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Theatre

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Detail from a portrait by Jenny C HallI find myself moved to an unexpected degree by the recent death of that giant of the British theatre – Sir Peter Hall – at the age of 86.

It is a fact of life I suppose that, once one enters one’s autumnal years, the deaths of those with whom one is familiar – whether actually close or not – will have a cumulative and increasing impact. There have been losses over the past few years amongst that small group whom I personally hold to be ‘heroes’ which have been hard to take. Inevitably that number is only going to increase.

Peter Hall was not – for me – directly among that coterie. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I saw few of his many productions and – with rare exceptions – they do not feature in my personal canon of influential experiences. This is not in any way to denigrate the value of his vision, talent or achievement; in such matters opportunity and circumstance set us all on our own particular paths.

It is impossible, however, not to be overwhelmed by his impact and influence on British and international theatre during the post-war years. Consider:

  • he introduced London audiences to the work of Samuel Beckett in 1955 with the UK premiere of ‘Waiting for Godot’ when he was only 24.
  • in 1960, at the age of 29, he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, which he ran triumphantly until 1968.
  • he became the director of the National Theatre in 1973 and oversaw its protracted, painful but ultimately successful transfer from the Old Vic into its permanent complex on the South Bank in London.
  • he built an international reputation in theatre, opera, on TV and in film.
  • he was the founding director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston in 2003.
  • he was – throughout his career – a vociferous champion of public funding for the arts.

The news of Sir Peter’s death stirs a couple of thoughts and memories.

The National Theatre’s new home was opened in 1976 with a production of Howard Brenton’s ‘Weapons of Happiness‘ in the only one of the three theatre spaces then operational. I see from the InterWebNet that it ran for 41 performances – at one of which I was present. I marveled at the still unfinished building and at the wonderful standard of the production. The National was to become a most important venue for me – I have seen many productions there over the years; done the backstage tour more than once; participated in youth theatre workshops in its rehearsal rooms… and met the Girl for our first proper date in the bar outside the Lyttelton Theatre.

I am also a fan of the Rose in Kingston. Having been at school in Kingston and subsequently involved with youth theatre in the surrounding area, I was only to keenly aware of the lack of a theatre of any sort in what is an important centre to the south of London. I am delighted that the Rose now so splendidly fills that gap.

One sadness regarding Sir Peter’s last years was his diagnosis with dementia in 2011. Having observed my mother’s decline over her final years it must have been particularly poignant to witness such an intellect brought so low for so long.

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The Victoria Fringe Festival has already made several appearances in these postings (here and here – should the gentle reader feel inclined to backtrack) as the Girl and I have become regular supporters in the couple of years a that we have lived on the outskirts of the city.

This year there is – of course – a significant difference in that I am now a member of the board of Intrepid Theatre – the splendid organisation that runs the fringe (and other theatrical festivals) in Victoria.

The practical difference for me is that the period during which the fringe takes place – twelve days at the end of August and the start of September – is now considerably busier than it has been in previous years. When compared to the sterling efforts put in by the company’s staff those of the members of the board pale into relative insignificance, but there are duties incumbent upon them (us!) during fringe season which require time and effort.

For a start – there is an ambassadorial role to play. It is our job to meet and greet members of the fringe-going public, to make them feel valued and cherished, to listen to their views and criticisms and to build – where possible – the sort of ongoing relationship without which an organisation which relies so heavily on the support of the local audience could not survive.

The second (but closely related) role is to raise funds. Intrepid receives considerable and most welcome grants from government bodies without which it simply would not survive. Given that the ethos of the fringe is that all of the proceeds of the venue box offices go directly to the performers, the central costs of running the fringe must be covered by other means. Some of this shortfall comes from the sale of fringe buttons – a badge without which one may not enter a venue – but the rest must be raised by generous donations and other fundraising efforts led by the board. This year these included a fifty/fifty raffle draw that ran throughout the festival.

My direct involvement in the fringe was restricted to the first week only (for reasons that will become clear in a subsequent post) but in that brief period I worked at the Fringe Preview evening, at Fringe Kids (an event for children in Victoria’s Market Square) and – selling fifty/fifty tickets – on the queues of fourteen shows. In addition the Girl and I managed to see a total of seven shows.

The standard this year has been as high as any. Herewith our personal picks of the fringe:

  • Local comedian Morgan Cranny as ‘Vasily Djokavitch‘ (get the pun?) – billed as ‘Russia’s #1 State Approved Comedian‘. Highly amusing and directed by none other than Mike Delamont!
  • Gigantic Lying Mouth‘. Glaswegian spoken word artist Kevin P. Gilday in a dazzling blend of poetry, imagined conversation and multimedia – blending humour with much that was thought-provoking on the subjects of life, art and death.

…but perhaps best of all:

  • Englishman Charles Adrian as Ms Samantha Mann in ‘Stories About Love, Death and a Rabbit‘. Adrian has won awards for this show – a gentle confection of storytelling about love, loss and bad poetry – and it is easy to see why. It is a joy to see an actor so completely in control of timing, rhythm and inflection. Perfect!

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“That’s why the words “Let’s go!” are intrinsically courageous. It’s the decision to go that is, in itself, entirely intrepid.”

Tim Cahill

I made reference a couple of posts back to further personal news regarding the theatre/drama scene here in Victoria and promised an update in a post to follow shortly. Aiming to prove myself a man of my word… here it is!

Whilst in self-referential mode I would further draw the gentle reader’s attention to previous postings to this blog on the subject of the Victoria Fringe Festival (be patient – there is a  connection) to which The Girl and I are enthusiastic attendees. The fringe is one of three festivals hosted by the splendid Intrepid Theatre, who have been promoting theatrical events on Vancouver Island for some thirty years. Intrepid are clearly one of the major cultural players in Greater Victoria.

A couple of months back The Girl drew to my attention an item on the Intrepid website to the effect that the company was seeking interested parties to serve on their board of directors. Such board posts are – quite naturally – voluntary and though the ideal candidate would undoubtedly have experience in the area of fundraising (which I do not!) the main requirements would seem to be an enthusiasm for the theatre, some experience of involvement in similar non-profit endeavours and (as is the certainly the case for me) sufficient time on ones hands to be able to render useful service. At any rate, my progress through the interview and AGM voting stages went smoothly (as it did for two other neophytes) and Intrepid has gained a fresh batch of eager faced supporters for its board.

Formalities over, the first order of business was the twentieth incarnation of Intrepid’s ‘Uno Fest‘ – a feast of solo performances over a week and a half in the company’s two venues, the Intrepid Theatre Club and the Metro Studio. The board director’s main role in such events is to attend performances and to help to drum up support, as well as to volunteer to pick up and drop off performers at the airport or ferry port as they arrive and depart from Victoria. I attended five performances and ferried four of the performers. This latter ‘task’ is quite simply a delight. One gets the chance to chat to actors, directors and writers whom one might recently have seen in action (or be about to see).

The keynote opening performance – by Canadian theatrical luminary Daniel MacIvor – was entitled ‘WTF’ (What’s Theatre For) and was a thought provoking disquisition on why those of us who do make theatre – and why many of those who don’t attend it. I was lucky enough to be able to run Daniel back to the airport a couple of days later. He is a very interesting man!

It is immediately clear that involvement with such an excellent organisation will bring me into contact with many more of those involved in the theatre here in Victoria.

All good stuff indeed!

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidIt was with great sadness that we heard the news over the weekend of the passing of that wonderful British actor – Tim Pigott-Smith.

Still performing on the stage in his seventieth year, Tim Pigott-Smith was amongst the very best of his generation of thespians and was duly awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year Honours for his services to drama. His career encompassed film, TV and stage – with wide screen appearances in films such as ‘The Remains of the Day’, ‘V for Vendetta‘, ‘Clash of the Titans‘ and ‘Quantum of Solace‘, and starring stage roles in (amongst many others) ‘King Lear‘, ‘King Charles III‘, ‘Enron‘ and ‘A Delicate Balance‘.

It was a TV role, however, that was to make him a household name; the part of police superintendent Ronald Merrick in ITV’s 1984 adaption – under the title ‘The Jewel in the Crown‘ – of Paul Scott’s epic quartet of Raj novels. Pigott-Smith deservedly won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of this complex and flawed character, standing out even amongst the glittering array of talent that had been attracted to this vast and ambitious project.

I was certainly far from alone in declaring in 1984 that this be the finest television drama that had yet been made; beautiful filmed and acted, thoughtful adapted and deeply thought provoking to view, complex, stirring and heart-breakingly moving. This was television drama as the highest possible art form. In the three decades since the series’ first showing I have still seen nothing to compare with it.

We were fortunate enough to have met Tim Pigott-Smith on a number of occasions through friends of ours. For once the old adage that one should never meet one’s heroes seemed simply not to apply in his case. He was a complete gentleman, generous with his time and attentions and an excellent conversationalist. There is no question that he will be greatly missed.

I think that it is perhaps time to re-watch “The Jewel in the Crown“…

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“More than 80 theatre artists from across Canada descend on Fernwood this March for the Belfry’s annual SPARK Festival – an opportunity to see some of the best theatre in the country.

With love, from scratch, and with some of the country’s best theatre artists, we build, rehearse and create our plays in our own home, a renovated 19th century church in Fernwood – Victoria’s most interesting neighbourhood.”

From The Belfry‘s website

Victoria is blessed to have such an energetic arts scene!

To The Belfry last night to catch one of the shows in the theatre’s annual ‘Spark‘ festival. This excellent festival runs for nearly two and a half weeks in March and offers a number of full length productions in rep in The Belfry main house and studio theatres, in the Metro studio and in other locations across the city.

As I have mentioned before in these marginalia the Kickass Canada Girl and I have season tickets to The Belfry’s regular season and this year we took advantage of the accompanying reduced price offer to pay our first visit to the festival as well. It proved a most interesting evening.

The show that we had selected – Toronto’s Outspoke Productions’ “SPIN” – started at 8:00 of the evening in the main house, but for those who chose to arrive early a number of ten minute ‘mini plays’ could be sampled in odd nooks and crannies around the building. The Girl and I saw three – ranging from an interesting audio production for which an audience of three donned headphones in a tiny ‘broom cupboard’ to listen to a monologue whilst rifling through a treasure box of memorabilia – all the way to a Mohawk woman of a certain age shocking the genteel burghers of Victoria with knowingly racist humour.

SPIN” was itself an intriguing disquisition by singer/songwriter/actress/poetess Evalyn Perry on the early history of cycling – the invention of which turns out to have been a major feminist event. The show featured – and this was a first for me at least – a bicycle percussionist! By this I mean (should you require clarification) a man who uses a bicycle and its component parts as a sort of drum kit rather than someone who plays percussion whilst riding upon a cycle!

We enjoyed the show greatly and found the story of Annie Londonderry (not her real name!) – the first woman to ride a bicycle around the globe – both fascinating and moving. We felt, however, that as a whole the piece needed a little structural work; that perhaps the balance of the material was not quite right for the length of the show.

Very grateful as ever that we have such splendid endeavours on hand to inspire us.

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musicHard on the heels of my last post (which detailed the first two days of an elongated weekend of musical delights here in Victoria) and following a brief intermission, comes the second half… as it were!

To The Belfry theatre on the Sunday for a matinee performance of a new entertainment – “I think I’m fallin’” – based on the songs of Canadian singer/songwriter (and all round icon) – Joni Mitchell.

Now, one might argue – were one being particular – that this is not strictly a piece of theatre at all… at least not in any form that I have previously encountered. It is in fact more of a performed homage. There is certainly no overall narrative and such character as there be rises largely unfiltered from Mitchell’s poetic lyrics themselves.

The five massively talented singer/musicians brought their full vocal and instrumental gifts (including a couple of particularly wonderful voices and some gorgeous harmonising) to bear on new and in some cases most imaginative arrangements of the songs. Inhabiting the stage in a variety of configurations the cast mercifully resisted the temptation to over dramatise the selected numbers; the songs being allowed to breathe on their own and all the better for it.

If the above comments intimate in any way that I might not have enjoyed the piece then they have misled. Certainly it helps to be a Joni Mitchell enthusiast to fully embrace the show – but there is, as you might expect, no shortage of same in Canada. I came late to Mitchell (as to many things!) but I am now a perfect proselyte.

The final event in our busy (extended) weekend actually took place on Tuesday – giving us a much needed night off on the Monday. Along with 1500 other like-minded souls we gathered at the Theatre Royal in downtown Victoria to re-kindle acquaintance with a face from way back when; Roger Hodgson – co-founder and former member of Supertramp.

For many of us who were in our late teens back in the UK in the early 1970s Supertramp provided an essential part of the sound track to our growing up. Their beautifully produced and quirkily dramatic songs put them into much the same camp as Genesis and other similar(ish) progressive rock outfits. It turns out that – if anything – the band was even bigger in Canada than in Europe.

Supertramp were unusual in that they featured two main songwriters – in Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies – who shared the writing duties in a roughly even split. When Hodgson decided to leave the band in the early 80s Rick Davies carried on as the leader. Eventually Supertramp stopped playing Hodgson’s songs completely whilst the latter – now touring as a solo artist – featured just those compositions.

As is often (though not exclusively) the case neither constituent has been able to match the achievements of the original line-up (at least in the eyes of the record-buyers/concert-goers) and in both cases their later careers have consisted in the main of providing a nostalgic revisit to the glories of the past…

…in which – in this instance – we were happy to indulge.

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birthday-clip-art“Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.”

Plautus

The start of October is for us always a period for celebration, for it encompasses the joyous revels that mark the Kickass Canada Girl’s birthday. This year it has also seen the first anniversary of the purchase of our North Saanich abode, so the occasion has been especially elevated.

Some years a great deal of work can go into trying to organise a suitable programme of merrymaking; in others things just fall into place with the least possible effort. This year was one of the latter.

On Friday last one of the Girl’s favourite Canadian miserabilist bands – the Cowboy Junkies – played at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney. The Girl was so delighted at the prospect (even more so when I purchased her a ticket!) that she generously decreed that I need not join her for the event. (She once took me to see the Be Good Tanyas at the Albert Hall in London – the which experience equipped me with enough melancholic ennui to last a lifetime!).

Needless to say, the Girl enjoyed the concert greatly – even though the band omitted to play her very favourite number (in spite of announcing that they would do so! I think this was just done to make everyone even more miserable!).

Scarce had twenty four hours passed than we were back at the Mary Winspear with our dear friends from Saanichton to attend yet another musical soiree – this time featuring Séan McCann – erstwhile singer and guitarist with Newfie folk/rock band – Great Big Sea. Now, Séan isn’t miserable at all. In fact he is really quite chipper, particularly since abandoning the bottle (and, indeed, Great Big Sea!) a few years back. He was in fine voice and made sure that all present had a really good time.

Sunday afternoon found us – yet again in the company of our lovely friends – back at the Belfry Theatre for the first of this year’s season ticket productions. The play – a slightly puzzling ‘contemporary’ take on Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr* – might not have been the best thing that we have seen at the Belfry (in fact it was quite some distance therefrom…) but it was none the less a nice way to round out the weekend.

All that remained was for me to whistle up on the barbecue (for the operation of which I still bear my ‘L’ plates!) a hefty but most succulent piece of rib-eye and to uncork a rather spiffing southern French red. Cheers!

A very happy birthday to the Kickass Canada Girl!

 

*Drat! I realise that in the first published version of this post I missed the opportunity to describe the production as ‘below par’! Oh well!

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On the fringe

Fringe-badge-16-mint-background-2008-1The 2016 Victoria Fringe Festival – the thirtieth such since the festival’s inauguration – has just reached its conclusion.

Looking back to last year’s event – which clearly took place in a period during which we had rather more time on our hands – I observe that we were able to get to a fair number of shows. This post – from September last – provides the details of those that the Girl and I deemed to be our pick of the 2015 fringe.

Having been occupied this year with our most welcome visitors from the UK we found – upon their departure – that we had missed the first week of the festival entirely. With the Girl now gainfully employed and thus not available for entertainment purposes during the working day our opportunities to attend fringe events were further restricted.

As a result we perhaps spent a little more time this year than we did last perusing the fringe programme, in an effort to ensure that those performances that we could attend were, after all, worth seeing. Our efforts seem to have paid off.  We saw three shows; we greatly enjoyed each of them.

Half the Battle‘ – written and created by Edmonton based Owen Bishop – is a one-man two-character piece with a twist… Bishop plays both parts simultaneously! Inspired by the burial beneath conjoined tombstones of a Canadian second world war pilot and co-pilot, ‘Half the Battle‘ imagines the men inextricably joined in the afterlife as two halves of the same character. It perhaps hardly need be said that the performance was funny and affecting in equal measure and was quite brilliantly played without the slightest waver by the talented Bishop. The use of the hackneyed phrase “tour de force” is normally rightly deprecated. In this instance it would be entirely justified.

British comedian, Gerald Harris, is that staple of fringe festivals the world over – a storyteller! Lest you infer that I regard the form as being in any way inferior to other performance arts let me at once set you right. The oral tradition is one the most fertile and immediate of all the forms – but only if the storyteller is a good one! Harris not only has the requisite performance skills – his manic energy clearly keeping some in the audience guessing as to his intent – but he is also quite obviously a writer. As a result ‘A Tension to Detail‘ – Harris’s meditation on his mostly solitary life as an onanistic British Jew – was splendidly constructed and paced, and delivered with panache.

Finally, ‘Bushel and Peck‘ – a surreal physical comedy of (relatively) few words by multiple award winning Canadian comic actor Alastair Knowles (‘James and Jamesy‘) and choreographer Stephanie Morin-Robert – is that most wonderful of things, a performance that delights whilst completely defying easy categorisation. It must be my ‘poor theatre‘ leanings I suppose, but I do derive great pleasure from watching accomplished performers create a rich and beautiful visual spectacle with no set, everyday costume and the bare minimum of props – in this case a table lamp, a plywood board, a pair of hair-dryers and a packet of white balloons! (My liking for the surreal can probably be traced back even further to my early affection for the Goon Show).

As ever, should you happen upon any of these performers at fringe events around the world, I would heartily recommend giving them a look.

 

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidWomen and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.

Robert A. Heinlein

Day two of our sojourn in Vancouver found us proceeding hot foot to the Arts Club Theatre for a matinee performance of the musical, ‘Billy Elliot‘.

The Girl had wanted to see the show before we left London but – what with one thing and another – the chance so to do had passed us by. Discovering that it was on in Vancouver at a time that coincided with the Canada/Japan rugby international seemed an opportunity too good to miss and we duly turned the occasion into a spiffing long weekend.

We enjoyed the show greatly… in my case considerably more than I expected to. The acting, singing and dancing were to a high standard and if some of the cast struggled a little with the County Durham accents then we were mindful of the fact that many Brits also find it a tough one to crack.

After the show there was just time to scamper back to the hotel to change for dinner. We had made reservations at one of Vancouver’s premier seafood restaurants – the Blue Water Cafe. A quick search on the InterWebNet will reveal just how highly thought of is this Yaletown eatery and it will be of little surprise that the Girl and I now think of it equally highly. The food is utterly splendid and the service exemplary – carried out by a team that clearly loves its work. Should you find your good-selves in Vancouver you really should not hesitate to make a reservation.

The wine cellar alone – curated by young Texan, William Mulholland – has won a basket of awards and features quite the best selection of fine French wines that I have encountered in Canada. We reluctantly eschewed the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg Grand Cru for somewhere north of $4,000 and settled for Mr Mulholland’s recommended Pouilly-Fumé instead. At a fraction of the price this splendid Loire white – not that easy to come across in Canada – suited the scallops and halibut well, and a postprandial malt from the equally impressive range on offer left us feeling dangerously mellow.

Not so mellow, however, that we were unable to effect a visit to IKEA on the way back to the ferry the following morning! IKEA has much in common with the modern airport terminal in that it matters not where you are in the world – if you are in IKEA you could be anywhere! I am almost minded to suggest that a visit might be in order for the ex-pat suffering a mild case of homesickness… The Richmond branch is, for example, totally interchangeable with that at Brent Cross in North London!

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Image by SSgt. F. Lee Corkran, DoD“As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”

Ernest Hemingway

When an iconic figure – one who regardless of the ceaseless march of the hours and the concomitant diminution of all other childhood heroes, their lustre etiolated with the passage of time – passes from this plane, the event causes a shock to the system no matter how timely that demise might be.

When two such figures succumb within a short space of time it is – with a not entirely disproportionate degree of exaggeration – as though the earth had shifted upon its axis.

I am not going to attempt to pen anything like an appropriate appreciation of the genius of David Bowie. Much has been already been written and can easily be found on the InterWebNet and elsewhere. I will simply state why – in my view – he was one of the most influential and revered of figures in popular music.

Bowie was impossible to characterise or to pin down, whilst at the same time blazing a trail across such a wide range of creative and media forms that a hundred people could admire him and his work and each do so for completely different reasons. In my opinion Bowie’s musical talents and chameleon-like imagination put him on a par with the Beatles – and with no less a luminary than John Lennon. From me there can be no higher praise.

As I say – we each have our own reasons. Being an old-fashioned boy mine are all to do with songwriting; Bowie having composed far more than his fair share of timeless classics. ‘Life on Mars‘, ‘Heroes‘, ‘Fame’, ‘Fashion‘, ‘Ashes to Ashes‘, ‘Loving the Alien‘… I could – quite naturally – go on. This oeuvre was writ large across the soundtrack of my growing years and Bowie was a massive influence on much that I scribbled musically – mayhap sometimes more than was strictly necessary.

David Bowie died at the age of 69 after fighting a battle against cancer…

…as – with fearful symmetry – did a leading light of the current generation of British thespists – Alan Rickman.

Despite the fact that – in the main – I abhor the practice of choosing to see a play, film or television production on the strength of the casting of any particular thespian, I have been known to disregard totally my own rules in the case of certain individuals.

Alan Rickman was one such – for he was an actor who was worth watching even if the vehicle itself were complete rubbish. Who can forget the Kevin Costner vanity project – ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves‘ – from 1991? As Lanre Bakare put it in a Guardian retrospective in 2014:

“Most things about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are terrible. Kevin Costner’s and Christian Slater’s attempts at English accents: terrible. Bryan Adam’s theme song which refused to go away during the summer of 1991 and can conjure mass feelings of nausea to this very day: terrible. Seeing Costner’s naked arse as he gets washed in a waterfall: terrible…

...Yes, it’s ridiculous and cliched, but it’s entertaining, and there are some – OK, there’s one – genuinely great performance. Alan Rickman managed to polish one of the 90s cinema’s biggest turds when he put in a brilliant turn as the ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham, who attempts to usurp King John while being held back by his workforce of incompetent jokers and a witch.”

It is truly one of the cinema’s greatest pleasures to watch Rickman acting the ‘star’ of the show off the screen at every turn – and one for which I still occasionally endure reruns thereof.

Rickman would probably prefer to be remembered for his work at the Royal Court and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 80s – or perhaps for playing the male lead – the Vicomte de Valmont – in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses‘. Younger readers – should any such there be – will know him as Snape from the Harry Potter films.

Whichever role it may be, his presence will be sadly missed. The United Kingdom seems curiously able continually to turn out generations of massively talented actors and actresses – far more than is statistically feasible. That does not mean that we can readily afford to lose the likes of Alan Rickman.

David Bowie – 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016

Alan Rickman – 21 February 1946 – 14 January 2016

Rest in peace!

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