Monday, 20 March 2017

The Fair Weather Gardener - Grandfather's Rhubarb

Greetings to all you fair weather gardeners, I've been one of these for ages.

It's probably in my blood somewhere, although my Grandfather was a completely serious, all-weather gardener. As well as mowing lawns, trimming many yards of beech and lavender hedges, cultivating herbs and flowers for cutting and brewing serious quantities of compost in huge pits, he grew all his own fruit - apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, you name it. He even had two small fig trees for a while, though I don't think they did very well in the chalky soil of West Sussex. He had taken those out by the time I was in my teens.
Pulled rhubarb - photo by Dieter Weber  

One thing he was certainly expert at was rhubarb - not a fruit in cultivation but cooked as fruit - he had a huge rhubarb bed and would straw it down in winter, then carefully begin to pull the edible stems from the ground early in the year. He'd trim the wrinkled, yellow leaves off with his special small, curved rhubarb knife, which was reserved for the purpose and put those into compost pits before taking the vivid pink stems indoors. Those early, sweet pink stems were beautifully cooked by my Granny.

When there was a surplus of pink stems for immediate needs, the bottling began, an exciting, mysterious process involving dangerously boiling syrup, occasionally exploding Kilner jars and many hours in the Aga. The aroma was heady and I've never eaten rhubarb like it, sweetly, pinkly juicy and most heavenly with Birds' Custard.

By the end of summer the huge leathery rhubarb leaves were our playthings, used for parasols or for roofing impromptu camps, while the solid, green-streaked stems would be hefty swords or lances, being whacked around the head with one was a serious business. We were allowed to play with them provided we didn't pull them off the plants ourselves, because they were considered too tough to be worth eating by that time of year. Grandfather still had to cut them himself, with his rhubarb knife, so as to not harm the crown. We were warned not to eat the leaves, they were poisonous.

My only attempt to grow rhubarb was singularly unsuccessful. The crowns would produce a few scrawny stems which were as tough as - well not boots, plimsolls maybe - and so acidic that even twice as much sugar as you would think possible barely rendered them edible. After indigestion became almost chronic I abandoned the rhubarb. The fact that at the time I was living nearly in the rhubarb triangle wasn't enough, those plants clearly needed all the pampering, manure and home-brewed compost that Grandfather had lavished on his. I wasn't up to the challenge.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Paris Snow - a brand new musical at Kino Theatr - review

I went to see Paris Snow with no great expectations. Live musicals aren't always my favourite thing, although I've seen a few. My main reason for going this time was a friend's suggestion, she wanted to go and I was already curious to see the inside of the Kino Teatr, which is a former cinema built in St. Leonards-on-Sea a hundred years ago. It was 'modernised' in the 1930's and again in the 1950's, became a bingo hall, spent time as a builder's merchant and has finally been returned to the performing arts with live music events, new shows like Paris Snow, drama, stand-up gigs, movies (current and classic) and live-streamed shows from London venues. As well as the auditorium, the building also houses the Baker-Mamonova art gallery specialising in Russian Art - a bit niche even for bohemian St. Leonards, but some very good paintings - and a restaurant/coffee shop which I've yet to sample (might review on Trip Advisor when I do...).

Paris Snow was surprisingly (to me) very good! Billed as a musical comedy-drama, it was co-written by Marc Mir (music) and Patrick Kealey who also directed. The production took full advantage of the limited space in this former cinema, the musicians including a pianist with baby grand occupied one side of the performance area, centre and upstage moveable staging was adjusted swiftly in the interval to set new scenes. Other scene changes were performed effortlessly by cast members while the show went on - smoothly done without the need for backdrops, furniture, flats, etc., why can't more productions be like this? The cinema screen was made good use of with video sequences, stills and graphics of sometimes not totally obvious relevance. There's no backstage to speak of in the building and not even a proper dressing room, let alone a green room so the hard working cast had to dress behind a curtain in the foyer.

The story starts with an American choir arriving for a concert in 1950's Paris, and receiving a mysterious invitation to a notorious night club. The city itself is represented by three spirits of Paris, who provide a humorous and knowing commentary which is a cross between a Greek Chorus and Shakespeare's rude mechanicals, with smatterings of fairy godmother. Witty writing and clever casting makes their contributions one of the highlights of the show. The plot has love triangles, murder, jealousy and even potential incest, with a fair amount of humour. The music includes beautifully rendered bluesy gospel numbers, some more standard love songs and at least one exceptional, upbeat number, "Nuff is Enough!" which was sung with huge verve and passion by the whole cast and accompanied by a distractingly funny video.

Overall I enjoyed the play very much and it was well received. I believe most of the 5 day run with two matinees was sold out and even the Sunday matinee we went to looked more than three quarters full. It was intended as a showcase/preview and comments were invited afterwards; the director is aiming for London. A lot of work has gone into the whole production and it deserves to do very well, with the right backing.