A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

(L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson
Photo: Aly Wight

“If a play can have a cell line, this is it”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is 15 years old. It’s still Sci-Fi though, as opposed to science history. Yes, Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal born on 5 July 1996, is now referenced as Exhibit Z.2003.40 in the National Museum, but there’s still no comparable human ‘display’. And if ‘it’ does appear – when it appears? – it might well provoke some distress amongst its close relations. So, there’s the scenario.

Bernard 2 (35) finds out that he is one of an unknown number of cloned Bernards. He’s not at all happy about it and his father doesn’t help by saying that he doesn’t know how many ‘things’ are out there either. Dad, for painful reasons, thought he’d signed off for one, not a whole batch. At which point you might idly recall Miller’s All My Sons or, better, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bokanovsky Process that could, on average, produce 72 embryos from a single egg. However, Dad hasn’t read the book. No chance. Dad is far less interested in informed consent than in what an able lawyer can do for him, for them even, and he has a point …

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The public inquiry into unauthorised organ retention at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, had delivered its final report in January 2001. By early 2003 families of the victims at Alder Hey accepted an out-of-court settlement of £5 million. The Human Tissue Act (Scotland) followed in 2006.

If a play can have a cell line, this is it: 50 minutes of tightly sequenced work by two actors; five exacting scenes between father and son(s) played out within a small bare room beneath a naked bulb. It’s stark and clean, with wallpaper from the DNA Helix collection. There is no warm light until the appearance of the affable Bernard 3, aka Michael Black. Scenes divide suddenly as the ‘family’ multiplies.

As Balvennie in the James Plays Peter Forbes grabbed land and titles with all the appetite of a lesser man on the make. In A Number he’s the father, Salter, and he’s on the defensive in a sympathetic study of the ethically dispossessed. Brian Ferguson plays three differently consituted Bernards: searching, angry, and content. It’s a nimble and impressively disciplined act, even when toppling a chair across the stage.

Smartly directed by Zinnie Harris, this is a brisk and absorbing production of a play that always invites critical admiration. Churchill does not offer any way out of the cloning debate but she certainly moderates it. Next time that you shop for a Little Gem Lettuce you will – (!)cos of this play– examine it a tad more specifically, wondering not ‘How many?’ but ‘Is that me?’

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

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Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

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Twelfth Night (Teviot House, 21 – 25 March’17)

l. Olivia Evershed as Viola; Francesca Sellors as Olivia and Ben Schofield as Orsino.
Publicity Photos taken at Gladstone’s Land by Gavin Smart.

“Thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Is it possible to hitch up one’s doublet and hose? Indeed it is. It’s a slightly awkward procedure, quaint even, especially when you’re not used to wearing breeks. And in this play, when marrying ‘down’ means to wed a ‘yeoman of the wardrobe’, there are all sorts of dress signifiers going on. Crestfallen Orsino (Ben Schofield), Duke of Illyria, has a feather in his floppy hat, for instance; while Feste (Kathryn Salmond), in shiny booties, is a fly dude of a clown.

All credit to the University’s Shakespeare Company to have gone to town for its costumes. It provides for a lot of show and leg, swagger and poise. Sir Andrew Aguecheek may reckon his galliard would slay them on the dance floor but nothing in ‘Strictly’ comes close to his curly golden wig. Once upon a time – in 1601 say – it hung lank like ‘flax on a distaff’, but male grooming continues to come on in leaps and bounds. Sir Toby Belch’s (Thomas Noble) broad chest is festooned and Antonio (Benjamin Aluwihare) is a silver pirate. Meantime, across the divide, the Countess Olivia’s gown is lovely, Viola / Caesario is demure in a wee cape, and Maria (Isabel Woodhouse) is a sexy spirit in a homespun skirt. It is, all in, a colourful procession.

Unsurprisingly and fittingly it is individual performances that catch the eye. Callum Pope is blindingly good as an Aguecheek crossed with Mr Bean. Olivia Evershed embodies Viola’s virtue and predicament simply by standing still and speaking well. Charlie Ralph’s Malvolio is at its best when hurt and humiliated while Francesca Sellors’s Olivia is always believable, from her sharp and ironic, ‘Are you a comedian?’ asked of Caesario, to her wonderful ‘Oh!’ when Sebastian (Michael Zwiauer) is simply delighted to be ruled by her …

Thomas Noble as Sir Toby Belch and Michael Zwiauer as Sebastian.
Production photo by Gavin Smart.

This production almost suits its venue to a T. The University’s Debating Hall is grand and wood panelled and lofty enough to accommodate Aguecheek’s kickshawses and capers. A narrow gallery runs around three sides and director Lauren Stockless might have wondered how – in the absence of an upper stage – she could use the higher space. As it is, a musical trio plays against the left wall and a few scenes are played in the orchestra pit and there is frequent usage of entries (& exits) through the auditorium itself. Unfortunately the seating is not raked so sightlines are sometimes obstructed. On the stage itself – and in the best Elizabethan tradition – there is no furniture, only a large and dark oblong box, which kept having its white coverings rearranged by fussy ducal servants. Black drapes hang upstage with white sheeting in the middle for heads to pop through at just the right comic moment.

Charlie Ralph as Malvolio with Francesca Sellors as Olivia.
Publicity photo by Gavin Smart

‘A natural perspective that is and is not’, exclaims the dumbfounded Orsino upon seeing the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, and that’s what you’ll observe, kind of. As it happens brother and sister are not dressed the same, which if you don’t know the play (Anyone?) can be tricky, but more to the point you will see Twelfth Night in period costume, laugh as ever at the gulled Malvolio, enjoy the confusion of identities – a bonus feature is Fabian (Tom Whiston) as a woman –  and still be none the wiser about Feste: superannuated Fool or proto-Leonard Cohen?

This is not as ‘brisk and giddy paced’ as its times and mood require – and that you must hope for from a professional company – but as a student production it’s thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable. As you wonder what it’s all about, best to side with the ever fazed Sir Andrew and just enquire, mildly, ‘Wherefore sweetheart, what’s your metaphor?’

At the close, as the stars come out on the backcloth, I would have Feste’s prayer to boot, ‘Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 21 March)

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Further than the Furthest Thing (Bedlam, 14 – 18 March’17)

Tiffany Garnham as Mill and Oscar Gilbert as Bill

“… a fascinating and celebrated play “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

These days Little Englanders have never had it so good, which of course sticks in the craw. Well, it might, and it should, particularly if you’re from Tristan da Cunha and want to get home. You won’t get far via Google maps – try it: Edinburgh, Scotland, to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, furthest South Atlantic. Add it up in stages: Edinburgh to Cape Town is 8,900 miles and then from the Cape to the UK’s most remote overseas territory is another 1746; a total of 10646 miles. Zinnie Harris’  fascinating and celebrated play certainly goes the distance and has considerable appeal and for a student company to attempt the same without the scenic resources of the professional theatre is quite some going. This is intrepid work by directors Jess Haygarth and Aggie Dolan.

‘Drips and drips’ begin the first half of Further than the Furthest Thing and then there’s a homecoming. Francis, 20 something, comes back to Tristan and to the girl he left behind. The tiny population lives off its potato ‘Patches’ and from its crayfish catch. Resources are scarce and timber has had to be taken from the church roof to make a coffin. Wistful cello, flute and violin accompany the sound of the waves but this is not Eden. There’s rumbling thunder and something is definitely not right up on the mountain. Bill Lavarello, a village elder, has heard the lake churning, and that is a bad, bad sign. Perhaps God is angry for what the islanders did some twenty years ago; but for now a businessman, who got off the ship with Francis, has a plan for them all. Then nature expels him and everyone else.

Mr Hansen is the unsmiling factory owner who can make eggs disappear. Harry Richards plays him as an Economics major, disciplined, good with manila folders and with a dismal hold on emotional intelligence. Nevertheless, Hansen would seem to offer change and prosperity and he almost does.

Variation-on-Kraftwerk’s Robots opens the second half in Hansen’s UK bottling plant. Young Geographers will know that the characters have left the global south. Sociology freshers will recognise anomie, although This is England it ain’t. Folk are displaced when work is directed from behind desks. Bill is told that he has a ‘good’ job tending pipes in the boiler room and his wife Mill is offered the almighty vision of a fitted kitchen in affordable housing. A younger couple, Francis and Rebecca, determine to return to their ‘Village’, to that other Edinburgh far, far away, but have they missed their ‘time’?

Bill (Oscar Gilbert) and Mill (Tiffany Garnham) are at the play’s centre. Bill has faith (and guilt) whilst Mill is shrewder, more adjusted. “We is from England now”, she says, employing the island dialect that characterises their speech and their shared past. There is a plain innocence to them and to their relationship that young actors can respond to very well. Francis (Rufus Love) is their strapping nephew who, whilst away in South Africa, is horrified and hurt by common, filthy, English usage. He is the conflicted one but it’s probably Rebecca who suffers the most and Anna Swinton acts her heart out in the role.

You may gather that this is a BIG and serious story for a small stage. Go deep, as poor Bill does, and you’re into the Book of Genesis; stay at the shallow end as I did, intrigued by the utter Englishness of folding picnic chairs, and you’ll hear Lennie in Of Mice and Men asking ‘How it’s gonna be .. [&].. tell how it is with us’. And so, uncomfortably, as scene follows scene (reckon on 25 plus) it is all in the telling. Should it sound quite so educative? Earnest speech delivers premonition just as effectively as the horrific promise that Rebecca demands of Bill, and the speech is unrelenting. The drama just gets too wound up, is constantly interrupted by shifting table and chairs, and looked far from easy. It became long and portentous and beyond what an EUTC production, however devoted, should attempt. Only sardonic tea with Mill, Rebecca and Francis provides light relief, that and the happy injunction to ‘Feel like Britons’, even when naked.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 March)

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Me, As A Penguin (Bedlam, 8- 9 March’17)

Rufus Love as Mark and Sally MacAllister as Liz.
Photos: EUTC

“Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars

This is a real Buy Now goodie. There’s cake, Bowie’s Heroes, Hull, aka.UK City of Culture 2017, and top-shelf performance. All, or thereabouts, satisfying and delightful.

Tom Wells’ play is eight years old now but doesn’t have a sell-by date, and certainly not for a student audience. For a start, most (boys) feel guilty about not knowing how to knit and there’s something unquantifiable, way beyond The Complete University Guide, about tasty bites of Battenberg for tea on an old but wonderfully comfortable sofa. Caitlin Allen’s set and costumes are a treat by themselves.

Not that anyone’s at Uni’ in this play, although a few ‘soft’ (ie. valuable) GCSEs like Textiles are shared around. Liz (22-23?) is going to have a baby very, very soon, and can’t wait to be a young mum in ASDA with baby sick in the pocket of her jeans. Mark, dad-to-be and nice bloke, used to work at IKEA where sofas just reproduce. His mate Dave – a ‘complete twat’, in Liz’s honest opinion – is a keeper at Hull’s old aquarium, before it became spectacular as ‘The Deep’. And then there’s Stitch, Liz’s kid brother, a ‘yearning not belonging’ kind of guy who has a sad thing for Dave but who is happier knitting snoods and eating yoghurt. When Me, As A Penguin begins Stitch has come back with a new friend, whom he has stashed behind the shower curtain.

Liz probably shouldn’t be at the heart of the play – that’s more likely to be Stitch’s lovable anguish – but Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific. It’s comic but tender and never more so than during a fabulous dance routine with Stitch and the later, faster, exit for the maternity unit when Mark tries to pack the hospital bag. Forget birth plan or dressing gown, think more potted plant.

Oliver Beaumont as Stitch and Sally MacAllister as Liz.

Oliver Beaumont is Stitch, gay, gangling and woebegone. He has almost given up on the city. Withernsea and home, 17 miles away, is a kinder place. Forlorn rather than pathetic works for him and results in a near miss with tragedy that sidesteps the absurd. It’s Stitch’s relationship with Dave (Tom Whiston) that’s difficult to realise. The script for the two of them is unforgiving and explicit and especially tough to realise from inside a giant penguin suit.

Tom Wells, the writer, has a degree in English. At a guess, he’s read Cowper’s The Sofa , a hymn to IKEA from 1794, with its immortal opening, I sing the Sofa (!)– that takes aim at the upholstered and the artificial. Me, As A Penguin is in the same virtuous, giving, vein and this production, directed by Matthew Sedman, is really worth seeing.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 March)

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The Winter’s Tale (Lyceum:10 February – 4 March ’17)

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie. Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie.
Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Accept that the Oracle at Delphi is a DNA lab – and why not? – and that no Bohemian sheep shearing feast is complete without See You Jimmy hats – ‘perhaps the most potent symbol of national self mockery in the world’ – and then you create a ‘Winter’s Tale’ to die for. And indeed little Mamillius does die, and the good lord Antigonus does get ripped apart by a bear, but that’s tragicomedy for you: part psychodrama, part romance, and now part ceilidh; all startlingly well realized in this Lyceum production, directed by Max Webster, designed by Fly Davis and with music by Alasdair Macrae.

Delphic maxim, admonition and genetic instruction, the aphorism ‘Know thyself’ would be a three-in-one cure all for Leontes, King of Sicilia. He might have found the motto in his Christmas cracker. Unfortunately, he doesn’t and goes insanely jealous instead: losing his wife, his son, his new born daughter and his best friend in the process. That’s roughly half the play, an hour or so, and then after the (16 year) interval there’s sixty minutes of making jolly good, when that lost daughter finds her Prince, the friends are reconciled and – miraculously – love between husband and wife is restored. Sweet? Nah, not when Jimmy Chisholm’s Autolycus is around, fleecing ordinary folk, pinching their gold, selling dodgy CDs and hawking his ‘delicate burdens of dildoes and fadings’ (that’s Shakespeare, not James Robertson’s proud and vernacular Scots). If it’s continuity you’re after, to oppose Leontes’ psychosis, then go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina (Maureen Beattie), as audacious in the face of power as you could wish woman to be.

The Winter’s Tale is late Shakespeare so it’s always interesting to see how a thoughtful production brings its mature ‘status’ into play. Rulers, Polixenes (Andy Clark) as well as Leontes, are petty tyrants in this telling. They act beyond reason, expecting loyalty and deserving none. Their women are their subjects. When Hermione (Frances Grey) pleads her innocence she knows that Leontes, husband, judge, and executioner, speaks a ‘language that I understand not; [that] My life stands in the level of your dreams’. In 1611 it was possible, and probably necessary, to admit that Leontes has regained his authority by the final scene; but not in 2017. The deluded male is busted and a near broken John Michie does it very well. It’s the same with position and rank, for who would be liege-men to lords such as these? Prince Florizel’s love for his common shepherdess (tho’ she’s not really!) cannot be doubted and Bohemia looks just the kind of subversive place where young people should grow up.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

The binary nature of the piece – Sicilia vs. Bohemia – locks it together. One is urban and a touch swanky with its musicians in a recording booth, expensive and insulated; whilst over in Bohemia, or is it in a field near Auchtermuchty?, Autolycus is on the make and Annie Grace plays her Border pipes on a makeshift platform and it’s all in for a Canadian Barn Dance. Perdita (Fiona Wood), pranked up in her goddess claithes and pink Converses, is made-for-Fife. ‘Too noble for this place’ reckons Polixenes. Prat!

Yes, judgements come fast and sure in this tale. The opening signal is a beautiful arrangement of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, whose plaintive ‘What can I give him?’ is Hermione’s anguished, unanswerable question. Mamillius is the sacrificial lamb – and bear. Rustics, pre-eminently John Stahl as the Shepherd are as funny, honest and whole hearted as they are gullible and foolish. Autolycus, complete with paper crown around his neck, is the disgraceful Lord of Misrule, whom you shouldn’t care about, just delight in.

What is apparent throughout is clear-cut. Indeed there’s a thematic insistence upon narrative clarity and serious moral direction that other productions can lose sight of. No chance here: not only is the lighting plot instructive, there’s even an ultrasound to pay attention to and, remarkably, an apt reference to the human genome project:

‘Your mother was  most true to wedlock, prince;

For she did print your royal father off,

Conceiving you.’

Invention does not diminish Shakespeare.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 February)

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Lysistrata (Kings: 27 – 28 Jan.’17)

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata) Photo: Greg Macvean

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata)
Photo: Greg Macvean

“5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars: Outstanding

This is a tumultuous inaugural production by the Attic Collective. It has that shameless tumescent quality that really would ‘Make Greece Great Again’. Athens/Attica was still big in 411 BC but had been sorely bashed in Sicily and was hurting. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata must have been excruciating, urgent fun back then and it is remarkable that – in the right hands – it can still have the same effect.

As a play it’s less in-your-face than in-your-crotch. Just look at the tall curvy door, upstage centre, and reckon, pretty confidently, that it’s all about Pussy Power. Then there are the phalluses, not one of leather, but several of rubber and latex, and all impressive, but none more so than the Spartan emissary as gauche walking dick. Naturally enough there is supplication to Zeus for relief from priapism.

The men suffer because the women have crossed their legs. Lysistrata leads a women’s revolt that denies sex to husbands (and wives) until the Peloponnesian War ends. They occupy the Treasury – a smart kick in the balls –  and wait for their men to come to their senses, as it were. They are finally brought to it by the body beautiful of Kim Kardashian, aka. Aristophanes’ figure of Reconciliation. Of course, the women are frustrated too and invent desperate, hilarious, excuses to return home.

Conor McLeod (Men's Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

Conor McLeod (Men’s Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

This is when a 5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’. ‘Tits not Targets’ is the message. It’s summery: the men are in a uniform of white shirts, cropped chinos and canvas slip-ons. Not a spear or bronze helmet in sight. Just helmets from the Urban dictionary. Cinesias (Adam George Butler) has his shades. Their leader (Conor McLeod) is a dapper, convinced and convincing kind of chap. Meanwhile the women are a riot of colour with their white faces and ‘war paint’ and they soak the men with Water Blasters. It’s loud too, especially when Charlie West hits his box drum.

Arguably the on-stage debate is one-sided. Determined Lysistrata (Cait Irvine) and cocky Stratyllis (Megan Fraser) reduce the men to defensive huddles and oddly impotent hakas. Deciding  to dump the split Choruses of the old men and women of Athens does tilt the balance in favour of the youthful and the libidinous (no real loss!) and the sense of the words can go AWOL in dionysiac chant and jabber but there’s no doubting the drive and sense of the piece as a whole. Director Susan Worsfold and Musical Director Garry Cameron succeed in sustaining dramatic form, resolved in celebration, from a plot that is about as carnal and abandoned as it gets.

By the by, a Belgian lady senator called for a sex strike in 2011. It was meant as a provocative joke but it excited the Christian Democratic opposition to remark that “Politicians are not there to strike. On the contrary, politicians are there to arouse the country.” Hear! Hear! (Aristophanes).

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 27  January)

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