Fine theatre!

09 +00002014-08-18T19:42:25+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments

Skylight
I have a confession to make: On July 1st, I went to see Skylight, the play by David Hare that has been performing at Wyndham’s Theatre this summer, and have been meaning to write about it ever since!  Sic transit gloria aestatis!  It stars Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy – and in fact, apart from two short appearances by Matthew Beard as Nighy’s son Edward, they have the stage to themselves for the whole two-hour performance, which must require considerable stamina, especially as both play their characters with enormous energy and verve.

First performed in 1995, Skylight tells the story of an extra-marital affair between Tom Sergeant (Nighy) and Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) that draws to an abrupt close after Tom’s wife Alice finds out.  The termination is at Kyra’s insistence, not Alice’s; but reconciliation is made virtually impossible for Tom after Alice develops a terminal illness shortly afterwards.  He nurses her until she dies, an event taking place some time before the action of the play.  Kyra, who somewhat implausibly had not only been working for Tom’s business but also sharing his and Alice’s house, leaves precipitately, trains as a teacher and builds a new life for herself teaching deprived children in a run-down part of London.  Her flat, in another bleak London borough, is a long journey from the school where she works.  The action takes place just before Christmas.  The flat is cold and it is snowing.  Edward appears unexpectedly out of the blue to tell Kyra of his mother’s death.  He appears not to know why she ceased to live with his family.
Skylight set
A few hours after Edward’s departure, just after Kyra has taken a bath in an attempt to get warm, Tom shows up.  He gives more details about Alice’s death, but the real reason for his visit is to try to find out why Kyra abandoned him and perhaps – though he does not state this explicitly – to persuade her to return to him.  Kyra treats him warily and with irony, though a certain fondness begins to creep through.  At first, the audience is entirely on her side.  Tom comes across as a self-centred self-apologist who believes that his money can usually get him what he wants.  He is disparaging about Kyra’s job, her pupils, her lifestyle and her Spartan flat.  However, the genius of the play lies in the fact that the emphasis then gradually shifts to reveal Kyra’s shortcomings, as well as Tom’s.  This yo-yoing of sympathy for one or the other character happens more rapidly as the play goes on.  The conceits, the posturing, some element of lying or at least disregard for the truth and, through it all, the essential decency of both Kyra and Tom are exposed as the two actors deliver David Hare’s sparkling lines with convincing vehemence and wit.  The onlooker hopes against hope that they will revive their relationship.

Skylight is a miracle of good casting.  Kyra is older, more sophisticated and less waif-like than the Jenny of An Education, yet Mulligan’s performance shows something of the obstinate naiveté and acceptance of face values at odds with reality that she created in the earlier role.  Nighy’s depiction of Tom is unlike any other role that I have seen him play, though Tom’s wit, his irony, his rather louche outlook on life and the sense of melancholy vying with humour are all Nighy trademarks.  Throughout the whole performance, the actors create with consummate skill the presence of an invisible third character – Alice, for whom Tom made a skylight when she was lying in bed, too ill to look out of a conventional window.  Perhaps it is Alice who triumphs in the end.

When I attended the performance on July 1st, the theatre was packed.  I’m not sure if tickets are available for the remaining few performances before the play closes, but if you are able to get hold of one, snatch at the opportunity – plays of this calibre are rare indeed, even in the West End!

Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road

Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road

The Calder Valley, happy in its carefully-depicted ironies…

09 +00002014-06-04T20:29:38+00:0030 2012 § 10 Comments

Catherine Cawood

The last episode of the six-part television series Happy Valley was broadcast yesterday evening. I’ve sat, rapt, through every one of them.  I know it has received many plaudits in the national press, including a two-page article in The Times last week (which I haven’t read as I didn’t want it to colour my own effort in this post), but I so enjoyed it and was so moved by it that I’d like to add my two-penn’orth.

It’s one of the best TV series I’ve seen for a long time and, for me, certainly the best crime programme since The Bridge, but it is about much more than crime.  It is about a whole community and its ills (and successes) and also about the strengths and frailties of human nature and how some people manage to survive knock-backs and adversity in life, while others are completely corrupted or destroyed by them.  On top of this, it is by turns funny, ironical and topical; the dialogue sparkles and the drama is set in my adopted county of Yorkshire (actually in the Hebden Bridge valley, original home of Ted Hughes and close by the place where Sylvia Plath is buried).  What more could I want?

An early review I did read said that Sarah Lancashire, as Catherine Cawood, carries the whole thing ‘on her broad shoulders’.  Lancashire is superb – I’ll come back to her later – but I don’t think that this is a fair assessment.  James Norton gives a brilliantly disturbing performance as the psychopath Tommy Lee Royce – in last night’s closing scenes, especially, we saw the damaged and frightened character behind his dangerously unpredictable behaviour.   Siobhan Fineran is always delightful to watch: as Claire, Catherine’s originally wayward, then much stronger, sister, she uses her fine and subtle acting talent to feel her way tentatively to support Catherine as the latter suffers temporary moral disintegration following her beating by Royce.  Their roles are reversed, but not in too obvious a way – Catherine still comes back strongly sometimes, even when she appears to be at her weakest, and Claire’s new-found confidence is easily knocked.

Other memorable performances are given by Steve Pemberton, as Kevin Weatherill – he’s a  descendant of Uriah Heep, sycophantic, toadying, pusillanimous and with a heart full of envy and hatred, made the more repugnant by his whining self-justification – and Rhys Connor, who is impressively consistent in his portrayal of Ryan Cawood, the vulnerable but not likeable product of the rape of Catherine’s deceased daughter, Becky, by Royce.

But I have to agree that, even though it is not the only good performance, Sarah Lancashire’s is the greatest.  It must surely win an award.  When I look back on two of her recent performances, as the outwardly perfect, inwardly troubled Caroline in Last Tango in Halifax and this one as Catherine Cawood, I wonder where she has been all my (albeit very selective) viewing life.  She has enormous talent, as her creation of these two quite different roles proves.  Catherine is much more of a rough diamond than Caroline, yet at times the small town police sergeant looks poised and beautiful, at times as washed out, dull and haggard as a drug addict.  The moral dilemmas and dichotomies which lie at the heart of the story are almost all filtered through Catherine’s character in some way – her daughter’s rape and suicide, the birth of the unwanted Ryan, the murder of the young policewoman (Sophie Rundle), the kidnapping and rape of Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), also by Royce, which echoes his assault on Becky, Catherine’s son’s alienation and the break-up of her marriage following Becky’s death.

Most of these dilemmas are presented in a straightforward way until the last episode, when it is suggested that Becky brought at least some of her misfortunes on herself; that Kevin Weatherill would never have suggested the kidnapping if his boss Nevinson Gallagher (George Costigan) had been more generous when he requested a pay-rise; and that Catherine’s distress at the death of her daughter and subsequent belief that she was obliged to care for Ryan actually caused her to destroy what was left of her own family.  The viewer rejects some of these alternative scenarios (e.g., the Weatherill / Gallagher one) immediately; others leave a strong sense of the ambiguous nature of how best to love or to behave that cannot be resolved.

The author of Happy Valley is Sally Wainwright.  She also wrote Last Tango in Halifax.  She is to be congratulated on the subtlety, distinction and fine irony of her work and also for the golden author / actor relationship that she has established with Sarah Lancashire.  I hope that more extraordinary dramas will result from this exceptional partnership.

Time to move on…

09 +00002014-01-25T17:50:36+00:0031 2012 § 7 Comments

Engine
A film starring both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman is bound to be worth watching. I therefore decided that I wanted to see The Railway Man without having much idea about what it was about, such being the ‘pull’ of actors who have previously captivated me. I knew that it was neither a violent ‘adventure’ movie nor a romcom, and almost any other genre (except perhaps a Kung Fu feature) would have been OK with me. (Pause for deep sighs from film buffs!)
It was a pretty safe bet that I’d enjoy this film, but I was unprepared for how much I’d be moved by it. It tells the story of a man, Eric Lomax, damaged by his experiences as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese while working on the Burma railway and suffering what is these days called post-traumatic stress disorder. His surviving comrades and fellow captives, like him, now live in the same run-down seaside town in the North East and, also like him, are unable to move on. The focus of their lives is the shabby ex-servicemen’s club which they haunt daily.
So far, so good: the plot is well-constructed and the acting superlative, but there are few surprises. The film appears to follow faithfully in the footsteps of the many stories, both real and fictional, of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II and the permanent psychological damage that they inflicted on those who managed to survive captivity under their jurisdiction. As a child, I knew a number of war veterans who had also been prisoners-of-war. Those who had been captured by the Germans were fairly philosophical about what had befallen them; those who had been held by the Japanese were uniformly vitriolic about their captors and, by association, hated the whole Japanese race and all things Japanese. After the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ had burst upon the world in the 1970s, I had a colleague who would go to any lengths to avoid buying Japanese-made technology.
However, the rather stereotypical scene-setting of The Railway Man that I have described undergoes a sea-change when Colin Firth, now middle-aged, meets Nicole Kidman on a train and falls in love with her (in a rather charming parody, acknowledged in some of her lines, of Brief Encounter). It is only after they have married that she discovers that he still suffers violent nightmares – they are of almost hallucinogenic intensity – about his time on the railway and, particularly, the occasions on which he was brutally tortured; the waterboarding scene is horrifically realistic. From this point on, the film depicts his quest for the mental peace that he must seek in order to make his marriage whole and complete. The actions that he has to undertake to achieve this are drastic – they involve travelling back to the Burma railway twice – and the outcomes are surprising. Risk of spoiling prevents my revealing more, so I’ll just say that, fundamentally, The Railway Man is not so much about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military as about the nature of suffering and guilt, atonement and forgiveness. It is about the strength of the human spirit and the power of love.
There is one other comment that I’d like to add: it concerns the troubling nature of war crimes. Of course, I understand and appreciate why, in the aftermath of World War II, many prosecutions were brought for crimes against humanity. Although there is a grim irony in the concept that there should be ‘rules’ for warfare – and therefore that only some types of killing are acceptable, while torture is inadmissible under any circumstances (though even this basic tenet has been called into question in recent years) – as time goes on, the crucial difference between acts of violence ‘legitimately’ carried out under the rules of warfare and ‘atrocities’ seems to me to become ever more blurred. I’m not referring to the prosecution of those who took part in the death camps (this is a separate issue), but to the pursuit of men who were then very young, no doubt scared, soldiers, who were both acting under orders and caught up in the tumult of war. Most of these men are now nonagenarians or in their late eighties and their accusers likewise. Not only does it seem to me to be impossible to ascertain now exactly what happened then, but I also cannot comprehend how any useful purpose can be served by prosecuting these men seventy years on.
I’m thinking particularly of the man who has recently been arrested for his alleged part in the massacre that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. German soldiers, recalled to Germany towards the end of the war from their postings further south, shot all the men in this French village and then rounded up almost all of the women and children, herded them into the church and set it on fire. Only a handful escaped. I have twice visited the site of this atrocity: the first time was in the 1980s, when my husband and very young son and I stumbled upon it almost by accident as we took a break from a long drive to the Pyrenees. At that time, the village was still deserted, the shattered houses (all were blown up or burned down) and ruined church left exactly as they had been as a memorial to those who died. The rusting, abandoned 1940s vehicles and the many ancient Singer sewing machines set out on the walls told a particularly poignant story. My second visit was much more recent. By then, the place had been ‘sanitised’ and had turned into a tourist attraction. By this process, the horror and sadness of what had happened there had been softened.
Maybe this was a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘forget’ the war; I think that those ‘historians’ who try to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet by providing ‘evidence’ that it didn’t exist are mendacious exhibitionists at their best and evil propagandists at their worst. But I do question whether any good can come from the prosecution of a man who, seventy years ago, was eighteen years old and may or may not have been directly responsible for some of the civilian deaths at Oradour. Justice comes in many forms. In order to be whole, mankind has to reconcile itself with what happened in the past and carry on with life, knowing what happened and not forgetting it, but drawing a profounder truth from the reconciliation of the demands of memory and the present. This is the ultimate message of The Railway Man. It is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever seen.

Cheek to cheek with London at night…

09 +00002013-09-20T17:41:20+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments

Waterloo midnight's fine...

Waterloo midnight’s fine…

I’ve just been in London for three days.  It was mostly for the day job: I’m afraid the lazy days of August are now a distant dream.  Autumn, with its increased workload and vigorous round of conferences and exhibitions, has now kicked in with a vengeance.  The nights are also getting longer, of course, and on Wednesday evening there was a decided nip in the air. Nevertheless, I was having a wonderful time.  After five meetings with colleagues and friends (none of them arduous, it should be said, and all of them interesting), I rounded off the day in style by meeting my friend Sally, with whom, as I’ve mentioned before, I stay when I’m in London, and going to see Top Hat at the Aldwych.

Although I’ve seen many (probably too many!) amateur musical productions, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one in the West End before.  It was truly breathtaking.  Top Hat was made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for whom it was written, and first produced in 1935.  The Aldwych version is faithful to the original – I’m glad to say that it’s not a spiky modern take on what has always been intended to be a slice of sumptuous fantasia – and I’d guess, although I don’t know, probably even follows the same choreography.  The dancing was superb.  The lead roles were played by Kristen Beth Williams and Gavin Lee, and to my eye – although I daresay this will be considered sacrilege in some quarters – their dancing was every bit as fluid, graceful and amazing as Fred’s and Ginger’s (which I’ve seen on film).  The dancing by every member of the cast was of the same high standard.  The costumes were magnificent – Williams wore at least ten outfits on stage, each one more glamorous than the last – and the two-tiered set was extremely clever, a brilliant way of making the most out of what is in fact quite a small early twentieth century stage.

The theatre was packed, and not just with people of a certain age.  It set me wondering why  a musical with no ‘hidden message’, whose appeal resides in the extravagance of everything about it, from the virtuoso performances to the clothes and make-up, should be so popular.  I thought that it might be because we’re all fed up with so-called austerity, and seeking a break from it.  Spending the evening in a make-believe world where money is no object and everyone is talented and beautiful certainly did the trick for me.  I guess that this may be the reason why the original Top Hat went down such a storm, too.  The glamour and genius of Fred and Ginger were obviously powerless to dispel the dark shadows that were gathering over Europe in 1935, but they must have given their audiences a night off from thinking about them.

Understandably, the Aldwych doesn’t allow photographs to be taken during performances, so I hope that my words and your imagination will supply the deficit.  I have, however, included a photograph of another heart-stirrer, the view from Waterloo Bridge.  It was approaching midnight when I was walking over the bridge to catch the train back to Sally’s, so I managed to capture only a fraction of its magic.  It’s a place that never ceases to delight me when I’m there.  The sweeping views of the Thames, the elegant and floodlit buildings, the reflection of the lights on the water and the London Eye (which is larger and more substantial than the other Ferris wheels I’ve written about) always make me feel proud of our capital city.  London can be grey and dingy, mean and impoverished, just like all big cities, I suppose: but on Waterloo Bridge it twinkles and shimmers with the same aplomb and grace that the dancers showed in Top Hat.

This story never loses its allure…

09 +00002013-08-24T18:33:02+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments

Richard III and the Murder in the Tower

I’ve written before about my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III.  The whole nation’s awareness of this monarch and his deeds was triggered earlier this year by the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester.

As a result of both this and the television series The White Queen, based on several novels written about the Wars of the Roses by Philippa Gregory, I’m sure that both historical and fictional accounts of Richard’s reign must be achieving buoyant bookshop sales at present.  If so, it’s a bandwagon that I was happy to jump on myself when I visited Blackwell’s Broad Street last week, by buying a book that I’d not encountered before, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.

The topic, of course, is a familiar one.  This book, which was published in 2009, is yet another enquiry into the fate of the princes in the tower, Edward IV’s two sons Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York.  Unlike many of its predecessors, however, it is a scholarly and very balanced account which, whilst not attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question of who killed the two princes (and indeed whether they were killed), presents all the facts that are known about the events leading up to their disappearance and sets down the possibilities of what could have happened to them.

The author, Professor Peter Hancock, is an American academic, which may be the reason why he is able to tell his story with such dispassionate flair.  It’s a curious fact that most English people who are interested in this story become heated partisans of either Richard III or Henry VII; I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon applies to discussions about the next English civil war that was to take place in the middle of the seventeenth century, one that was arguably even more bloody and brutal than the dynastic fight to the death between the houses of York and Lancaster.  On some topics, English people have a reputation for showing undemonstrativeness to the point of being phlegmatic, but many are fiercely curious about their own past and correspondingly committed to allegiances to historical characters who may or may not have been supported by those of their ancestors who actually knew these people.  (From what I know of my own antecedents, for example, I’m pretty convinced that they were Cromwellians, not Royalists, though I should have preferred them to have been the latter.)

To return to Professor Hancock, he has painstakingly examined all the available documents relating to the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and, although he has not turned up much new material, his keen eye for detail and astute interpretation of the facts have resulted in some very plausible alternative accounts of what may have actually happened.  I won’t say what these are, for obvious reasons.  He also encourages readers to consider the actions of the protagonists from the point of view of their contemporaries and the mores that prevailed at the time, rather than through the filter of what we now consider to be acceptable civilised behaviour (though it should be added that struggles for power today are conducted with just the same naked savagery as they were in the Middle Ages).

If I have any quibbles, they are all minor ones.  Professor Hancock devotes a chapter to each of the key players, including Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore, except, inexplicably, Elizabeth Woodville, his queen.  I should have been fascinated to know what he makes of her role – my curiosity whetted further by Philippa Gregory’s fictional rendering of this enigmatic consort.  The text is also somewhat repetitive in places, perhaps because it was written over a long period of time, perhaps because the structural device of considering each of the main players makes repetition inevitable; if the latter, it is a small price to pay for the all-round appraisal that such an approach allows.  Finally, Professor Hancock has a few favourite words that grate on the ear.  The one that I dislike the most is ‘assumedly’, which he uses in the sense of ‘I assume that’.  However, I confess I prefer this to that other conjectural phrase so often cropping up in history books: ‘He [or she] must have …’

I finished reading this book on the same evening that the final (tenth) episode of The White Queen was televised.  I’d enjoyed the serial up to that point, but was dismayed by the ham acting and poor fight choreography that characterised its conclusion.  From the melodramatic deaths of Edward of Middleham and Anne Neville at the beginning to the risibly shabby reconstruction of the Battle of Bosworth that was meant to be its climax (it appeared to be carried out by half a dozen extras having a mock skirmish in a wood on a Sunday afternoon), for the entire hour this dramatisation teetered perilously on the brink of farce.  Professor Hancock’s book, which I picked up again after it was over, provided a refreshing contrast.  I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by Richard III and the fate of his nephews.

Something that I look forward to…

09 +00002013-05-28T19:34:41+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments

Crimewatch

It’s just occurred to me that it’s been a long time since the last Crimewatch programme, so I’ve looked it up on the BBC website and discovered that the next episode will be on Thursday.  Something to look forward to later in the week!  For visitors from overseas, this appeal programme features real unsolved crimes and asks for help from the public to pinpoint the perpetrators.

I’ve been a Crimewatch fan almost since it began.  In the early days, I was attending quite a demanding evening class and would rush home afterwards to see it.  I always missed the first twenty minutes or so, which made the remainder of the programme all the more enjoyable.  I don’t like the glitzier image of recent years as much as the more straightforward regime presided over by Nick Ross, but I still hate to miss it.  This week’s episode is on the rise of mobile phone thefts, apparently, which doesn’t sound riveting… but we shall see!

I haven’t often been bored by Crimewatch, but I do favour some of the regular sections over others.  I like the rogues’ gallery, because it’s fun to speculate and put the face to the crime – though I realise that such games are purely subjective, for one thing, and, for another, fail to take into account the fact that police mugshots, like passport photographs, are bound to look sinister, because the subject is forbidden to smile.  I’m always absorbed by the reconstructions, which tend to feature murder or rape.  Sometimes I wish I could call out to the victims, tell them not to take that shortcut or forget to lock their door.  Clips that I like least tend to feature CCTV footage of mindless violence – although I know that it is right to highlight this – or what can perhaps be best described as a dark sister of the Antiques Roadshow: the parade of artefacts discovered by police to be in the possession of criminals who can’t or won’t say how they came by them.  I know at first hand that theft is a foul crime: my house has been burgled twice and I’ve also (as you may have read here) had my purse stolen.  But somehow this collection of inanimate objects doesn’t engage the attention in the same way.  Clips that show those bereft of treasured items and asking for their return are a different matter; I can empathise with the victims completely.

Best of all, though, are the retrospectives.  Sometimes a whole programme is devoted to these.  If this programme is additional to the season’s schedule, that’s a bonus.  What’s so fascinating about the retrospectives is the way in which they provide step-by-step documentation of how the villains in a previously featured case have been caught.  (Understandably, crimes which Crimewatch itself has helped to solve are most frequently chosen.)  I’m not a police procedural writer, as my readers know, although this is a very palatable way of finding out how the police operate, but it’s the insight into the criminal mind offered by the retrospectives that really grabs me.  Sometimes the perpetrator has shown such Machiavellian cunning that I’m full of admiration for the police in outwitting him or her; sometimes s/he seems to have behaved in such a stupid or reckless way that it’s surprising that they weren’t apprehended immediately.

If you have access to British TV (I know that this doesn’t apply to everyone who will read this) and you haven’t seen Crimewatch before, I invite you to join me on Thursday evening, 30th May, BBC1 at 9 p.m.  If you are already a fan, I look forward to keeping you company!  Perhaps we can compare notes afterwards.

Once in a while, a film for relaxation…

09 +00002013-02-19T16:31:46+00:0028 2012 § Leave a comment

The Black Dahlia

Early yesterday evening I had just completed a demanding report (day-job) and was nursing a cold.  On both counts, I decided that I deserved an evening’s ‘ligging about’ (wonderful expression – I hadn’t heard it until I came to live in the north of England, though I understand it is now widely used), taking advantage of a small hoard of DVDs that my son left on his last visit, and selected The Black Dahlia (released in 2006), one of several film versions of one of several books which speculate about the horrifically brutal real-life murder (still unsolved) of an American woman, Elizabeth Short, a would-be movie star, in Los Angeles in 1947.

What an extraordinary film!  As I write, I still don’t really know what it is trying, in film terms, to convey.  It is based on the novel by James Ellroy and starts off Bonnie-and-Clyde style, a period piece set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s about police and gangsters.  Scarlett Johansson, starring as a gangster’s moll turned cop’s wife, at first seems to occupy a Faye Dunaway-like role, but, as her policeman husband becomes more and more obsessed and demented, she makes a set for his partner and friend, Bucky Bleichert (yet, counter to expectation, not much is made of this as a love triangle).  As it progresses, the story and the director’s handling of it becomes more surreal.  By the end of the first hour, the film is definitely no longer mainstream; it verges on film noir.  As this happens, the sets change from the naturalism of the first few scenes to much more painted, synthetic creations that look as if they belong to theatre rather than film (an earlier use of a device recently made famous in Anna Karenina).  I thought that this was brilliantly done – it seemed to me to represent an exploration of the artificial and corrupt world into which the young victim had been lured.  This was reinforced by some extremely creepy excerpts from the screen tests that she made before her death.  However, the last quarter of an hour or so takes this artificiality a stage further and, to me, the story seems to tip into farce at this point.  I won’t spoil it by saying who committed the murder, but this character is one-dimensionally grotesque in a way that inspires smiles rather than horror.

On the whole, I liked the earlier scenes the best; for example, the prize-fight at the beginning is horrifically gory, but extremely well done.  And, as often with period films set in the twentieth century, I admired the costumes.   Scarlett Johansson’s outfits capture all the glamour of the couture of the period but none of its frumpiness; the costume director has managed to tweak their authenticity ever so slightly so that they still appear attractive to modern eyes… even when streaked with blood.

The evening passed quite pleasantly and I was sufficiently distracted to forget work and cold.

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