Sunday, 28 September 2014

Recommendations: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2014

Every year, the Melbourne Fringe Festival presents hundreds of performing arts shows from both emerging and established artists.

I've been attending the Fringe since 1998, and have seen some impressive (and also some not so impressive) productions over those 17 festivals.

I've reviewed several shows this year for The Age newspaper, but have also seen a number of other productions for my own entertainment. Here are my tips from that bunch...

1. The Bookbinder

This excellent one-man show from New Zealand tells the fantasy story of a bookbinder's apprentice who cut corners and ended up in a netherworld contained within a magical book.

It's an excellently told fable with more than a touch of the dark fantasy style of British author Neil Gaiman.

Writer/performer Ralph McCubbin Howell does a great job of telling the tale from his bookbinding office on a tiny stage, using clever stagecraft to depict the world within the pages.

Runs to 4 October 2014, book here:

2. Who Are You Supposed to Be?

Doctor Who is hot again in the 21st century, and the British science fiction TV show has a wider range of fans than ever.

That diversity is at the heart of this entertaining one-hour romantic comedy, as a woman dressed as the Fifth Doctor goes head to head with a traditionalist fan who can't imagine the Time Lord ever being female.

The duo's sparring over this and other hot fannish topics of contention - whether Batman could beat Captain America, whether Star Wars was overly blokey, whether some fangirls are only in it for the male gaze - is lively and entertaining.

Though they're often in disagreement, there's a tension running between them that has the potential to both repel and attract.

It's fascinating to see them work through their differences and insecurities as the story progresses. Definitely one for the fans, or anyone who loves something enough to obsess about it.

Runs to 5 October 2014, book here:

3. The Road to Odessa

In this one-man drama, writer/performer Cameron McKenzie finds himself stranded on the side of a road in Ukraine, having decided to abandon a bus taking men to meet mail-order brides.

It sounds unsavoury, but how he got here is an intriguing tale of love, loss and bad decision-making, which started in Toronto, Canada. The wrong decision at the right time leads McKenzie to deep regret over a lost love, and on the electronic rebound he engages with a woman from Ukraine.

It's a well-told story, though there's not much set or stagecraft to speak of; it's basically a monologue in which the actor leads us through his tale of love and confusion. It's a warm and entertaining delivery which elicits our sympathy, as he careers along the rocky road of love.

Runs to 4 October 2014, book here:

For your interest, here are my Age reviews of four other Fringe shows I'd recommend:

There's one week to go in this year's festival, so see something while you still can. Have fun!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Travel Gadget Review 1: Scrubba Washbag

Being the first of an occasional series in which I review gadgets and devices of use to the traveller...

I was provided with a complimentary Scrubba before I went on my recent big trip to Europe and the USA, in order to test it out in real travelling conditions.

This bag is the recent invention of an Australian guy, who wanted an easy way to wash clothing on a trip up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (read more about its origin here).

The bag is made of a tough plastic. The innovative bit, however, is the flexible plastic washboard which is incorporated into its interior. By rubbing immersed clothing against the washboard section, the traveller is borrowing a technique used for millennia before the invention of the washing machine.

Or so the theory goes. How does it stack up in reality?

For this test, undertaken in the bathroom of our hotel room at the Ibis London Blackfriars, I was assisted by the lovely Narrelle Harris. For the record, this was the very first time we'd tried out the bag.

Here's a pair of socks I prepared earlier - by wearing them:

As you can see, the instructions are printed on the side of the bag, and therefore can't be lost:

First step - fill the Scrubba with hot water to the marked line for a small load, then add a suitable cleaning agent (in this case, shower gel):

Then the top of the bag was folded down a number of times, and clipped shut:

Next the air inside the bag was released, by opening the valve you can see near the top, and pressing down on the bag:

This was the one part of the procedure we had real difficulty with. For whatever reason the valve was very hard to squeeze open, especially with one hand busy holding the bag in place. Perhaps it might loosen after repeated uses.

In any case, with the valve so tricky, we found it easier to reopen the bag, squeeze out as much air as possibly through the main opening, then reseal it.

Then it was time for the main event: the washing. After a minute of trial and error pushing the socks around inside the bag, I realised the best procedure was to grip the clothing through the bag, and move it up and down with determination along the internal washboard section:

The result? Quite a lot of satisfyingly dirty water (though I suspect some of that is dye):

The next step was to repeat the procedure with clean water, to give the socks a rinse:

And voila: a pair of clean socks!

I hung them out to dry, and the next day they were indeed soft and clean. I assume they weren't as thoroughly washed as they would have been in a machine, but they were certainly wearable.

So there you have it - the Scrubba. A handy piece of kit which has now found a permanent place in my backpack.

It's not a substitute for a machine wash, I think, more a supplementary method for doing some light laundry while on the road. Handy if you're nowhere near a laundrette/laundromat and you don't fancy paying the outrageous laundry fees of the average hotel (and who does?).

The Scrubba washbag costs US$54.95, buy via Australians can buy it for AU$64.95 with free shipping via

Disclosure: I was provided with the Scrubba washbag for review purposes.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Curios of New York

I've sent the past week in New York. It's my first time in the city, and I've amassed plenty of material for travel articles which I'll be writing once I get home.

In the meantime, however, here are eight distinctive items I've spotted in the Big Apple.

1. The Hanging Traffic Light:

OK, I knew this was a pan-American thing before I came to NYC; but it's appeared in so many TV shows and movies that it caught my eye anew. Pure Americana.

2. The Old Fire Alarm Post:

We passed this every day when walking to and from our first hotel, the Z Hotel across the East River in Queens. It dated presumably from the days when few people had telephone access - pulling the lever would automatically alert the fire department.

3. The Cupcake ATM:

We spotted this on Lexington Avenue - and it worked! Apparently it's a Californian innovation, but it was a fun discovery on our first outing to Manhattan.

4. Old Churchyards:

You don't think of New York as being an old city with a humble past, such is its energy. But here and there you'll stumble across pockets of history, even in the most built-up areas. This old churchyard was a tranquil space amid the bustle of the financial district.

5. Fiction Intruding Into Reality:

These huge posters hanging diagonally opposite our second hotel, the hyper-modern Novotel Times Square, appear to have slipped from the pages of The Hunger Games.

6. The New Speakeasies:

There's a new batch of hip small bars in New York, deliberately obscuring their identities as an echo of the speakeasy bars of the Prohibition era. At this Greenwich Village bar, Employees Only, patrons enter past a fake shopfront suggesting a psychic's parlour.

7. The Anti-Plaque:

This Greenwich Village building is sandwiched between two buildings bearing plaques, each describing an illustrious literary resident. Not to be outdone, the owner added his own.

8. The World's Most Improbable Chips:

Several people told us about these - in horror - but we met no-one who had actually tasted them. Even in adventurous New York, apparently, there are limits.

Disclosure time: On this trip I received discounted accommodation from the Z NYC Hotel and the Novotel New York Times Square, and general assistance from NYC & Co.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Back to Berlin

I arrived in Berlin three days ago, on a Thursday, nearly 20 years after my last visit to the city.

It had changed. For a start, my train arrived at the shiny, still relatively new Hauptbahnhof.

This main train station hadn't existed back in 1994.

As we had arrived then by overnight train from Kraków, Poland, we'd crawled into Lichtenberg Station, which would presumably have been Polish trains' East Berlin terminus in the communist days.

Not only was Berlin's main station new, but so was the entire district around it. This was the view from my hotel room over the tracks:

Disorientated by the cluster of new buildings in the Mitte district, including some still under construction, I headed south to see if I could identify anything from my previous visit so soon after German reunification.

It all soon fell into place, though with twists here and there.

First there was the Bundestag building, the former Reichstag, but with its added dome:

Then I took a walk in the Tiergarten and spotted the Soviet war memorial on the way:

Finally, I emerged at the Brandenburg Gate. Yep, this was Berlin:

I walked through the gate onto Unter den Linden. It was a balmy evening and people were milling around, taking photos and chatting.

Then, walking on a little, I saw the Hotel Adlon:

The Adlon had been the city's grandest hotel in imperial times, but I knew it for another reason.

In 1941, the British comic novelist PG Wodehouse (creator of Jeeves & Wooster) had been housed here after he was persuaded by his German captors to give some humorous speeches on radio to reassure his American listeners, who were not yet involved in the war.

The speeches were innocuous but a terrible blunder by the naive writer, who was unaware of the mood in Britain after the Blitz. It was a mistake that took a while to live down, and Wodehouse never returned to the UK, settling instead in the USA.

It can't have been fun for Wodehouse and his wife Ethel at the Adlon, unable to leave a Germany at war and soon realising the gravity of what he'd done.

So I sat in the lobby bar, perhaps where Wodehouse might've sat in the original building (it was rebuilt after war damage), ordered a glass of champagne and drank in memory of my favourite author.

As had been the case once before when I'd visited the prison where he was confined before the broadcasts, we were separated by time - but not by space.

Disclosure time: I travelled across Europe by train courtesy of Railbookers.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Going Local in Brussels

There once was a romantic comedy film about a frantically paced European coach tour entitled If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.

On Tuesday, at least the museums would be open.

I found myself in the Belgian capital Brussels on a Sunday and Monday, the worst days of the week to visit a mainland European country. On Sunday, many of the shops were shut; on Monday nearly all the museums closed their doors.

I was in the city as part of a rail journey from London to Berlin, provided courtesy of Railbookers, a company which arranges rail journeys and accommodation. I'll be writing about the full experience later for an Australian magazine.

Anyway, I'd spent Monday morning out at the Waterloo battlefield some 25km from the city, and had been dropped off back in Brussels near Grand Place, at a bit of a loose end.

This area, as you can see, could be described as "touristy", with lots of frites, waffles and set menus:

Despite the tourist hordes and the occasional impassable tour group, however, there were these marvellous facades to enjoy in Grand Place itself:

Rather than eat there, I decided to follow up on a good restaurant I'd researched in the Ixelles district to the southeast of the centre, which served Belgian specialties. After a Metro and bus ride, I found Volle Gas on the attractive Place Fernand Cocq:

Sadly, I then fell foul of a rule which bedevils travellers in France and apparently also in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The kitchen had closed for lunch at exactly 2pm, and nothing could make it reopen until the evening.

So, hungry as I was, I wandered along the square and wondered what to do. Then I noticed a little cafe-bar a few doors down, Le Bar Parallele, with a view of the gardens and apparently full of locals.

So I joined them. Sitting inside to avoid cigarette smoke, having a burger and frites with a glass of local beer, I soon felt very comfortable indeed.

This was a local experience that was impossible to enjoy around Grand Place. Here I was among the Bruxellois, sitting at a metal-topped table in a slightly worn bar, feeling faintly like an extra in a foreign movie.

Around me people were chatting and reading books, sometimes accompanied by dogs on leads, enjoying a sunny afternoon with no tour groups in sight.

It wasn't like trekking through a jungle or climbing a mountain, but it felt good to have left the beaten track and been accepted among the locals.

Disclosure time: I'm travelling across Europe by train courtesy of Railbookers.