Wendy and Peter Pan (The Lyceum: 29 Nov.’18 – 5 Jan. ’19)

Isobel McArthur (Wendy) and Dorian Simpson (Smee/Doc Giles)
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a visual treat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

It is not often that I review children’s shows. Luckily, as a twenty-something I’m basically a child in an adult body, pretending I know how to do taxes or what grenadine is. Less luckily, it’s much harder to review a children’s show honestly than it is to convince people at parties you can make a drink other than “rum in a Tom & Jerry mug”. With that in mind, consider this a review in two parts: one for the adults in the audience, and the other for the kids you’ll most likely have alongside you.

If you’re a parent, or just someone who’s interested in the general state of children’s theatre, the outlook is actually pretty good. Ella Hickson’s interpretation of the J.M Barrie classic plays its adaptational cards fairly straight: despite new framing devices and subplots the bones of the original do shine through. Though whilst that may be nothing new, it’s definitely nothing unwelcome.

The production paves its own way in design terms. It’s a visual treat: the vertically focused sets are detailed and interesting enough alone, but when coupled with costume and staging the whole production goes from “act” to “spectacle” on visual merit alone. Particular praise to Ziggy Heath as Peter Pan, for extended service to physical clownery, exhausting even just to watch. Co-lead Isobel McArthur performs an admirable Wendy, managing to keep up almost effortlessly against her more physically dynamic ensemble.

This is also a show, however, that could be accused of over ambition in its writing. Whilst the quality of the dialogue is high, Hickson’s adaptation suffers from trying to do too much at once. By the second half, the story is about accepting the death of a child, and also about becoming an adult, but also a swashbuckling adventure, but also about Wendy wanting to lead, and on and on as such. Just when it seems to be coming to grips with one theme, it switches. And whilst there is something to be said about writing for the often less-than-infinite attention spans of younger kids, as an adult you might be left feeling a little dazed. Despite a very talented cast and that excellent overall design, the story changes momentum so often that it struggles to carry a single cohesive theme.

But it’s all well and good to sit on my high horse and judge: perhaps more important than what I think is what the kids thought. And despite any criticisms levelled previously, there is one overriding factor that makes the difference here: they were enthralled. For nearly the show’s entire run time, silence pervaded over a crowd of people whose average age barely went above double digits. On the way out, it was a sea of smile and fake sword fights, and it’s honestly very easy to see why.

Gyuri Sarossy as Captain Hook

Sally Reid as Tink

Despite being a little clumsy in its execution story-wise, Peter Pan and Wendy succeeds in capturing something essentially child like. Call it something I can’t put my finger on, or hook onto it (geddit?), but it’s obvious that this production understands the motivations, feelings and fears of young children. At the end of the day, it’s going to do its job for its intended audience, and not only do it well, but with sincerity. The performances are big and expressive, but thoughtful too. Funny, even – Dorian Simpson as Smee delivered laughs that had every age bracket rolling, alongside Sally Reid’s wonderfully crunchy portrayal of Tinkerbell.

PeterPan3

… and with Ziggy Heath as Peter

Is it worth going to see if you don’t have kids? Maybe, if you want something interesting to look at for a couple of hours, but aren’t expecting grand narrative. But if you’re looking for something that the younger people in your life might be able to connect with in a really meaningful, fun way? Absolutely.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 30 December)

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SCO: Krivine, Chamayou (Usher Hall: 23 Nov.‘18)

Melusine, mermaid to the Plantagenets. A modern “illumination” by Troy Howell.

“Not a question of playing, but interpretation

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was very much looking forward to this concert with its collation of beautiful, early Romantic works all written within 35 years of each other and during the afternoon I listened to recorded interpretations to refresh my memory of them: Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO for the Beethoven (a 1994 recording), Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2014) for the Schumann, and Claudio Abbado and the LSO for the Mendelssohn (1988); a good cross section of interpretational styles over the last 30 years.

 

One should not, generally, compare recorded music with live.  One is essentially a photograph whilst the other  is a painting: technical perfection against the raw result of human artistic endeavour.  Yet I wasn’t comparing the playing, but the interpretation, and for this I point the baton at guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine, a musician whose pedigree is considerable, and whose style, at least on the night, was deeply conservative and –  too often – too slow.  I was reminded of Klemperer or Sir Reginald Goodall, but without their depth.  I was not inspired.  Neither was I convinced by the necessity of putting the double basses on the left and separating the horns from the trumpets and trombones either side of the woodwind.  For a very classical conductor, this was a somewhat enigmatic move.

 

I was wryly amused at the passing of time and customs that have led to these three works, Mendelssohn’s Overture The Fair Melusina, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 4 in G, and Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D Minor (1851 revision) being put on the same programme , as they were all very badly received at their premieres, but perhaps this has, with the passing of time, become a badge of honour.

 

The legend of Melusina is almost too ridiculous to recount but involves a maiden turning into either a sea monster, mermaid or serpent one day a week as punishment for favouring a knight; make of it what you will.  The piece is meant at times to convey the rippling of the sea and the manliness of the knight, but I don’t go with these interpretations.  Given the storyline it is an eleven minute work of considerable meatiness, if not in the Ruy Blas or Fingal’s Cave class.

 

The SCO’s playing was sound with some notable results from the wind section, but overall the impression was an almost ponderous interpretation lacking spontaneity or attack.  This from the people who gave you a simply amazing rendition of Brahms’s four symphonies but four months ago.  Not a question of playing, but interpretation.

 

Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G, but I wonder if they realise how revolutionary it was at the time, and remains today.  A brief solo piano introduction followed by a long orchestral interlude; the orchestra attacking aggressively followed by plaintive murmurings from the piano, almost as if piano and orchestra are in separate rooms and we can hear them both.  It is a glorious work and the second movement Andante con moto divine.

 

Bertrand Chamayou’s playing lacked perfect clarity and precision in the solo entrance.  There was a loss of definition in some of the immensely challenging demi-semi-quaver passages and the orchestral accompaniment was a tad muddy.  I was surprised to see music on top of the piano, if only for occasional reference, rather than reading.  Settling down or lack of rehearsal? Perhaps settling down, because the cadenza was brilliantly executed and as orchestra and soloist got used to each other there were some better dynamics.  In the second movement Andante con moto we heard confident, attacking strings pitted against a soulful, responsive piano.  We concluded with a splendid, fresh lively Rondo (justifiably marked Vivace.)

 

Chamayou obliged us with an encore of the second movement of a Haydn sonata, restful, beautifully played, clear and well phrased.

 

The final work, Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D minor bears the opening remark in my notebook of “Too slow!”. It was a rather pedestrian performance lacking in verve.  It was as if, as for much of the evening, notwithstanding some very good orchestral playing, the music was somehow struggling to get out. The second movement contained some wonderfully rich string playing.  In the Scherzo the horns brought some liveliness to an otherwise rigid interpretation.  The spirited, energised finale Langsam-Lebhaft at last gave one a real lift and the final 20 second coda an insight into what this great little orchestra is capable of.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 November)

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The Unreturning (Traverse: 24-27 October ’18)

“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war. 

This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026. 

Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse. 

The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?

When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery. 

Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)

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Arctic Oil (Traverse: 9-20 Oct.’18)

Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

“An intelligent piece from an ambitious team.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In the genre of ‘home drama’ (call it neo-kitchen sink realism), blood relatives screaming devastating jabs and hurling haunting revelations back and forth feels oddly natural; what kind of play would deny an audience their fair share of soul-baring conflict and painful familial reconciliation when there is literally a functioning washbasin onstage? Claire Duffy’s new play Arctic Oil both soars and drops as it follows this particular approach to dramatic storytelling. It goes high, with its airtight atmosphere and its dialogue’s sweeping scope, and achieves a good deal. 

However, Duffy’s script, while clever and relevant by all means, flaps a few times too often, mixing stale melodrama into its more striking twists, and thereby takes the air out from under it. Not much harm comes of this, for actors Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black are very capable of holding the audience’s attention and heartstrings as necessary, and imbue their respective characters with internal torments and desires. 

Caplan is Ella, an activist and young mother struggling with existential guilt for staying at home to raise her baby, Sam, rather than fight the forces of capitalism alongside her more daredevil comrades. Black is Margaret, Ella’s entirely different-minded mother — or so it initially appears — a woman so concerned that her daughter’s activism will cause irreversible damage to herself and her son that she takes her worry to uncomfortably strict lengths. Set on “a remote Scottish island,” it’s all contained within a pristine bathroom, in which Margaret has chosen to lock Ella and herself so that Ella does not pursue what might be a fatal mission protesting an oil rig. As with any home drama worth its salt, while the characters spar and try to explain their side, accusations of abandonment, betrayal, and shoddy parenting fly, harrowing family secrets are uncovered, and certain thematic topics are eventually revealed to have been proxies for familial resentments and personal demons. Climate change gets a number of notable and nod-worthy statements, but the political discussions melt away fairly quickly into allegories for generational divide and reconciliation with past wrongdoing between mother and child. The effect is literary, but rather loses the environmental focus of the first half.

Director Gareth Nicholls builds the rage and personal angst but once the initial shock of the play’s claustrophobic setting has worn off, and apart from one or two sharper later moments, a sense of what is important goes missing. In particular, one ill-measured fakeout sequence near the middle is so hammed up that whatever energy the play had been coasting on is visibly squashed for no discernible reason, other than melodrama.

Visually, Nicholls does well to trap the viewer in this oppressive box of anger and anxiety, with considerable credit due to his and Kevin McCallum’s cleverly imposing set design, a warped construction of a modern bathroom that looms over both the characters and audience to morbid effect. Duffy’s script also generously offers moments of levity that land well, most memorably in the head-turning line: “The truth? You wouldn’t know the truth if it farted in your face.”

Less successful is the uneven and unnecessary musical underscoring. The soundtrack mostly consists of glum electronic hums and whirs, which does set the tone at the beginning, layering the fateful onto the domestic surfaces. Frustratingly, these sounds are brought back again and again and again, undercutting some interesting dialogue and generally siphoning the clarity out of the show . The use of music seemed like a safeguard against the audience possibly not understanding that a conversation was ‘Important’, but in reality, Duffy’s characters and the skilled performances are capable enough on their own without the heavy-handed signaling. 

Arctic Oil uses mother and daughter in conflict to cut through to political topics of current consequence. Its conversations are difficult and compelling but do force inconsistencies into the drama.  It is, regardless, an intelligent piece from an ambitious team.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 October)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 7 Oct.‘18)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

“This work, [Britten’s String Quartet No 3] unknown to me, was the event of the evening”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

 

The Edinburgh Quartet, one of the country’s longest standing musical ensembles, has been through many changes, but perhaps none so great as in the three years past that I have been writing about them. Personnel changes, obviously, but changes in performance strategy as well. A move away from formal, evening concert giving to less formal lunchtime and afternoon recitals, working with makars and artists, educating, and, splendidly, offering internships to aspiring musicians to actually take a desk for a period of concerts with them. All this makes it difficult to achieve an enduring opinion of their actual playing together as a combo, and I have not written about them for almost a year.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Queen’s Hall featured only one member of more than a year or so’s standing, 10 year veteran cellist Mark Bailey. Tijmen Huisingh has taken over the 1st Violin desk after a year of guests; with Tom Hankey and Catherine Marwood on 2nd violin and viola respectively.

A further unusual aspect of the quartet’s branding is choosing a theme for each season. This year it is ‘Exile’. These themes in my view have always been a little contrived and in his chat after the Beethoven Tijmen Huisingh did confess that they had to be “broadly interpreted”. Exile from deafness in the case of Beethoven, homesickness form England in the case of American based Britten, and yearning for Bohemia from Dvorak whilst in America. Hmmn.

The programme notes were sparse but learned. Deep analysis of the works in question, but with no mention of the players or their biographies. Pleasingly, no advertisements. A puzzling frontispiece titled “Death in Venice” and a reference to phrases quoted in the final movement of the quartet to Britten’s opera. Helpfully, there is an attractive and up to date website to provide further information. 

The Quartet, continuing their very pleasing custom of not fine tuning on stage but getting right down to it, kicked off with an early Beethoven Quartet, Op.18 No 3, a competently despatched if not especially inspiring rendition of an unspectacular early work.

There followed Britten’s String Quartet No 3, a more mature, introspective work, to which the players brought everything they could, from the desolate duets at the beginning between first violin and cello, some breathtaking first violin playing in the highest positions with barely a couple of inches of metal to derive a sound from, lively ensemble playing in the Burlesque finishing with bold pizzicato leading to a sublime conclusion in the final La Serenissima. This work, unknown to me, was the event of the evening.

Tijmen Huisingh had explained earlier that they were unable to play the published Dvorak String Quartet in E flat major, no 10 op.51, through lack of practice owing to illness. Instead we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet no 14 op.105, played in previous recitals. A melancholy opening in the first movement Adagio non troppo – the work was started in America and completed in Bohemia –  it grew livelier and more entertaining as it progressed. In the second movement Molto Vivace – Trio we were obviously back in Bohemia, there was some rich tonal playing in the lento e molto cantabile and in particular masterful cello playing in the final Allegro non tanto as the Quartet showed their evident bonding notwithstanding a relatively recent coming together.

 

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

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 October)

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Signals (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 13:10: 50 mins)

“A mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Until we know for sure, which might never be the case, the extraterrestrial is endlessly fascinating. One some level, the entirety of human existence is hinged on this question: is there anyone, anything else out there? Footprint Theatre’s engaging two-woman show Signals asks this question with an intelligent script, grounded performances, and an excellent climax, and while it is not exactly pulse-pounding, this production is a mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.

Eve Cowley and Immie Davies play two data analysts on the night shift at a facility dedicated to scanning the cosmos for alien contact. For the majority of the play, they simply sit and swap comments about their co-workers, life in general, and whether their job is completely meaningless. The set is commendably simple yet effective; with only two desks and a rat king of wires and plugs, the feeling of a dingy office is created very well. Cowley and Davies’ performances are also well-suited to the piece; all their interactions, from casual chats to fiery arguments, are enjoyable to listen to and cleverly written. 

Overall, however, the show itself cannot quite muster any significant feeling other than ‘enjoyable’ for the first two thirds. While the stillness of the show is nicely reminiscent of naturalistic theatre trends, its interludes where nothing happens are overlong considering the theme of the show. Thankfully, the portion of the events when alien contact is actually realised is fabulously crafted, and genuinely thrilling — especially the two workers’ disparate reactions to the possibility that we might actually answer the ultimate existential question. This is, without a doubt, the best part of the show, and I can confidently say the final third is an excellent piece of theatre.

The rest, however, does not do the ending justice, and while the technical and performative aspects are solid, the runtime is not as well-measured as it could be. If the establishing segments of Signals took a few more notes from its ending, this still, gradual approach could have come across with a bit more verve than it currently does. This is a well-made production, but it could be much sharper, and with an injection of just a bit more energy it could be a seriously impressive two-hander. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room (theSpace on North Bridge: 13-18 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“Admirably boisterous, with plenty of breathless comedy flowing from every scene.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reading University Drama Society has made a delirious, heartily amusing comedy out of a sharp and clever setup. The show revolves around the four members of Hitch’s Los Angeles writers’ room in 1961: the well-dressed socialite Kevin (Thomas Sparrow), the mousy, prim Lila (Rebecca Penn), the stringy jittery Scott (Conor Field), and the snarky, forward Maya (Jess Davies). A hapless rookie detective (Luke Cox) introduces the show, blustering through some exposition about a former member of the writers’ room who has turned up disfigured and murdered in the L.A. river. From there, the detective hides — in one of the show’s funniest running jokes — just behind a sofa and barely out of view as the writers go about their business. As they share their ideas of new scripts, the four of them act each out, donning wigs and swapping accents with reckless abandon and generally putting on a flamboyantly silly show of it all. Needless to say, there are Hitchcockian jokes and references aplenty, and it is certainly recommended to have seen more than a few of the films in question if you want to laugh along with the lion’s share of these parodic sequences.

Writers Ades Singh and Cameron Gill clearly take great pleasure in their cinematic references and endlessly silly humour, which to their credit, are both exceedingly well-suited to the Fringe atmosphere. In his role as director, Gill has commendably let the performers have oodles of fun with and the performers, who in turn each give a high-energy performance.

Indeed, there’s plenty of boisterousness all round, with breathless comedy flowing from every scene. Unfortunately, though many of the character moments are well set-up for big laughs, even the performances cannot save some of the lazier impulses of this show. Some of the earlier jokes are clever — such as Davies’ scene-stealing personification of a haunting mother character who is totally not a rip-off from Psycho, or Sparrow’s charming, standout smugness as he explains his own ‘brilliance’ — the play eventually just has the same punchlines over and over: the script seemingly intentionally falls apart into improvisations, repetitive shrugs about why what is happening is happening, and the apparent hilarity of just saying the word “bitch.” In addition, the amount of fourth-wall-breaking becomes tiresome after the first joke of its kind, not to mention to fifth. Thankfully, this is possible to overlook in favour of appreciating the fanciful character comedy on display, such as Cox’s amusing John-Candy-esque slapstick, or Penn’s clipped and funny diary scene, or Field’s admittedly hilarious impression of a pigeon.

It should also be noted that, the three-sided venue Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room is staged in makes more than half of the play and its gags completely invisible to anyone not in the front row of the centre of the room, not to mention anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the eyeline of one of the blindingly bright, oddly low-hung lights. Choose your seat wisely.

Overall, this is a clever setup with a disappointing payoff, that could be helped with a little tightening of the actual story and a few more jokes that aren’t just naughty-word-humour. Credit where credit is due, however, the ensemble — Thomas Sparrow and Jess Davies in particular — turn in such vivacious performances that this reviewer would be curious to see what this team does next. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 17 August)