Category Archives: Wales

Second star to the right and straight on till morning…

I’m afraid I have reached the grand old age of, uh, OLD, without ever making it to the second star to the right, let alone to an operatic performance. My knowledge of opera is limited to the oft-played set pieces that have accompanied various sporting events – Nessun Dorma transports me immediately back to my ‘A’ Level summer for example – but beyond that, I’ve got nothing. Nada, zero. zilch.

No more! Last night, my girl in the middle and I were treated to tickets to the UK premiere of Richard Ayre’s ‘Peter Pan’, performed by the Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre. Of course we are both familiar with JM Barrie’s tale of the boy who never grew up, but beyond that, neither of us knew what to expect.

The WNO has really pulled out all the stops to make the experience welcoming to children (and slightly out-of-their-depth adults!) The performance started early, at 6.30pm, and beforehand the impressive public space at the Welsh Millennium Centre was busy with free pirate themed activities including treasure hunts, face painting and story telling. There are also surtitles (in both English and Welsh) which were a boon to our un-operatic ears, and for this reason I’d say that the WNO’s recommendation of 8 and above was spot on – being able to read the lyrics as they were sung made the performance much more accessible.

Fuelled with the obligatory special-treat trip to Nandos, we took our seats expectantly and waited for the performance to start. ‘Is this your daughter’s first trip to the opera?’ boomed a gentleman beside me. ‘Er, yes, and mine’ I answered slightly nervously. ‘We’ve got Wine Gums!’ interjected my girl proudly, and I rather thought that this might cause some raised operatic-type eyebrows from the real grownups around me. However the gentlemen seemed remarkably unfazed and couldn’t have been friendlier, pointing out composer Richard Ayres as he chatted to audience members across the way.

We had enough time to read the programme synopsis before the show started, and I would certainly recommend this if you are attending with children, at least for the first scene. This features a wordless romp through the Darlings’ lives as they transform from happy-go-lucky newly-weds to rather more careworn parents of three children; without having read the blurb I think this would have been tricky to grasp (though that might just be the voice of an uncultured 40-something speaking!)

After this visually and orchestrally impressive opener, the show moved to the more familiar nursery scene, where we met Wendy, John and Michael, and of course Nana the dog, caring for the children while Mr and Mrs Darling get ready for an important party. Needless to say their preparations are hindered by their children, and it was at this point that I could feel my daughter becoming drawn in to the story – ‘see Mum, kids liked winding their parents up even in the olden days!’

From this point on, she was totally absorbed. The aerial antics of Peter, Wendy, John and Michael as they flew to Neverland were a great hit, as was the ethereal Tink fluttering around the stage thanks to some incredibly clever animation. She also loved the busy scenes as Wendy was introduced to the Lost Boys who plead with her to be their mother – however it was the appearance of Captain Hook and his pirate ship that drew the biggest smile.

And no wonder – Captain Hook (played by same the singer as played Mr Darling) was everything you could want from a dastardly Pirate Captain. He and his colourful crew kept us entertained every time they appeared, until their fun was curtailed by the sound of Captain Hook’s watch ticking away, indicating that the Crocodile was near…or perhaps someone pretending to be the crocodile!

The pirates stole the show, but Tiger Lily and her band of fighters were also a highlight for my girl. She giggled her way through Tiger Lily and Peter boasting about their escape from Captain Hook as a furious Wendy tried (and failed) to point out that it was in fact her cunning that effected the rescue – this was my favourite scene also, perhaps because it was reminiscent of the squabbles that take place daily in our house!

It’s occurred to me that I have not really mentioned the music at all so far. This isn’t because I didn’t enjoy it – quite the opposite – but more that I don’t really have the musical understanding or technical vocabulary to describe it, nor do I have the knowledge to place it in any sort of context. What I can say is that though it took me a while to get my head around the operatic singing style and pared-down dialogue, my daughter seemed to instantly feel at home; also the fact we’re both humming along to parts of the show this morning speaks for itself I think.

The story ends as we all know it will – despite the excitement of Neverland, and much to Peter’s disgust, the children fly back to Nana and the heartbroken Mr and Mrs Darling – accompanied by the Lost Boys, all welcomed with open arms. A happy ending for the Darlings, though as always, we are left to wonder about Peter and Tink as they return to Neverland….

Peter Pan is on at the Wales Millennium Centre on 23rd and 31st May, at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 11th June, and the Royal Opera House, London on July 24th and 25th.

**Disclosure – we were kindly invited to Peter Pan by the Welsh National Opera, in exchange for writing a review**

My name’s Michelle and I work in Housing.

Housing. Housing?

If you had told me even three years ago that I would end up not only working in Housing, but loving it, I would have laughed my little socks off. Despite the fact that I made a conscious decision some 12 years ago to leave the private sector – because I wanted to use my skills to ‘make a difference’ rather than just making some rich git richer – the idea of working in Housing never really crossed my radar. If you’d asked me why, I probably would have replied that the world of housing just didn’t excite me enough. The very word ‘housing’ conjured up visions of stuff that just didn’t float my boat. Property maintenance. Waiting lists. Rent collections. Tortuous public-sector admin processes. Evictions. I probably would have been hard pressed to come up with any other words to describe the work undertaken by housing associations.

Despite all this, I landed a job with my local housing association a couple of years ago. The job itself came about almost by accident – a misunderstood tweet, leading to my accidentally attending the first stage of a selection process, leading to my interest being piqued, leading to an application and – amazingly – a job offer. The job itself was a fixed term contract on a specific project, which made good use of my experience setting up and running small businesses; it was an amazing opportunity for my first foray back into the world of working for other people after seven years working for myself while my children were small. But still, I didn’t really identify myself as ‘working in Housing’. ‘Oh’, I would say, ‘I’m working on a project for my local Housing Association. Quite an exciting project actually, and not really housing related at all’.

How things change! Just over two years later, I am not only loud and proud about the fact that I work in Housing, but also constantly banging on to the world in general about what ‘Housing’ is REALLY about. It turns out that all the stuff I listed above is such a teeny tiny proportion of what Housing Associations actually do – to be honest I am pretty mortified that I got it so wrong for so many years. Though in my defence, I get the impression that traditionally, Housing Associations have not been very good at telling the world what they do either – and you know why that is? It’s because, generally speaking, we are FAR too busy doing AWESOME STUFF!

Some of the awesome stuff that is going on right here, right now?

  • A project that works intensively with local people who are removed from the jobs market – 24 people have gained employment so far this year – and guess what, we do this for free, no whacking great payments like those dished out to Serco and the like for managing the (hugely unsuccessful) Work Programme.
  • A project that collects unwanted smart work clothes, so jobseekers can have a tidy outfit to go to interviews in, putting them on a level playing field with other applicants.
  • A project that collects unwanted furniture destined for the tip, and upcycles it with the help of volunteers, so that people have a bed to sleep in – the people volunteering on this project will be able to use it as a stepping stone to employment.
  • A project working with young people to teach them about money management, and then train them to be able to teach their peers – ultimately a much more powerful medium for what can be seen as a boring and preachy message, however essential.
  • A project that supports building and maintenance contractors to create local jobs and training opportunities; and then supports those furthest from the labour market to apply for them, offering continuing support to both the candidate and the employer to ensure that the opportunities are sustained.
  • An allotment for tenants and local community members, where they can grow their own food, learning useful social and practical skills that can make a real difference to confidence levels – and offer another step down the road to employment.
  • A food co-op, using the buying power of a group to make fresh fruit, veg and eggs affordable and accessible to everyone, especially those on very low incomes.
  • Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programmes run for young people living in isolated estates where there are no facilities or opportunities to do anything at all, other than hang out at the bus shelter. These programmes give young people the chance to build their confidence, undertake a more active way of life, complete volunteering assignments – all of these things can and do make a real and tangible difference to their lives and prospects.
  • Numerous groups supported by Housing Associations but run by tenants, covering everything from ‘Knitters and Natters’ to ‘Computer Club’…for some people, participating in these groups can be the only time they have contact with other people, and for some, they are the very first step on a journey to developing the confidence to enter work or further training opportunities.

See? All that stuff, and not one mention of all the stuff that I thought Housing was all about. And that’s just a quick list taken from the three Housing Associations that I am involved with currently – there’s LOADS more stuff out there –  believe me I could go on, and on, except it would keep me from doing the AWESOME STUFF on my to do list right now. If you want to know more, get yourself over to #housingday on the Twitters, and prepare to have your preconceptions shattered – and in a good way!

So. There you go. My name’s Michelle and I work in Housing. And very proud I am too!