Edinburgh Preview Review – Passengers – Omnibus Theater (then to Summerhall)

August 3, 2019 by

Two years in to having a transwoman be my top partner in crime, I found myself highly intrigued by Kit Redstone’s new work, which was billed as a “darkly funny and sexy” take on Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). I was really intrigued how an artist could take this and put it onto the stage. I mean, mental illness has certainly been handled before, even with panache (I think of 4:48 Psychosis when I say this), but this is a bit more complex in some ways. Or in lots of ways. As an artist, I was also interested in seeing how something personal was transformed into a shared experience. Hey, I’m putting my dissociative episodes on stage in Space Age Love Songs, maybe Redstone would have some coping strategies or even a new way of dealing with my own brain?

“Passengers” is performed by three people (Neil Chinneck, Jess Clark and Kit Redstone), who initially appear to be three people thrown in prison together. But we’re given some context, and it’s clear that it’s actually three elements of one person warring inside of that person’s head. The aggressive one that appears to be sometimes truthful – at least when discussing having temper tantrums – is the focal point for the other two, who try to control him and make sense of how he’s responding – and also call him on the lies he tells us (and perhaps believes) about himself.

As the onion starts to unpeel, it becomes clear that the narrator doesn’t particularly understand himself, or even want to believe that he’s done what he’s done, much less why … but the other two voices push and pull and tease the truth out about several things … none of which are very pretty. It could be seen as just about how psychotherapy works or as the actual rise and fall of the dominant elements of a dissociative personality … the second being how I think it was intended, but I liked that it was working on various levels.

While I would never think my head works the same as somebody else’s, I enjoyed having the opportunity to take a ride in someone else’s head. It is a bit claustrophobic and No Exit like – this head is not a nice place to be in (and my goodness the theater was an oven) – but I think in the end it probably made my own head a slightly less scary place to be.

(This review is of a preview performance that took place at the Omnibus Theater, Clapham, on 27 Saturday 2019. It shows 14.30 daily at Summerhall in Edinburgh 31 July – 25 August.)

Review – Queerstory – Mercury Presents at Mirth, Marvel and Maud

July 24, 2019 by

You remember that little show that was on as a preview for one night only except you were doing your own show and teleportation hasn’t been invented and it sold out anyway? Well, there’s been some good work on time travel in the meantime, and thanks to the power of The Future, Alexander Luttley / Pi the Mime / Mercury and Professor Maxim brought their show Queerstory back for a one-off show at Mirth, Marvel and Maud in Walthamstow (the venue itself, a converted cinema, is well worth checking out any time: not only does it have a pleasant beer garden, but there are TWO pinball games inside at 50p a game – Bride of Pinbot and Galaxy for fellow connoisseurs).

To be honest I didn’t know too much ABOUT Queerstory other than that Mercury was doing it and it was something about queer history, but it just sounded SO good and the more I’ve seen him do, the more I want to see more (his work is more-ish, especially that fabulous Break A Lash thing two weeks back). But this time I made it and I can give you ALL of the juicy gossip about this … well let’s be honest, my expectations were pretty high, but I can now say honestly … fanTAStic evening, of music, history, and ALL of the queerness you could ever hope for! And Piers Morgan in a pig nose playing the accordion!

Mercury and Professor Maxim at Queerstory

Queerstory is, essentially, a mostly musical history of the LGBTQ+ (I think they had it as LGBTTQQIAAP and one extra for kink) community. We went through some basics (including, “If you’re riled up, there’s a safe word. It’s called the exit”), including the very crucial concept that history is written by the winners, and this community has frequently found itself erased (not helped at all by Section 28) from history books. We went through the meaning of the acronym, then did a little alphabet of queerness with various people for each letter (both Vita and Virginia making it in for V!). We had paper and pencil so we could take notes and research later. School was in session!

Not surprisingly, this show had a strong root in musical theater, using “The Cellblock Tango” to provide a fantastic cruise through the homophobes’ book of excuses and “Let’s Fall In Love” to talk about famous lesbians. There was a stop in Spoliansky Weimar for “Lavender Nights,” but also a completely original Polari pattersong! (Given that I’d just seen Ida Barr – Christopher Green – do a Polari rap, it was feeling VERY much like the summer trend of 2019.) And, to my delight, we came back from the interval to the haunting voice of Klaus Nomi. All hail our queer ancestors.

More modern history – post Stonewall – had a lot to cover, from the hanky code to the impact of HIV, but more importantly (to me) the evolution of queerness to where it is now – not just the cisgender LGB of yore, but a worldview that allows for nonbinary, that accepts asexuality, and that celebrates rather than excludes allies. Because … looking at where we’re at right now … this is no time for resting on our laurels. We need to stand up for each other, call out people within and without the community for being assholes, and not throw any one of our queer communities under the bus because they don’t fit it to mainstream society. We need to stand up against misogyny and celebrate queer bodies smashing the binary.

It’s true, at the end this felt a whole lot less like a lecture, and more like a rally, because all of us were standing up and cheering and feeling like, yes, we were seeing ourselves represented and celebrated on stage. Probably the only person who would really hate this is people who like their musical theater but just wish queer people could be a little less “out” and just try to fit in. But that night, I felt a whole room full of people saying I didn’t need to fit in to have a family of people who accepted. I was fine the way I am. And I loved it. Top night out and I only wish I could find more of the info (and lyrics) online so I could research just who in the world was the letter X!

(This review was for a performance that took place Monday, August 22, 2019. This show will be reprised in a likely modified and possibly expanded version at Theater Royal Stratford East in October. Details will be added as they become available.)

Review – Summer Rolls – VanThanh Productions at Park Theater

June 28, 2019 by

In the last few years, the conversation about race and representation in the theater has moved beyond who is performing shows to who is writing them. This means that we’re seeing new shows and new voices, an exciting thing to be sure. And from this we see VanThanh productions emerge, with the stated purpose of enabling minority groups to tell their own stories – and we have the play Summer Rolls at the Park Theater, the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. I’ve worked and lived alongside second generation Vietnamese Americans for most of my life, but I’m unfamiliar with what tack the British setting would give this story, and I was eager to hear from a community so little represented in the UK that they don’t even have a relevant checkbox in national origin questionnaires (because apparently “Chinese” is enough to cover East and Southeast Asia). What were their experiences? What where their concerns?

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Mai (Anna Nguyen) is the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees (played by Linh-Dan Pham and Kwong Loke, and pretty consistently referred to as Mother and Father) who came to the UK with their young son Anh (Michael Phong Le) during the 70s (or so it appears from the cues given by newscasts read to start scenes). Anh succeeds at uni but then fails to get work; both the mother and daughter sew piece work for a Mr Dinh to keep the household solvent. It is a depressing picture of hard work unrewarded as, over the course of the show, the feeble earnings the women make are taken away (as the work is sent to China) and Anh goes to work at Mr Dinh’s restaurant.

Through this rather depressing story, a lot of traditional Vietnamese culture comes through: how women are treated; how class relations are seen; and (in a horrifying moment at the end when it’s discovered Mai has a black boyfriend – Keon Martial-Phillip) the rather pungent racism (that to be honest exists throughout East Asia). But the family also has to deal with leftovers from the war – Father’s flashbacks, Mother’s desperate survival instincts – and the special treats that come with being a minority and immigrants in a country where you are tolerated at best. It’s an interesting and well-seasoned story that provides a lot to chew on and is made more flavorful by Mai’s Vietnamese dialogue. We also get to see how assimilation affects Anh and Mai – their experiences trying to become a part of British society is eye opening (and would be just as interesting for so many other nationalities that have settled in the UK).

That said, the ending is abrupt and rather unsatisfying. This is, I think, the problem with having the play focus on Mai – she probably gets her life together and goes off to do her own thing, but we don’t really see her evolving as a character over the course of the play – we just stop after she has a confrontation with them and don’t have any resolution. For that matter, none of the rest of the characters appear to change or have any kind of epiphany, although most of them seem to have more backstory and places to go with their story arc. They’re all interesting and seem fairly rich (in everything but money!). Overall a good debut from playwright Tuyen Do.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 25th, 2019. It continues through July 13th.)

Review – Pictures of Dorian Gray – Jermyn Street Theater

June 13, 2019 by

While Oscar Wilde’s plays mocking Victorian society are regularly revived, his novel of art and evil – The Portrait of Dorian Gray – doesn’t have a standard theatrical version, despite being popular as a film and even having some luck as a ballet and even as a promenade theatrical event. It’s a great novel, deliciously fin de siecle, a perfect companion for Jeckyll and Hyde, the poetry of Baudelaire, and the art of Von Stuck. And it deserved better than I had seen it get on stage before, and my hopes were high that Lucy Shaw’s fresh adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theater – and the decision to use four different configurations of the cast, including two versions with a female lead – would bring fresh insights and real vibrancy to this play.

As a female Dorian, Helen Reuben is deliciously chosen – endlessly fresh faced, a delight for the eyes, absolutely believable as the person whose portrait could capture the essence of beauty – or someone’s soul. As her tempter, Basil Hallward, Stanton Wright nicely forms heartless words to entice Dorian away from anything other than the worship of the self; and with the two of them decked in black velvet and gilding, they create a feeling of late night menace and brutality that makes the sensibility of the novel feel very alive. The portrait itself is left unseen, as is best for horror: it is merely a reflective pond beneath a muddled shining wall that might have been a mirror. The agelessness is left to the true Dorian; the ugliness of the portrait is created entirely with words.

These words, however, prove a distraction in too much of the story. With two more actors (most memorably painter Henry Wotten – Richard Keightley – and Sibyl Vane – Augustina Seymour) left with not quite enough to do, they are sent to speak Wilde’s words describing Gray’s words much like a Greek chorus – as a near constant chant beneath the dialogue on stage. The words do a lot to help pump up the atmosphere of poisoned flowers and redolent evil – but they prove too much of a distraction and ended in reducing the sense of impending doom. It’s all extremely successful when Dorian is immersing herself in corrupting literature – hard to convey what she is taking in otherwises – but when she’s going to opium dens and corrupting the wives and sons of the elite, the audience is given little sense of just what she is doing and why she is so out of control. Admittedly Wilde himself doesn’t go into much detail about Gray’s activities, but her time spent in the depths and ultimate ruination could have been built up to much better effect. Still, the ending is handled nicely, with beautiful theatricality, and the night ended with a grand feeling of satisfaction.

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray: Helen Reuben, Augustina Seymour, Stanton Wright, Richard Keightley (L-R)

One thing really had me struggling, though: to a great extent, Gray’s fall is the fall of a man, and a gay man at that. While Reuben and Wright have a delicious electricity between them, it felt to me like it was only because Gray was a man and an affair between the two could not have been portrayed on stage (or in a book!) at the time this novel was written that they did not consummate their relationship. And women cannot ruin men the way Gray ruined both men and women. It was a pleasure to see this play done with a woman in the lead role, but I think some changes to the script for the “Picture C/Picture D” cast could have amped the impacted tremendously. That said, given Stanton Wright’s charisma, I think it would be worthwhile to see it again in the “Picture A/Picture B” configuration … this fine story has been brought to life with London smoke and back alleys intact, and I’d enjoy taking another trip down the road to glorious self destruction.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 11th, 2019. It runs through July 6th.)

Review – Miss Julie – Jermyn Street Theatre

May 3, 2019 by

Miss Julie seems to be the most consistently popular of August Strindberg’s works – so much so that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “straight” version of it. But this one, a new version by Howard Brenton, was set firmly in the era after trains and before cars, so there is no reason to wonder, for example, why Julie’s father doesn’t just ring ahead. Julie (Charlotte Hamblin) lives in a world where you can have a reputation to be ruined, where sleeping with a servant (Jean – James Sheldon) is a great way to do it, and if you’re so unfortunate as to be engaged to said philandering servant, you just have to put up (Kristin – Dorothea Myer-Bennett).

But that would all make it so easy and boring, wouldn’t it? The gorgeousness of this play comes in its wonderful moments of human interaction, all done completely naturally in the kitchen of the servant’s quarters. Jean has had a crush on Miss Julie since they were both children – or has he? – and Julie relishes being adored – or does she? – while Kristin toils all day with no thought for herself – or does she? As they interact, each of their selfish desires slowly unspools, and you, the audience, get a deeper and deeper look into the complex clockwork that whirls behind each character’s eyes. None of these people are altruists, but similarly – and sadly – none of them seems to have a very clear cut idea about how to pursue actual happiness beyond a short moment in time.

It’s fascinating to watch Julie, Jean, and Kristin go through their little dance together. Hamblin nicely captures both Julie’s huge enthusiasm for living, her cruelty, and her crumbling mind as she realizes she’s gone to far to be able to easily patch her life back together. Sheldon is dead handsome – easy enough to see a lady of the house flirting with him – and makes a great argument both for his essential equality with any other man and his inability to snap himself out of thinking like a servant. He was completely convincing all the way through, even though he was essentially disagreeing with what he had just said completely. And Myer-Bennett is a treat to watch as a woman who knows herself quite well and has far less illusions than either her mistress or her fiancee. The three of them have great chemistry and easily take us out of the workaday world into the explosive passions and ideals (and compromises) of their world.

With a tight running time of 90 minutes, Tom Littler’s production should have a breathless pace, but in fact there is more than enough time given to make the evening feel like it’s been all of a midsummer’s night – only not one with a pleasant dream. And every philosophical conversation in the play still feels fresh and sharp. There may be a million ways to update this play, but Littler shows that, stripped and raw and laid before us as if it were new, Miss Julie is still a tsunami of emotion until the lights go down.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Tuesday, April 30th, 2019. It continues in rep with The Creditors at the

Review – The Creditors – Jermyn Street Theater

May 1, 2019 by

It’s a pleasure to go to the theater knowing you’re going to see a fresh take on a classic you love. Strindberg has become a favorite of mine as I’ve settled into middle age and learned to enjoy his realistic portrayals of people who have been made bitter by life – well, by other people, in particular their husbands and wives. So I was enthusiastic for seeing how Creditors managed ten years further along in my life, in a new version by Howard Brenton that the Jermyn Street Theater is performing in rep with Miss Julie.

The Creditors is a deliciously tight three person show that has the marvellous good fortune off having Dorothea Myer-Bennett in the central role of Tekla. As a Victorian era woman who has a career of her own (as a writer) and has been divorced and remarried, she is a splash of bracing water given how most women were depicted at the time. I mean, look at A Doll’s House, one decade older; how could women have moved along to a position of having so much agency in such a short time? In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t: this makes Tekla even more interesting and pushed the play into the realm of … well, all of these people who don’t believe in God, marry and divorce as they please, and (both) work, didn’t it all feel very modern?

This leaves a couple of notes that fell flat, or, rather, seemed out of place perhaps because they were so very 19th century. Adolf (James Sheldon), the carer for Tekla’s husband Gustav (David Sturzaker), is obsessed with men dominating and controlling women; he spends his time with Gustav trying to work him into a frenzy of jealousy about his wife. And, per Gustav, Tekla and he gave up the child they had together – to be honest, I found this just flat out unbelievable. Tekla and Gustav calling each other brother and sister, sure, but that … it just felt like Strindberg was trying to hard. Adolf being a misogynistic control freak, sure, but the abandoned child plus … well, Gustav’s soft-headedness … do people really give up on their art that easily, with just a few days of someone trying to philosophize them out of it?

Dorothea Myer-Bennett and James Sheldon, photo by Robert Day

So, fine, maybe Strindberg isn’t trying for pure realism here, but watching the characters on stage, it was hard not to get sucked into the interaction. Tekla’s affection for her husband seemed fully believable, her connection with Adolf was entirely natural … but the attempt to twist history and, not to spoil the plot (I mean this is not exactly a new play), people’s minds, was like the delightful Machiavellian twist at the heart of many of Shakespeare’s best tragedies. Who needs knives and armies when we can destroy people with words? I suspect the ending wouldn’t have been quite so perfectly tied up outside of a stage, but watching this vibrant cast of three feint and parry with the greatest of all weapons – the human mind – was just rather delicious all the way through. And at ninety minutes, there wasn’t a bit of fat.

(This review was for the preview performance that took place Monday, April 29, 2019. It continues through June first.)

Review – HMS Pinafore – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

April 18, 2019 by

Although I am generally prone to follow the work of particular playwrights or choreographers, I have made it a habit over the years to see everything Charles Court Opera puts on. In addition to their consistently hilarious pantos, their updated take on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan has done much, in my eyes, to show the solid gold that too frequently has been left hiding under the dust. Artistic Director John Savournin really has an eye to keeping things fresh, as well as an ability to recruit strong talent – so I came to their H.M.S. Pinafore with much enthusiasm.

This Pinafore is, rather than a sailing boat, a submarine, done in a cheerful mostly yellow color scheme that suited the 1960s setting – if making it a bit hard to figure out how a “bum boat woman” (Jennie Jacobs as Buttercup) could actually make it to the ship. That said, the Jackie Kennedy hairdo and styling of Josephine (Alys Roberts) was perfect – she looked just like the sort of charming ingenue capable both of being chased by an admiral (Joseph Shovelton) and loved madly by a lowly seaman (Phillip Lee). The man playing her father, Captain Corcoran (Matthew Palmer) was so fresh faced and pink cheeked that it seemed hard to imagine him as her father – he looked all of thirty! – but given how the play ends it was probably for the best that he looked so young. Meanwhile, the Admiral – who shows up in a diving suit – was a huge ham and big scene stealer, although his aunt – of “his sisters, and his cousins and his aunts” – managed to upstage him consistently, and without uttering a word. Trust me on this.

Staging and costumes is all fine, but what about the singing? While Ralph had a lovely voice and the Admiral a suitably booming one, I found myself entirely won over by Roberts’ turn as the captain’s daughter. “Sorry her lot” is a sappy piece of work, but I could hear convincing young love within her voice. And her scene telling off Ralph – with many asides – nicely switched from aggravation to desperation without either seeming forced! I kept wanting to push back at the sugariness of the original, but instead I found myself cheering on the two of them … wholly succumbing to the charm of the work. And my, didn’t the jokes about the British class system still hold up in their entirety.

While this production didn’t “push the boat out” much, so to speak, the delight of hearing this cream of the crop show in such an intimate environment is not to be underestimated. Charles Court have done well and I am sure they will have full houses eager to spend their evenings laughing at a well executed romp.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. It continues through May 11th.)

Review – Original Death Rabbit – Jermyn Street Theatre

January 16, 2019 by

Technology, and how we deal with it, is one of my favorite topics for plays and for new writing. As human beings, we’ve gone well beyond letters and even phone calls; theater has struggled to keep up with the rapid changes in how we communicate with each other. Plays are, at their core, about dialogue; but these days, we talk to each other with text messages, with instant messages, with comments on posts, and with emojis, memes, and captioned photos. None of these translate well to the stage. But what does, and should, is how these changes are affecting us as people and as a society – what does having a thousand different ways to communicate with each other (and often with strangers) do to individuals. And this is what Rose Heiney’s play Original Death Rabbit is about – how life as lived partially on the internet is changing us.

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre - photo by Robert Workman

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre – photo by Robert Workman

Original Death Rabbit is the online handle of a young woman who briefly shot to fame as the originator of an online meme, a la the “icebucket challenge” or “planking.” A photo was taken of her wearing a pink bunny onesie at a funeral and it became an internet craze – taking pictures of yourself (or others) at inappropriate places wearing the same thing. But like any person who gets five minutes of fame, there’s a lot more to ODR than the moment she was caught hiding in a cemetery or when the paps finally found her on the doorstep of her apartment. ODR is a young woman with mental health issues, who comes from a family with mental health issues, who finds that with an unrelenting spotlight on her she is more inclined than ever to not leave the house and to spend her time on online forums and trolling her top enemy on Twitter. Her depiction of a life lived in a tiny flat, only communicating via text, seems remarkably acccurate and depressing – a good reason to unplug forever and force yourself to get back to face to face communication.

The whole thing is done as a monologue by Kimberley Nixon – an impressive feat, and one she carries off with complete self assurance. It’s easy to imagine ODR and Nixon herself as being spoiled, self-obsessed, insecure, raging, and able to completely lose herself in poetry – Nixon wraps the character around herself so much that she disappears, and I found myself lost in the “maze of twisted passages all alike” that is ODR’s brain. How had she become so broken? Why wasn’t she trying to save herself?

Original Death Rabbit is a tightly woven portrait of a person who is allowed to further withdraw into mental illness in a world where it can be hard to tell when people are hiding and when, in fact, they are in danger. That said, I found myself torn between wanting to shout, “Get over yourself!” to the character, to wanting to call the author and ask her to give ODR a little something to make her a bit more well-rounded. Dealing with your own and a family’s mental illness gives an author (and an audience) a lot of material to work with, but having all of a story be told as a video being made for YouTube – or perhaps an extended blog post – is just not quite enough to make me care about the person on stage, or her family. I wanted to see more, to go deeper, to know that the bullshit happy happy faces people put up on social media are very much not representative of the struggles that are happening below – because ODR’s struggles never seemed to get to that key nerve I wanted to get. Still, it’s worth seeing if you want to see theater that’s engaging with the effect of technology on our lives – the topic has much to offer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. It continues through February 9th.)

Review – Burke and Hare – Jermyn Street Theatre

December 3, 2018 by

In a completely genius move of counter-programming, Jermyn Street have chosen to stage a most unusual Christmas show: a celebration of two 19th century Scottish grave robbers, completely with jolly songs, bad jokes, and on stage corpsing of the most literal sort. With three actors playing more roles than I could count (yet all nicely delineated by clothing and accent), the night moved at a whirlwind pace, barely seeming to leave the central room at the lodging house where Mr Hare (Alex Parry) lives along with his wife, the proprietor (Katy Daghorn). Burke (Hayden Wood) shows up, short of cash, but willing to work; and when a chance comes to sort a dead lodger’s debt by selling off his corpse, Burke shows little shyness in joining in the Hares’ plans.

The particular genius of this show is how so few actors in such a tiny space manage to do so much, conveying the back alleys of Edinburgh, the blood-splashed lecture halls of the cadaver-hungry doctors, and the heave and squalor of a rooming house not of the highest class. Much credit for this no doubt must go to director Abigail Pickard Price and designer Toots Butcher; Jermyn Street is very much an intimate theater but they created a space that felt far larger. And the comedy was right on target – black at times but full of silliness especially as the various actors attempted to compensate for the shortage of bodies to fill the roles (see what I did there?).

Burke and Hare, full cast – Hayden Wood, Alex Parry, and Katy Daghorn. Photo by Philip Tull.

My worry was that this story would completely descent to goriness, given that I’m fairly phobic about blood, but most of the spare body parts were so silly that I couldn’t have been the least bit frightened; and there was, in the end, only one murder scene, played toward then end and actually quite moving. If you add in the fact that the corpse on stage the longest appeared to be giggling under her sheet, the overall effect was leavened with enough humor – gallows humor, shall we say – that I was able to make it through the entire play without getting creeped out.

While Burke and Hare is not going to be stealing punters away from the Palladium panto, pretty much every theater goer in town is going to want a break from endless helpings of treacle and mince pies, and this show is just right for us – zippy, fun, tightly performed, and with enough of a feeling of improv that every night should feel fresh – just like the corpses.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place Friday, November 30, 2018. It continues through December 21st.)

Tulip Hunting in Uzbekistan and beyond

November 29, 2018 by

After listening to Frazer Henderson’s wonderful talk on Kyrgyzstan at the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society AGM in 2015, I was all fired up to look for tulips in exotic places. Soaring mountains, alpine lakes, and beautiful, beautiful flowers growing wild in the rocks – I wanted to see them myself. Sure, there were a few challenges – transport, housing, and blood sucking fauna – but it all seemed to fade in the background when I remembered his photos of cobalt blue lakes beneath snow capped peaks. It also seemed very affordable, provided you didn’t mind the occasional meal of horse meat. When I received an email asking if I were interested in joining a small group of enthusiasts on a trek to Uzbeki-stan, I leaped at the opportunity. I, too, would become a species spotter – a true tulipomane!

A Tulipa Korolkovii forces its way out from the rocks in the foothills of the mountains near Nurata

A Tulipa Korolkovii forces its way out from the rocks in the foothills of the mountains near Nurata

We started our trip in Istanbul, which was off the official itinerary but a wonderful place to begin, as the annual tulip festival was in full swing, with the Emirgan Korusu park covered with acres and acres of late Dutch tulips in gorgeous displays. Our group of five – Frazer, myself, my husband, and WNETS committee members Teresa and Jason Clements – took some time to visit the tulip museum in the park and then to stroll around admiring the densely planted gardens. Entry was free (although distant from public transport – a taxi would be helpful), and families were everywhere: picnicking, taking photos, and enjoying the perfect weather. From this hilltop perch, we dashed to a field between the Hagia Sophia museum and the Sultan Ahmet mosque, where a giant carpet of tulip blossoms had been made as a part of the festival. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about this festival in the UK – in richness of displays, it seemed more than equal to Keukenhof, but with the added fun of Istanbul and its treasures surrounding it (and no entry fee).

Naturalized Tulipa Greigii

Exploring a pasture of tulips beside a mountain lake. Among the crags and ravines beyond many rare tulip varieties lurk. Would we get to them before the local goats (who consider tulips a delicacy)?

After our busy day, we had several hours of free time to dine and repack, for all of us were on the same flight to Tashkent – at midnight. Uff! Our Uzbekistan adventure began properly the morning of April 13th, where we were met at the tiny Tashkent airport by Yuri, our Uzbeki tour guide, and transferred to our hotel in a residential district of Tashkent.

Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum and pilgrimage site

The pilgrimage site of the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum includes the resting place of Qusam, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as numerous members of Tamerlane’s family.

There we found Karsten, a German anesthesiologist, who would round out the tour group to six. As we headed into our vans the next morning, we met Ivan Maltseva, who would accompany us as our botanist. The next morning we undertook a lengthy drive to the farming villages of the Nurata mountains, where, on our very first hike, we found a few examples of Tulipa Korolkovii on the shale slopes. This stubby pinky white/red wonder (it had two forms) had the most gorgeous curlicue foliage. As a bonus, we saw a chamoix in the distance – all this just a half hour walk from our guesthouse. It was a promising start! From then, our days alternated with long drives between tulip biomes, sightseeing in ancient cities, and hikes in remote landscapes that varied between twinkling alpine meadows scrub desert, and the kind of sandstone canyons that made you think Indiana Jones was just around the corner.

Tulipa Ingens

A Tulipa ingens nestling in the snow at the Kitab State Geological Reserve.

It quickly became clear that while it might seem that our enemy was the weather – fog, freezing sleet and accompanying mud – the true villain of this trip was the goat, which time and again seemed to have beat us to the tulips, leaving behind close cropped stems and a few leaves. We had arrived in time for blooming season, but could not beat the hungry hordes!Our best days of tulip spotting were spent in mountain preserves too remote for grazing herbivores. In the foggy, freezing Takhtakaracha mountains near Samarkand, we saw Tulipa ingens and Tulipa Fosterianii amid the grass, moss, boulders, and clag; within the gorgeous Kitab State Geological Reserve (where we were as interesting to the park rangers as the tulips were to us) we found Tulipa ingens and Tulipa Fosteriana hiding between patches of snow; and in Boison we enjoyed central Asia curving away from us after we took our pictures of Tulipa Korolkovii and Tulipa lanata.

Uzbeki family picnic

An Uzbeki family near Nurata having a Sunday picnic of lamb stew, flatbread, and tea.

We also enjoyed some outstanding architecture and enjoyed the pleasures of a country where civilization has flourished since before the rise of Christianity. You can hardly escape learning about Emir Timur, called Tamerlane in the West, the national hero of Uzbekistan. His tomb, the madrasahs surrounding the imposing Registan square (the oldest built by his grandson in 1417), the turquoise Shah-i-Zinda necropolis (filled with Timur’s relatives), and the greatly restored Bibi-Khanym mosque (built for his wife) gave us a very rich time sight-seeing in our short time in Samarkand – with people from all over Asia queuing up beside us. While the tourism infra-structure is still a bit thin, the hospitality we were shown was genuine and joyful, including an exciting moment where we were invited to join an Uzbeki family for their Sunday picnic in the foothills near the city of Nurata (founded by Alexander the Great). Getting from place to place involved long hours in vans, but we took the opportunity to visit with each other, enjoy the scenery, and nap.

The highlight of the tour, however, was the final Sunday, when we drove from Tashkent to the Beldersay mountains, a well developed tourist area on the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We had a gorgeous drive into the mountains where we went to the station for a ski lift which continues running after the end of the snow for the benefit of day trippers who want to enjoy the magnificent views at the top. Our gondolas floated us over fields of yellow tulips – a huge change from the single stems we’d struggled to find in the deserts below!

Tulipa biflorifomis produces tiny double blooms in cream and white.

At the top, below occasional spots of melting snow, were endless clusters of tiny flowers – the endemic Tulipa Tchimganica – yellow and red flowers with pointed petals – and knots of the cream and yellow Tulipa biflorifomis, with its baroque foliage and endearing multi-headed blooms. All of this and snow capped peaks as far as the eye could see and the most gorgeous sunny weather
51- it was almost enough to make you forget that a misstep in the mud could send you quite a way down in a bit of a hurry. Then, after lunch, we made it to our residence, an off season ski resort, where our naturalist took us on a walk down the hillside into a fenced off field – where, miracle of miracle, endless clusters of fat, red Tulipa greigii all but filled the horizon with their cheerful scarlet. We lost ourselves in an ecstasy of photography, nearly giddy after so many days struggling to see even one flower amid the destruction caused by the ungulate population. There was one day left to the trip but nothing could top this day of seeing some of the world’s rarest tulips in their native environment, with the sunshine beaming down on us; and the joy of a grassy meadow shouting, “Welcome Spring!”

Tulipa Tchimganica

Tulipa Tchimganica is found widely in the Beldersay mountains.