Guest blogger Joe Alessi writes from the road as he plays Albert in the Australian tour of Brief Encounter.
We are Kneehigh and that was the Melbourne Festival
But first, back to Canberra, specifically Canberra Airport. Yes, Canberra Airport. My inner anorak, much like Spiderman's 'Spidey Sense' was buzzing on arrival. A cathedral of glass, cement and steel designed by Guida Moseley Brown. Considering it only deals with internal flights, it's a very impressive building. It all felt so relaxed from arrival outside to going through to departure: air conditioned, sound proofed, naturally lit, wide open spaces, natural wood furniture, good food and well stocked bars. For design and architecture buffs, I’d just have to say, Charles and Ray Eames and you'd get it. The whole thing gives the impression you're travelling First Class. Which, for some reason, appeals to me on a very deep level...
Dearest Annette, not being the best flyer in the world, headed for the bar for a large shot of what the Scots call, The Water of Life and of course, Jim, being Scottish and a gentleman thought it best to join her so she wouldn't look like some (albeit gorgeous) lush, sat at an airport bar by herself at 11am. I sat with them both only to be with them in spirit as it were, just to admire the design of the bar you understand... When Jim asked for his whisky neat, the barwoman said she wasn't allowed to do that, when Jim enquired as to why, he was told that the bar participated in a scheme called responsible bartending, which simply meant that she could only serve spirits either with a mixer and/or ice. So Jim asked for one piece of ice, then promptly fished it out and necked it. 'Sticking It To The Man' - Part I. ('Sticking It To The Man' - Part II involves an argument between myself, a security guard and a wheelie bin at a gig in Melbourne, but more on that a little later..)
Melbourne. Melbourne. Melbourne! MELBOURNE!! I loved Melbourne... Oh yes I did. I felt so at home there, in the same way I felt/feel utterly at home in New York, San Francisco, Paris or Rome. Why did I like Melbourne so much? I think it's something to do with knowing how to show its best to the world, those cities I mention know what it takes to entertain visitors, you don't have to search for it, they just hand it to you, which I think London lacks, London's great but it really makes you work for it, you really have to hunt down what makes it special. Maybe it’s because I actually live there... I think we all have a natural apathy for where we live, wherever I travel in the world I always, always think, Oh, this is so much nicer than London! Or, oh, why can't we do it like this in London? I digress... Well, actually hang on, one last thing - the thing that's struck me more than anything else about all the cities we've visited here in Australia and it was our lovely Steph Curtis (Company Stage Manager, Stage Manager, DSM, occasional ASM and all round gorgeous glue that keeps this company together) that mentioned this and I think she's hit the nail squarely on the head, it’s that there seems to be a collective social conscience and pride (I use that word, pride cautiously) The people here love their towns, cities and country and it manifests itself from the small things like the lack of litter in the streets to the big things like acknowledging its past with respect to its indigenous people. The subject of Australia and its Aboriginal population and its history is of course a long and painful story which is still being played out to this day but this blog isn't the place to tell it. There are some great websites on this massive and important subject here and here, as has the Australian Government here and here.
We arrived at Quest Apartments on Flinders Lane, right in the heart of the city on Monday afternoon. The first thing that hits you is how very European the city feels, an amalgam of Paris, Budapest, Prague and London with more than a smattering of San Francisco and New York thrown in. You instantly feel that you're going to have a good time here. It has been voted the 'World's most liveable city' by the Economist Intelligence Unit, three years running: 2011, 2012, and 2013 and has been in the top three since 2009.
The city itself is relatively young, founded in 1835, only 40 odd years after European settlement, around the large natural bay of Port Phillip and up along the banks of the great Yarra River. The discovery of gold in Victoria, the region Melbourne is situated in; in 1851 led to The Victorian Gold Rush, which saw Melbourne, then a major port that served the area expand rapidly. The economic boom peaked in the 1880s, by which time Melbourne had become the richest city in the world and the largest city after London in the British Empire. Hence its claim to be Australia's capital city and subsequent spat with Sydney.
My first evening in Melbourne, Annette asked if I’d like to join her for dinner at her good friend's, house. She lives in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, its main thoroughfare being Brunswick Street. Nettsy was already there and she suggested that I should jump in a cab. It was a pleasant evening, so I decided to walk or maybe catch a tram; Melbourne's tram system is the oldest and biggest tram network in the world and the best thing about it is that the city council has very wisely decided not decommission too many of its old trams and replace them wholesale with ultra-modern versions but to keep most of them, the benefit being that these old trams add so much character to the city. Some are from the 60s, 70s and 80s and there are a few snazzy up to the minute ones but the best ones are from the 40s and 50s and are truly beautiful. The W and Z class being my particular favourites (*anorak alert* for train/tram enthusiasts, of which I include myself – read more here and here)
Ultimately I decided to walk and I’m glad I did as it meant I had to walk almost the whole length of Brunswick Street. The only way to describe Brunswick St is to liken it to The Lanes in Brighton but instead of it being a confusing maze of little streets, it's a long straight line of independent shops/bars/pubs/cafes/restaurant heaven. It used to be a very working class area and it was also where the cities immigrants gravitated towards on arrival, due to its low rents and cheap shops. A lot of the immigrants were from Mediterranean Europe, principally Italians who imported their espresso machines thereby laying the foundations for Melbourne's famous cafe culture. It then began to attract students, artists and bohemians. Slowly but surely as the old original shops closed, they were replaced by cafes, bars, clothes boutiques, record shops and restaurants, which in turn brings with it, 'gentrification'. Nowadays the houses in the streets that branch off Brunswick St go for a pretty tidy sum. I was running a little early so I stopped off for a pre-dinner Martini at Mario’s Cafe, a Brunswick St institution. I sat at the window with my drink and watched the street go by and was struck gently by how involved with the street it's people were, utterly at home, relaxed and comfortable: couples walking arm in arm, their heads inclined towards each other trying to catch what's being said above the street noise, redolent of Robert Doisneau's 'Kiss'; an obvious male transvestite or more accurately, judging by the makeup he was wearing, a drag queen but she looked fabulous, not gaudy or cheap but extremely stylish and elegant; pensioners with shopping trolleys; car loads of students, windows wound down singing along to Queen, (Really, guys? Queen? To quote the great Danny Baker... "Led Zeppelin and David Bowie did it so much better.”) People heading home from late, lazy Sunday lunches; two young men shaking hands for a little too long, possibly passing something of an illicit nature to each other... In all, it's a fabulous street: vibrant, alive, a little rough around the collar and absolutely where anybody with an enquiring mind, imagination, artistic sensibilities and appreciation of good food and drink would choose to live.
One of the most exciting (and there were so many to choose from!) places to eat on Brunswick St is Naked for Satan. Our sound technician Jay had given me the heads up, having heard about it from one of the crew. It's a Spanish restaurant but instead of tapas it specialises in pincho or pintxos which is the Northern Spanish/Basque version of tapas. The main difference between tapas and pincho is that with pincho the food is 'speared' with a spear (pincho) onto pieces of bread. If you want to learn more about the history of pintxos then allow me to refer you to good old Wikipedia (Oh and pedants, please spare me the "You shouldn't rely on Wikipedia for info as most of it is lies and a lot of it has been altered.." Meh.) It's a huge place on three levels with a rooftop restaurant but what excited Jay and myself most was that at lunchtimes, during the week, the pinchos were one dollar each (in the evening they're two dollars) we practically ran there! The bar was heaving with all sorts of delicious and substantial morsels and we filled our plates and our faces. When it’s time to pay, you just take your plate to the till, they count the cocktail sticks and charge accordingly, ten sticks - ten dollars. Have a look at their great website here.
Great food in Melbourne wasn't to be found in Brunswick St alone, oh no. The whole city seemed to be cooking. I ate a lot, in a lot of places too, certainly too many places to mention here but notable mentions must go to The European, Chin Chin, Movida, Cookie, Journal, Toff In The Town, and the famous Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, another Melbourne institution, pretty much untouched since the fifties. No website but there are many pictures of it online.
Our show was part of the Melbourne Festival, an annual arts festival held in October and we were performing at The Athenaeum, a beautiful, frayed around the edges (and all the better for it!) chocolate box theatre built in 1839, very much in the style of the great British theatre designers, Frank Matcham or Charles Phipps. Actually, not a chocolate box but a doll's house! The stage is tiny! Once our amazing crew managed to squeeze the set in, we then set about trying to figure out how to adapt the show to fit the space. There was hardly any wing space at all and we had to cut the entrances and exits through the door in the back wall of the set that Nettsy and I use, as it was actually against the real back wall of the theatre. We had to go downstairs and cross beneath the stage to get between stage left and stage right. For those of you who have seen our show, you'll not be surprised that we all lost a few pounds in the three weeks we were there... We were welcomed warmly by Josephine Ridge, (think Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson crossed with Helen Mirren) the festival director who gave us our goody bag of Melbourne Festival stuff: lanyard, leaflets, t-shirt, festival itinerary and rather lovely reusable canvass bag. The program was fantastic and I quickly worked out what/who I could see and inevitably who/what clashed with our show. So many clashes and notable misses in my book were the great dancer, Sylvie Guillem, Hofesh Shechter's dance company, Gurrumul, His Life and Music, Melbourne Ska Orchestra and Cody Chesnutt
What I did get to see however: The Rite of Spring/Petrushka by Irish dance company, Fabulous Beast. The immense Polyphonic Spree (one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to). Chilean reggae/roots singer Quique Neira. Nashville, country singer Caitlin Rose, beautifully heart-breaking songs from her. Artist, Marco Fusinato's exhibition, Mass Black Implosion, Songs of Wreck & Ruin featuring Paul Capsis, Megan Washington and Tim Rogers. And finally (but they were one of the first things I saw at the festival) a superb and very exciting musical outfit from Melbourne called Hiatus Coyote I first came across them in the UK on Gilles Peterson's show. I say again, if you haven't listened to his show on 6 Music and you love music, you're missing out... 'Joining the musical dots - soul, hip hop, house, Afro, Latin, electronica, jazz and more.' It's the 'and more' bit that catches you out.)
The gig, was at the Festival Hub down on the banks of the River Yarra, all of the bands played at the Hub, a temporary venue erected for the festival; part indoor, part outdoor, guest pop-up food trucks and a great indoor/outdoor bar (which we got discount to with our lanyards, I knew they'd come in useful!)
Being a local band, the concert was well attended; after ten minutes of standing behind a tall bloke (always me) I saw a wheelie bin at the back of the auditorium. It was one of those wheelie bins with a large letterbox style flap engineered into the lid, so one didn't have to lift the lid to put the rubbish into. In the spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, I thought that a better view was to be had by sitting on the wheelie bin; I was surprised that no one had already thought of it. I went to the bar and purchased two bottles of ice cold (bars and pubs of UK, please take note) lager and plonked myself on top of the bin. The venue wasn't that big so now I suddenly had a terrific view of the band. Perfect! Great music, head bobbing up and down, double fisting ice cold (bars and pubs of UK, please take note) beers. Life was good. I was feeling pretty smug. Fuck you, Tall Man, I can see above you now! Top of the bin, Mamma! It was then that it all went a bit Pete Tong. I was approached by a gentleman in a hi-vis jacket:
"Excuse me, Sir; can you please get down off the bin?"
"I said, can you please get down off the bin?"
"Oh mate, come on, what harm am I doing?"
"I'm sorry; you just have to get down off the bin."
"Look, I’m not drunk, I’m not causing any trouble, people can still *use* the bin, look it's got this nifty letterbox thing!"
"I'm aware of that, Sir but you have to get down off the bin."
"Why? Just give me reason?"
"You have to get off the bin."
It was at this point it dawned on me how ridiculous/hilarious this conversation was and maybe it was because I’d had a drink but instead of getting off the bin, I decided to push it a bit further. I had nothing against this very pleasant young man, he was only doing his job and probably wasn't getting paid very much for it and so with a smile on my face, I stuck out my hand, introduced myself and asked his name, he was a bit taken aback but he shook my hand and said his name was Sanjit. We then had a friendly chat about the stupidity of certain Health & Safety directives... you know how it is...!
"It's been nice talking to you, Sanjit (still smiling, still very polite) but I have to say that I’m not getting off the bin."
His face dropped, as if this had suddenly become a very serious matter:
"Are you being serious? Are you telling me that you're not getting off the bin?"
"Yes, that's what I’m telling you, Sanjit and what's more I’d like you to go and get your boss and I’d like him/her to tell me why I shouldn't be sat on this bin."
Another half an hour went by and barring a few more numbers, the gig was almost done. Sanjit returned having found his boss, a much taller, Australian bloke with broad shoulders and a large, square chin. I stuck my hand out, smiled and introduced myself. He was having none of it:
"Ok, Sir, we can do this the hard way or the easy way; which one's it going to be?"
I repeated my earlier plea about not causing any bother, not being drunk etc. He just looked at me... Easy way? Or hard way? The three of us, looking at each other, the band played on but all I could hear was Sergio Leone's tune at the end of The Good The Bad and The Ugly when the three of them face each other at the graveyard...
"So, by the hard way, am I right to assume you mean getting some more security and carrying me off this bin?"
"Yes, that's right."
What's the worst that can happen? They're not going to hurt me, right? They're just going to lift me off the bin and put me down outside, the gig was almost over anyway. To hell with it, I thought! Go and get the cavalry. A line in the sand, Goddammit, a line in the sand! And just as I was about to tell Ned Kelly, or whatever his name was, that I’d opted for the hard way, out of nowhere, our lovely Company Manager (and all-round gorgeous glue that keeps this company together) Steph Curtis appeared, I didn't even know she was in watching the band:
"Get off the bin, Joe."
"Yes, of course, sorry Steph."
Sanjit and his boss looked at me and smiled, I smiled back at them:
"So much for rock and roll, eh boys? So much for rock and roll."
Ok, so it's not on the level of Easy Rider or avoiding the draft or getting one over on the government or some global conglomerate but my little 'sticking it to the man' moment felt great nonetheless. You never got me off the bin, fellas, you never got me off the bin. (I didn't say that, but I thought it...)
Before I put this blog to bed I have to mention one person who made my stay in Melbourne even more enjoyable and memorable than it already was and that's my 'Goddaughter', Roza Hesmondhalgh, niece to one of my oldest and dearest friends, Julie Hesmondhalgh, who used to play Hayley in Coronation Street and daughter to good friends, David and Helen. She's not actually my Goddaughter but as I’ve known her since she was born, it just feels that way. Roza's nineteen (going on twenty nine) and decided to come to Australia on a twelve month work visa before applying for drama school back home. It was just coincidence that we happened to be there at the same time. She was there a couple of weeks before I arrived and had time to do a reccy of the city. So she took me by the hand and we spent more than a few days together just wandering around the city, eating, drinking, chatting, not quite solving the meaning of life, laughing and joking. Most of the time we ended up at The Spring Street Grocers for quite simply the best gelato I’ve ever tasted outside Italy. We also follow each other on Twitter and she's one of the few people on it who makes me laugh out loud.
So, Sydney next. Let's see what all the fuss is about.
Love light peace and respect
Blog1: To the Airport
Blog 2: Dubai from the Sky and Adelaide Arrives
Blog 3: 4:26am
Blog 4: Urban Myths, the Genius of Coward, and 'The Fear'
Blog 5: Venus, Breakfast, and the Ying & Yang of Adelaide
Blog 6: The Birds, Press Night and Yuna
Blog 7: Koalas, God, Jesus Christ, Fake Spiders and James Gow
Blog 8: A Time and a Place for Coffee, Wine Tour, Casual Racism, The Unbearable 'meh' of Sushi and Goodbye Adelaide
Blog 9: the Return of the Prodigal Son