot, as we see her transition from an outsider trying to get a studio contract, through relentless touring and finally into The Girl Who Will Be Dorothy.

By comparison, Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) feels like the weak link of the trio. This may be because hers is the least easily defined Judy. Sheals and Penrose seem to really know who they’re playing – and know her inside out. Wollaston seems uncertain, possibly because her character has nothing much to define her as Judy except the songs. In fairness to her, this is mostly a failure of the script. Palace Judy’s moments on stage are tedious and rambling, with nothing much happening except for emotional outbursts and declarations of love for Sid Luft. Wollaston never seems quite comfortable in the role, as if aware that her material isn’t the best. It doesn’t help that she is considerably taller than the other two Judys on stage, effectively breaking the magic of the show’s central conceit.

Fortunately for all concerned, the audience is there for neither plot nor script nor acting. It matters little that we learn nothing new or unexpected about Judy Garland from this show, or that in places the caricature (domineering stage mother! Gay father! Gay husbands!) is almost painful to watch. This show is all about the music. And on that score (!) the show delivers in buckets.

Supporting cast members drift from centre stage at the end of their scenes to pick up an instrument and join the band. Each Judy has her big numbers, with the fact that Garland reinterpreted many of her most famous songs numerous times throughout her career incorporated as the Judys join each other on stage to harmonise on favourites like Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart. Favourites like The Trolley Song are balanced with lesser-known gems and this is where the stars of the show really shine. Penrose and Sheals excel at bringing to life the energy of Garland’s early and late performances, leaving those in the audience born too late longing for the experience of seeing the real thing. It’s in the final part of the show that Wollaston proves her worth – and explains her casting – by giving an energising finale performance in top hat and tails. It’s hard not to be thrilled while watching these songs sung by a trio giving their best Judy Garland. Every time the music starts, the audience is mesmerised, not least by the fantasy of experiencing a fraction of what it would have been like to see Judy herself.  The dramatic action, on the other hand, instantly breaks the spell. I left feeling lifted by the music, but wishing the script had worked harder to match the musical exuberance. Not to mention wondering where I’d hidden my well-worn CD of Judy’s Carnegie Hall performance.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

8/10

Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.

The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.

The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag.  This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.

The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up.  Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.

Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.

 

 

 

Ugly Lies the Bone, Lyttleton Theatre

8/10

Jess is a US Army veteran, returned from Afghanistan with life-changing injuries. Scarred beyond recognition, she is getting used to a new face, a new body, and a new world of physical and emotional pain.

The action is split between Jess’s VR therapy sessions and her experiences at home. Reluctant to engage with her treatment, she hoodwinks her therapist into programming this world – which is meant to be a reflection of Jess’s own aspirations – in the image of her sister Kacie’s ‘dream board’. Here, she is encouraged to explore freedom of movement, to walk, to climb, to run. To escape her disabilities and her pain.

In the real world, Jess is navigating a landscape of a very different type, one that has recently changed forever. We discover that it’s not just Jess’s injuries that have changed her life for good – the shuttle programme has ended, leaving her hometown without a purpose, and her life choices have left her lonelier than she would like to be.

As the story begins, Jess is trying to avoid the outside world, hiding herself away from the guests at her welcome party and dismissing her sister Kacie’s efforts to draw her out of herself. The rest of the play is a heart-wrenching quest in search of the broken threads of a life that might have been – the teaching career she might have had; the man she might have married (played with brilliant awkwardness by Ralph Little).

Jess’s mistrust of new experiences is reflected in her interactions with her sister’s new boyfriend, welfare scrounger Kelvin (Kris Marshall) whom she suspects of nefarious intent.  Kelvin, who is not quite the man her sister dreamed of and probably not the best she could get, seems to embody the revised and imperfect future Jess sees stretching before her; one where she cannot choose the career she wants, or the lovers she wants, but must settle for what is available. And yet, despite his faults, Kelvin is not malicious and has both Jess and her sister’s interests at heart.

It’s not hard to make the comparison between Jess and her home country – or indeed our own – as she reels from the shock of her new circumstances and what they mean.  This is a play about change – and in particular the changes we can’t control. From the accidents that befall us, and the political decisions that impact our lives, to the unintended consequences of the choices we make. When change reshapes our lives, who understands? Who really loves our changed selves? Is it the people who look after us, or the people who remember us? Is true love remembering the version of us and our lives that we feel is most authentic, or accepting who we are, in the moment? These are the questions Jess has to ask.

It’s a difficult story to tell without tugging relentlessly on the heartstrings, but Lindsey Ferrentino manages to do it – and brilliantly so. Kate Fleetwood’s Jess surveys her surroundings with dry, sarcastic humour without ever becoming unsympathetic. The dialogue is witty, but with a stilted feel that reflects the occasional awkwardness of real conversations and real lives. If Ugly Lies the Bone were a Hollywood film, it would be heartwarming. Instead, it is reassuringly bittersweet. Jess’s therapy ends before she feels ready, and she learns that there is no Level 2. Her only choice is to start her climb again. In the outside world, she makes progress, but finds no answers. There is no happy ending here. Jess’s future remains precarious, her recovery unfinished. But perhaps now she has learned the acceptance she needs to start imagining her life all over again.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter theatre

10/10

This is the third West End production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? since I started going to the theatre, and the only one I’ve been to see. I was excited the moment I first heard it was coming. In the end, I went to see it more times than I’ve seen any other production, and was captivated every time.

The set alone, is cause for excitement, a sunken square of carpet that opens to the audience like a boxing ring waiting for its fighters, but nonetheless feels like a real house. The play, of course, is set up like a fight and uses repeated boxing metaphor and language. At various points, Martha is physically restrained, like a boxer who won’t admit it is the end of the bout. It’s the sort of space I’d love to live in, and I adored the genteel disorder and attention to detail of it.

At first glance, Imelda Staunton is an unusual choice for Martha. The role is usually played by an actress on the large side – and for good reason. Her zaftig frame is referenced several times in the text. So there is a little bit of mental jiggery pokery involved in putting someone so definitively petite in the role. George and Nick’s dialogue about their wives’ relative weight doesn’t make sense when Martha is a slim 5ft and Honey has a good 6 inches in height on her. Set aside that one inconsistency, however, and Staunton is, as ever, astonishingly good. Despite rarely playing glamorous roles – she has been known to tell interviewers that she likes “looking rough” on screen – she seems nonetheless to relish sexing it up in Martha’s “Sunday chapel dress” and playing off two leading men (Staunton is, it occurs to me, one of the few female actors I can think of who consistently plays opposite actors younger than her – Mat Horne, Conleth Hill, Michael Ball, Hugh Laurie all spring to mind. More casting like this please!). She has the most physically demanding role in the show, and her sheer energy is breathtaking, bringing the same force of nature performance she brought to Gypsy (of which more later): she writhes, she whines, jumps, dances, shrieks, seethes, yells, cries – and yes, she does bray. She makes the audience laugh as loudly as she makes them weep and manages to be as pitiful as she is grotesque. It rapidly becomes clear why the casting makes perfect sense. Staunton is a master of playing larger than life characters who tower over the stage, but when Martha crumples inwards, she wrings her rage and despair into a tiny ball of sobs that makes it possible to feel protective of Martha despite her monstrous ways. From the back of the balcony, it’s impressive. From the front row of the stalls, it’s so intense that it’s almost painful to watch. If I have one small criticism, it’s that occasionally – just occasionally – there’s a touch of Madame Rose about Staunton’s Martha – but just a touch.

Although Martha often feels like the star performance, it was George I was longing to see. Not only because his lines are some of my favourites, but because Conleth Hill is an actor who was always going to do something interesting with the role. While Martha’s rageful antics may seem dominate the action, it’s Hill’s George who is really running the show. Hill offers an excellent portrayal of repressed emotion: a great balance to Staunton’s Martha letting it all hang out. He seethes. He claws back tears. He sneaks off when it gets too much to deal with his feelings alone – a natural response when faced with someone whose bad behaviour is on display all the time.

For much of the play, he appears to be observing, ironically. Enjoying the show, even. But his vulnerability comes out, for me, in the moments when he can’t bear to be there.

It’s easy to think of George as the long-suffering half of the duo – Martha even characterises him as such. But ultimately, George knows – both of them know in fact – that he is the most together of the two, which puts him in control. Equally, Martha’s claims that George was a rising star who never made it never entirely convince me. Those ambitions, it seems, were all Martha’s. The George who would be king never really existed.

I read an interview with Conleth Hill where he expressed a fairly romantic interpretation of the play: that there’s hope at the end and George and Martha sort things out. For me, this outlook informs his performance to an extent: Hill’s George loves Martha and hasn’t stopped loving her, even though he also loathes her at times. He plays along with her games but that’s a choice; she needs him, which isn’t, so she has more to lose when he takes over as games master. Martha’s claim that George needs her arm to whip him rings false. He knows she’s broken and needs to push him away; she needs him there to push. But the final emphasis on “WE couldn’t” at the end when explaining their childlessness seals their complicity – lines Hill and Staunton deliver perfectly, while looking away from each other.

As someone who grew up watching the Mike Nichols film version of this play, it’s impossible to avoid making a comparison between the two – especially since the casting is a little off text in both cases. Reversing the age difference between George and Martha in the film not only makes it necessary to excise all the lines about Martha’s age, but also reduces them to an exceptionally vicious take on the archetypal older man/beautiful young wife pairing: this George has been seduced by beauty and lived to regret it. This Martha has married an older man – one she naively thought was more successful and sophisticated than he was. In contrast, Staunton and Hill’s take on the roles reminds me of so many mismatched couples I grew up around. Often the combination of a loud, mouthy, frequently vulgar wife and a quieter, bookish husband. No-one could ever quite work out what temporary madness had got them together, but it had. And only they knew what kept them together.

Additionally, when played by an actress in her 30s – not least one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen – Martha’s seduction of the not-that-much-younger Nick seems commonplace rather than grotesque. Watching the film, it seems hard to believe that this Martha’s conquests would need Dutch courage to attempt the deed, or approach her thinking only of their careers. I mean no insult to Ms Staunton by this – she makes an alluring Martha – but the seduction element takes on a different emotional and psychological hue when Martha is played by a mere mortal, and one who, at 61, is genuinely old enough to be Nick’s mother.

But it’s not all about George and Martha in this play, even if they do absorb most of its energy. Imogen Poots is outstanding as Honey – a difficult role since much of its success lies in the small, physical moments, rather than the lines, which are sparse and often merely punchlines to what others say. She makes it her own, aces the interpretative dance and gets some spectacular and well-deserved laughs. Luke Treadaway, as Nick, didn’t really do it for me. He never seems quite comfortable in his character, and the character is in turn uncomfortable in his surroundings, so things feel stilted. His chemistry with Staunton is better than with Hill, so that towards the end of the second act he improves, but I couldn’t help leaving with the impression that it was a role he didn’t enjoy playing.

It’s easy to see Nick and Honey as younger version of George and Martha – she with her emergent drinking problem and he with his career plan. I’m not against that theory, but I’d reverse the roles: Nick is more like Martha, with her ambitious plan for the future, and George is her mouse – a bit naïve at the start, perhaps dazzled by someone more sophisticated than he is. The young couple could easily represent America’s future, with George and Martha its squabbling, dysfunctional (and let’s not forget barren) past. In which case, we are now living in the world Nick and Honey have made for their grandchildren: if we want to know what happens to them after they leave George and Martha’s, I think we know the answer.

Overall, this stage production brings to life more of the devastating tragedy of the text than the film version was able. I always used to watch the film and suppose George and Martha spent their Sunday having kinky sex and then started the whole mess all over again the following Saturday. Burton and Taylor gave off that vibe. Staunton and Hill have a different chemistry. They’re going to sleep it off, crawl out of bed at dusk and either never speak to each other again or else finally discuss that rest home. You get the impression that while the two leads have enjoyed their fun at points, something really has changed, leaving the audience to wonder what happens when they finally wake up – not to mention the next time they run into their victims/guests on campus.

Is it time women stopped talking about women?

Recently, I was working with a respected colleague on a content strategy for a female client. Knowing that our client is deeply involved in high-profile forums for women in business and is a regular speaker at high-profile events, I suggested that she might want to build on this.

My male colleague winced, visibly. “The women thing…I don’t know.” His implication was that the subject of women’s inclusion in the industry was old hat. Despite this, in the course of our discussion he went on to make several references to how male-dominated it was – even mentioning at one point that I was the only woman he’d ever encountered in my sort of role.

During the rest of our conversation, I asked myself: was he right? Having given the matter some reflection, I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons why.

Talking about women still makes men uncomfortable

When I was born, feminism was already at least a decade past its most violent years. I’m in my mid-30s now and men still find conversations about women – and female experience – hard to stomach. A week or so ago I had a male colleague tell me that it was TMI to mention periods in the context of an article about a cycle tracking device. Really? This sort of squeamishness is unacceptable. If we want to live in a world where everyone – female, male, gay, straight, cis, trans – can feel comfortable sharing their experience of being a human, we need to shut this discomfort down. And doing so means sharing female narratives and experiences in every context – including the spheres of business and work.

Women still need visibility

The disproportionate male domination of business is not changing quickly enough. While women cut a streak as entrepreneurs, Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies are led by women – and given the fact that more than 50% of the UK’s population is female, we need to keep talking about why that is the case. We can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that motherhood gets in the way either – 20% of UK women never even have children. We should focus more on the fact that C-level execs are chosen by their peers – and many men don’t understand women enough to see them as peers.

Women are not an ‘issue’ to be resolved

By implying narratives around women are ‘done’, my colleague was suggesting women have now been successfully absorbed into the male business world and are no longer an ‘issue’ to be resolved. This attitude is problematic because it reinforces the working world as a male space that women have the right to enter but not to change. It also suggests that women need to be pacified – and in the process silenced. Talking about our experience as women is an important way to ensure not only that ‘male’ ceases to be the default, but also that our views and voices shape the world in which we work.

Equality shouldn’t mean being absorbed by men

If we set absorption as the goal for equality, we completely ignore the fact that women’s identity and experience is different – especially in the workplace. As David Parry-Jones has illustrated in his 50 Days of Male Privilege Statements posts, much of what is normal for women is completely unheard of by men. It’s not just a case of being underpaid and overlooked: women frequently have to restructure their careers – either through choice or responsibility – in ways that men don’t. Women rarely have a straight upwards career path and are more likely to make sideways moves. And these experiences have put women at the forefront of developing new ways of working. If we close down narratives around female experience in the workplace, we also close down narratives about, work-life balance, career design and the changing structure of work.

Closing down narratives around women – considering them out of fashion, inconvenient, or already dealt with – reduces the needs and perspectives of a large proportion of the world’s workforce to an afterthought. It also helpfully ignores many ongoing issues that affect people of all genders. As we start to increase our awareness of identities beyond the binary, conversations that challenge the male default are becoming even more vital. And we should all be having them.

Why don’t train companies bother using technology?

It’s 1.30 on Friday afternoon. It’s my lunch hour, but I daren’t consider a sandwich. Instead, I am sat on the floor of a GWR train with my laptop, feeling increasingly queasy as I read and write in discomfort.

This is the second time in a month that I have found myself travelling in this manner. The first was in early March, when, despite clearly selecting a specific train from King’s X to Edinburgh, I ended up with nowhere to sit. What had seemed to me like an opportunity to choose whether I had a preference over the TYPE of seat (aisle/window) was actually a question regarding whether or not I wanted a seat to begin with. Well, of course I did, it takes over 5hrs to get from London to Edinburgh and no-one wants to stand for that long.

I ended up first thinking I’d dropped my reservation – despite not having an accompanying reservation my ticket informed me it was not valid without one – before learning from Virgin I’d never had one in the first place. How was this possible, when I’d chosen and booked for a specific service? I was tired, stressed due to work pressures, and physically not in the best of health – and ended up bursting into tears, crammed into corridor space like cattle with a load of students from ghastly places like Peterborough. What should have been the start of a nice relaxing holiday was stressful and upsetting. Virgin’s team were making no effort to find people seats and their online support suggested I walk up and down the crowded train with my luggage looking for one. To add insult to injury, they had a limited menu and few functioning toilets. The best they had to offer me was a patronising take on “sorry”. I arrived in Edinburgh sullen, hungry, and so exhausted I had to change my plans for the following day.

Getting it better the Great Western way

Today, I actually had a reservation – booked more than a month in advance. However, due to distressing personal circumstances I won’t go into here, I wasn’t able to travel on that train. I booked another ticket this morning- and despite trying several different services, there was no way I could get a reservation unless I travelled First Class for over £200. I tried to get reservations on three different services before starting to worry that perhaps they didn’t make reservations for on-the-day travel – the language was unclear I had no option but to take my chances.

This time, I knew I had no reservation and went looking for a seat. I found one that looked as though it hadn’t been claimed – but that was only because the woman who’d booked it waited – bizarrely – almost half an hour to claim it. By which point all but one of the unreserved or unclaimed seats on the train had been taken.

Unlike Virgin, GWR actually put their staff to work finding seats for passengers, asking passengers to point out spare seats next to them to those without seats and making regular announcements about where seats could be found.

For the first three hours of my journey, I moved between seats that were between reservations (sometimes for only 20 minutes) and the corridor. Sometimes the corridor had up to 15 people crammed into it (GWR assure me there is no legal limit to the number of people that can be carried on a train).

Once I had secured a seat, I wanted some food. To get to the cafe several carriages away, I had to hop over buggies with children in them and step over toddlers playing in the aisles. When I tried to place my order I discovered they had signature-only card machines and as my signature has long been obscured due to the fact that card signature strips seem to accommodate few types of ink, I couldn’t get any food. As I braced myself for the return obstacle course, I changed upon one of their managers: like their Twitter staff, she was charming, calming, kind and accommodating. She listened to me, agreed the journey was terrible and gave me vouchers with which to purchase food. In the 30 seconds it took for me to thank her and hand my vouchers over to the cafe they had closed and I had to wait for a whole new stock to be unpacked. The cafe manager was amiable and chatty and did his best to cheer me up. But it was hard to enjoy my food or regain my seat feeling anything less than extreme anxiety. GWR are compensating for a poor service with great staff – but the stress on passengers remains.

Everyone else is doing it – why can’t you?

There are bigger questions here than simply whether staff help people find seats. For example whether train companies should be overbooking long-distance trains in this way – I can see the sense for short journeys, but very few people will actually want to go without a seat for several hours. Or why aren’t ‘you might have to stand for two hours’ seats cheaper , as they are in theatres? Why aren’t they just marked as ‘standing day tickets’ from the outset instead of making people go through the ‘would you like to book a seat’ charade?

There’s also the question of why – in 2017 – they aren’t making wider use of technology:

  • Why aren’t they showing live booking data – such as which services have seats available to reserve – on their websites like theatres and cinemas have done for a couple of decades?
  • Why – when gig promoters and airlines can manage it – have most train companies failed to discover e-tickets? Only Virgin seem to do this. Travellers shouldn’t have to waste the time they spent getting to the station early so they csn find a seat queuing to collect tickets.
  • Why aren’t they designing their apps so people can see which carriages have the most available seating?
  • Why aren’t they exploring technologies – well tested in other industries – that would allow them to provide an at-a-glance view of where reservations haven’t been claimed, seats are free/about to become free?
  • Why on earth don’t GWR have chip and pin machines when most other places have moved on to contactless?

Any other service provider would either be implementing these measures or would have them in place already. A UK train ticket seems to be just about the only think you can spend over £100 on with no hope of care, customer service, or interest in generating repeat business.

Your B2B Marketing Content is Probably Sexist. Here’s why.

Last week, while watching the video of Mary Beard’s excellent London Review of Books Winter Series lecture on Women in Power, I was struck by her focus on language – in particular on the way in which language which excludes women from power has become part of our everyday lexicon. Women, Beard points out, are often described as “grabbing” or “seizing” power – in other words, taking something that doesn’t belong to them. What’s most striking here is not the use of exclusionary language, but the fact that it is normal enough to pepper the headlines of most popular newspapers, reinforcing at a subliminal level, the idea that women shouldn’t hold positions of power.

As a B2B content specialist, I couldn’t help thinking about how often marketing language operates in the same way. While brochures, web pages and video scripts may not address the issue of women in power, they do often contain language that is subtly – and perhaps even unconsciously – angled towards men. Pick up the nearest piece of B2B collateral and you will probably find several examples of aggressive sporting or military metaphors. Obviously, women play sports and join the military, but such language is defined by and associated with male-dominated culture – and using it is a way of claiming the B2B marketing world as a male dominated space. Professor Raina Brands has explored the way on which such language promotes gender bias in her research.

This problem goes right back to the methodologies we used to define our audience and plan our content. As B2B marketers – particularly for the tech and telecoms industries – it’s easy to fall back on the idea that in a male-dominated industry, the only people we are marketing to are middle-aged, white men. As a result, we frequently craft our content in their image. On a recent client project for example, I was reviewing the first draft of some Day in the Life scenarios and was struck by the fact that all the characters in senior roles were depicted by middle-aged white men. I requested a change – but the creative team came up against a challenge: it’s incredibly difficult to find imagery of anyone other than an old, white male in a setting that lends them gravitas and power. Women and people of colour tend to be represented as youthful and up-and-coming. For our project, we managed to portray a more diverse range of individuals in the end, but the incident stayed with me as a stark lesson in just how strongly we associate business decision-making with one kind of person.

So, what do we do about it? Being more aware of the language we use is the first step. B2B marketers often make it their mission to eliminate industry jargon, so add gendered jargon to your hit-list too. Scan your copy for exclusionary terms and exchange them for more inclusive language: regardless of gender, not everyone reading sees their business as a military operation. When planning what you’re going to write, make a conscious effort to think about your audience. How do you imagine them? If you find yourself imagining a group who all fit exactly the same demographic, think again. Really question yourself and your motivations: are you taking the easiest option? Are you allowing unconscious bias to guide you? As you read, think about how people of different ages, genders and cultural backgrounds might read and react to your copy. It’s important to think beyond the words, too. Does the imagery alongside your content reinforce stereotypes by only reflecting white people, nuclear families, binary gender and heterosexual couples? If so, you could be weakening its impact.

Above all, be brave. Take this thinking to the rest of your team by going back to your stakeholder profiles and questioning their diversity. Start pushing back at suppliers of stock imagery and make it clear that they need to reflect a more diverse range of people at all organisational levels. Addressing these issues isn’t just good feminism: it’s good marketing, too. As we get better at distributing power fairly, we need to think carefully about the choices we make to ensure we’re addressing the B2B audience in its entirety. Which means thinking beyond men in suits.

 

Yes, the Leave vote is hostile to foreigners – and you need to come to terms with that

Here’s what the Brexit vote means to me: 52% of the people I share a nationality with think there should be fewer people like me in Britain’s future. And before you object, or make excuses, let me point out that if Britain clamps down on immigration, there will be fewer people like me.

I was born in England. In Hammersmith, to be precise. It’s where my dad was born. And his mum. And her mum before her.

I was born in England, but I am not English. I have roots in London, but that is not the same thing. My dad’s family – his great-grandparents – arrived here as Jewish refugees in the 1880s, ending up as East enders on one side and West enders on the other. My heritage spans the breadth of the city in which the family whose name I bear has lived for a century before I was born. Like I said, I have roots in London.

And yet, in spite of my birthplace, in spite of that heritage, I didn’t grow up feeling British. I grew up feeling foreign. The reason for that is my mother is an immigrant. Worse, she’s a brown immigrant.

Let me give you a flavour of how that feels, because if you tick White British on your census form, you probably don’t know.

When I was little, I lived across the road from a park. It was great park, with pretty flower gardens, a bandstand and a large playground that I could see from my window. All we had to do was cross the road. Except, we didn’t do that, because my mother was scared. Scared because on a regular basis some ignorant xenophobe would call her a ‘Paki’ even though, dear reader, my mother is from the West Indies. It wasn’t that we lived in a rough area: we didn’t. It was quite nice actually. And to be honest the tone of the area doesn’t matter because, when we visited my grandparents in their adjoining and distinctly affluent North London suburb and I went to the park with my aunts, those taunts would come again “Go home, you Paki!” It wasn’t easy to feel welcome.

I was born in 1980. The start of a decade when people from backgrounds like mine were still being treated aggressively for standing out. There were parts of London I only heard of as a child because Afro-Caribbean people were aggressed and killed there. My family were terrified of those places and still, in diverse and gentrified 21st Century London, there are tube stations where I alight with a sudden involuntary stab of vulnerability.

To give you a bit of context, I look white. Ironically, people are always telling me what a lovely, English Rose complexion I have. In the bad old days, people used to tell me that, you know, I could pass for just white and should roll with that. It seems unbelievable, but that used to be an acceptable thing to say.

Is it a surprise, then, that I didn’t feel British for many years? That I grew up in a limbo, feeling the country I was born in somehow excluded me?

Before my mid-teens, London was my place of origin. I could be from London because I could observe people like me there. I knew I couldn’t be English, and I wasn’t sure I could be British either.

I’ve always felt European, though. Because while I wasn’t sure whether the land of cricket and cream teas included or tolerated people like me, being born in Europe conferred upon me the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.

In the 1990s, things got better. Britain became a more diverse and welcoming place. By the time I was 16, British was something I felt I could be. I was glad to be born in and part of a country that welcomed people from all over to join them. It’s one of the few nice things Tony Blair ever did for me, the opportunity to feel comfortable with that identity.

It feels like the end of something

Today, I feel excluded again. Because that 52% – the people we shouldn’t call ignorant or xenophobic or stupid or short-sighted because their views are as valid as ours even if they send all the country’s assets tumbling – doesn’t think people like me have a place in its future.

Well, the thing is, 52%, if you don’t want us in your future, then you can’t expect us to stick with you in the uncertain present. To bring our skills, education and knowledge to bear in support of your economy. To contribute our taxes to your coffers. If you voted Leave, are you aware of how many young people of working age in this country are like me and may not feel they want to be here anymore?

There are other kinds of otherness. Like the fact that for a lot of older people in this country, people who were alive in the 60s and 70s and remember pre-EU Britain, Europe is still just a collection of neighbouring states. It reveals a lack of empathy that they are unable to realise that for most of us born after 1975, Europe is a part of our identity. Whether we call ourselves British, English, Scottish, Welsh, we have always been Europeans too. You’re robbing us of our identity, you pricks!

Poor life choices are poor life choices

For the moment, I am going to exclude protest voters, who, I hope, are educating themselves on the difference between how a FPTP General Election works and how a UK Referendum works so that they never do something like that ever again.

If you’ve voted Leave, the likelihood is that you‘ve swallowed a pack of lies, manipulations and misinformation. I have heard lots of well-reasoned, well thought-out, fact based arguments to Remain (I have heard some porkies too). For the most part, what I have heard from anyone who voted Leave has been inaccurate, preposterous or incredible. I’ve heard the occasional valid reason, too, but they were so niche that I don’t think we should kid ourselves that those are the reasons 52% of those who went to the polls voted the way they did.

Admittedly, here in London it’s quite hard to locate a Leave voter, but here are some of the reasons I’ve come across:

  • I’ve heard a woman I consider fairly well-educated and well-informed tell me that our poor little island can’t cope with more immigrants even though there is no evidence to support claims that the UK is overpopulated and the housing crisis is to do with government policy and development greed not a lack of physical space. Not to mention the fact that the numbers of immigrants aren’t enough to cause that problem.
  • I’ve had a friend tell me about a colleague who voted Leave because they wanted it to be a close result.
  • I’ve had a friend with three degrees tell me that he thinks we should leave because free movement of people in the EU is unfair, that it makes EU migrants feel they don’t have to “make an effort” and that EU migrants are mainly unskilled and don’t bother to learn English.
  • I’ve heard a man tell me he is voting Leave because he is angry about events in another country’s relations with the EU. What the actual fuck?
  • I’ve heard another woman tell me that she thinks things would be better for her son – whose main problem is being a stoner – if there weren’t immigrants taking all the jobs in the area where he lives – which has few immigrants. And probably few employers who want to hire someone who gets off their face every day.
  • I’ve read someone from Plaid Cymru claiming that the Leave vote is about sticking it to the elite. Yet it only takes a few minutes thought to realise that the elite are unaffected by this. The elite have enough money to diversify their investments instead of putting it all in the UK basket. They have prospects and can move elsewhere if the UK goes tits up. If they decide to stay, they can afford private healthcare when the NHS goes tits up. If you voted Leave for this reason, you have ‘stuck it’ not to the elite, but to yourself. You’ve shot yourself in the bollocks, that’s what you’ve done.

Do you think these are valid concerns? Because they read like bullshit to me.

It’s OK to tell people they were wrong

24 hours after the fact, I found myself surrounded by people telling me that Leave voters aren’t racist or xenophobic and it’s wrong of me to refer to them in that way.

No, it isn’t. Racist and xenophobic aren’t slurs – they are ways of thinking and there is a strong correlation between those ways of thinking and the Leave vote:

  1. Immigration is the main battlefield on which this referendum campaign was fought. Anti-immigration sentiment has been a primary motivation factor for Leave voters from all social classes and educational backgrounds. Just look at the comments section of any UK paper.
  2. Within hours of the result being called, people around the country were being subjected to racist and xenophobic abuse which was not a part of their lives 24 hours before
  3. A Leave vote makes the position of every foreigner here uncertain, whether because of their status as an EU citizen or their status as a foreign national who may now be mistreated
  4. Any vote sends a message. Whether you want it that way or not, a Leave vote sends a message to EU citizens that they are not wanted here. It also sends a message to all the bigots in this country that allows them to believe they are in the majority and to feel safe abusing foreigners in the streets and online

It might shatter the cosy world view held dear by some, but xenophobia is a significant reason why people voted leave, no matter how prettily they worded their concerns about immigration. Thinking foreigners are a drain, a negative influence, and that they should be shut out? That, my darlings, is xenophobia.

Why don’t people feel comfortable calling it out? It isn’t abusive or disrespectful to tell people they made the wrong decision when the result has been to send the country into financial disarray and to make huge swathes of the population feel they no longer belong.

I read recently the suggestion that Leave voters might be less likely to be open about their decision. To me, that says that deep down they know it is a poor one.

We need to stop making excuses for people when they get it wrong

The other thing I keep hearing is that it isn’t the Leave voters’ fault. That they were too tired/impoverished/ill-educated to look into the facts. That they didn’t understand how the voting system works. That they are just scared, and we shouldn’t judge people for their fears.

Hypocrites! You’re judging Donald Trump supporters for their fears. So you need to grow a spine and judge these people too. There was no excuse for not knowing how a referendum works – we had one just a few years ago. The media and Leave campaign bear some of the responsibility, but we cannot absolve the adults who made this decision.

For one thing, 52% of voters is too much for the ignorance argument to hold weight. The compassionate lefty middle classes are saying that because, yes, it’s devastating to think that people decided to vote irresponsibly based on emotion and hearsay when they could have obtained the facts.

But they did vote irresponsibly, and without doing proper research or even thinking logically about whether what they were being fed made sense.

As for those people who are too downtrodden to see straight, they are being given far less credit than they deserve. Let’s not lay this disaster at their feet. In most cases they probably did what 30% of the population did and didn’t vote.

As for me – I am a Londoner.

I am a European.

You can’t erase my identity, I will fight you tooth and nail to keep it.

This post previously had an addendum. It upset some people. I generally try to be nice and considerate, so I have moved it.

Murder by Bagel

Coffee - in a box!

Coffee – in a box!

I must begin with an apology: I am sorry, New York. I know you are very proud indeed of your bagels, and have indoctrinated millions – possibly billions – around the world into believing they are superior to all other bagels, but I am not convinced. The bagels I have had so far either lack the chewy deliciousness London’s Jewish bakeries have taught me to know and love, or have the consistency of a hockey puck.

Like doughnuts, bagels are everywhere. I have yet to meet a New Yorker – either abroad or on their home turf – who isn’t terrified of carbs and I am beginning to understand why. In this country, one is assaulted by carbohydrate from all sides, to an overwhelming degree. The result is a city of people who beg for protein while chugging back coffee and diet sodas.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

Take breakfast as an example: the bakery supplies my office with four bagels, pastries and muffins for each person. Because these items are twice the size I’m accustomed to at home, I eat half a pastry, half a muffin and a bagel with cream cheese and feel slightly sick. The leftovers leer at me from reception every time I head to the loo, making me feel queasy.

The one innovation I do like is the coffee box. Our helpful Baked Goods Partner has brought roughly five gallons of coffee in the sort of cardboard boxes my European colleagues and I usually associate with wine. Or, as the Italian among us says “the sort of boxes I see them drinking wine from in cartoons (because I would never be seen dead drinking wine from a box).” This, I have to try. But only after I’ve had my tea. For one heart-stopping moment, it looks like one of the boxes – the one that’s marked differently – might contain some sacred leaf, but it turns out to be decaff.

Madison Square

MSG – see what I did there?

Today’s delight is the view from the office window, which takes in Madison Square Garden. During our infrequent breaks, I take photographs and wonder how many blocks I need to walk to burn off a bagel.

The only things that are smaller here than in Europe (apart from the number of atheists) are the squares. Every time I go for a walk, I am utterly nonplussed by Google Maps indicating the presence of a “square” where I only see something that looks like the forecourt of St-Martins-in-the-Fields. Herald Square is one of these – it’s also where all the evangelists hang out, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons rubbing shoulders with one-woman cheerleading squads for Jesus.

The view from our office.

The view from our office.

Lunch is another carb ordeal, with salad on the side. 25 ciabatta sandwiches, cut into halves that are each larger than my size 7.5 glove-wearing hands, arrive accompanied by two large drums of green and goat’s cheese salad. My half steak sandwich is delicious, the salad is very nice, but at 12.30pm, the prospect of dinner at 6.30 is already making me queasy. I suggest to my colleagues that we stop off at our hotel and then walk to dinner to pre-empt the assault on our stomachs. We wander across to East 32nd St, stopping off at a Korean cosmetics shop on the way to purchase some cutesy handcream and face masks. window 3I get honey and cucumber cleasners for me, fox and panda moisturising masks for my youngest sister, and pig and cow masks for my middle sister, mostly to make the youngest sister laugh. On leaving the shop, I discover we’re in entirely the wrong part of town (thank you Google Maps!) and one of my colleagues bundles us into an Uber to the Meatpacking District.

Our destination is a seafood restaurant in a trendy area of town that reminds me of Shoreditch, but in a nice way. It’s on the second floor, water drips from the distressed ceiling and the DJ plays tracks carefully selected from the period 1975-1985. The clientele dining alongside us resemble models, the women favour thigh gaps and Botox and the staff appear to have been trained in customer service skills by Parisian waiters. They bring menus for only half the party, it takes them 30 minutes to deliver half our drinks, and they tantalise patrons by hovering nearby but refusing to make eye contact. My colleagues address these by commenting loudly on how terrible the service is, how undeserved the money that will be spent, how clearly they are distilling the gin, filtering the sake, growing the grapes for our wine.

We are instructed not to order starters as these have been selected for us, but to have whatever we like for our main. I skip over the $80-90 grills and select something that looks small: scallops on a bed of sautéed cauliflower. The appetisers arrive: grilled octopus, crispy fried rock shrimp, chicken lettuce wraps, tiny delicious pretzel rolls. I dig in, enjoying the delicious flavours.

The lobster we left.

The lobster we left.

And then they bring the seafood towers: two tiers of lobster, shrimp, salmon tartare, clams, mussels and oysters for every four people present. I nibble a couple of shrimp, enjoy a juicy lobster claw, sample a sliver of salmon and have three mussels before my appetite fails me. For the next 25 minutes I sit looking at the leftovers and wondering whether anyone ever finishes a meal in this place, feeling overwhelmed and slightly sickened by the amount of food being wasted simply for the sake of display (you simply can’t take raw fish home in a doggy bag). The staff, displaying their usual disdain, bring us our plates only once we have finished eating.

By the time my giant scallops and glass of Sancerre arrive I feel a little ill. I eat two scallops accompanied by a forkful or two of cauliflower morsels flavoured with pistachio and tamarind. It’s tasty, but the delicate flavour of the scallops is overwhelmed by rich sauce and in the end I can’t swallow more than half of it. I accept defeat, and offer the rest around. For the next hour I make small talk with colleagues while worrying that I may be about to vomit. The colleague on my left describes himself as “Irish through-and-through” despite being born in Long Island and warns me that Mexico is not a good place to visit, despite never having been there. To my right, my boss’s assistant tells me she things films from the ’80s and ’90s are the best. I disagree and she takes her conversation elsewhere, to someone who concurs with her. leftover lobster 2Unable to decide whether it’s the obscene quantity of wasted food on the table or impending food poisoning making my stomach churn, I suggest to my London colleagues that we leave, and we stroll through the meatpacking district before heading along Ninth Avenue towards our hotel. A stop into Duane Reade for earplugs leads to the discovery of a cosmetic pencil sharpener that’s better than any I have found in London and educates me on the existence of disposable cups with a clip-in compartment for snacks. For those who cannot contemplate carrying both a drink and a packet of crisps. One of the truly fascinating things about America is that there is a product for everything you can imagine.

The walk from 13th St to 36th dispels some of my nausea and walking up the stairs to my hotel room helps even more, but I feel queasy enough that I’m beginning to suspect the food here doesn’t agree with me: too rich, too salty, too voluminous. I consider emailing the colleague who organises breakfast to request a plate of fruit and resolve to drink more than I eat at dinner the following night.