An Inspector Calls

As eerie bomb sirens wail, and artificial fog crawls off the warped, wooden stage–completely enveloping the unsuspecting audience–it’s hard not to feel instantly transported into a desolate, shambled world. But Stephen Daldry’s West End revival of J B Priestley’s 1945 play, “An Inspector Calls”, does just that.

From the moment Stephen Warbeck’s chilling Hitchcockian score begins, and the haunting, almost post-apocalyptic setting, designed by Ian MacNeil, is revealed—which fuses together a 1940s, bomb-blasted landscape with a 1912 oversized dollhouse on stilts—it is clear that this production is set outside of one single time frame.

Daldry, best known for directing award-winning hits such as “Billy Elliot” and “The Hours”, has given this revival a uniquely postmodern twist that serves as a vitriolic commentary on society.

Young street urchins scour the rain-slicked, littered streets outside of the Birling household for scraps of food, establishing that this family represents a typical, individually minded, industrialist, Edwardian household.

An enigmatic man, dressed in an unassuming trench coat and tilted hat, lingers outside of the bizarre-looking household. Handing a fresh orange to a young boy in ragged clothing, he becomes the symbolic representation of aspects of humanity that the Birlings have long forgotten—or perhaps never knew in the first place.

The Mysterious Inspector Goole
The mysterious man is revealed by Edna, the elderly parlour maid, to be Police Inspector Goole, brilliantly portrayed by Nicholas Woodeson. When he calls at the house of the affluent Birling family, interrupting a dinner party celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to the successful Gerald Croft, the family’s lives are altered in a completely unexpected way.

One by one, the Inspector interrogates the members of the Birling household as part of an investigation of the apparent suicide of a young, working-class woman. Not one to bite his tongue, Inspector Goole reveals the deepest and darkest secrets and actions of each member of the family that led to the girl’s ultimate demise.

By collectively failing on the basic essence of humanity and compassion—from Mr. Birling firing the young woman for demanding a raise, to Gerald Croft having an illicit affair with her—the family members are all accused of contributing to the young woman’s death by the vehement Inspector Goole.

A Goole-ish Message

Perhaps even more vehement than Inspector Goole is the overall message of the play—a seething critique of individualism–and the lack of subtly in its delivery. Although slightly overacted at times, the ensemble manages to effectively capture the selfish essence of the industrialist stereotypes.

Most resistant to accepting an ounce of responsibility and shattering the ostentatious illusion is the immaculately put-together Mrs. Birling—dripping with jewels and a perfectly coiffed, fiery red bouffant hairdo—portrayed by Sandra Duncan.

In contrast, Marianne Oldham, portraying the Birling’s young, egotistical daughter, Sheila, is most affected by the Inspector’s interrogation. Sick and tired of putting on airs, she becomes the chief voice of reason among the clan, encouraging the others to break out of their elitist facades and reveal the truth to Inspector Goole—and, most importantly, to themselves.

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From Justin to Hitler: Waxing Poetic At Madame Tussauds

“Oh, mom, look it’s Hitler! I’m so gonna take a picture with him!” A giddy American tourist, with a digital camera strapped around her wrist, drags her mom over to a wax figurine of the infamous megalomaniac, trying to figure out the best pose to reflect this unusual meeting. She opts for a wide grin and a hand artfully arranged upon the Führer’s shoulder.

Just a few feet away, President Obama and his wife Michelle stand smiling in the background, in a replica of the Oval Office.

My new buddy!

For over 200 years, London’s Madame Tussauds Wax Museum has housed hand-crafted wax figurines of history’s most infamous people, giving tourists the chance to feel like they are included in a world that is otherwise very exclusive.

Madame Tussauds wasn’t always a spot for ordinary people to mingle with celebrities. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the museum started functioning as a commentary on popular culture, rather than a source of direct news, due to the rapid growth of print news and public literacy making current affairs more accessible.

And, although the museum was hit by three major disasters in the 20th century, including the Blitz bombing in 1940–in which Hitler was one of the few figures to survive unharmed–millions of visitors have still flocked to the museum. Since first opening in 1835, there have been over 500 million visitors–more than the combined populations of North America and Australia.

Setting The Stage
From the moment you step out of the gilded elevator and into the first exhibition, where a display of fake paparazzi furiously flash their cameras, the illusion is set.

Paparazzi Brigade

No longer are you an outsider to this glitzy and glamorous lifestyle, you are the guest of honour in one of the hottest soirees in town.

Rounding the corner of a wall with a ‘Madame Tussauds welcomes you to our A-list party’ sign, you enter a chic grand hall, complete with Swarovski crystal chandeliers, waterfalls, and flattering low-lighting.

Hollywood’s hottest celebrities, from Johnny Depp to Nicole Kidman, are dressed in their finest ensembles. Without ropes and bodyguards, you can literally rub shoulders with the stars. But you may have to queue for the chance to get up close and personal with pop singer Justin Timberlake–he is the museum’s most-hugged star, running up the most expensive dry cleaning bill for his stylish white Savile Row suit.

The Horror, The Horror!
Besides letting museum-goers mingle with celebrities and world leaders, Madame Tussauds also provides a more gruesome experience in its Chamber of Horrors. Not for the faint of heart, the Chamber is a spooky, prison-themed labyrinth where live actors, dressed as deranged prisoners, pop out at unsuspecting customers, just waiting to illicit shrieks of horror.

The final stop in the museum is the Spirit of London tour, in which visitors ride in an old-fashioned black cab and are transported through 400 years of London’s history–ending in a strategically-placed gift shop where you can purchase the perfect frame for your photos with Justin and Hitler.

Lava, Lakes, and Lounging: Five Unique Nicaraguan Experiences

From volcano surfing, to a blind massage, discover Latin America’s hottest up-and-coming destination

1. Volcano Surfing in Leon

It’s not every day that you’re teetering on the edge of a volcano, ready to surf down a steep volcanic ash slope on nothing but a flimsy piece of plywood.

But the Cerro Negro (Black Hill) volcano, located 25 km northeast of the colonial city of Leon, offers adrenaline junkies a chance to try out this offbeat twist on surfing, also known as sandboarding.

View from the top of Cerro Negro

Nicaragua is called ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes’, but Cerro Negro is the only volcano in the country that you can ‘surf’ down. The 400m high volcano lacks vegetation, with one side made of large rocks and the other side of black volcanic sand.

Surfing the Volcano

The hour-long hike is steep, and carrying a wooden surfboard doesn’t make it any easier, but the 360-degree panoramic view at the top is more than worth the effort—as is the rush of surfing down the ashy slope in less than ten minutes.

For those less keen on surfing, there’s also an option of running down the side of the volcano—just make sure to wear good hiking shoes and clothing to protect against being scraped by small lava rocks.

Essential Information: Vapues Tours (505 2315 4099/www.vapues.com) offers the Cerro Negro Express Tour, leaving from Leon at 8:00 am every day and returning at 12:30 pm. The tour costs 12GBP—including transportation, a bilingual guide, and refreshments—and an extra 6GBP for sandboarding.

2. Partying on a Bald Bus
If the thought of flying down a steep volcano sounds too treacherous, riding the topless Bus Pelon (“Bald Bus”) is a tamer way to take in the sights of the city of Leon.

The 'Bald' Bus

While cities like London and New York have double-decker bus tours, Leon has its own uniquely Latin American twist on what would otherwise be just another bus tour around the city. Take an old school bus, paint it vibrant colors, torch off the roof, string up multi-colored fairy lights, and you have the Bus Pelon.

More party bus than tour bus, Bus Pelon also has an impressive sound system that thumps Latin club music throughout the entire journey.

Partying on the Bus Pelon

And with its open-alcohol policy, it becomes the city’s only nightclub in transit. If you go on a Friday night, you can enjoy a tasting of quesilleros, Nicaragua’s famous fried cheese.

Essential Information: Bus Pelon runs once an hour, all night long. The pick-up point is right in the heart of Parque Central. It costs 5 Cordobas (15p) Sunday through Thursday, and 10 Cordobas (30p) on Friday nights.

3. Swimming in a Crater Lake
Nicaragua has many crater lakes, but most of them are not clean enough to swim in. However, the idyllic Laguna De Apoyo—a 30 minute drive from Granada—is one of the cleanest bodies of water in Nicaragua.

Laguna De Apoyo

And, as the deepest measured point is 200 meters, it is the lowest point in Central America. The thermally vented crater lake, which was formed over 20,000 years ago when a volcano imploded and filled with water, retains a perfect temperature all year round.

Hammocking Hiram

If you work up an appetite from swimming, the perimeter of the lake is also dotted with small restaurants offering typical Nicaraguan dishes. Crater’s Edge Restaurant and Hostel makes delicious platanos fritos (fried plantains) and Nicaragua’s national dish, gallo pinto, which can be enjoyed while lounging on a hammock overlooking the lake.

Essential Information: Crater’s Edge Restaurant and Hostel (www.craters-edge.com/ (505) – 2552 – 8006) offers daily transportation to and from Granada. The microbus costs 2 GBP return and leaves Hotel Oasis (C. Estrada 109, Granada/Tel:505 552 8006) at 10 am and 4 pm, and departs Crater’s Edge at 10:30 am and 4:30 pm. If you’re not staying at Crater’s Edge Hostel, you can pay 3 GBP for water access and use of on-site facilities.

4. Monkeying Around in Granada

Thousands of years ago, the Mombacho Volcano erupted and threw huge lava rocks into Lake Nicaragua, in Granada. 365 islets were formed because of this eruption, and the area is now known as Las Isletas.

Lola searches for fruit.

Ranging in size from a hundred square meters to over a hundred hectares, Las Isletas is home to local fisherman, wealthy expatriates, an 18th century Spanish fortress—built to protect Granada from pirate attacks—and Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island).

Boat tours include a stop by this simian sanctuary where, if you bring local fruit (such as mamon, similar to a lychee), you may be lucky enough to hand feed one of the adorably furry spider monkeys.

Just across from Isla de los Monos is El Restaurante, which serves freshly-caught fish alongside other Nicaraguan dishes, and also has a bar, sun deck, and swimming pool open to restaurant-goers.

Essential Information: Tierra Tour in Granada (www.tierratour.com/ 505 2552-8723) offers a 2.5 hour tour, 5 GBP, that leaves from Cathedral, Street la Calzada, 2 blocks away from the lake, every day at 10 am and 3 pm.

5. Blissful Blind Massage
After trekking around Nicaragua’s lakes and volcanoes, there’s no better way to relax than with a full body massage—performed by a blind masseuse. In the open-air courtyard of Granada’s Euro Café, a charity called Seeing Hands runs a blind massage parlor for blind Nicaraguans otherwise unable to work elsewhere.

As you’re led to your massage station, by the parlor’s only full-sighted employee, you’re met by a blind, Spanish-speaking masseuse. Unlike typical massages, this one starts out with the masseuse lightly feeling around to see where your back and limbs are located. Once you’re relaxed from the blissful hour-long massage, indulge in a scoop of the bistro’s homemade, all-natural gelato, which comes in Nicaraguan flavors like pitaya (dragon fruit) and cacao (cinnamon-spiced chocolate).

Essential Information: Seeing Hands Blind Massage Parlor is located in the back of the Euro Café (505 2552 2146/Esquina Noroeste del Parque Central) just off the Central Square, and is open every day from 7:30 am to 9:00 pm. A one-hour, full body massage costs 7 GBP, but the company also offers shorter chair massages (starting at 15 minutes for 1GBP).

Getting There:

Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; http://www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a 13-day ‘Highlights of Nicaragua’ tour, which includes stops in Granada and Leon, starting from 2,095 GBP per person; including b&b, flights, transfers and excursions. Tailor-made, including flight-only, options are also available.

If you are traveling independently from the United Kingdom, there are no direct flights. Continental (www.continental.com) flies from Heathrow, via Houston, Texas, to Managua International Airport. From the airport, there are local buses and taxis for hire that go to Granada (45 min/1 GBP bus/7 GBP taxi) and Leon (1.5 hr/1 GBP bus/8 GBP taxi).

Interview With Craig Monk: From The Voom Blooms to the Defector’s Weld

Two years ago, I interviewed a British band called The Voom Blooms for our music/culture show, “Visionz”, on USFtv. I recently caught up with Craig, former guitarist/keyboardist, as part of an interview for my Arts and Entertainment Reporting class, to discuss what he’s been up to since the band split up last year. Check out our episode of “Visionz” below, and the interview with Craig!

With his tight black shirt, even tighter black trousers, and a shaggy mop of dark brown hair, 27-year old Craig Monk looks ready to strap on his guitar and step out onstage to a mass of adoring fans.

But it’s not the stage of the Royal Albert Hall he’s stepping onto, and there are no swarms of fans screaming his name. It’s the Defector’s Weld pub in Shepherd’s Bush, a pub he’s been managing since his former band, The Voom Blooms, split up nearly one year ago.

It’s a quiet afternoon at the Weld, with just a few people scattered around the heavy wooden tables, enjoying pints of lager and seeking shelter from the drizzly London weather. Mellow jazz music permeates through the air, blending together with the murmurings of deep conversations.

As he sits down with a fresh pint of Guinness in hand, Monk seems relaxed, despite this being his first interview in almost one year. Since 2005, he played guitar and keyboards for The Voom Blooms, a Loughborough-based indie rock band.

But after four years of living the rock star lifestyle, the band decided to split. “We were like a unit, a family, but it got to a point where we had enough and were tired of being poor,” explains Monk. “But I still have great memories from being in the band,” he recalls with a nostalgic grin.

Blooming Blossoms
The Voom Blooms started gaining momentum in the summer of 2006, after getting over 12,000 fans on Myspace in just a couple of months. After recording their first single, ‘Politics & Cigarettes’, they spent many late nights adding friends on Myspace. “But that was back when Myspace counted for something,” explains Monk.

Their persistence paid off, though, garnering the attention of BBC Radio 1’s Steve Lamacq, who played their single on his show. A week later, after receiving a phone call from Babyshamble’s manager—who had heard their single on Lamacq’s show—The Voom Blooms went on their first tour and signed a one single deal with Fiction Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

However, industry politics proved to be difficult for the band. “When our second single ‘Anna’ was released, our former manager decided that we needed a hook in order to get press. He came up with this story about me and George [lead singer] being secretly gay, and missing a gig in London because we were arrested in Paris after getting too drunk. We basically said, ‘Fuck off’, and so we didn’t get a story,” he recalls with a sense of disdain.

“Pressure comes from the top down. The record labels want a certain image, one that will sell. They try to tell you what to do and if you say no, they drop you,” he continues. “It got to a point where it stopped being fun.”

A New Label
Eventually the band moved to an independent label, managed by Brandy Provenzano. Under new management, they were received better in the U.S. than they were in the U.K.—even gaining a residency at Hollywood’s infamous Viper Room.

“I think the U.S. is more open to different genres of music, and the people are friendlier,” explains Monk. “I remember playing one gig at Neumo’s [in Seattle], and I didn’t have the right converter for my plug. The bouncer drove all the way to his house to pick one up for me!” he reminisces in amazement.

“You don’t get that in the U.K.” Despite finding success—and friendliness–in the U.S, the combination of exhaustion and outside obligations led to The Voom Bloom’s split (“But we’re all still good friends”).

Although he didn’t pick up a guitar for six months after the band split up, music is still an integral part of Monk’s life. All of his staff members are in bands (“We have seven drummers, and we even have a drum kit in our basement!”), and The Defector’s Weld often hosts after-parties for his friend’s bands. So will he ever get back into playing music?

Finishing off his pint of Guinness, he replies, “Music is like a drug; of course I’d like to get back into it. But if I do, I’d just like to quietly release something, and not have to market it.” You can take away the tour buses, sound checks, and recording sessions, but Monk’s passion for music remains as strong as ever—band or no band.