777th Heaven

Banner at Kirkby showing a class 777 train emerging from darkness, with the caption "They're Coming"

It took us over ten years to get to this point.

Britain was gearing up to host the 2012 Olympics when the prospect of a new fleet of trains for Merseyrail was first floated. It was four years later that Stadler was awarded the contract to replace the sturdy but ageing Class 507 and 508 trains.

We waited patiently. The occasional press release gave a tantalising insight into progress. A completed bodyshell, preliminary testing. Things were starting to come together.

As part of the construction process, there was a mockup on display at Birkenhead for a while, to allow “stakeholders” (ugh) to give feedback on the design. I went to see it (OF COURSE) and was impressed by the technology on show and the thoughtfulness that had gone into the design. Wheelchair users, cyclists and prams had been designed in from the start, rather than as an afterthought.

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Empire State of Mind

Empire of Light is a new film recently released, focusing on the staff of a slightly faded cinema in 1980s Margate, which I saw on Saturday night with Ben.

Queen Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the duty manager of the Empire cinema. She is friendly and personable, but also has mental health issues and is prescribed lithium by an uninterested doctor. She spends her evenings alone at home, and at work she forces herself to smile and go along with the banter of her co-workers. She is having an affair with her married boss Donald (played by Colin Firth) who is rather exploiting her vulnerability. Also on staff is Norman, the projectionist, played by Toby Jones.

Promotional image for Empire of Light, showing Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman

New employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives and Hilary becomes rather smitten with him. The two embark on a relationship, but issues arise because of Hilary’s mental health and the racism Stephen experiences in the town, which Hilary finds difficult to cope with. Meanwhile, the run-down cinema is chosen for a gala screening of Chariots of Fire and suddenly a great deal of attention is focused on the venue.

It’s not the most exciting film in the world, but it’s hard not to warm to the characters (well, except for Firth’s sleazy cinema manager, but that’s intentional I think). Colman is excellent as always, and Ward is great too. And the film as a whole looks gorgeous — even the shots in the cinema’s derelict, pigeon-infested restaurant look amazing.

Director Sam Mendes has cooked up a lovely tribute to the classic cinema experience, one that was on the verge of dying out in the 1980s and has now disappeared in the era of the multiplex. Meanwhile, the frank depiction of racist attitudes means this isn’t just an easy slice of nostalgia.

Also — and I hope this doesn’t make me sound too shallow — Micheal Ward gets naked at one point and he has a very nice bum.

Approach with Care

Western Approaches is a World War II museum, located in the basement of Exchange Flags, an office block in Liverpool City Centre.

During World War II, the building’s cellars were converted into a headquarters for the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle to keep Britain supplied with essential supplies and equipment, as Nazi Germany’s U-Boats stalked vessels making the transatlantic crossing.

After the war, the complex was largely abandoned, and fell into disrepair until opened as a museum in the early 1990s.

The building was top secret at the time, and still seems to be rather well-hidden today, with many visitors to the city seemingly unaware of its existence. This is despite the big signs pointing to “TOP SECRET WARTIME HQ” – definitely one for fans of irony.

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Otto-matic for the People

On Friday night I went with Ben to see the new Tom Hanks film A Man Called Otto. There aren’t many heartwarming comedy dramas that open with the main character preparing to commit suicide, but this is one of them.

Hanks plays a recently-retired widower who finds himself increasingly at odds with the modern world. He rails at the DIY shop because they sell rope by the yard and he only needs five feet. He patrols the neighbourhood, watching for dogs who pee on his lawn and cars using the residents-only road illegally. His neighbours irritate him, as does the paper boy who leaves his bike blocking the pavement for a moment.

So far, so Victor Meldrew. But like Victor Meldrew, Otto’s grumpiness doesn’t come from nowhere. Through flashbacks, we are shown Otto’s courtship of his eventual wife Sonya, and the tragedy that struck them (the younger Otto is played by Hanks’s son, Truman).

Back in the present day, Otto can’t see a future for himself after retirement, and plans to end it all. He is repeatedly prevented from doing so by his new neighbours, a family led by the relentlessly chirpy Marisol (played by Mariana TreviƱo, a new name to me, but amazingly good here). Although initially resistant to Marisol’s overtures of friendship, Otto slowly but surely warms up to her, becoming a friend to her and her two kids, and even her husband, despite thinking he’s an idiot.

There are lots of funny moments here, and if you watched the trailer, you might be expecting another bog-standard “grumpy old man” film. But there is also pathos here; the ending genuinely had me in tears – and it’s a long time since a film had that effect on me. Maybe it’s because Otto, left behind in a confusing modern world after the love of his life passed away, reminded a bit of my own dad.

Also — and without spoiling things too much — another supporting character, who plays a pivotal role, is a trans teenage boy, Malcolm. He is played by trans actor Mack Bayda and it’s great to see trans representation in a mainstream film.

Still looking for a Wilma to complete my juice glass set

I told you last time I had two shows booked for 2023, and I saw the first of those yesterday with Ben.

Five years after its debut as a fringe production by some Cambridge students, Six the Musical is currently on a UK tour, having already garnered rave reviews in the West End and on Broadway.

The show recasts Henry VIII’s six wives as a girl group performing a pop concert. Through some toe-tapping tunes and jaw dropping dance moves, each wife tells their story.

It’s a surprisingly educational show. Does the average person in the street know that much about Henry’s wives, beyond the unpleasant fate that befell several of them? (“Divorced! Beheaded! Survived!” is the show’s tagline)

This is an entertaining way to tell their stories and put them centre stage, rather than their husband. There isn’t really much of a plot, beyond the idea that the women are competing amongst themselves to decide which of them was the ‘best’ wife. By the end of the show however, it’s clear that the competition is irrelevant, and there is no benefit from picking a favourite.

Having said that, Anne of Cleves was my favourite, but I may be biased because she got introduced by German techno music.

Cast of Six the Musical performing at the curtain call, with several mobile phones recording

The all-woman cast and band got a richly-deserved standing ovation at the end, and the entire audience got up to dance along with the encore performance (yes, even me).

I was also delighted to be back in the Liverpool Playhouse for the first time in quite a while. It’s a lovely little theatre, perfectly suited for a show of this type.

Six the Musical is touring the UK at the moment, and is also on stage in London and New York. And touring America and Australia. And Holland. It’s everywhere! sixthemusical.com for more info.