How To Disappear (Traverse: 8 -23 Dec.’17)

Owen Whitelaw, Robert, with Kirsty Mackay as Isla.
Image: Beth Chalmers.

“Help yourself to creative energy …”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

You don’t associate Elgin with hoodies, or Percy Pigs come to that. Go see Morna Pearson’s How To Disappear, however, and you will. The broad Doric may be less surprising and – at this time of year – why not put Narnia, downsized and upstage, through a cupboard in a bungalow?

If this sounds funny, it is, but it is not light-hearted. Far out, maybe. Imagine finding a squashed pot of Angel Delight in your Christmas stocking and you’re some way there. Or, because this is a play of alternatives, you’ve been given 2 DVDs: ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Room’. Great films but nonstarters in the Ho Ho Ho! stakes.

That’s a deliberate choice of films, of course. Robert, 28, lives on benefits that the Department of Work and Pensions wants to relieve him of. He has not left his room for twelve years, near enough. He has not been outside since he was eight. In the absence of their parents his kid sister, Isla (14-ish) looks after him as best she can, so it helps when she is excluded from school. A benefits assessor, Jessica, has come to ask Robert some questions.

But that’s barely the half of it. There’s a glowing blue portal and a stage revolve to expose the full story. Exactly when it turns is, for the audience, quite exciting; for Robert it’s an obsessional, skin picking quest, but for his pet tarantula it’s an unfortunate accident; and for Jessica it’s spew and ‘Wow!’ all the way.

Help yourself to creative energy then. Certainly Robert does. Copies of ‘New Scientist’ are stacked up against the walls so there’s not much space for him to move around and check his various alarm clocks but this is one clever ‘mannie’ who – all innocent of the metaphor  – dumps his benefits assessment into his bedpan. Owen Whitelaw is excellent in what could be a raw and painful role but is actually agile and sympathetic. His sister, Isla, is more aware, more aggrieved and angrier with what – on the face of it – is a distressing existence. Kirsty Mackay has that awkward dual role as ‘adult’ carer and S4 pupil who is still getting mercilessly bullied at school. (Note for school Guidance staff – you get a mouthful). Jessica (Sally Reid) is a paper shuffling caricature to some extent but with Robert as her ‘client’ is happily saved.

There is redemption here, which is good for a Christmas production. It’s in the near constant humour for one thing and in the marvellous sense of release, of stepping out of the room that comes at the end. But it’s not an easy given and director Gareth Nicholls keeps the action pretty edgy, using plunging lighting effects (exemplary from Kai Fischer) and sound from Michael John McCarthy that begins, it seemed to me, with a nod to ‘Big Country’ and then funnels down to close in on Becky Minto’s box frame of a set.

We need plays with moral outreach and How To Disappear is definitely out there to bring us in. We’re with Robert because he wants to help his father be with his mother, which is where the plot line folds into the mystic portal and you wonder where you are. Just hang on to the fact that he shares his Milky Way with his sister. We’re with Isla because she won’t get lost and hangs onto her brother because she loves him. We’re even with Jessica because she too is a strung out case who does what she can to help people and, like Robert, she loves the ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’, which says it all really.

Star ratings get done over in the wash in this one: 3, 4, 3, 4 … ?

Isla         ‘D’you kain whit number the washin machine goes on at?

Robert  Nut.

By the end, it’s 4* from me for an original and entertaining play. Fabric conditioner for the soul!

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 December)

Go to How To Disappear at the Traverse

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Pomona (Summerhall: 21 -25 November ’17)

Oliver Beaumont as Zeppo, Lauren Robinson as Ollie & (masked) Eilidh Northridge as Keaton
Photography by Andrew Perry.

“Provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

It’s brownfield land with serious history in central Manchester. It’s a Metrolink tram stop. It’s also Alistair McDowall’s award winning play set in a ‘hole in the middle of the city’ – ‘hole’ as in a rank pit. Pomona (2014) provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause. Without the applause you’d have a WTF play, so it’s a risky business doing this one.

All credit, therefore, to Edinburgh University’s Theatre Paradok for taking Pomona on and finding the perfect venue in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. The fairy lights on the approach are a fortuitous joke. Little could be less seasonal than the bare grey walls, tiered wooden seating, electrical trunking and peeling paint. As the play requires a ‘concrete island’ in amongst ‘cracked asphalt and weeds’ we’re all set. Not forgetting the open box of cold chicken nuggets and the octopus monster mask.

Ollie (Lauren Robinson) meets zany Zeppo (Oliver Beaumont at stunning top speed). They could be at the tram stop. You might consider a post-apocalyptic situation, with The Road re-surfaced as the M60 Ring, but, no, property is still owned – much of it by Zeppo – and there’s odd but respectful mention of the police. Still, Ollie does not want police help to find her sister. Directions to the likeliest neighbourhood will do. That’ll be to creepy Pomona Strand then.

Indirection more like. For the play twists and turns and the different characters come and go within a looping time frame. Rubik cubes befuddle and provide a handy metaphor for the mixed-up story. It is puzzling but it is doable. There’s Moe (Liam Bradbury) who has had it with people, mainly because he beats them up for a living. There’s Fay (Abi Ahmadzadeh), a sex worker, whose husband hurt her and their child. Moe and Fay share a rare tender moment. Then Fay steals a laptop and valuable data from overseer Gale (Megan Lambie), but it’s all to the good, despite the ‘Kill’ order on Fay’s head. One figure, Keaton (Eilidh Northridge), seems to have the presence to sort it all out but she could just as well be a character out of Charlie’s (Tom Hindle) role playing game box. Charlie really is a bit of a droll card, complete with wacky, sticky fantasy and roaring daftness as and when the dice roll. Zeppo’s back at the close, but this time as a vengeful seagull.

For all his interest in, and skill at, spiel and character McDowall does supply an explanation of what’s going on inside the security fence on the ‘island’ and it’s gross and melodramatic and sensibly left unexplored; no doubt contributing to Moe’s feeling that he’s ‘drowning in an ocean of piss’.

Pomona is fitful and outlandish with no comfortable ‘Home’ for Ollie to navigate to, which very probably explains its appeal to a student audience, who loved its waywardness. Tom Whiston, Director, and Madeleine Flint, Movement Director, work the play with a stylish and disciplined assurance that is easy to underestimate and the cast respond in kind. Personally, I’d rather have Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as music to leave by but that was 1978 and students have moved onto more uncertain and contemporary ground. Go occupy.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 November)

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Our Fathers (Traverse: 24 – 28 October ’17)

Rob Drummond (l) & Nicholas Bone (r)
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.”

Editorial Rating:

4 Stars: Nae Bad

Yet this is a kind piece, just possibly milder and more forgiving than its writers first intended. Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone got together – which is a mighty draw in the first place – and offer Our Fathers as a sincere appraisal of their own lives as the doubting sons of clergymen. Their text – for this is a messaging service too – is Edmund Gosse’s celebrated memoir Father and Son (1907) with its epigraph, ‘Belief, like love, cannot be compelled’.

 Written and performed by Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, I should add, which is testament to the play’s personal and affecting quality. Whilst they take the parts of Philip Gosse (Drummond) and Edmund (Bone), they are also themselves, appearing friendly and unassuming, and only getting cross with one another rather than with the world. If anyone disappoints, and it is as sorrowful as it is a raging disappointment, it is the God of their fathers, who has definitely messed up. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.

Gosse the father was a biologist as well as an evangelical churchman, putting him squarely in the round hole of being a Christian scientist. He could write Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and still find plenty of time to rubbish the idea of evolution. One of his vivid illustrations of a jellyfish is revealed in the church hall cupboard, upstage right. Karen Tennent’s jewel of a set, so precisely lit by Simon Wilkinson, is particularly successful at focusing attention. The Victorian underslip is puzzling (a beloved dead mother?) but the fossils next to the plain wooden cross speak volumes. And there’s the fishbowl in which to dunk the book – [Told you that they get cross]. There’s an available reference to Prospero, promising to drown his learning [Like hell he will!] but then you could see it as some inventive gloss on baptism, which Drummond is especially keen to dish and seeks audience support to do so.

In Chapter 1 of Father and Son Edmund Gosse writes, ‘Several things tended at this time to alienate my conscience from the line which my father had so rigidly traced for it’. That ‘line’ is in the severe  clerical dress, the chalked up 5th commandment, and in the earnest hymn singing, but there’s also the sheer size of Philip (Drummond) alongside the much slighter Edmund, who draws up his little chair to his father’s big table. So it’s amusing that it’s Nicholas Bone who stands firm against Rob Drummond’s pleading to ‘play’ the son and it’s sad when young Edmund’s prayers fail and his looked-for faith is nowhere to be seen.

But all told Our Fathers is an easeful piece. Drummond makes light of the ribbing he got at school for ‘being the son a preacher man’. Hopefully it was good-natured, for let’s presume that he was, indeed is, ‘the sweet talking son of a preacher man’. Both men – tricky to call them actors at this affectionate point – hold up photographs of their fathers, whose recorded voices we hear.

On reflection, which is very much the point, I’m with the storyteller of Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw everything that he had made [including sons], and, behold, it was very good.’ This original, deceptively modest work, is also very good at what it asks and does.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 25 October)

Go to Our Fathers at the Traverse and touring with Magnetic North

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Cockpit (Lyceum: 6 – 28 October ’17)

Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

“Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Albert Camus’ La Peste was published in June 1947. The first Edinburgh International Festival was in August 1947. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the closing concert and reckoned that “Here human relations have been renewed”. Bridget Boland’s Cockpit opened at the Playhouse, London, in February 1948 and mashed pestilence and optimism together. Now it’s back, thanks to David Greig, and fit for purpose: a raw and vehement history play, but without princes and kings.

London’s Cockpit theatre was on Drury Lane. It was probably another ‘Wooden O’, built around an actual cock pit. Boland’s play goes one better than Shakespeare’s Henry V, her ‘swelling [and vicious] scene’ holding not only ‘the vasty fields of France’ but the whole of Europe. Cockpit is actually set in a theatre. You get the immersive idea pretty quickly when you notice that the Lyceum has been commandeered by the ‘Allied Government’. It’s late 1945, it’s punishingly cold, and there’s still the reverberation of pulverising bombardment. We’re in the British Zone of Occupied Germany and a theatre is being used as an assembly centre for displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of them. They’re even huddled on the stage. Cast-off clothes are over the backs of the seats. There are ladders from boxes, screened by sacking, to the Stalls and – we’re told – German corpses in the boiler room. Transport is being arranged to take you home (whether you want to go back or not …).  You in the Dress Circle are going West. Those of you in the Stalls are going East. Jiri, on stage and silent, is from Lidice and has no home left. Willkommen im Umwelttheater!, as ingeniously constructed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.

It is a babel of Slavic voices and trouble. But surely a British officer can sort this lot out, provided he has a desk and reason on his side. Young Captain Ridley has been detached from his regiment because he has School Certificate German. He does have his service revolver. His sergeant, Sergeant Barnes, has no German, just loud Geordie and a Sten gun. Between them they put on a brave ‘show’ – in the choice Army sense of the word – but there’s a limit to how long they can just ‘Carry on’.

Conflict starts with ‘Who’s pinched my sauce pan?’ and very quickly turns serious, not least because the Poles hate the Jews ( – ouch!) and the Russians will kill the Poles and the Chetniks will kill anybody, especially socialist partisans. A French collaborator – but forced labour would qualify that – is certain that Marie, a Resistance fighter, will falsely denounce him. Add infectious disease and Capt. Ridley is in a desperate jam. There is some rallying round but a different kind of ‘show’ is needed to relieve the tension; after all, we’re in a playhouse. When it comes, two thirds through, we get an operatic cloth and a bravura performance from Sandra Kassman.

(L-R) Nebli Basani, Peter Hannah, Dylan Read (Bauer), Sandra Kassman (stairs), Kaisa Hammarlund (stairs) and Adam Tompa. Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

This is Boland’s brilliant conceit. When the German stage manager, Bauer, says “You will need the theatre – afterwards”, you believe him. And when faced with the possibility that his theatre – probably one of the few buildings left standing in his flattened city – might be burnt down to halt contagion, the man is stricken with sadness. Bauer (Dylan Read), as comic denizen of his place, living in the flies, and true Propsmeister, is almost the only source of laughter in an otherwise sombre drama. Read also plays Duval, whose occasional spoken French, is so good that you appreciate the difficulties of staging a script that demands heavily accented English from several characters. Whatever ‘European’ means, this cast is it.

Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger. A chant is either angry or sorrowful and certainly incomprehensible (unless you’re Romanian). Rush and hurry can subordinate the personal stories. There is a stretch of choreographed movement for the whole company that would express the plight of the displaced anywhere, at any time. The excellent music by Aly Macrae is often discordant and broken, except for the quiet piano at the beginning of the second half. Capt. Ridley (sturdy by Peter Hannah) might be resolute, almost heroic, but it’s not enough. There is a passing mention of a major somewhere else but the chain of command appears well and truly absent, which will irritate Army types.

Cockpit is bold work, both then and now. It is theatrical but – more importantly – it’s humane. A Russian DP proclaims “20 million Russians died. It must not happen again”. That’s from the Stalls, going East. Primo Levi, after Auschwitz and going West, got it exactly right: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again’.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 October)

Go to Cockpit at the Lyceum

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Pleading (Traverse: 3 – 7 October ’17)

Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron
Photo: Oran Mor

““Everything is negotiable””

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Pleading is the first up of five plays in this season’s ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’. This is a spiky three-hander by Rob Drummond, surely a playwright on a roll; and there is something of a wrestling bout to its twists and holds. Heard as a radio drama on BBC4 in January, Pleading comes to the stage – but call it a mat – with a narrative thwack.

Michael (19) and Freya, his girl next door /one-time sweetheart, have been banged up in a foreign jail for three weeks now. They are brought together to talk to their assigned lawyer, Amelia Singh. Where exactly they are  is not given but they do face the death penalty for attempting to smuggle Class 1 drugs. That fate – and their flight itinerary: Singapore > Perth > Brisbane > prison – would suggest Malaysia or Thailand. No worries (really?), for Freya’s dad is a QC and in that part of the world “We’re not foreign, we’re British.” Er …? Cue Boris Johnson and the Road to Mandalay?

If ever a defence lawyer was gobsmacked and keeps talking, then it’s the calm and collected Amelia (Nicole Cooper). How to convince her jumpy clients to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence? Maybe then Daddy can come and flap his silk. “Everything is negotiable”, declares Amelia, but it helps if you keep your story straight and consistent. So, over 50 minutes, Freya and Michael ‘negotiate’ the possibilities of how heroin ended up in her backpack. It is conceivable that the truth is told at the end but who can tell? It’s always salutary to be reminded of our talent for lying.

It is an unsparing and sweaty tussle that is ably performed. Freya (Kim Allan) is more in control but her account is the more wayward. Michael (Daniel Cameron) is more fragile, even desperate. At the close they are hanging onto each other for support and the law is somewhere else entirely.

Director David Ian Neville has a good play for voices to work with. Movement is conspicuous and time parcelled out by Amelia’s visits to the remarkably quiet prison. There is credible tension and there is sympathy and anxiety but as a drama I felt it wanted more fear and a lawyer on the ropes.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 October)

Go to Pleading at the Traverse

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What Shadows (Lyceum: 7 – 23 September ’17)

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shadows cast? Shadows fleeting? Shadows lengthening? Take your pick as you find your way back and forth through the many scenes of Chris Hannan’s timely play upon the redoubtable life of Enoch Powell (1912 -1988), for whom – archly – it is ‘in fog [that] you feel England all around you’. As it is what you see is a beautiful copse of silver birches.

This is the standout Birmingham Rep’ production from 2016 directed by Roxanna Silbert. Ian McDiarmid (Powell), Paula Wilcox and Waleed Akthar reprise their roles. McDiarmid, especially and importantly, gives a commanding performance as the radical, absolutist Conservative whose proudest, indisputable claim was that he always spoke for his constituents of Wolverhampton South West, and as their MP from 1950 to 1974 that meant speaking his formidable mind about immigration. For the classical scholar, poet, and theologian whose idea of total Englishness was ‘sunken lanes in Shropshire’, immigration is as unpoetic – but as necessary – as it gets. Lamentable too. For Powell’s close friend, local newspaper editor and Quaker Clem Jones (Nicholas le Prevost), ‘England’ is more subtle – ‘Gary Sobers bowling his slow Chinaman’: surely one, nowadays, for the British Citizenship Test.

What Shadows moves between 1992 and 1967/68. Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, that closes the first half of the play, was given at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20 1968. Twenty-five years on two feuding Oxford history lecturers, one black, one white, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor) and Sofia Nicol (Joanne Pearce), see a research paper, maybe a book, contextualising that speech, interviewing Powell, and hitting upon Insights-to-Racism-and-How-to-Stop-It. Parody did not seem far away, particularly in their self-righteous, point scoring tones; and they’re certainly no match against Powell, even at the end of his life and shaken by Parkinson’s.

Ameet Chana as Sultan and Amelia Donkor as Joyce Cruickshank

Hannan’s invention is both amusing and accurate. 1967 is a Powell picnic, with his wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) at her supportive best; it is also a hostess trolley at an awkward New Year’s Eve party, where Grace Hughes (Paula Wilcox) is a white landlady of two Punjabis, the gauche Saeed (Waleed Akthar) and the jovial and appealing Sultan (Ameet Chana), whose war service in Burma included learning ‘I Love a Lassie’ from the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. 1968 is the Powells leaving an RSC production of ‘King Lear’ at Stratford and being buttonholed by Sultan. “England must be cured of Empire” pronounces Enoch. There’s even a passing reference to the late and great Alan Howard.

In this show, though, it’s Ian McDiarmid whom you must applaud. It is a remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing. Go to Youtube for Michael Cotterell’s 1995 film portrait of Powell, ‘Odd Man Out’, and realise how close the actor is to his subject. Obviously the words, their clarity, and the curiously accented speech can be the same but there is the tight smile, the nodding assent that is as sympathetic as it is probably dismissive. Powell nearly usurped the Tory party on principle and McDiarmid shows how he did it, without quite turning the man into the near demon / archangel of the Left and Right respectively. Enoch in carpet slippers and dressing gown is still the insurgent and not some benign ambassador for the National Trust.

The ending looks to the future, to whatever England makes of itself. It probably has to be a tad romantic and suffused with colour to offset the gloom of the present day.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 September)

Go to What Shadows at the Lyceum & to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

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Glory on Earth (Lyceum: 20 May – 10 June ’17)

(L-R) Christina Gordon, Rona Morison, Kirsty Eila McIntyre
Photos: Drew Farrell

“Evocative, imaginative drama”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

You’re 18 and you don’t know the 2nd Psalm. Well, that’s you written off. You do know a good few dance moves but that doesn’t cut it. Your stock is worthless, you’re ignorant; best go home little girl.

Ah, but where’s home? And who are you calling cheap?

Ans: Mary Stuart, born Linlithgow, brought up in France from the age of 5; Queen of Scots and actually in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, forced to abdicate, kept ‘safe’ under house arrest in England for 19 years and then beheaded, aged 44, in February 1587. Mother, via the union of the crowns, of James VI and I.

So much for dates and titles – but that’s not to dismiss their grip, far from it – it’s just that Linda McLean’s new play creates evocative, imaginative drama from the baleful encounters of the young, attractive queen with the almighty John Knox. He’s there from the off, in front of the curtain, in clerical black and giving new definition to the reproving stare. God’s word, you understand very, very quickly, is “non-negotiable”.

At least Mary has the support of her ‘Marys’, six of them in this telling, who attend her, dance freakpop with her (… really liked that!), and review her suitors in a modern, OMG/ “Awkward”, kind of way. There’s a disciplined choric role in there too, in whispers, gesture, and half lines, as well as the harmonious choral interludes, mostly in French. In other, opposed, parts the Marys are privy councillors and reformers. Queen Mary’s life is here, opened and closed by the executioner’s block, but the tawdry and the sensational (& the melodramatic) are absent: no Darnley, no Rizzio, no Bothwell – just her searching and bold question to Knox, “Do you see a bad person, Sir?”

(L-R) Jamie Sives, Shannon Swan, Christie Gowans, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Fiona Wood, Kirsty McIntyre, & Rona Morison

James Sives, as Knox, is too cool to rise to the question. And he’s damnably clever, in or out of his pulpit in St Giles. Hear Sives and hear the preacher’s ‘History of the Reformation’, righteous and utterly fearless. He walks on stage and kills the dancing stone dead. An unexpected and rather wishful soundtrack of France’s finest minstrels: Piaf, Francoise Hardy, Christine and the Queens (sic), cannot stand. However, Brel’s ‘La chanson des vieux amants’ probably does touch him, as he grieves for the loss of his first wife, but then Brel was Belgian.

Rona Morison, as Mary, has the sympathetic part, the level gaze (female) and the appealing voice. More principled and upright than pliant or weak, and so much younger, this Mary is an important addition to the historical strumpet/martyr and – should you browse Netflix – an invaluable corrective to the endless episodes of CBS’s  ‘Reign’.

David Greig directs with a clear eye on what mattered then and should still matter now. Knox won and Mary failed. The austere and the severe are there in the steel blue lighting and the greys of an uncluttered set and in Knox’s strict delivery. Where there’s a wide and colourful tapestry, there’s dancing and short-lived levity. Elizabeth I, speaking through a mask, is both laughable and ominous and maybe the scheming Scottish nobility could have used the same distancing device. The disrobing of the queen at the end has its own proper and tragic significance.

‘Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’    From Psalm 2.

You won’t fall to your knees but Glory on Earth will make you give thanks for new writing and live theatre.
.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 23 May)

Glory on Earth is at the Lyceum

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