Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Night with Julia Pastrana - The Ugliest Woman in the World.

Observing those who we desire to be like and those we dread to resemble is, perhaps unfortunately, an inherent human function. This primal urge to be titillated by beauty and disgusted by vulgarity once quenched by freak and beauty shows, is now addressed by online images and crass talent shows. Human oddities have a firm place in our history and in our hearts, we identify with them, pity them, aspire to their courage. We secretly share their shame.
Shaun Prendergast’s “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World” made its Bangkok premiere this November. There’s an interesting twist to this production, the audience are required to wear blindfolds.

The show begins in true carny fashion with the call of barkers and freaks, inside the circus tents, freakish whispers and wild exclamations rattle through the canvas. The experience delivers. Tom Poldre, Claire Stanley, Neil Anthony Rusia and freakshow entrepreneur James Lever gel well in this production. The atmosphere conjured by the creative team here is true carnival. Siree Riewpaiboon elegantly performs the title role as we follow her life, her aspirations, her premature death, and the death of her child. The show, written by Prendergast, was originally performed in darkness, blindfolds are a good twist.   

Julia Pastrana, a poor Mexican girl with physical deformities is put into service at the age of eleven, and subsequently liberated or imprisoned (take your pick) by Lent. A gifted singer, she travels the world, bears a child, and is exhibited across the planet both in her life time and posthumously. I particularly enjoyed her exchanges with Countess Prokesch-Osten played by Claire Stanley. 

Lent spirals into madness and despair and we were left wondering if his relationship with Julia is hinged on money, admiration, or a freakish mix of both. I've watched Lever perform twice before with Peel The Limelight, and was suitably impressed by what I heard again this time. When asked if a blind audience was a good thing for the actors, James replied "Yes and No." And he is correct. This is uncharted territory for all in attendance. This is something new.   

The show, for me, asked an ethical question.

Were the freaks displayed by P.T Barnum, Lent and co really, in large, exploited by the world they found themselves in or were they offered a life of fame and fortune they would, in today’s world, never have  had the opportunity to experience? What is the moral difference between a beauty and a freakshow?

Do we aspire to liberation or exploitation? Or both?   

But as Director Peter O Neil eloquently told me: “We do these shows so you walk away with questions.”

The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World runs until the 28th November.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Skateboarding in London and Memories of a Vacuum Cleaning Kind.

VAX was the king of the acid drop. A stunt performed by rolling your skateboard off a high ledge, keeping the board parallel with the street, and landing with ankle crushing glory on unforgiving concrete.

Does anyone acid drop anymore?

Seems so 1989 somehow.

The South Bank and Waterloo, where we smashed our trucks and wheels and chipped our decks as the homeless screamed and cursed and shouted at us through their mid-morning super-strength cardboard city deliriums.

Cold winds across the Thames, a sandwich at the Greek place where the owner challenged a gang of hoods who were robbing us of what we cherished most; our boards.

The Southbank where the city installed metal barriers blocking our terrain and in response we built a ramp from plywood liberated from a nearby building site thus defiantly grinded their metal barriers. Yes. The Southbank: The mecca of theatre, music, dance, the home of performance art.

 That was our place: Southbank.

VAX earned his moniker through sponsorship with the vacuum cleaner manufacturers who mass-produced the almighty VAX cleaning machine. Some of us had sponsors from local skate shops, some were skating for Deathbox, the British board makers, but most of us were doing it because we needed the discipline of learning an art and our homes and schools were for the most part unwelcoming.

We never questioned why a domestic cleaning firm would sponsor a thirty-odd year old skateboarder. Why should we?

Rule number one?

Never question the street.

Watch VAX go.

The ledge, the height of a man’s head, above a flight of fifteen or so stairs at the Shell Centre Waterloo, VAX wearing his battered T-shirt bearing the logo of his sponsor, rolls, teeth gritted, reaches the edge, drops... Time stands motionless as he falls, knees bent slightly, eyes perfectly focussed, the sound of victory as his slime ball wheels hit the concrete and that beautiful whoosh of poetry in motion as he propels forward. Us unruly teenagers stop grinding our respective lips to clap and cheer “Go VAX! Yeah!”

The truth, as every unruly schoolboy knows, is that the acid drop is the first trick any skate kid learns, it is as easy as falling off a log, or rolling off a kerb. Any fool can do it. A brutishly simple trick, moreover a waste of a good ledge potentially decorated with the skill of an ollie impossible, the verve of a flip, or indeed the arrogance of a melancholy mute grab; the tricks we were mastering were complex.

So why cheer VAX?

Perhaps VAX didn’t pose a threat to us? Maybe VAX would never be in the pages of R.A.D or Skateboarding, were we humouring an older man living out some deluded dream? Were we taunting him?

No it wasn’t that.

The trick that we were applauding was not the acid drop it was VAX’s life choice. VAX, the same age as many of our fathers, had made a decision not to conform, not to be one of suit wearing dudes who looked down on us as they lost their hair in upmarket bistros choking down watercress salad and studying the Financial Times.

VAX was never going to be one of those guys, he was cut from different cloth. VAX knew that the City would one day fall. VAX was living the life he wanted to live.

VAX took chances, snaked around the streets, made his own agenda.

Years later I'd got the suit and tie job and the house in the suburbs, slumped on the sofa watching some brain numbing crap there's a knock at the door. Some old fool selling cleaning equipment door to door.

After closing the door a thought occurred.

No it couldn't be.

Could it?

I opened the front door a crack and took another look...

A traveling salesman skated away...

The Beat Goes On

Thursday, September 3, 2015


DESTINATION THAILAND and BANGKOK POST TV are showing series of television interviews with writers and creative expats based in Thailand. Hosted by Keith Nolan, one of Bangkok's finest musicians the show is set to feature Christopher G. Moore and many others soon.

I happened to be the first victim person to be interviewed for the show. You can see the interview on several cable channels in Thailand over the next week or watch the interview by clicking the link below....

The Beat Goes On.