Archive for October, 2015

smallest showSometimes things can be all about timing. In this case, it is bad timing on my part to catch a touring production on the dreaded Monday night with a half full house. And for a show about reviving a failing cinema, it is unlucky timing to hit the stage so soon after a show about reviving a failing theatre (Mrs Henderson Presents) has been greeted with rapturous praise and a West End transfer. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, but let’s just say that Mrs H has original songs and this show, sadly, hasn’t. The book by Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander is an adaptation of the 1957 British film, famously featuring Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers in supporting roles. Southerland has gained a big reputation on the London fringe for breathing fresh life into half forgotten American musicals (Titanic, The Grand Tour and the forthcoming Grey Garden are examples) so this is a departure for him, embarking on a musical that is original, British and staged for large, traditional theatres. His directorial flair and imagination, developed from working on shows with scant resources, are here in abundance and the big numbers, choreographed by his regular collaborator Lee Proud, are all excellent. Most of us will have seen the film at some time, screened on tv on some rainy afternoon and remember the plot. It is a sort of “Fleapit Paradiso” about a couple, played here by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley, who inherit the Bijou cinema in Sloughborough (somewhere where they speak with Lancashire accents), together with its batty pianist (Liza Goddard) and its drunken projectionist (Brian Capron). It is warm, affectionate and nostalgic and here it is spruced up with songs (Simple Melody, Always, It’s a Lovely Day Today, Steppin’ Out…etc, etc) by Irving Berlin, whose catalogue is so huge that finding a song to fit comfortably into every situation in a show like this should not have presented many difficulties. However, there is a very big difference between songs that fit in and ones that arise naturally from a story and its characters and that difference represents the show’s main weakness. It is not just the lyrics that feel not quite right, but the melodies that sound like American show tunes of the pre-War era, rather than the music that characterised Britain when the show is set in the late 50s, the time that rock ‘n’ roll was making its breakthrough. The compensations for this disappointment are substantial – terrific performances all round, splendid staging and the illusion that it all ends with “blue skies from now on”. In reality, we all know that the best efforts of the characters here were only postponing the inevitable and that competition from television and the rise of multiplexes would quickly see off the Bijou and its like. Nonetheless, this mixed bag still contains lots of goodies to enjoy.

Performance date: 19 October 2015

London Film Festival 2015

Posted: October 18, 2015 in Cinema

a bigger splashA Bigger Splash*** (Italy/France, dir Luca Guadagnino)

Ralph Fiennes’ over-the-top performance steals scene after scene as an ageing record producer gatecrashing the Italian holiday home of his ex-lover, rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her new partner, a “boring” film maker (Matthias Schoenaerts). He brings with him his young American daughter (Dakota Johnson). Marianne has lost her voice following an operation which serves the film well, because it is at its best when nothing is said and rippling sexual undercurrents are brought to the surface by finely nuanced performances and direction. Laboured at times, but, being set in Lampedusa just as boatloads of refugees are coming ashore, the film is a sad and funny reflection on a crazy world.

 

black-massBlack Mass*** (USA, dir Scott Cooper)

Casting against type works well in this true life tale of Boston’s gangland, chronicling how the Mafia was wiped out by its Irish equivalent and how mobsters, law enforcement officers and politicians formed a tangled web of corruption. A balding Johnny Depp makes a menacing, psychotic gang leader, Benedict Cumberbatch is his younger brother, a Senator and Joel Egerton is their childhood friend, now an FBI agent. Engrossing and violent, but haven’t we seen the like of this many times before?

 

 

 

bone_tomahawk_posterBone Tomahawk*** (USA, dir Craig Zahler)

A real curiosity – a western crossed with a supernatural horror flick. Often, Zahler’s film looks like a re-make of John Ford’s The Searchers, except that the Indians of the earlier film are replaced by sub-human troglodyte savages. Graphic violence and gore abound, but it is the traditional values of strong characterisations that make the film gripping. Underlying it is an ironic comment on Hollywood’s shameful portrayals of Native Americans in the classic westerns.

 

 

 

 

Brooklyn-Poster-2Brooklyn**** (UK/Canada/Ireland, dir John Crowley)

An adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel in which a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from a small Irish town to New York in the post-War years to make a new life, but then finds her loyalties split. Both Ronan and Emory Cohen as her American sweetheart give wonderfully warm performances, supported in cameo roles by Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. The film is unashamedly old fashioned and sentimental, but it is so lovingly crafted and beautifully acted that it sweeps all reservations away.

 

Carol-poster-300x414Carol**** (USA/UK, dir Todd Haynes)

The marriage between Todd Haynes and novelist Patricia Highsmith is made in Heaven and its issue is one of the great films of 2015. Filming in soft focus and framing shots like Edward Hopper paintings, Haynes captures the mood and feel of America in the early 1950s. Rooney Mara is terrific as the shopgirl swept off her feet by the divorcing older woman, Carol and into a smouldering, reckless affair. However, it is Cate Blanchett as Carol who gives the film its iconic moments, confirming her status as the screen goddess of her generation, the true heir to the legacy of Hepburn and Streep.

 

 

 

cemetery4Cemetery of Splendour** (Thailand/UK/France, dir Apchatpong Weerasethakul)

When the director introduces his film and tells the audience that “it’s ok to go to sleep”, it can be very difficult to resist his suggestion. Many of the characters in the film are already comatose, soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness and being cared for in a makeshift hospital in a small Thai town. There is very little plot, just people talking to each other or sitting silently by bedsides. Some scenes are very touching., but, frankly, paint dries quicker.

 

 

 

Chevalier_(film)Chevalier*** (Greece, dir Attika Rachel Tsangari)

Six men in a boat and a woman director. This frequently hilarious Greek comedy on the theme of masculinity takes place when the men are confined together as they return to Athens from a fishing trip. They pass the time by playing the game of the film’s title in which they all judge each other in various randomly selected categories. Quirky and unpredictable, the film’s humour is derived from wry observations of human behaviour.

 

 

 

 

departureDeparture**** (UK/France, dir Andrew Steggall)

Slow moving, lyrical drama in which wrought and sorrowful mother (Juliet Stephenson) packs up to depart from her family’s holiday home in France and her adolescent son (Alex Lawther, who impresses more with every appearance on stage or screen) departs from childhood innocence. Beautifully acted by the two leads and Phénix Brossaird as the son’s friend, this is a small gem that, hopefully, will not pass by unnoticed.

 

 

 

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Desierto**** (Mexico/France, dir Jonás Guarón)

First and foremost, this is a superb chase thriller, reminiscent of an old-style Western, except that illegal Mexican immigrants to the US replace the Indians and we are put firmly on the side of the hunted. Gael Garcia Bernal gives the film a marque of quality with Turmp’s rhetoric and the influx of migrants to Europe providing it with plentiful topical relevance.

 

 

 

 

 

Grandma_Movie_PosterGrandma*** (USA, dir Paul Weitz)

Punchy and warm comedy in which Lily Tomlin excels as an ageing lesbian poet trying to help her granddaughter to get an abortion. Great cameo performances in support of Tomlin and a sparkling script make the film an unexpected pleasure. It runs for only 80 minutes and not a second is wasted.

 

 

 

 

 

high rise posterHigh Rise** (UK, dir Ben Wheatley)

Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the upper middle level of a high rise apartment block occupied by a regal Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) in the opulent penthouse and a wild Mr Wilder (Luke Evans) at ground level. Get it? The biggest problems with this film are that the allegory is far too obvious and the narrative, showing the disintegration of a model society, is far too vague. Hiddleston plays it wooden, Irons and the rest ham it up and the only discernible moral seems to be that, when the apocalypse comes, we’ll all be listening to Abba. Wheatley produces some visual flourishes and there are neat touches of humour to hold off the tedium, but, too often, the film resorts to gratuitous sex and violence to gain our attention. An expensive, overblown mess.

officeOffice ** (China/Hong Kong, dir Johnnie To)

A musical set in the Hong Kong business world by an action flick director and screened in 3D – it takes a while getting the mind around the concept and a dazzling opening, in which armies of workers enter high rise blocks that resemble modern palaces, raises hopes for a Busby Berkeley-style spectacle. Sadly, what follows is just a routine tale of ambition, greed, workplace politics and romance, with a few rather pleasant songs thrown in.

 

sufragetteSuffragette**** (UK, dir Sarah Gavron)

Impressively mounted account of the fight for women’s suffrage in early 20th Century London, made all the more so because it looks at events from the perspective of a working class laundry worker and mother (Carey Mulligan) rather than from that of the regal and aloof Mrs Pankhurst (Meryl Streep obviously). Mulligan gives possibly her best ever performance, heading a stunning cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleason. Don’t say it too loud, but the moral of the film could be that terrorism is sometimes justified. That aside, who’s taking bets on the number of Oscar nominations?

 

tangerine-poster01Tangerine*** (USA, dir Sean Baker)

Following two transexual hookers and an Armenian cab driver on their intersecting paths around the seedier areas of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, Sean Baker’s film does not completely avoid feeling like a comic freak show, but its most memorable moments come when the underlying humanity rises to the surface.

 

 

 

 

the-clubThe Club*** (Chile, dir Pablo Larrain)

Chilling Chilean film, set in a remote coastal town that becomes a sort of living purgatory for errant priests – homosexuals and child abusers. Murky cinematography creates hauntingly bleak images for a drama that is relentlessly cruel and often savage in questioning the teachings of the Catholic church.

 

 

 

 

 

the lady in the vanThe Lady in the Van*** (UK, dir Nicholas Hytner)

No doubt the presence of the Dowager Countess of Grantham slumming it as yellow van woman will gain most of the awards attention, but Alex Jennings is equally impressive, repeating his Alan Bennett turn, seen previously on the London stage. Otherwise Hytner’s film is amusing, but has little new to offer for those of us who saw Bennett’s play in the theatre.

 

 

Trumbo PosterTrumbo**** (USA, dir Jay Roach)

Worthy bio-pic of Dalton Trumbo, the American screenwriter blacklisted for communist sympathies in the 50s and 60s, who won two Oscars writing under pseudonyms. Bryan Cranston breaks good as the abrasive title character and Helen Mirren bites as the Queen of Mean, columnist Hedda Hopper. There is plenty for film buffs to chew over, with big names such as John Wayne, Edward G Robinson and Kirk Douglas passing through, although the inimitable Ronald Reagan is seen only as himself in newsreels. The film is slightly too long and meanders a little in its final third but it is still a searing indictment of American fascism in the McCarthy era and it will be interesting to see whether Hollywood has purged itself enough of its sins to feel able to include it in this year’s Oscar nominations.

Encounter** (Above the Stag Theatre)

Posted: October 17, 2015 in Theatre

enclunterThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Trying to read the subtexts of works by writers now known to have been gay can be an amusing diversion. To this end, maybe tweaking the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest or changing the gender of a key character in The Deep Blue Sea could uncover what Wilde and Rattigan really wanted to say to us. Phil Willmott’s new play is inspired by Noel Coward’s screenplay (earlier a one-act play) for the 1945 British film Brief Encounter, in which a respectable married woman (Celia Johnson) has a chaste love affair with a respectable married man (Trevor Howard), meeting every Thursday in a railway station. In Willmott’s version, the Thursday meetings are between two men – Larry (Adam Lilley) a doctor from Surbiton and the railway station manager, Arthur (Alexander Huetson). In assuming a subtext, maybe Willmott is underestimating how daring, even brazen, Coward could be. As early as 1932, when he wanted to write about a bisexual love triangle, he simply wrote about a bisexual love triangle (in Design for Living) and damned the consequences. The likelihood is that Brief Encounter was written solely to present audiences of its day with a drama that they could believe in and relate to and Willmott never makes the case for there being underlying gay themes. The film is about the social perils in 1940s Britain of breaking marriage vows and the way in which Willmott adapts it makes the gay element that he introduces seem almost incidental for most of the play. The possible intervention of the law at that time is referred to, but it is an additional factor and not part of the core story. The setting is mostly Vauxhall station and real trains moving in and out that station can be heard above the theatre. Jokes alluding to differences between the Vauxhalls of the1940s and 2015 abound and the play begins and ends in the modern day. Yes Vauxhall has changed and the gay World has also changed in 70 years, obvious facts that the play rams home repeatedly and rather clumsily. Dialogue in the play tries to emulate that of the film, a style that can seem stilted to a modern audience. Lines such as “wherever you are in your head isn’t a happy place is it?” draw giggles from the audience that cannot have been intended, but incidental characters provide more welcome amusement. The station newspaper vendor (Penelope Day) has a fine range of malapropisms and a lecherous police constable (Christopher Hines) plods his beat comically around the waiting area. Unlike in the film and for no obvious reason unless it is titillation, the couple here eventually become intimate, only to be interrupted by the local vicar (Hines again) in a scene that resembles a French farce. This feels like a bad misjudgement. The film may now seem dated, but no-one could ever question its sincerity and this play needs comparable sincerity, not crude physical comedy. Individually, the two central performances are well judged. Lilley shows us Larry’s trepidation at stepping into the unknown, his fear of losing his career, his comfortable home and his loving wife and family. He takes pleasure in mentoring Arthur, trying to bridge the gap in class and cultural interests. Huetson’s Arthur is eager to learn about classical music and taste Champagne for the first time. He is already scarred by wartime experiences and accustomed to being an outcast, his marriage is all but over and he has far less to lose, When the couple’s friendship is platonic, it is conveyed touchingly, but, when it moves beyond that stage, not enough sexual chemistry is suggested to make the relationship believable. Ultimately, neither the assumptions under which the play was conceived nor the story that it tells is wholly convincing and this encounter is not quite brief enough.

Performance date: 16 October 2015

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Playground**** (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: October 16, 2015 in Theatre

Josie Ayres and Richard FishThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

There were serial killers on the loose in London’s East End long before the Cereal Killer moved in and Peter Hamilton’s new play (his seventh) centres on a continuation of this great tradition. The bodies of young children are being found everywhere, decapitated with copies of an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel thrown on their corpses, open at page 100. Oranges and Lemons sung (by Sarah Quish) between scenes establishes the East End setting, climbing frames and a suspended tyre suggest a playground and enlarged covers of Blyton books make a colourful backdrop for the play, an absurdist black comedy that questions the lines between reality and insanity. As would be expected, the investigation is led by two inept police officers – the dim-witted DI Mitchell (Dan MacLane) and his cross-dressing sidekick, DC Birch (Christopher James Barley). They explore avenues (“hoping that they will be tree-lined”) and, using Holmes-like logic, they decide that the killer has to be a Welsh lesbian librarian, which would rule out Danny (Richard Fish), who has recently bought a job lot of Enid Blyton books. In fact, Danny is starting a book club devoted to Blyton, the first member being Carolyn (Josie Ayers) who he talks out of committing suicide, she wishing that she could be “young, poor and Pakistani”. The other two members are working class Stuart (Simon Every) and middle class Communist, Tamsin (Laura Garnier), both patients of Dr Ross at Bow psychiatric unit. Danny himself was once a patient there, but now thanks valium and vodka for his sanity. All four members become prime suspects. Tamsin’s political views and Stuart’s opposition to them support the play’s assertion that socialism is advocated only by the liberal middle class intelligentsia in places like Islington “where everyone talks about literature and politics” and not by workers themselves. Well this is an absurdist comedy and, ironically, it is being performed in Islington. However, political satire remains secondary to a style of dark humour that brings to mind another one-time Islington resident, Joe Orton. Hamilton gives us a fine example of the quality of writing now being found in Fringe Theatre, the foundation for the comedy being his talent for taking phrases in everyday use and twisting their meaning. This play takes time to build and it would benefit from having a stronger central narrative to hold everything together, but the laughs, when they come, are plentiful enough to make us overlook such shortcomings. Ken McClymont’s production milks all the comedy from the quirky characters, but sees beyond their humorous facades to show them as lost souls in a big city, searching for somewhere to belong. Poignantly, once the murderer has been revealed, the book club begins to drift apart, as if it had been only the horrific killings binding them together. Neatly summing up the murders and the suspects, the unseen psychiatrist Dr Ross prescribes decapitation as “the definitive cure for all mental illness”. Playground may not be perfect but it is often absurdly funny.

Performance date: 15 October 2015

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A-Wolf-In-Snake-Skin-Shoes-at-The-Tricycle-Theatre.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-I80A0446-683x1024This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Hypocrisy turns up in many guises, at any time and in any place. In 17th Century France, Molière embodied the trait in the character of Tartuffe and now American playwright Marcus Gardley finds it in modern day Atlanta, giving his new verse play the alternative title: The Gospel of Tartuffe. Gardley gives us a what is in effect an amorality tale of born again hypocrites practicing in the American Bible belt. Chief among them is Apostle Toof (Lucian Msamati), a charismatic preacher who casts a congregation under his spell, heals a young woman who has been crippled by a British horse and leads her into a private room to seduce her. He then proceeds to the estate of a dying fried chicken billionaire, Organdy (Wil Johnson) on a mission to minister to him and cheat his family out of his money. Indhu Rubasingham’s boisterous production, played on spacious sets designed by Tom Piper, begins well in the Holy Roll Cathedral with stirring gospel singing led by Sharon D Clarke. However, the first half of the play is weak on structure and purpose, eventually hitting a slump out of which even this energetic company has difficulty lifting it. Happily the second half is much tighter, highlighted by several notable set pieces. A meeting between Toof’s formidable wife (Clarke) and Organdy’s explosive fiancée, Peaches (Adjoa Andoh) is a clash of the Titans, leaving us wondering how on Earth men ever got control of the Church (or anything else for that matter). The avaricious and lecherous Toof still has his eyes on the cash and at least one of the ladies. He pleases Organdy by seemingly curing his gay son, Gumper (Karl Queensborough) of his “sickness” and attempting to bring his rebellious prodigal daughter, Africa (Ayesha Antoine) back into the fold. Job done, a banquet begins and Toof, still in preacher mode, says grace in a hilarious form of spoken hip-hop, before homing in closer to his real targets. The play is a not entirely satisfying mix of absurd humour and obvious metaphors. At times it is inventive and at other times dull, but, in spite of its inconsistencies, it is often highly entertaining and always the performances are a delight. Finally, Gardley puts his cards on the table when Toof delivers a “there is no God, greed is good” sermon preached with all the fervour and persuasiveness that he had used to praise the Lord earlier. Now we have to ask which of the two Toofs is right and which is the hypocrite? But maybe both are both.

Performance date: 14 October 2015

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french without tearsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Hear the name Terence Rattigan and what usually springs to mind is tear-soaked dramas filled with outpourings of suppressed emotions. Back in 1936, Rattigan had his first big hit with French Without Tears and the staple ingredients for such a drama were there, except that the tears that soaked it were ones of laughter. More Coward than traditional Rattigan perhaps, but, if it had been Coward, out of his very top drawer. The scene is a villa in France where Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth) and his daughter Jacqueline (Sarah Winter) are giving crash courses in French for English professionals who need to speak the language to further their careers. Set in the round as the Orange Tree dictates, designer Simon Daw places blackboards chalked with French words and phrases around the balcony, with simple wooden chairs and a dining table taking centre stage on a terracotta tiled floor. Mark Doubleday’s warm lighting adds to the rustic French feel. Paul Miller’s has dusted off Rattigan’s classic and his exuberant revival triumphs largely because of the extraordinarily talented, mostly young company that he has assembled. The characterisations and comic timing are faultless. Alex Bhat is the arrogant and conceited Alan, reluctantly following Daddy into the Diplomatic Corps; Joe Eyre is the gullible Kit, oblivious to the adoring looks of the besotted Jacqueline; Tom Hanson is the grounded Brian, who is utterly hopeless at French; and William Belchambers is Bill, a stuffy naval officer, coming late to the party. The “babe” of the group is Kenneth (Patrick McNamee), also aiming for the Foreign Office, and he brings along his big sister Diana, simply because she has nowhere else to go for the Summer. She in turn has nothing else to do but to lure men into her web and devour them without conscience. Genevieve Gaunt’s Diana is a voluptuous temptress to whom “love is subliminal sex”, contrasting completely with the demure and “nice” Jacqueline. The action over a two week period sees changing couplings and switching allegiances as the men fall under the spell of or repel Diana. A hilarious fancy dress ball sees Monsieur kilted as a Scotsman and Kit in a skirt; inevitably, it all comes to drunken fisticuffs. Diana hooks Kit and Bill, only to be thwarted by the contemptuous Alan. Anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy will recognise that the mutual loathing of Diana and Alan can mean only one thing. And so it goes, but the impeccable construction of scenes and the constant flow of witty dialogue mask the more obvious turns of the plot. Rattigan proves an astute observer of the rituals and posturing defining the English male of his era and the laughter of this audience almost 80 years on indicates that the traits put on display are still recognisable. With Alan being an aspiring writer, there may be much of the playwright himself in the character, but, given what we now know about Rattigan’s life, it is the wistful looks of Kenneth as he yearns for the attention of Alan that give this production its most poignant moments. Miller’s supremely well judged and brilliantly acted production fizzes from the start and then bubbles over to yield what is quite possibly the funniest final Act to be seen anywhere this year. All that is left to be said is “Vive l’Oranger!”

Performance date: 13 October 2015

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Romance, Romance*** (Landor Theatre)

Posted: October 13, 2015 in Theatre

IMG_4719This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

“Guess what’s all the rage again, taking centre stage again” we are asked at the beginning of both acts of this musical revival. The answer in each case is, of course, “romance”. This is a show of two distinct halves and we must assume that both have been given the same one-word title. The Landor has earned a reputation for making big shows work in its small space, but there is no high-kicking chorus line this time. Although Romance, Romance has had runs both on Broadway and in the West End. it is very much a chamber musical for just four performers and it can work as well, if not better, here as anywhere else. The only exception is that Keith Herrmann’s score may lose some of its melodic quality in the scaled-down orchestrations for a band of four musicians. Act I is set in 19th Century Vienna, where Alfred (Lewis Asquith), a very rich and very single young man is fed up with women who are interested in him just for his money. He sheds his top hat and tails to dress down and pretend to be a penniless poet. He meets Josefine (Emily Lynne), a courtesan who is tired of rich men and wants a handsome one. She also lies about her past and they embark on an affair, each expressing a facetious and cynical view of romance, each using the other for their own ends and regarding them as eventually disposable. It is fast forward a century or so for Act II and to the holiday home that has been shared for many years by two New York couples. Sam (Asquith) is married happily to Barb (Sinéad Wall) and Lenny (Tom Elliot Reade) is married happily to Monica (Lynne). The complication is that Sam and Monica are best friends and, coaxed by a few too many glasses of wine, they begin to question whether their friendship is really as platonic as each has supposed, while their spouses watch on fearing the worst. Now the view of romance is something that sweeps us away when our defences are low, but a force that will pass by quickly. Both Acts are wafer-thin, but Barry Harman’s book and lyrics are peppered with wit. Herrmann’s catchy tunes may not be too memorable, but they suit the moods of the show and four strong performances, under the experienced direction of Robert McWhir serve the production well. Asquith and Lynne carry large chunks of the show and their likability and their skill in effecting transitions between very different characters in each half make a big contribution. While assuring us that “passion is back in fashion”, this frivolous little show sends out only messages that would not have pleased St Valentine. Sadly, it seems that romance is no more than just a diversion from the reality of life, a mere illusion.

Performance date: 12 October 2015

Photograph: Sofi Berenger

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