Guest Blog: Joe Alessi - Koalas, God, Jesus Christ, Fake Spiders and James Gow

Guest blogger Joe Alessi writes from the road as he plays Albert in the Australian tour of Brief Encounter.

Blog 7: Koalas, God, Jesus Christ, Fake Spiders and James Gow

We are Kneehigh and i'm agnostic.

But more on that later..

Monday belonged to Koalas, Kangaroos, Kookaburras, Wallabies, Wombats, Emus, (a confused) Tasmanian Devil, Pelicans, Cranes, Dingoes and a minibus driver named Sue ("How do you do..!") 

Kate Cheel, who plays Beryl, kindly organised it for us to visit Cleland Conservation ParkShe'd emailed the park ahead and organised a block booking and also took it upon herself to hire a minibus. The driver, Sue, picked us up, bright and early on Monday morning, the first thing she did was send Jim Sturgeon and myself off with a flea in our ear back to our rooms to get our jackets, she knew that where we were going (half way up Mount Lofty) was going to be somewhat chilly. She had an infectious, cheery disposition that added to the joyful hysteria, reminiscent of the school trips of our youth and preceded to give us a potted history lesson on Adelaide and the exciting life which she'd lived: teacher, mother, driving instructor and prison officer at a maximum security men's prison, she was a true character, in a refreshing un-PC, no bullshit, speak her mind kind've way. Whilst she was at the prison, she said when things got a little on top of her, she'd go out to her back garden with a chain saw and hack away at huge logs, where she'd imagine so many hands and penises flying through the air, "Better than therapy!" she said. Jim and i exchanged rather worried looks and giggled like naughty school boys. She was also a crack shot, shooting being one of her many hobbies. I did fall a little bit in love with Sue, despite the fact that she was old enough to be my Mother, she was just.. well.. how can i put it..? Cool. If ever we were attacked by zombies, i'd imagine Sue being at the vanguard, cigar at the side of her mouth, cackling, as she blew the head off a zombie. I wouldn't mess with Sue.

Hi roo, how do you do?We arrived at the park and were shocked at how cold it was and misty, like a pea-souper, i suppose it is half way up a mountain after all, thank God Sue had warned us. I realised very quickly that although i did have my jacket, my Converse and Howies shorts just weren't going to cut it (Sue had warned me about that too but i defied her) so i decided to put a brave face on as there was nothing i could do about it and entered the park where the first thing we saw were Kangaroos, lots of them just lying and standing around, not behind bars or in an enclosure, but there, in front of us! I think we all regressed to school children, giggling nervously as we cautiously approached them. They were fantastically uninterested in us but we had bought bags of food at the desk and when we proffered them like nervous kids offering the school bully our crisps, they soon changed their tune and came hopping over. The first thing to say about them is that they're huge beasts, when standing up on their back legs, they can reach up to six feet. We discovered that if we held the food up high in our hands, they would stand up and grab our hands to eat it. I had a bit of a jokey wrestle with one but soon realised that if he (for he was clearly a 'he' if you get my drift..) decided that he'd had enough, he'd jump up and 'thump' me with his back legs, no doubt sending me, cartoon like, half way down Mount Lofty. There was much of the same as we meandered through the park: "Oh look! Wallabies, lots of them!" "Oh look! Emus, lots of them!" "Oh look! A Tasmanian Devil... Just one!"  Poor thing, by the looks of it, he was totally alone in his enclosure (for they are ferocious), looking like he was in training for a marathon, running the same figure of eight route round and round and round; we watched this sad sight, in silence for about five minutes, this little, hairy, black piglet trotting around, never deviating from its route or slowing its pace, it looked like it was suffering from cabin fever. Someone snapped us out of our hypnotic state and said we should move on; that person was Nettsy, she'd come for one reason and one reason only and that was to hug a Koala. She been hardly capable of containing her excitement for days previously, like a little girl counting down the days to Christmas. We arrived en-masse at the 'Hug A Koala' hut about fifteen minutes before it opened, Nettsy was hyper-ventilating by this point and we had to count her down and even then she had a grin on her face like she'd been drugged by The Joker. The Koala lady arrived and looked at us and said: "You ALL want to hug a Koala?"

Er, yes! Why do you think we're here? Travelled half way around the world for this, nothing to do with Brief Encounter, sod that, we've come to Australia to hug Koalas and feed Kangaroos, so shut up and get that Koala out! The Koala was named Jay and he was gorgeous, we all went very quiet, a little bit awestruck, being so close to an unfamiliar animal - nature, cute in tooth and claw. We were asked to keep the noise down as they have very sensitive hearing apparently, i looked down the line and by this point we'd all been infected by The Joker's smile gas. Jay behaved impeccably, duly climbing into everyone's arms, while we each had our photos taken, aided by another Koala Lady who was super efficient in a strict teacher kind've way, completing the school metaphor for the day, the antithesis of Sue the cheeky bus driver that all the kids love. We each of us had our photo taken with Jay and then said goodbye as we discovered the rest of the park - snakes, lizards, various water birds, a very chilled Pelican that allowed us to take pictures up close, incredible creature. Wallabies, who i think won the 'cute' competition for me, Jay coming in a very close second, a little shier than their Kangaroo cousins and more nervous and much smaller but we managed to win them over with our paper bags of food. It was then we heard a slight commotion which turned out to be a few of the guys discovering a Wallabie with a little 'Joey' in her pouch, we all rushed over to see and sure enough, there it was, its cute little head sticking out as well as its legs (or is it 'arms'?) like thin, brittle sticks pointing East and West; a flurry of photos and excited chatter as we competed to feed both mother and babe. By this point, i'd forgotten how cold i was, the park had won me over and as we wandered back to the minibus, a Kookaburra up in a tree called out ("Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree..") if you haven't heard a Kookaburra's call, have a listen hereI wouldn't call it a call as such, more of a laugh and loud too, almost mocking as if it had played a practical joke on us. Before heading off, we duly visited the gift shop where i saw a very lifelike, plastic black Red Back spider for sale for a paltry two dollars and remembering Jim Sturgeon's pathological fear of spiders, i bought it; upon exiting the gift shop i heard the Kookaburra cackle loudly, i looked up at it, gave it a wink and patted my pocket. All in good time, my dear, all in good time..

One of the things Adelaide is famous for is the amount of churches it has, in fact it is known as The City of Churches. The other day i found myself aimlessly wandering down Rundel St, it's the main pedestrianised shopping drag and the one area in Adelaide that reminds me of back home, all chain shops and department stores. Amongst the usual noise of chatter, store muzak and buskers, I could hear a lone voice shouting loudly, i followed the noise and discovered a bespectacled old man in his late seventies, bible raised high, proclaiming the glory of God and Jesus Christ. I stood watching and listening for a while, as far as i could tell, i think he was a Jehovah's Witness. I was transfixed, not by his message but by him, apart from looking exactly like my Dad and about the same age, which was disconcerting enough; he looked perfectly normal, now let me immediately say that i'm in no way suggesting that people of faith are not normal, it's just that when you see someone shouting in the street, you can't help but think that they're dealing with some issues. His clothes were neat, clean and pressed, his hair wasn't disheveled and he had polished, sensible shoes. I wondered if he was married? Did he have children? Were they also Witnesses? If not, i thought, what must they think of him? Is it a cause for concern in his family: "Mum, what are we going to do about Dad? We're really worried, apparently he's been down on Rundel Street, shouting about God and Jesus..!" or do they just humour him? Or do they just accept it and respect him and his faith? I wondered how i would feel if my Dad 'found God' and decided on this course of action? His voice was croaky, it was clear that he'd been here a while, nobody was taking any notice of him apart from a few teenagers who mocked him as they passed. He lowered his bible and made for the bench, where he sat down, picked up his bag and took out a flask and poured himself a cup of tea. At that moment i felt so much pity for him, maybe misplaced, for all i knew he could be the happiest, most content man in the world but at that moment, he was a frail old man sat on a bench in the middle of town, drinking his tea, while the world spun on around him: shoppers, workers, advertising, shops, noise, business, (it put me in mind of the story of Jesus at the market place) right then and there he looked like the loneliest man in the world. The question of faith has intrigued me recently, personally i'm agnostic, believing that the presence of a God in whatever form can be neither proved nor disproved, so just get on with your life and be in the here and now; some would say i'm hedging my bets! But the fact remains that billions of people around the world 'believe', without there being a scintilla of proof. I realise that to many people, their faith brings comfort, security and a sense of belonging, so who am i to judge? Not that i would judge in any way, i just want to pose the question: knowing what we know now (and what we've yet to find out ie. Cern and the Large Hadron Collider) about science and its many breakthroughs over the last hundred years, how does a perfectly intelligent, well adjusted normal human being, capable of rational thought believe in a God and follow a religion without any proof? That's what interests me about people's faith. When i've tried to get some answers, the best that people have come up with is "Ah well, yes, there's so much we don't know and faith is such a personal thing." That's not good enough for me i'm afraid, in that case why don't we start a religion worshiping Superman or Lewis Carol, Owen Meany or The Smurfs? When did the Greek and Roman Gods fall out of favour? Surely it's the same thing, old stories.

And so...

Wednesday was birthday day, our esteemed colleague, James Gow turned 23, he's one of those really annoying musicians who can pick up an instrument, look at it once and then just play it, and really well too. I wish I'd stuck it out at the piano when I was twelve, I lost interest when girls became more interesting, I might feel less of a big lump of talentless lard now if I had. I digress, we all chipped in ten dollars a piece and as he likes to eat and cook (I knew there was a reason why I was sharing an apartment with him) we decided on a trip to Central Market where we would make up a hamper for him, I've mentioned Central Market in a previous blog, in case you missed it, here it is. This was my task, I didn't know where to start, it was quite overwhelming, i just took a breath and started at the one of the cheese stalls and preceded to work my way around, an hour and a half later and a few coffees, i had the most wonderful hamper you could imagine: a bone in rib-eye steak, fresh artichoke, a huge fennel, watermelon, various fresh dips, cheeses, parmesan stuffed olives, large jar of roasted red peppers, homemade tomato sauce, paté, cornichons, chocolate cookies, soft amaretti biscuits, passion fruit, half a giant paw paw, bread. I could barely carry it back to the theatre the bags were that heavy, not to mention the empty cardboard box I picked up to put it all in, i carried that between my teeth; I wonder if someone noticed me almost tiptoing back to the theatre looking like a performing monkey/madman with the box in my mouth and is right now writing a blog saying how sorry he felt for me.. ("What must his family think of him?") After the play, that evening, we went to celebrate at a Moroccan restaurant found by the ever resourceful Kate Cheel. We had the upstairs all to ourselves and for forty dollars a head we were transported to the very door of the souk. Course after course of magical, moreish, Morrocan food arrived at our tables and to top it all we were treated to a belly dancer who performed her hypnotic routine for us, which included getting the Birthday Boy out of his chair and getting him to dance with her. James performed admirably but to say he couldn't have looked more 'English' is an understatement: half drunk, big, broad smile across his face and the stiffest hips this side of Kent. Right there and then, in a Moroccan restaurant in Adelaide, Australia, I thought, This is England and he is England and we are England, but in an honest, uncynical, funny, half drunk, good and gentle way, not cruel or mocking, just like our play I suppose, quintessentially English and beautiful, with a big, broad smile across its face.

Our play has received the most glowing reviews, which is of course really good to hear and bodes well for the remainder of the tour. As performers, we've all settled in and are finding new things with each performance. Jim, Michelle and Kate look as if they've been doing it as long as Nettsy and myself. Much respect and huge admiration goes out to them.

In my next blog I shall address the issue of jogging, whether to listen to music or podcasts whilst jogging, whether to jog on a treadmill indoors, or outside. A wine tour organised by our very own Michelle Nightingale, a bike ride along the River Torrens and down to the beach and a rather satisfying practical joke involving Jim and a plastic Red Back Spider.. "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree.."

Love, light, peace and respect

Joe X

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Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter

“The most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie” Ben Brantley, The New York Times

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