The Spirit of A Christmas Carol ~ Northern Stage ~ Review

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 – and by rights it could be, to quote the man himself, as dead as a door-nail by now. A Victorian tale about a miserly man called Scrooge, who is visited by three ghostly apparitions. Not very Christmassy.

I studied Hard Times at school; loved the black and white film of Great Expectations; adored Our Mutual Friend on telly; was nick-named Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop when I was younger… but I have to admit I’ve never read, nor seen an adaptation of A Christmas Carol – or rather one that I’ve watched all the way through. Yet, somehow, I know the story, vaguely. I think most of us do. So, before going to Northern Stage last night to see their version, I decided to do some research.

The Past
After writing the novella, Dickens performed 128 public readings of it, until his death in 1849. The Victorians loved telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve – so a fitting tale.

It’s never been out of print, and after the first stage adaptation in 1844, it has also been adapted for film, opera, ballet, radio, and other media.

There have been parodies and derivative works and on Wikipedia I counted over 27 notable TV productions, 18 films and 40 theatrical productions. That’s an impressive back-catalogue.

There have been more adaptations, than any of Dickens’s other works. Apart from classical ones, there’s been mime and musicals and animations – A Muppet Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Scrooge comes to mind.

Like Shakespeare, Dickens left a legacy… the words scrooge and bah humbug are part of our vocabulary, scrooge is even in the dictionary. And the readings of the novella popularised things we take for granted at Christmas time, such as: singing carols, games and dancing, food and drink, sending cards, family gatherings – and being generous and charitable.

At this point I’m feeling a bit guilty.

The Present
On Twitter I did some research too. There are numerous stage adaptations around the country this December. Use #AChristmasCarol to find them all. For example, The Old Vic has revived its 2017 version, with Stephen Tompkinson in the lead role. And Simon Callow is performing his one-man theatrical production of it, at the Arts Theatre in London – very Dickensian.

At this point I’m starting to look forward to Northern Stage’s production, adapted by Neil Bartlett, directed by Mark Calvert, with Nick Figgis playing Scrooge. I’m feeling lucky that we have a version on our North East door-step.

I buy a copy of the book from Blackwell’s Bookshop on the way there, and enter their prize draw to win four tickets to see the show (could be a handy pressie for someone?)

And when I read through the programme in the bar beforehand, I see photos of 1920’s Peaky Blinders-inspired costumes by Rhys Jarman; see that there’s a multi-role ensemble cast; that there’s original music by Dr G Hannabiell Sanders and movement by Martin Hylton. I’m sensing a good night ahead.

At age 59 I finally get to properly see A Christmas Carol.

When I get home I tweet out…

Congratulations to the whole creative team, who were all pivoting around the linchpin – Scrooge… And what a Scrooge…

The whole production whirled and swirled around him. Sitting in-the-round was like watching different snow globes being tipped up and down.

There was just enough special effects for me; I didn’t feel bombarded. The photos I’ve chosen (Pamela Raith Photography) give a flavour of what caught my eye. Yes, the main cast was strong, however I loved the multi-role ensemble cast from Newcastle College. I loved the movement and dancing. I loved the live Jazz/Blues/Gospel music, with an accordion, African drums and trombone.

My five favourite bits were:

1. The North East accents.

2. Scrooge’s office when the wind blew in through a door – and the whole cast swayed.

3. The settling-in time at the beginning of scenes, where music, song and movement allowed me to take it all in before the dialogue started.

4. Scrooge’s party hat that tilted to the side – everyone else’s was upright – I felt so sad for him.

5. Rachel Wells, as Martha, singing Once in Royal David’s City – when Tiny Tim died – shivers down my arms… and legs.

Thank you Northern Stage – indelible memories.

The Future
At this point I’m thinking Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been adapted exceptionally well… the writer Neil Bartlett has stayed true to a lot of the original text, and then the director and cast and creative team have interpreted it to suit a 2018 audience in Newcastle, in the huge space of Stages One and Two of Northern Stage.

And it will carry on being adaptable, because the tale that at first doesn’t seem very Christmassy, does indeed embody what this time of year means to lots of people. Not only the traditions, but the spirit of giving and loving.

Usually we want the villain to get his comeuppance, but with this story we see a mean-spirited person transform. Northern Stage’s Scrooge isn’t a monster… unrecognisable – he’s human, with flaws; he’s lost his way. We vicariously watch him learn a few lessons about navigating life – a few painful home-truths are dealt. Cruel words he uttered throughout the day come back to haunt him and, in the end, we are satisfied to see him become remorseful and benevolent.

Dickens said that he hoped his stories might “restore the social harmony that he felt had been lost in the modern world.” Now doesn’t that sound like something we need at the close of 2018, to keep us going through next year… and the next!

Dead as a door-nail? No Mr Dickens… you and your story are alive and kicking!

A Christmas Carol runs until 5 Jan at Northern Stage

Tickets: From £10

Tel: 0191 230 5151 – to book or for more information

Or go online: Northern Stage

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The Three Bears at Christmas – Northern Stage – Review

I walk down a pathway lined with silver birch, into a snowy wood with a rickety house in the centre. Socks drying on lines, bird song and pretty lights – the scene is set.

Stage Three of Northern Stage has been transformed. And I witness the most magical Christmas show. North East company Kitchen Zoo present, The Three Bears at Christmas, for an audience of under-5s with their families or teachers.

The scene is set for the entrance of Mammy and Daddy Bear, played by Hannah Goudie-Hunter and Robert Nicholson. Fluffy tails on dungarees and ears on their hats tell us who they are, before they even introduce themselves. I like the fact that there’s no scary face-paint. And Hannah and Robert are delightful as the bears.

As the story unfolds, other characters appear as puppets, and together they all take us on a journey through winter to Christmas.

It has all the ingredients to hold the children’s attention, for the 45 minute production: a well-known tale with a twist; original catchy songs; live music; puppets; twinkling disco balls and repetitive phrases. Plus  interaction – the children are encouraged to join in with raspberry noises and songs with actions. And funny bits are purely for them; no in-jokes for adults only (that’s the job of panto!)

It’s definitely a Relaxed Performance; impromptu participation is not frowned upon. When Goldilocks, one of the puppets, messed up the Bears’ house, one little boy declared indignantly to Daddy Bear: It. Was. Goldilocks! A joy to also witness unflinching belief in a story.

After the show, stickers are given out and, if the children want to, there’s photo opportunities to be had with Mammy and Daddy Bear.

Throughout, the children were in awe and engrossed. And on Twitter I see that some children have written notes to the Bears – recommendation for sure.

This may be the first encounter some children have with theatre… and yes, what a magical experience is in store for them.

The Three Bears at Christmas runs at Northern Stage until Sat 5 Jan

Box Office: 0191 230 5151
Online: northernstage.co.uk

Devised by: Kitchen Zoo & Brad McCormick (Director)
Music & Sound Design: Jeremy Bradfield
Design: Alison Ashton
Puppet-maker & design: Ailsa Dalling
Lighting: Richard Flood

Image: Aimee Liversidge
Photo: Sophie Teasdale – Von Fox Productions

Twitter: @kitchenzoo  #3Bears

Facebook: kitchenzoo

don’t forget the birds ~ Open Clasp ~ Review

Recently, on a playwriting course at Live Theatre in Newcastle, we were asked: who do you want to write plays for?

And I said: for people who want a good cry and a little laugh.

Yes, I love a tears-laughing comedy, but I love a good cry. I love plays that I connect with in that way. Because it either mirrors my life, or I see life through someone else’s lens, or ideally both. If I don’t get goose bumps or even the sting of a tear, then I feel cheated; I’m itching for a refund.

I was in London last week, meeting up with old friends. We take turns to choose a show. I had hoped for Hamilton. Would have loved a play at the National or Royal Court. It wasn’t to be, but I went along with an open heart. Left my expectations at the door.

The opening of Tina – The Musical was promising, but by the end I felt a bit flat – no tingles, no tears. Sadly Adrienne Warren wasn’t on stage in the lead role, but it wasn’t so much about casting for me, I felt it lacked inventiveness with regards the set and the storytelling. I felt it didn’t do justice to Tina’s struggles and achievements.

Maybe they thought safe would be ok – chronological story, well-known songs and predictable set and scene changes – lots are raving about it. But I was itching for a refund.

I came home from London to Twitter buzzing about the latest play on at Live Theatre. The latest play by the award-winning women’s Open Clasp Theatre Company  –  don’t forget the birds. Written by Catrina McHugh; directed by Laura Lindow. Developed with real-life mam and daughter, Cheryl and Abigail Byron – who play themselves in this two-hander. I decided to get a ticket and go on my own the next night.

Programme Cover – don’t forget the birdsOpen Clasp

It was one of those plays where I think: take a tissue just in case. A play about the true story of Cheryl returning from two and a half years in prison, and how she and Abigail rebuilt their relationship.

What I wasn’t expecting was how and why Cheryl was sentenced to prison; how it was for Abigail, aged 23, visiting her mam and looking after the house and her brother; how it was for Cheryl in prison. I won’t give any specifics here, other than to say I felt the sting of tears. The effect of prison on whole families is huge.

Catrina’s script; Laura’s direction and the Creative Team’s designs; meant it was raw, funny and gritty; meant the minimal set framed the women; meant it paid justice to Cheryl and Abigail’s truth. This was good storytelling and the bond between the two was palpable.

The play breathed… and held me. I went home, and I immediately wanted to hug my daughter and son. I went home and booked three tickets for us for the following night.

The stage is set at Live Theatre – Welcome Home Mam bunting & red roses

Flanked by them both I had tears again, even though I knew what was going to happen, what was going to be said. The synchronised movement to Tilted by Christine and The Queens and the short dance to Kylie’s cover of Give Me Just A Little More Time – also touched me again. I love scenes where there’s no dialogue, where there’s movement or space…. these are the places where plays breathe and hold you.

The swapping of their scripts-in-hand at the end, illustrated two stories shared; two stories becoming one. And I had tears because of their struggles; their achievements; their performances.

don’t forget the birds connected with me; helped me see through Cheryl and Abigail’s lenses; helped me reflect on my life. I had a cry and a laugh… no refund needed.

Open Clasp and Live Theatre present don’t forget the birds

Commissioned by Queen’s Hall Arts, Hexham

Catch it at Battersea Arts Centre, London from  27 Nov to 1 Dec

Programme – Words from the Writer & Director about don’t forget the birds.

Cast: Mother – Cheryl Byron

Daughter – Abigail Byron

Writer: Catrina McHugh MBE

Director: Laura Lindow

Set & Design: Verity Quinn

Lighting Design: Ali Hunter

Sound Design: Mariam Rezaei

Movement Director: Mona McCarthy

Photos: mine

#LoveTheatreDay

It’s Love Theatre Day today and I’m thinking back… the only theatre I experienced as a child was the travelling troupe of actors that came in to school – I loved them!

As a young adult the only visits to the theatre were occasionally down to London for the latest big show, or up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. Cinema was my thing – it was affordable, accessible and varied.

But in 2010, on returning from living in Athens, two good friends took me under their wing and we went to see lots of theatre and I discovered contemporary shows at a reasonable price.

So, over the past 8 years I’ve lapped up local theatre more and more. Plus local theatre, in and around Newcastle, has opened doors of opportunity for me.

Fringe Programme

Where to start? Who to start with? I’ll take you on a chronological journey of last week, starting on Tuesday at Northern Stage. I was at the press night for Under Milk Wood. This was exceptional, not only did it rekindle my love of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, but it was a chance for me to review it, and then work with the respected theatre critic, Lyn Gardner. (Read my review here) All organised by Northern Stage.

Northern Stage is opening up the discourse about theatre, to people from lots of backgrounds and I hope to be part of this development.

I’ve seen other notable productions in all their studios: from Close the Coalhouse Door to Ballet Boyz to Alice in Wonderland to The Wrong Honourable Game Show. Variation just with those shows.

Programme – Under Milk Wood

Then on Friday evening I was sitting in our Theatre Royal on Grey Street. It’s a Grade 1 Listed Theatre, built in 1837.

Mostly my visits to the Theatre Royal have been for ballet or Shakespeare, now it’s for the occasional musical. I particularly loved Mary Poppins, Funny Girl and Jersey Boys recently. Friday I was there for the sparkling Kinky Boots. Looking forward to Les Miserables next October! Pricey compared to other local theatres, but now and again worth it. Who needs London?

Theatre Royal – Kinky Boots

Saturday saw me at Alphabetti Theatre, opposite Dance City on St James’s Boulevard. Not many people seem to know about this indie theatre. But what a thriving community it is, with lots of drama, music and comedy.

I went to their Write Faster night. Basically the audience suggest titles in the bar beforehand; four writers choose one and furiously write a script, and then four actors perform it, script in hand. It was hilarious; proper tears-laughing-funny.

Great value too as it was a Pay-What-You-Feel night. Ali Pritchard, founder & artistic director, believes that art should be affordable.

I’ve seen other fab acts there, such as the band Dansi; folk singer Jayne Dent; comedians doing Fringe previews and local plays such as Trolley Boy – all tickets were under a tenner. Who needs Edinburgh?

Alphabetti’s new signage

The only two other theatres that I didn’t visit last week, were The Exchange in North Shields and Live Theatre on the quayside in Newcastle. But I was at both within the last few weeks. I saw War of The Worlds at The Exchange and Clear White Light at Live.

The Exchange is just recently building up a fab programme of plays and gigs, while Live has been established for many years now.

Some of my favourites at Live have been: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour; Spine; Rat Boy; And Then Come The Nightjars and My Romantic History

Poster – Metro Station

These days I’m never more than a week away from a theatre, for one reason or another.

Sometimes I’m also there as a volunteer – Front of House at The Exchange or as a Writing Mentor at Live Tales, Live Theatre (You can read about my experience here) or at Live as a blogger for a month to review plays.

Sometimes for workshops and courses at Northern Stage, Theatre Royal, Alphabetti, or Live Theatre – most are free or very reasonable.

Sometimes as a writer, because all of this lovely theatre has rubbed off on me and since last April I’ve had five short plays produced by: Alphabetti, Live Theatre, Theatre Space NE with NE Script Space and Workie Ticket Theatre Company. I’ve even been commissioned by Alphabetti, to write a play for one of their famous Soup Nights.

All the theatre buildings above are welcoming with great staff and great bars. Alphabetti even has its own dog, Rex, who wanders around. Along with The Exchange, Alphabetti also has shelves of second-hand books on sale.

All the theatres have some kind of concessions on tickets or friends’ scheme. They are near public transport. Car parking’s cheap or free. They are all easy to find on google maps. Unlike a theatre in Athens – which we made it to by the interval. Couldn’t find it. And the directions we followed from an Athenian took us to an operating theatre in a hospital!

Some sell toasties, snacks, ice-cream. And playtexts instead of programmes sometimes.

And all put on exciting and interesting shows – with something to match all tastes and pockets.

So, why is the statistic so low, for the amount of people who visit our theatres? Is it the pull of Netflix or is theatre still thought to be only for posh people? Is it too risky to risk not liking it? I know I was adverse to taking a risk all those years ago. Whatever the reason, it’s sad. Being in a room, studio or auditorium with other people – watching together and connecting with live actors cannot be beaten… I’m totally addicted to it now and hardly go to the cinema. I’m at my happiest crying and laughing because of a live performance. Getting goose bumps. And I love to see that glisten of a tear in an actor’s eye.

I’m grateful to the theatres in our region that try so hard to make it accessible and affordable. I love this community of theatre in the North East. I love the variation on offer.

Theatre doesn’t just happen in theatre buildings either, some companies such as Theatre Space NE and Workie Ticket have taken plays out in to parks and pubs.

I saw Shakespeare in the Park in Sunderland last year – loved it – sadly funding wasn’t available this year. Workie Ticket’s Hear Her Roar night was in the Bridge Hotel pub, Newcastle.

And this August I was part of a community play produced and directed by Paula Penman, written by Laura Lindow, called Landslide. We performed it in a car park. It was uplifting to be a part of. I felt proud… I felt I was one of those travelling troupers I saw in school, bringing theatre out in to the community.

Landslide

If you can, if you’re able, then please support local theatre, wherever you live. Go see one more play than you usually would; try something new; take a friend who’s never been; volunteer; go to a Pay What You Feel night, or a cheaper preview night

And I’ll revise the title, as I champion local theatre, and make it:

#LoveLocalTheatreEveryDay

Bar at Northern Stage

*Disclaimer: Other theatres are available in the North East. Not all good shows have been mentioned.

*Disclosure: Rex belongs to Ali.

*Admission: I still visit Edinburgh & London. And I love Netflix.

*Photos: Me

Under Milk Wood ~ Northern Stage ~ Review

Under Milk Wood, at Northern Stage, took me back to when I first heard the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s play for voices. Way back, to the 70s at comprehensive school in Newcastle. I fell in love with the language, the imagery, the darkness, the mischievousness… the poetry. The poetry is relentless – it tumbles out and up and down. We didn’t read the whole two-hour play; we didn’t know it was for 69 voices; we didn’t know Thomas died age 39 in New York. We did listen to Richard Burton’s radio recording from 1954. I remember the poetry… and his velvety, gravelly Welsh voice.

And another seed was planted at school, only to germinate last year when I started writing plays. Under Milk Wood lay dormant all those years, and I only realised this week, the influence it has had on my writing. It probably has influenced other theatre makers too. I’m reminded of Isaac Newton’s words: “We see further, when we stand on the shoulders of giants.” I’m wondering if Ian Kershaw had thoughts of it, when writing The Greatest Play in the History of the World. I saw his play at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, with Julie Hesmondhalgh narrating. I feel it had an Under Milk Wood flavour – a Lancastrian one.

Yes, it’s important to tell new stories, hear new voices, but I believe some classic texts also need to be revisited or adapted. They are part of our culture and again, giants come to mind. So I was interested to see this re-imagined stage version this week, at Northern Stage. I thought the director, Elayce Ismail, made a good call to set it in our North East, with the northern voices of Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride. I felt Elayce made her mark again, after the success of War of the Worlds, by grounding a play in the recognisable, in a surprising way. Paul Sirett’s Clear White Light (currently on at Live Theatre) which features Lindisfarne songs, made the choice to have a woman sing Alan Hull’s lyrics. Like Richard Burton, Alan has big shoes to fill. Rather than compete, I feel both plays flipped any expectations on their head and enamoured an audience.

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Christina and David shared the role of the all-seeing narrators in the play, plus all the other voices. It was achieved through a mixture of recordings and live performance. Their presence, their physicality, their talent enhancing it. It was a delight to witness and be a part of. Sometimes, like night moving in the streets, they moved amongst us as we sat around them. Some of us on cushions, some on wooden kitchen chairs, some on comfy seats. A proper pull-up-a-chair storytelling.

All the while, the creative team captivated us further, with two huge screens of images; a loop machine for sound effects; haunting tunes from various corners and an economic set. Creative props too… snow feathers, a record player that played some of the words, and lots of flickering tea-lights at the end – a lovely touch. Sometimes I did feel a sensory overload though. A bombardment. And I missed bits of the story.

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However, I woke up the next day with phrases from Under Milk Wood on a loop in my mind. The personifications resounding… Dusk is drowned. And I could hear Mr Pugh plotting his wife’s demise as he… poisons her with his eye. Thomas’s words were as delicious last night, as they were all those years ago.

If you read the synopsis: a play about the day in the life of a Welsh fishing village… then you might easily pass this one by. Know it is so much more. And I wonder if any first-timers in the audience, will have such indelible memories as mine, in years to come? Friends I was with both said they wanted to buy the playtext. I know I reached for mine the next day – the words stand on their own, they jump out from the page, tingling up my arms.

Today I popped a recently bought CD in to the player of the car… To begin at the beginning… thank you Mr Burton.

Thank you to my secondary school English teacher who opened my heart to Dylan Thomas’s poetry.

Thank you Northern Stage, for re-kindling that love.

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On until Sat 17 Nov at Northern Stage, Newcastle

Tel Box Office: 0191-230 5151
Or: http://www.northernstage.co.uk

Photos:

No 1: Northern Stage programme – W Errington. Prisma filter.

No 2 – 4: Pamela Raith Photography

Happy 2nd Birthday Live Tales

It’s two years this September, since Live Tales in Newcastle officially opened its doors, to hundreds of primary school children in the North East.

The project is part of Live Theatre on the Quayside, and offers free creative writing sessions to schools.

I’m a volunteer Writing Mentor at Live Tales, working with small groups of children. In October 2016 I wrote about the project in detail and you can read it here: Live Tales – My View as a Volunteer

In the post above I briefly alluded to the benefits to me. Apart from feeling I’m contributing to the project, I still feel uplifted after a session and it’s a joy to see the children love the sessions and feel good about their writing. This post will look at the benefits to me more closely.

In 2014 I took early retirement from full-time work, following a severe bout of depression. By 2016 I was ready to engage with the world more. And volunteering a few times each half term seemed manageable. At first, even getting up and out, driving, parking the car… was a challenge. Sessions are easily booked online and there’s no pressure to do a specific amount. All together this system has made me feel at ease; I’ve taken things at my own pace and grown in confidence. New friendships have been forged too and it’s good to interact with adults and children during the sessions. Mental health recovery is not linear, and I am grateful that Live Tales has been a part of my cyclical journey.

However, by 2017 the sessions were beneficial to me in another way. Because I saw the children taking risks with their writing and because I was growing in confidence, then I started writing too. Since March 2017 I have had four short plays performed and I received my first commission in May this year.

Being confident can relate to numbers, music, running, painting, playing football etc… not just words. Volunteering, and giving back to our communities, is cited by most mental health charities as being good for our wellbeing – as they say, what goes around, comes around.

So, Happy 2nd Birthday Live Tales, may you long continue to nurture creativity in the region. And thank you for valuing me… you really have put the bounce back into my step.

# If you think this might be for you, then contact Izzie Hutchinson (Volunteer Coordinator) via livetales@live.org.uk or ring 0191-2292379 for more info and details about the full training given.

There are volunteer Illustrator posts too but, unlike the Writing Mentor posts, expertise is needed.

Starting this autumn, sessions are also happening at The Fire Station in Sunderland, plus sessions for KS3 (secondary school) pupils will now be offered in Newcastle.

Live Tales in Live Garden, Quayside – Newcastle

My Romantic History ~ Live Theatre ~ Review

The play My Romantic History, on at Live Theatre, Newcastle, reminds me of the quotation: There’s your truth, my truth and the truth. Main characters Tom (Brian Lonsdale) and Amy (Bryony Corrigan) certainly give us a run for our money exploring the premise. Aided and abetted by Amy McAllister in multiple roles.

The script by Daniel Jackson is pure genius and Max Roberts deftly directs. And it needed this strong cast. The sharp asides, the light and shade, the naughty bits – all needed to be in capable hands, in order to fly.

I saw the play twice: on Press Night and on a Sunday matinee. The anticipation was delicious on the Sunday, waiting for certain lines and scenarios.

Also, by the Sunday I’d bought the play-text. One thing jumped out: hardly any stage directions. When I tweeted this out, the writer replied: Stage directions are for cowards. There’s nothing cowardly about this production. From the set, with drawings by Ben Holland depicting North East haunts, to how the three played out this story.

A clever observation of a snapshot in time for two 30-somethings. We get to see their colourful histories, their present dilemmas and a sneaky peek of the future.

Poignant bits? Yes. Tears laughing? Yes. Recognisable bits? Yes! All together it’s funny and fierce, the home-truths make sure of that.

It’s only on for the rest of this week… and if you haven’t seen it yet… then what the heck are you waiting for?

 

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A Mini Bop ~ Maroussi Station

Chain smokers and train shakers.

Take the line down to Kiffissia or Port of Piraeus.

Car tyres chasing dogs;

Malakas!

Coffee – thick, black coffee cold.

Straw sippers and ice breakers.

Snide RayBan shades on sale,

No-one’s buying.

Malakas!

Watching beautiful, beautiful people.

Do they even know I’m foreign?

Do they even care?

Malakas!

(Malakas is Greek for wankers)

Show; Don’t Tell

Don’t tell me the moon’s shining, instead show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Trust a Russian to tell such a truth.

So, come on, show me.

Stroke my hair, pat my heart, read aloud.

Show me.

Show me how to answer back. Show me how to colour in. And show me how to hula hoop.

Show me.

But, then, just for once tell me. Tell me it wasn’t my fault.

Tell them to back the fuck right off.

Just for once… say… tell me

I. Love. You.