Russian State Symphony Orchestra. Uryupin, Douglas. (Usher Hall: 14 Oct.’18)

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“.. We had just experienced something magical”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Orchestras from foreign lands are always a pull, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, and so the Usher Hall’s annual Season of international classical orchestras, along with recognisable and highly accessible programmes, is a clever marketing tool. It pulls in not just the regulars but irregular concert goers as well, and is thus to be lauded. Unfortunately there are some downsides in terms of concert etiquette.

 

The Stalls and the Grand Circle were full and the Upper Circle pretty empty, symptomatic of the target demographic, relatively well off retirees, a sort of silver screen for music lovers, but without the coffee and biscuits. I was pleased to see evidence of champagne being taken at the interval. Dress code was pretty smart too. Many had been out to Sunday lunch, the opposite of what I have experienced in Vienna, where the well heeled visit the Brahms Halle in the morning for a recital from members of the Philharmonie before retiring to the Imperial Hotel for torte or wurst. 

However, such slightly patronising thoughts were brought up with a short, sharp shock as the players got going. Russian orchestras sound different, play differently, interpret very differently. The Russian State Symphony Orchestra (they change names so often it is hard to know who you are hearing: I remember booking to hear the Leningrad PO only to find because of political changes the programme on the night referred to them as the St Petersburg PO ), the RSSO, is officially known as the State Academic Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” and is one of Russia’s older ensembles having debuted in Moscow in 1936 under the baton of Erich Kleiber and Alexander Gauk.

The orchestra’s take on Suite and national dances from Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) almost blew me out of my seat. No gentle Sunday afternoon lollipops here. The collection was their own “cherry pick” from the ballet and covered the full gamut of well known sketches and dances, the ‘Black Swan’ being very much in evidence in the full on, almost clodhopping interpretation of all bar the opening “Scene” (Morecambe and Wise, anyone?”) as dance music as opposed to an orchestral suite, and of course this was portraying the music just as it was originally scored. For sugar plum fairies kindly look elsewhere. Aggressive almost brutal harshness with strong rhythmic intensity, incredibly strong tone, yet never harsh or crude. The Waltz, for example, was played as yearning and passionate rather than gentle and coy. Oh those Russians!

Somewhat taken out of myself I was pleased for the pause as the strings went off stage to bring on the Steinway. A couple of days ago it was in situ as the orchestra played before it was needed. Spoiled the view, and anyway, this is a big orchestra to stage.

Shostakovich is not guaranteed to bring in the casual concertgoer, but his second piano concerto is short, and an aural treat. The audience loved it. Barry Douglas, very much on form, dispatched the first movement in the composer’s tongue-in-cheek mode with easy precision, but as a movement it was unremarkable. It was in the second movement Andante that we began to drool. The strings’ opening bars are of such tangible emotion and the plaintive sadness of Douglas’s introduction and exposition got everything out of the music without overplaying. Real judgement and artistry. If you don’t know it, you can hear the composer play it himself on You Tube. In fact, you should.

The third movement by contrast is pure bravura. I was frankly amazed at Douglas’s technique, making as if nothing of these incredibly demanding Allegro passages in double time. It is to me quite extraordinary that Shostakovich thought so little of the work, notwithstanding writing it as a birthday present for his nineteen-year-old son. Perhaps composers are their own harshest critics, for this work, in microcosm, has much to commend it.

After the interval we were treated to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, an hour-long treat that never palls unlike some of the extended passages we get in symphonies of similar duration from Bruckner or even Mahler. It was particularly interesting to me having heard the first symphony (written twelve years earlier and to general opprobrium) a couple of days earlier. Here was a fully developed work deploying every part of the orchestra to full effect. The interpretation of the orchestra was much more mainstream than in the Tchaikovsky and none the worse for that. From beginning to end it was a textbook example of how the work should be played compared to the more esoteric, but entirely valid Tchaikovsky interpretation.

Notwithstanding a two hour performance the orchestra generously gave us the tactfully chosen Elgar’s Menuet de Matin as an encore.

I cannot finish without complaining about the insensitive and self-indulgent coughing throughout much of the performance. It was particularly hard to bear in the beautiful Shostakovich Andante, and the unrestrained coughing so soon after the interval could, I assume, have been despatched beforehand. Holding a rolled handkerchief to the mouth and coughing into it can greatly limit the noise of unavoidable coughing, as the Royal Festival Hall advise in all their programmes. Also, but thankfully after leaving a few seconds silence after the Andante, there was a small outbreak of applause ( … Noooooo!). There has been talk of this at the Proms this year. On this particular occasion I could not find it in me to complain, for we had just experienced something magical.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 October)

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RSNO: Sondergard, Piemontesi (Usher Hall: 5 Oct. ’18)

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

“The RSNO just gets better and better”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

 

The RSNO Supporters’ Hospitality Suite was packed, the dress code considerably upscale, the auditorium full, save a few seats in the very furthest reaches of The Gods. It was opening night in Edinburgh for the RSNO 2018/19 season, and the induction of long time Principal Guest Conductor, 49 year old Dane Thomas Sondergard, as Music Director, who had celebrated his birthday the previous evening with this same programme in the Caird Hall, Dundee.

 

Expectations were clearly high and were not disappointed. We experienced an evening of real musical craftsmanship, the thoroughness, depth and preparation of the music expressed though a mixture of strong technical accomplishment accompanied by restrained, contained emotion which in this age of hyperbole made it all the more effective. Not so much “Less is More”, for there was plenty, but “thoroughness is all” rather than showmanship, particularly in the Mahler, where hearts were not worn on sleeves, but beat resonantly from within.

 

As is the RSNO’s habit, we were welcomed with a few words by a member of the string section, which in my mind achieves a helpful bond between players and audience.

 

We started the evening with a warm up, Lotta Wennakoski’s aptly named Flounce, a five-minute escapade that reminded me of a fairground ride and premiered at last year’s Proms under the baton of fellow Finn Sakari Oramo. Result? Good mood all round.

 

Piano already in situ so no delay for the next piece, except for a brief address from Sondergard himself, full of Scandinavian modesty as he spoke of his pride at becoming Musical Director after those seven years as Principal Guest Conductor.

 

Our soloist on the night was Francesco Piemontesi, perhaps best known as a proponent of Mozart and so, given the Mozartian nature of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, and also his first two symphonies, was a profoundly logical choice.

 

As in many of his concertos, in his Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Beethoven keeps you waiting for the soloist’s entry with a long introduction. When Piemontesi came in, it was a natural segue rather than grand opening, emphasising the synergy between soloist and orchestra that marks the best played concertos. With very strong cadenzas Piemontesi brought verve and precision to the music with the band in taut and timely response. There was a collective (but just about silent) “… aah” from the audience as the familiar third movement Molto Allegro brought us to the work’s conclusion. I would describe this performance as perfect.

 

We were treated to a thoughtful, unexaggerated interpretation of the well known Schubert Impromptu in A flat major before retiring for the interval, a work I suspect many of us have played in our time, but nowhere near as well as this.

 

The Mahler Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor was the work we had all been waiting for, a seventy-minute epic. And it was. One’s heart went out to the trumpet soloist opening the work whose first note had just a trace of uncertainty in its first moments but then delivered a masterly performance throughout the work. I suspect few noticed, and none cared, I certainly didn’t. This is all part of the bargain of live music. In fact the orchestra’s playing throughout this very long, demanding work, was exemplary. Huge contrasts in dynamics, avoidance of sensationalism (“It’s not as loud as you play it on the HiFi” my wife remarked), brilliant pianissimi between timpani and basses, joyous chucking of the theme from strings to brass, the orchestra never tiring through this musical and emotional marathon.

 

The fourth movement Adagiotto. Sehr langsam more commonly known as “The Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth” or, worse, “Theme from Death In Venice” deserves a paragraph to itself. It was a textbook example of how this movement should be played. First, it is an Adagietto, which means very slowly, and it was at a very slow pace –  indeed, the slowest I have heard – that Thomas Sondergard guided his players through an incredibly exposed piece of scoring, in which bow and breath control, depending on the instrument, are stretched to their physical limits. Abbado does it all in a couple of seconds over nine minutes, Rattle in nine and a half. I reckon Sondergard took us to nearer ten. The result was an achingly poignant, again understated but utterly compelling interpretation of this famous musical sketch.

 

The RSNO just gets better and better. If tonight is an example of what is in store for us in the coming winter and spring, we are in for a series of real treats.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 5 October)

Visit the RSNO, Scotland’s national orchestra, here.

Go to Edinburgh49‘s Usher Hall archive.

Freeman (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Freeman is stuffed with brilliant ideas; it fires on all cylinders, incorporating hypnotic physical choreography with breathtaking performances and devastating portrayals of harrowing true stories. The performers of Strictly Arts Theatre Company produce deeply affecting characterisations and movements, breathing life into Camilla Whitehall’s tapestry of compelling episodes from history that truly deserve a closer look from today’s civilisation. The final result, as directed by Danièle Sanderson, is brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive, though its most affecting methods are so raucously intense, the outcome is more chilling than perhaps was intended.

The narrative is principally anchored in the mid-nineteenth century story of William Freeman, a New York man treated in horrifically unjust way by the ‘justice’ system he moved in, and whose story intertwines with both the histories of institutional racial prejudice and the varied legal interpretations of mental conditions. Through this story and five similarly gripping tales, this production raises a profound and chilling question: How do we shape narratives when we bring up mental health? When has it helped? When has it made things worse?

Strictly Arts has adopted a fascinating approach to exploring these themes: after a lengthy yet graceful physical sequence set to trance-like music, the show opens in a setting recalling purgatory. Six souls regard each other in confusion, yet seem to understand they need to ‘tell their story’ so that they can all move on to whatever lies beyond. And so each illustrates their tale, as the other company members provide gorgeously crafted support to each respective retelling. They contort and combine their bodies in various shapes and figures to augment the narratives, which are both impressive and thrillingly creative each time they appear. Their recreations of a horse for William Freeman to ride, and a car during the dramatisation of Sandra Bland’s arrest are particularly riveting — and yes, Sandra Bland’s story is in this show. The stories stretch as far as 1840s Scotland, 2015 Texas, 1949 Leeds, and 2016 London, which combine for a bone-chillingly convincing assertion: when it comes to racial injustice and the horrific unfairness that non-white individuals have to face — particularly when it comes to appreciating their mental health — “nothing has changed.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Freeman’s 60 minutes, however, is the as-yet unparalleled talent of this acting ensemble. They are a genuinely captivating bunch, and credit must go to both Sanderson and Strictly Arts Artistic Director Corey Campbell for instilling this cast with a monumental cohesion onstage. Campbell himself brings William Freeman to life in an unforgettable performance, and he is not let down in the slightest by the surrounding cast members. In particular, Marcel White as Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale and Kimisha Lewis as Bland provide breathtaking characterisations. White delivers a compelling and heartbreaking turn as he charts Oluwale’s descent from optimism and ambition into desperation and bewilderment, made all the more tragic as the darkness of his story directly follows a sudden and joyous dance interlude set to Little Richard. Lewis’ portrayal of Bland’s doomed encounter with a fascist Texas police officer is played as a truly horrifying sequence where the remaining cast evoke the terror and pain of the thousands of Black individuals mistreated by law enforcement — this is without a doubt the most heart-wrenching moment I have experienced at the 2018 Fringe Festival. 

Yet the immense impact of this sequence and moments like it result in disorientation from scene to scene. While the show seems frenetic to the point of being intentionally jarring to experience, this becomes at times unfortunately inconclusive, and certain twists and wrenches of the narrative evoke hopelessness and confusion perhaps more than they ought to. The dance sequence that introduces Oluwale’s segment, for example, is so rich that the brutal physical violence that follows it feels garish, and somewhat cheaply vicious. Of course, these are true stories that evoke genuine anguish, so this is less a criticism of the narrative than a comment on the chilling effect on the viewer — Freeman includes lighter moments where we are given a moment to catch our breath, but in an odd and perhaps slightly misjudged order, such as early in the production, when the story of Daniel M’naghten is interrupted for some cacophonous silliness. 

Understanding those oddities of the production, this is nevertheless a fabulous piece of theatre, with unique points to make. M’naghten’s scene, in fact, contains a profoundly venerable commentary, delivered beautifully by Campbell as Freeman himself. M’naghten, played commendably by Pip Barclay, was a Scottish white man and the first person defended in court by the insanity defence; when it is his turn to tell his story, he refuses to take the exercise seriously, and decides to play around instead, until Freeman explains that while he can mess around and not care about these stories of racial disharmony, as they did not affect him, the rest of the characters, all black, are required to listen to white stories like his in order to be given a platform to tell theirs. It is a graceful, nuanced moment for which Sanderson, Campbell, and the entire company deserve immense credit for crafting so beautifully. 

Keiren Amos and Aimee Powell also deliver layered, compelling turns, as tragically-fated Michael Bailey and uncomfortably recently deceased Sarah Reed, respectively, both of whom were treated incompetently by the British justice system due to their mental health conditions. Their chapters are more factual than artistic, mostly, yet they are valuable additions to the narrative, and both Amos and Powell deserve credit for their resonantly realistic performances. 

This show is deeply important, strangely complex, and disorienting at times. But it is a vibrant and graceful hour, with a commendable amount of nuance, structure, and deep intelligence. This deserves its standout status at this year’s Fringe, and I would highly recommend it, possibly above all others, as the show not to miss, despite the thousand-yard-stare you will most likely be left with. Bravo to Strictly Arts.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Daliso Chaponda: What The African Said (Gilded Balloon at the Museum: 19-26 Aug: 19:30: 60 mins)

“This is must-see standup.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

A hilarious, hilarious show. After rising to prominence on Britain’s Got Talent and touring various parts of the globe, Daliso Chaponda performs eight nights at Gilded Balloon’s Museum auditorium space, and take it from me, this is must-see standup. The comedy is clever and uproariously funny, the persona is both charming and caustic, and the hour is so packed with brilliant setups and payoffs that at only 60 minutes it feels altogether too short. 

Topics range from his road to standup, to his childhood, to his nationality, to newfound success, and other well-trodden ground for standup comedians — especially ones at the Fringe. Yet What The African Said never feels lazy or recycled; though these topics are not new subjects on the comedy stage, here they are spun with Chaponda’s unique charm and dexterity, so even an early-on Brexit joke provokes a much more appreciative giggle than 99% of the bone-tired political material bouncing around microphones all over the city.

Of course, he also ventures into fresh, intriguing territory, such as riveting takes on racism online and in person, European arrogance in education, and the hairpin tendencies of so many to take offence at so much. Some of his most delightful and arresting material takes aim at racial difference and touchiness, yet with exceeding grace and humility — it is telling that even as he acknowledged an upcoming one-liner caused (dubiously sensible) widespread offence and alarm, the audience felt prepared for a clever and commendable jab regardless of more sensitive reactions. Needless to say, the line in question is spectacularly funny and had me smiling hours after the performance; it boggles the mind that certain audiences did not feel the same. This is a man who knows how to write a joke.

Chaponda could be said to walk the fine line between probing race and racism and toying with it, yet he speaks and jokes with such confidence and wit that even his incisive commentaries are accompanied with a genuine laugh alongside them. On that topic, there is no shortage of incisive commentaries in this show; Chaponda’s comedy is matched with an impressive back catalogue of information and knowledge, which embeds his witticisms with a well-earned sense of genuine understanding, rather than flippant mockery. On top of that, the Malawi-born comedian includes some affectingly personal undercurrents to his material — not in the way so many other Fringe comedians work in an ‘emotional side’ to their standup, which has practically become clichéd by now — but again in a commendably honest and somehow quite fun aside to his more ribald suggestions.

Overall, this is a practically perfect hour of comedy, and one of the most enjoyable and rich standup performances I have experienced this year. Go and see it.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 August)

 

I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die (theSpace @ Venue 45: 20-25th Aug: 15:40: 70 mins)

“The finest production I’ve seen this year”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Death and grief are difficult topics to get right in the theatre – even more so for a young company who are not likely to have experienced much of either. Lloyd Theatre Arts (most of whom are aged 14-17), however, demonstrate maturity and sensitivity well beyond their years in this powerful life lesson.

In January 2014, 16-year-old- Daniel Spargo-Mabbs died as a result of a drug overdose at an illegal rave. I Love You Mum… I Promise I Won’t Die is a verbatim response to that tragedy, using only the words of his friends and family to tell the story of what happened. Mark Wheeller’s script, which interweaves responses from those close to Daniel, is a galling and frank account of his final few days and their immediate aftermath. Grab the tissues.

What’s most moving about this show is the painful honesty of it: the script contains all the teenage awkwardness you would expect from verbatim responses, and to their credit, the company capture this in the integrity of their performance. Some perspectives indicate a knowledge of what happened that night, some a blissful naivety, and not everyone is shown in a positive light, making it an insightful and thorough, unglossed story.

The action is also interspersed with choreographic sequences to reflect or highlight specific feelings that words alone can’t convey. Counter-balance and counter-tension are common motifs to demonstrate how much the individuals in the story relied on each other to get through the days, and these are intelligent and polished moments which show a fantastic creative engagement with the piece, as well as an emotional one. Indeed, the slickness, energy and connection throughout this performance from the whole company are indicative of hours of hard work and dedication to their craft, and the result is absolutely astonishing.

The second half of this production (which focuses more on the perspective of his family and girlfriend covering the same events) does drag somewhat, as there is little in the way of new narrative content, making it feel quite repetitive and static. Further editing to combine the two halves would help make this a more cohesive and gripping piece, but even in this state, it’s the finest production I’ve seen so far this year.

The performance quality of this production from both the young people, and the actors playing Daniel’s parents, really is first class – I genuinely thought I was watching Daniel’s friends and family tell this emotive and important story themselves. Take your children. Take your parents. And take care of yourselves.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

One-Man Pride and Prejudice (Assembly Studios: 2-12 Aug (even dates only): 15:50: 60 mins)

“Intelligent, funny… solicit this production for your next dance”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

It takes real bravery to present an hour-long version of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice – condensing the numerous scenes and chapters into a cohesive highlights reel – yet even more to do so as a one-man show. Madness, perhaps? Fortunately, in this instance it’s a stoke of genius. Perennial Fringe favourite Charles Ross (best known for his One-Man Star Wars™ Trilogy in recent years), is at the helm with this adaptation based on Andrew Davies’ 1995 television series.

The script for this venture has been developed by Ross and his wife Lisa Hebden, and while early on it feels rather too whistle-stop in how quickly the story is told, the final result feels like a fair overview, keeping all the major plot points, with a pocketful of laughs scattered along the way. One can only imagine how much editing went in to ensuring this rip-rollicking performance lasts exactly one hour, but credit to both for achieving it.

As well as being a proficient dramaturg, Ross shows himself as an adept performer in taking on almost every character in the book without ever venturing into farce, or needing props and costume. The whole piece pleasingly embodies a fitting controlled and restrained Georgian air, though a few modern quips are very well received. Odd moments of improvisation are handled with verve, and internal monologues and animalistic interpretations of some of the smaller characters bring much merriment. Overall, this production just oozes confidence in the base material and mastery in performance.

The only slight downfall is that you’ll need to be fairly familiar with either the book or televised adaptation to really appreciate the many witticisms and character interpretations on display – it won’t be particularly accessible for any ignorant plus-one you might want to drag along, even though the craftmanship of the performance itself would still be impressive to an Austen novice. With some scenes reduced to just a line or two and so many characters to follow, there’s a lot to keep up with, but for those in the know this really is a treat.

This is an intelligent, funny, and professionally delivered show that scores top marks with me. Take the opportunity while you can of soliciting this production, reader, for your next dance.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Battle of Frogs and Mice (Assembly Roxy: 12-19 Aug: 16:10: 60 mins)

“Appease the Gods and pay homage at the earliest possible moment to this crowning achievement of the dramatic arts.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It’s the late afternoon. Daughter 1.0 and I are standing outside Assembly Roxy waiting for our third show of the day. Neither of us have had naps and one of us didn’t like the lunch they were offered and only ate half. Our energy levels are being sustained solely by caffeine (me) and a the memory of a large chocolate cupcake (her). We’re both more tired than we care to admit and it’s odds on that one of us will go bang in the not too distant. I want the next show to be good. I need the next show to be good.

Daughter 1.0 (aged 3 going on 14) picked out our first shows, Finding Peter and Paddington Bear’s First Concert. I chose The Battle of Frogs and Mice because I’m more of a philhellene than Lord Byron dancing in a bucket of equal parts taramasalata and hummus singing The Hymn To Liberty. Frogs and Mice was the original introduction to epic poetry used by ancient parents to clear their progeny a path to The Iliad and The Odyssey. An improvised epic poem after a long day, with a tired 3 year old. Hubris. Now for Nemesis. I feel like Dedalus when he first sniffed the melting beeswax from the emptying airspace above. This could all come crashing down. Oh Dionysios hear my prayer.

3 actors and 3 musicians set out to tell the tale of the enmity that grew up between frogs and mice. Of how that enmity turned violent, and how (finally) peace was restored. Puppets, movement, visual gags, and amphorae of audience participation transform the Snug Bar at Assembly Roxy into a bubbling cauldron of noise and excitement. Director Hayley Russell orchestrates 60 minutes of genuine improvisation which maintains a graceful pace and flow while enabling the kids to really feel control and ownership over the narrative’s twists and turns.

“Dad, I thought you said this was going to be educational!” laughs a boy in the row behind confident that, once again, he has outsmarted his old man just like when Odysseus convinced Laertes to buy a puppy, “so we can name him Argos and everyone will remember that you were a brave and fierce Argonaut.”

The performances are some of the strongest I can recall at any Fringe. Individually they are strong, powerful enough to complete the heavy lifting demanded by Caspar Cech-Lucas’ bold dramaturgy. In combination both the actors and musicians generate a pulsing rhythm that never once lets up, soaring on the updrafts of the combatants’ jingoism then plunging down when it turns out that war is good for absolutely nothing.

Daughter 1.0 is dancing on stage, hurling ping-pong balls during the volley of arrows loosed by the mice against the frogs, keeping the mouse princess stuffed toy so safe and quiet that everyone forgets about the regal rodent and she isn’t included in that day’s telling of the tale.

The Gods of the ancient world had punishments both cruel and unusual for those headstrong mortals who displeased them. Why take the risk of incurring the wrath of a petulant Fringe deity? Why risk spending eternity drinking from an endless glass of G&T that contains no gin, or constantly eating artisanal honey that’s actually made by wasps? Appease the Gods and pay homage at the earliest possible moment to this crowning achievement of the dramatic arts.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 August 2018)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED