The fourteenth of May. A Monday morning. 9:00am. The date and time that, until all too recently had seemed blissfully distant, was suddenly upon me and my GCSE Music classmates. In the last two years, we’ve been assessed in two prepared performances (I did a saxophone solo and a clarinet duet) and over a lengthy period equating to just shy of two whole days, composed two pieces of music of our own. Now, the GCSE exam period got under way with this final part of our overall grade for Music: the listening examination.
As with several of my other upcoming exams, there are only a limited number of past papers available due to the infancy of this style of exam. In the two practice tests that do exist, I scored a mark that probably looked about average when compared to the rest of the class. By the weekend just gone, I was getting about 75% on most of the tests on the BBC’s Bitesize revision website, but there is only one test for each topic.
I think today’s paper was of equal difficulty to the two we’d done in class. It was certainly not like some exams where I’ve left and thought how ‘unfair’ the paper was, and how ‘nothing we’d covered beforehand’ has come up. Sure, it had a question or two which was not similar to anything we’d seen before, but – on the most part – I had the knowledge to give it a go. I wouldn’t necessarily blame it on the CD player (though I do doubt its bass levels were turned up as loud as they could have been) but I found one question asking about a recording’s bass rhythm very difficult, as I just couldn’t pick out the lowest part from the mix.
I’m not holding out for a high-end grade: I’ll be surprised if I get anything higher than the Cs and Bs I received from the mock exams. That said, I’ll be surprised if I get anything much lower either.
The exam season has begun… but only just. Equating to just 20% of the final mark for its subject, the Music Listening exam is merely an overture for the epic opera – with its fair share of tears, trials, and (hopefully, at the end) one or two triumphs – that is now getting underway.
Tonight, my school’s new Music and Drama facilities were officially opened by The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, followed by a twenty-minute show incorporating all three performing arts. Ms White, the headmistress, began the proceedings with a short welcome, before Mrs May made an address to the audience of 82.
I was reminded of a line in David Ward’s book Transformation, which tells the story of the construction of the new RST, a theatre we visited in June. Though our construction took just six months to complete (five months less than the construction of the Courtyard Theatre described in the text), and the fact our new stage lies on what was once a part of the field (rather than a Stratford-upon-Avon car-park), the message is the same. Furze Platt’s new Drama block has been put up in astonishing speed. Even taking into account the delays and extended handover dates, the building is hugely impressive for a school, and extraordinary for a non-performing arts specialist school.
"Ten days before Midsummer’s Day in 2006, actor Richard Cordery walked on to the thrust stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, pointed to a woman in the front row, and said: ‘It’s hard to imagine, madam, but 11 months ago I parked my car exactly where you are sitting.’"
— David Ward, Tranformation, first published 2011
As Year 13 Ryan Tomlinson walked into the spotlight, he began reciting part of Jaques’s All The World’s A Stage soliloquy from Shakespeare‘s As You Like It. This introduced a short film with photos of the construction of the new buildings, pre-timed to the Chamber Choir (of which I’m a member) singing Hallelujah live, from the gantry around the stage. As a singer, it wasn’t the easiest ‘gig’ I’ve ever played, with my sightline of Miss Watson, the conductor, severed by a huge number of theatre lights. Even so, I’m pretty proud of the sound we made.
Next on stage was Nicole Mather dancing a solo ballet piece. When her routine finished, she was joined by six other GCSE Dance students in my year, who performed a more modern dance.
Guitarist Lois Brown then played a Spanish piece on her instrument, beautifully lit by a red spotlight.
"Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
— All The World’s A Stage, as recited by Ryan Tomlinson at the opening ceremony of the new Drama and Music facilities, 11 November 2011
There was a reprise of Hallelujah as the short show came to an end, with Ms White then taking the stage once again to close the ceremony.
"I was going to come on and say ‘Hallelujah’,but I’m almost speechless. You can see by the quality of the arts here at Furze Platt that the new facilities will be warmly received."
— Ms White, Headteacher of Furze Platt School, on the opening ceremony of the new Drama and Music facilities,11 November 2011
Before everyone went home, there was just time for William Shaw and Ben Spurgeon to demonstrate the capabilities of the new state-of-the-art recording studio (crafted in the shell of an old Music classroom) on the other side of the campus.
Betty Blue Eyes
George Stiles and Anthony Drew
The Novello Theatre, London
I think it’s probably something where you either emerge thinking it was great fun, or you leave having failed to grasp the show at all. Sadly, I fell into the latter category after watching tonight’s performance of Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre.
It was just bizarre. I mean, visually, it’s great; the set design, lighting, and costume were all much better than I’d been expecting. The projection, displaying Pathé newsreel from the era the play’s set in (the immediate post-War years) was highly effective. The use (perhaps overuse) of the fly-tower also added visual impact, as houses, living rooms, and staircases descended in a divine-like fashion from the sky.
However, staging aside, the show itself has a distinct school musical-ish quality to it – but then, in fairness, it’s written by the same pair who wrote the brilliant HONK! that I starred in last year. The score is, vocally, not at all demanding and, on the whole, the plot failed to keep me entertained. Between bizarre moments of dialogue there’s a number of musical items, accompanied (sometimes) by awful chorography. I say ‘sometimes’ as the decision over which items would have dancing seems to have been made erratically: some were completely static while others looked like something an LSD-addict may hallucinate.
The title character is played by an animatronic pig, whose flesh is sought after during the meat shortage of the food-rationed 1940s. Whilst the Ministry of Food inspector desperately tries to ensure that “everybody gets their fair share”, a poor couple called Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers (played by Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith respectively) are hiding the animal after stealing it for their own dinner. There’s a great deal of toilet humour surrounding the sound effects that the reeking beast produces, which surprisingly appealed to my fellow audience members – primarily, oddly, in the 40+ age bracket. There’s also a nod to Shakespeare’s great Macbeth, where the poor wife charges her husband with the task of drawing the blood. Although the quote “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” as she lifts the blade herself is a blatant reference, the show goes further my mirroring Macbeth’s mindframe of ‘Am I man enough?’. (Indeed, there’s yet another song devoted to this simple yes/no question.)
The real star of the show, though, is Joyce’s mother who lives with the couple in their home. The actress who plays the role (Ann Emery) clearly enjoys what she does, and whilst (like all of the other parts in Betty Blue Eyes) it’s not a tough character to portray, it’s certainly the most fun. There’s a great scene (even if the punchline is rather predictable) where the couple are discussing how they’ll kill Betty (the pig). The elderly mother overhears their discussion and believes that they are in fact talking about how they’ll kill her. (“We could poison her, or lead her up onto the roof – she’s bound to follow us…”) It had the audience in hysterics, as the elderly lady’s facial expression display her disbelief and fright.
I’m never afraid to give something a shot. Of course, I’ll read reviews before booking tickets, but I like to step outside of my comfort zone. I also hate to sound a snob, but think there’s little to be gained by saying one enjoys everything they see if in fact they don’t. Certainly, the majority of the other theatregoers loved it, and some even gave a standing ovation during the bows. For me, though, (and I’m struggling not to sound like an X Factor judge) I just didn’t get it. I’m amazed that anybody could stretch out a story about a pig intended for the slaughter into a musical lasting two-and-a-half hours. Personally, this show demonstrated that people are willing to try, but they’ll inevitably fail to make it any good.
Having said all that, a tenner for a seat in the stalls (I’d been granted a free upgrade from my ‘up in the gods’ place) is remarkably good value for a night’s entertainment, even if I found myself laughing out of embarrassment than out of the show’s attempted humour.