Theatre Review – Turcaret

Theatre Review TFTV presents Turcaret by Alain-René Lesage
Translation by John Norman, directed by Alex Urquhart, Amy Noriko Ward and Sam Duffy

Swooning & swindling is the name of the game in Lesage’s critical eighteenth-century class farce. Oafish, dissolute financier Turcaret (Nick Newman) lavishes his affections on the coquettish Baronne (Annabel Redgate), who coyly berates him for his flood of gifts before happily bestowing them upon her own lover, the knavish Chevalier (George Doughty), who of course is also in it for the goods alone. But the goods don’t stop there; this is a game of pass the parcel that, of course, the help will ultimately win.

As carefully noted by the trio of directors, the downfall of the rich and the triumph of the subjugated is a tale we will always have time for, though the script does undo itself slightly in its own dripping working-class snobbery. The language remains rooted in the pas, while the action is framed with modern costume and a fresh, angular set. The jury is out on the sensibilities.

Newman is fantastic in the titular role, playfully saluting both Turcaret’s innuendos and more tender moments of genuine expression. Chris Casbon plays a snake-like, scheming Frontin, confiding in the audience with soliloquies to send up the frivolity of the upper echelons that he is ripping off. Harry Elletson gives excellent performances both as the ruthless Rafle and the deceptive Furet, though the real star of the show is Samantha Finlay, whose delightfully sarcastic Marine serves as a mere hors d’oeuvre to her superb Comtesse, who delivers the physicality of a saturated weeble and the comic timing of a grenade.

The other female roles are slightly thankless, as straight-women confined to either plain exposition or sardonic remarks and eye-rolling, though Redgate plays her part with wry grace, and Kat Spencer’s Lisette is enjoyable to watch as an outsider with the advantage of a moment to smell the roses and consider her true emotional response to the situation.

Casbon delivers the final twists with urgency and aplomb, and you can’t help but applaud his duplicitous heist.

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The Siren Call of The Grotesque

My acting ambitions have changed somewhat since I first set my sights on treading the boards. Since I was young I have admired the graceful, feminine icons of the silver screen: Audrey Hepburn, Tippi Hedren ,Grace Kelly. The flawless, fashionable glamour was the height of sophistication; if I could pull off that aura, if I could be eloquent and graceful through anything, I would be untouchable.

Since then I’ve read a few plays. I’ve heard stories about characters that are damaged, desperate, marginalised, fascinating. I’ve acquired a taste for the grotesque.

One of my university lecturers, Harold, who passed away a couple of years ago, introduced me to Jean Genet. He impressed upon us the essence of Genet. The homeless man in town with a bleeding head. The pair of old women who always walked side by side wearing identical clothes.

I began searching for a kind of tragic truth in everything I read and wrote. Detail, pain, wildness.

Around the time of his death, I got the opportunity to act in my first Genet production; The Maids. A friend of mine runs a theatre company and shares a Harold-inspired love for Genet’s works, and we found ourselves very much on the same page. Our maids were feral women in lapdogs’ clothing. They were wild, hurt, angry, fired.

Perhaps there’s something of my old ambitions living in the hearts of Claire and Solange. The desire to be glamorous, fashionable, loved, untouchable. Despite their hatred of the bourgeoisie, while they’re chewing it up, they suck up all the juice. Why not take for yourself the best of both worlds?

Claire and Solange are ugly, twisted, animalistic rebels whose pain and frustrations might just resonate a little loudly with the public of today.

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Photograph courtesy of www.hedgepigtheatre.com

Theatre Review: Pericles, Prince of Tyre by York Shakespeare Company

21st April 2016, Upstage, York

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York Shakespeare Project go from strength to strength in celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with their 29th play, this truly heart-warming rendition of one of the bard’s lesser (co-written) plays. The digressive text has been abridged to a lean 90 minute run time and a cast of 9. The immersive, welcoming production serves almost as a layman’s summary version; refreshing and not at all heathen.

We enter The Gower Pub; a wholesome, earthy eighteenth-century seaside ale house full of merry regulars who come together to stage a play within a play, embracing each other and the audience with the utmost feeling of inclusion and nurturing. Watching the show feels rather like making a new group of friends and taking part in an improvisation workshop with them. Musical Director John Robin Morgan has arranged a rousing playlist of a capella sea shanties performed as punctuation between chapters by the cast and crew, all in period costume and milling about the encroached traverse stage with supportive smiles.

The play is truly moving, and hinges on the tight family trio of Pericles, (Andrew Isherwood), Thaisa (Claire Morley) and Marina (Emily Thane). Isherwood is gentle, genuine and natural, elevating an ambling character to a heartfelt hero, whose later despair is utterly palpable. Morley is in turn charmingly coy and vulnerable as a young Thaisa, and later lurching and threatening as the Bawd. The meet-cute between Isherwood and Morley is on a par with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Rory Oliver and Jimmy Johnson stand out in charismatic, tender performances, each in multiple roles, and George Stagnell gives a solid performance as the wise Helicanus.

Thane is the sweetheart of the production. Her measured, graceful performance of the straight-woman whose appearance, following the loss of her mother, marks the turn of a light-hearted adventure story into a darker, more painful tale, is what really makes the show soar. While the ensemble have perfect comedic synchronicity, Thane carries the most transcendent lines and notes beautifully, not to mention multiple convincing fight scenes. The reunion of Marina and Pericles is desperately sincere, the audience sharing their acutely hopeful anticipation. If it was professional to cry and review, I’d have been sobbing. This is a beguiling show, well worth seeing.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is showing at Upstage Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York at 7:30pm nightly and at 2:30pm on Saturday until 23rd April. Tickets are available at: https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/pericles_prince_of_tyre.php#.VvMVzOKLTIU

TV Review: ‘Homeland’ Season 1

Homeland is a series that will consume your every spare hour, and do not let that put you off. With the fourth season coming up in a few weeks and the first two now being available on Netflix, I decided to give this political thriller series a go. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Claire Danes in anything new, and I’m a fan of hers, and I hadn’t seen much of Damian Lewis before but really enjoyed him in the Much Ado About Nothing adaptation from the BBC series ShakespeaRe-Told in 2005. Watching the National Theatre’s live broadcast of Medea (well worth a watch, by the way) recently put me in mind of him, given his link with Helen McCrory, and so I was reminded that I had some homework to catch up on.

Image from artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com

Image from artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com

If you haven’t seen any Homeland, you’re missing out. It’s an addictive drama following intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Danes) through her investigation into a returning P.O.W. marine (Lewis). The story is fairly simple; our protagonist is the only person who’s joined the dots the way she has, and everyone around her sees two and two making five, while to the audience it’s painfully obvious that we are working with four. Her voice within the C.I.A. is clearly a respected authority up to a point; convenient negations include (if you’re looking for it) womanhood and all its inextricable vulnerability, a Big Mistake somewhere in her working past, and a constricting mental illness that rears its ugly head as the series goes on. While the tropes are as frustrating as they are designed to be, the story is incredibly well-paced, making for compelling viewing. There are some predictable turns – no one really believes America’s most important bits are going to be ended in season one, do they? And there are reasons to be on edge about the acting before you’ve seen it – any actor attempting to live in a character for a whole series with an accent that isn’t their own is in danger of being too distracted by their vocal task to do a good job of convincing us of who they are. A white, red-haired, British actor who is so perfectly suited to the camp role of Benedick for instance, is now playing an almost thuggish, passive-aggressive, scarily unpredictable soldier with controversial motives. Throughout the series I felt incredibly uneasy around Sergeant Nicholas Brody, and I thought it might be for these reasons alone. But having finished the season and left it alone for a few days I’m now inclined to think that Lewis is pretty damn good, and that the awkwardness is simply down to how detestable and threatening his character is, albeit one you can somehow empathise with. After all, a surprising development in Mathison’s relationship with him that I initially declared unbelievable does seem to have struck a chord with me, on reflection. And, like Mathison, whatever I think of him, I’m hooked on watching him. I like to think the team would be pretty pleased with that kind of response.

Image from popgoesthearts.blogspot.com

Image from popgoesthearts.blogspot.com

Danes has a much clearer run at delivering an impressive character profile, with so many – successfully achieved – opportunities for really spreading her legs as an actor. I won’t go into any more detail there, it’s not needed. Her character and her acting are both really worth your time.

Many Patinkin (The Princess Bride) serves as a father-figure to Mathison and is as good as always. Her boss (David Harewood) is sadly completely uninteresting, but then, so are real people, sometimes. It just adds an unwanted layer to the frustration factor because we’ve heard so many stories these days that obstinately unquestioning and apathetic characters like these seem like an unnecessary detour from the real story being revealed; almost a cheat to get out of having to execute the impressive climax that the beginning really sets us up for here. But hey, what do I know, the pacing really worked and by the climax of series one I was practically panting, so maybe that stuff is an inextricable value of good storytelling.

I do feel a tad uncomfortable with some of the portrayal of bipolar disorder. I don’t know the illness very well, but the action didn’t seem completely compatible with what facts I have been taught, so they’re possibly taking a damaging step backwards in the minds of mental health awareness experts. But they’re not the first, and they seemed to have an amount of research and good intentions in there somewhere.

The production values are typically smooth for the high quality TV we’re used to in 2014; it’s a solidly attractive show. The sets and people look good, and the jazz-addled soundtrack – written and performed originally, I believe, by Sean Callery – is hauntingly unsettling and alien yet fitting, setting the tone for Mathison’s internal struggle perfectly.

I think what keeps me watching is mainly the actors – every one is compelling, and they’re allowed to be by the editing team, which is actually quite rare. I’m looking forward to delving into this story again. I’ll meet you at season four.

Season 1 trailer

Theatre Review: The Envelope Project

The Envelope Project

Friday 18 – Saturday 19 July 2014, Friargate Theatre, York

Image from ridinglights.org/envelope/

Image from ridinglights.org/envelope/

“THE ENVELOPE PROJECT is a writing project run by Script Yorkshire (York Branch) in which five writers were encouraged to take a step away from their own imagination by developing new one-act plays from anonymous stimulus material contained within an envelope. A picture, a place, a line of dialogue, a piece of music, a random object – these were the items that each writer found in the envelope they took away from that first meeting, and would provide the starting point for the script they would write and develop over the coming months.”

GOOD GRIEF – written by Richard Kay, directed by Ruby Clarke, starring Claire Morley and James Martin

Ruby Clarke’s short play had a tough role to fulfill in being first on stage – the crowd-warmer. Obviously, event organiser and writer Rebecca Thomson knew what she was doing, in starting and ending the evening with very strong pieces. Clarke’s voice is a thoughtful, compassionate one. Good Grief gave us an insightful glimpse into a relationship in different periods of its evolution, imposing on a pair of young lovers a weight that many carry and many succumb to – cancer. The short piece takes an inspired turn in the way the characters choose to deal with the illness. It’s a messy situation involving family, genetics, loyalty, perception, acceptance and the burden of taking responsibility for your choices without knowing if they will turn out to be the right ones. Perhaps the pair will never know if they were meant to be together, or whether cancer would have taken definitive hold of one or both of them. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The story explored a situation I haven’t seen before, which is quite something to be said of new writing from our generation. It was considered, touching and empowered, and had an inspiring female voice at its helm. Points of contention for me were the difficulty in performing such a naturalistic script; it is never easy to fake laughter or physical intimacy, and I felt that it should have been the director’s decision to adapt these moments slightly to steer the play away from those inevitably awkward moments. These and the moment when the boyfriend’s mother started to sing felt rather ungreased and jarring, though with some work, I’m sure would enhance the story in the way Clarke hoped. The actors were all very likeable, though seemed much younger than their sentiments and language suggested. However, this did not detract from the emotional impact of the piece.

A SPORTING AFFAIR   – written by Alice Mapplebeck, directed by Rochelle Reynolds, starring Elizabeth Cooke and Thomas Cocker

Another incredibly likeable trio of actors, this time with a slightly more fractured script – I believe this was an early work for Alice Mapplebeck as a stage writer being performed in York, and the piece shows traits that a lot of emerging writers display. For example, there is quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing that doesn’t seem to advance the story; characters keep disappearing into different rooms on various unelaborated errands, though it did add to the harmless charm of the characters that carried the piece. There was an odd sense of repetition of themes despite the very secular nature of the writing project behind the evening: a young pair of lovers going on holiday to the Lake District to save their relationship. No harm in this, of course – a York audience could easily relate. The relationship between the lovers here is somewhat inexplicable, given the disparity between their fundamental emotional needs. You find yourself half rooting for them though, if not as a pair then at least as individuals, and the brief touch of unflinching friendship between the sisters is really lovely. This was another piece that entertained me while setting off my imagination at the same time.

STONE – written by Helen Shay, directed by Marian Mantovani, starring Angie Shaw and Matt Simpson

I found this piece the black sheep of the bunch. Oddly endearing while being so alien to my own experience and encounters, this play had a sort of Jean Genet feel about it: in the hesitant, lilting relationship between the lovers, in the image of them dancing together in a tacky nightclub, in their shoulder-shrugging acceptance of life being something that just kind of happens to you. The writing was tough to work with; there were moments when characters ‘walked off’, staying just on the edge of the stage simply because they needed to hang about for the next bit of dialogue, and there were extended, meandering monologues. There was enough real stuff there, though. I still wanted to get close to these people, and to watch more of their elastic tie to each other. I can imagine a similar pair of characters making slightly less effort to be liked by the audience in a film by Mike Leigh.

NEVER HAVE I EVER– written by Rebecca Thomson, directed by Jan Kirk, starring Lucy Simpson and Alex Schofield & featuring Beryl Nairn

We’ve all played it. (Well, a lot of us have, especially those who have graduated from university or other periods of life in which drinking and parties are the unquestioned way of life.) The trap of our duo in Never Have I Ever in becoming something profoundly less in their adult life together than their adolescent souls promised before they came together is heartbreaking. Here, more convincingly than in Good Grief, the young actors conveyed a depth of character far beyond what one might expect from performers their age. The pair were captivating; Schofield chilling and Simpson so winningly vulnerable and honest that she invited protective instincts despite her clear wisdom. A bitterly sharp use of repetition of certain lines adds a poignancy to the dialogue, which earlier dances tentatively like the lovers. I saw in Becky Thomson’s touching and sadly relatable short play a snapshot of the naivety and disillusionment of intellectuals of our generation who are brought up to question and to hope, and later learn to live with the disappointment of the traditional kitchen sink drama that they have heard a hundred times and assumed they would avoid. A timeless story worth retelling in Thomson’s unique voice. I look forward to her next piece, as her writing is always thoughtful, structured and interesting, and tends to involve some clever and pleasing use of language.

S.O.S – written by Tom Straszewski, directed by Joe Steele, starring Ian Giles and Richard Easterbrook

The final piece of the evening was outstanding. By far the most accomplished of the evening, Straszewski and Steele pulled off a short play that superceded the accepted production values of community theatre. It should be said that they were onto a winner with their leading man. Ian Giles is a professional-standard actor who had the audience in the palm of his hand from the word ‘go’. His storytelling manner was simply superb, and he carried a thrilling, chilling story with nothing but a few wooden crates behind him. Refreshingly this story does not revolve around a couple, but it does evolve from the protagonist’s opening monologue to introduce Richard Easterbrook in the role of a retired seafarer, who claims the wonderful climax of the play. The sound design was clever, though perhaps under-used; it was a slight distraction to have the musicians sitting on stage, poised, so that we were always awaiting their next mischievous move. S.O.S. was exciting and inspiring, theatre at its best, and I couldn’t help but think just how lucky everyone was to be involved in it. Straszewski is a writer I would love to work with, and, failing that, I will be keeping a keen eye on his future works.

Overall, The Envelope Project was a fantastic showcase opportunity for all the artists involved, and a fantastic night’s entertainment and brain-and-soul-fodder. Here’s hoping for a 2015 revival.

Watch the trailer for The Envelope Project here

Read the blog here – hopefully we’ll see more appearing there one day.

Check out a gallery of production shots here on their Facebook page

Theatre Review: ‘Ernest and the Pale Moon’ by Les Enfants Terribles & Pins and Needles Productions

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Last night I went to see Ernest and the Pale Moon by Les Enfants Terribles & Pins and Needles Productions, at the Carriageworks in Leeds. Being a massive fan of both Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, and having heard a lot of praise for LET, I was excited.

It’s definitely worth catching. It had all the makings of stage craft at its best: a capella and exposed, hand-made soundscapes, resourceful use of set, props, bodies and voices, and a multi-skilled (multi-instrumental) ensemble cast. The aesthetic and sound design were particularly clever and effective. The cast play cello, harpsichord and xylophones, and create other sound effects in between and during stints of heightened character acting.

Ernest (Anthony Spargo) was outstanding; a captivating, disciplined performer with impeccable ensemble manner – checking in via eye contact with his fellow cast before embarking on synchronised sequences, helping bodies in the dark rise from the dead to continue with their next task, and attacking a plethora of folio tools as a backdrop for another’s monologue with the same commitment applied to his own speeches.

Sadly Spargo rather shone above the rest, who, though hardworking, didn’t quite get the chance to impress us in the same way. Perhaps a flaw in the script rather than flatness on their parts – they were clearly talented. The surreal, at-times-Berkoff-esque style chosen to tell their tale takes 100% commitment and gusto to pull off, and sadly this was only emanating from Ernest. Again, perhaps the only character with room for this to really soar, but the others were slightly flat and awkward in proximity to it.

The revisiting of scenes from different perspectives was exciting and satisfying – one chance we got to watch Spargo perform choreographed sequences repeatedly, with precision. The story was carefully unravelled, building bit by bit, preparing us perfectly for the unveiling of new scenes, including a truly chilling climax that did allow performer Rachel Dawson a moment in which she made your stomach heave with Ernest’s sickening, panicked guilt.

ernest-snap

It seemed, given the effective use of repetition in the rest of the show, that they’d had to make compromises for one performer who wasn’t quite up to scratch, which was a real shame. Maybe they joined rehearsals late? Maybe they just weren’t as convincing in carrying out what was actually meant to happen? I was inclined to see a comparative lack of professionalism, given a couple of mis-matches with the fellow cast, and even some real character-breaking flicking of hair out of eyes, during an isolated clockwork-people sequence.

These were tiny things really, but they show up like sore thumbs on stage, especially next to the other talent. I never felt quite safe in their hands, like one should when watching a show – this was a different feeling to the chills and thrills we obviously should have been experiencing – the problem was that I couldn’t quite forget where I was and just enjoy the experience. Perhaps a problem with timing, too many slightly awkward pauses despite a habit of “quick, shout, pronounce!”-style narration, which forms a big part of my love-hate relationship with traditional theatre.

That being said, it was reassuring as a theatre-maker to know that even the most renowned companies don’t always quite hit the high notes, and there was more than enough there to make me want to follow Les Enfants Terribles and come back to see what inventive, imaginative visual feast they come up with next.

Also, the audience was pretty shockingly sparse, and that can really kill a performance that would otherwise be electrifying. An underestimated percentage of the success of a live performance lies in the buzz of a full room, and I do feel that we weren’t really doing our fair share.

For more information and a show trailer, visit the company’s website:
http://lesenfantsterribles.co.uk/shows/ernest-and-the-pale-moon/

Proximity

We have a crazy neighbour. And when I say crazy, I don’t mean he looks a bit weird and we imagine that all he does behind closed doors is knit ornamental dogs. I mean certified, bat-shit crazy. I mean: we never accidentally glance at his house as we walk past, we keep our voices down in the day as well as at night, we live in fear of his actions, kind of crazy. I feel that he is a story that should be told, because I genuinely worry for the future of anyone in his proximity.

Now, this psycho-killer-waiting-to-pop works in waves. He knows the rules. He knows full well the guidelines on warrants for arrest or prosecution, and, upsettingly, he plays just within those rules. He has been harassing us on and off since we moved in next door, and has now been quiet for a while. The other day, he came back into our lives. So, I did what anyone would do. I put on some calm music and tried to get into the head of a killer.

About half the literate world (at least, surely) must have written an angry letter in their time. I understand the urge behind this. I am there. So when The Neighbour’s letter came through our door in January, six weeks after we moved in and dropped him a ‘hello’ Christmas card, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the sentiments. Though unreasonable in both exaggerated perception of his personal rights – I am hitherto unaware of any one person’s claim to control over another’s freedom to express themselves via ‘female squeals and laughter’ (this highlighted as a particular crime in itself) – and the use of punctuation, I could fathom the kind of frustration and pent-up anger that lead to his letter coming into being, and coming into being in our hands. So far, only the vast lines of exclamation marks and the clearly-fury-induced typos (his vocabulary lead us to believe he was fairly intelligent – later disproved; perhaps he was just sitting on thesaurus.com for the duration of this pedantic fit) were the only really worrying red flags. Oh, apart from the mention of his past incarceration, and the scene he painted in no impressionistic form of his having “always had problems with the occupants of no. 3”. In my world, that rings alarm bells anyway, but to make out that it was no. 3’s fault was clearly ridiculous. You are the constant… you are the problem. You think he’d take the hint. No. The Neighbour is so impenetrably, immovably set in his paranoia, his obsessive games, that I am sure he will never see the light.

This idea weighs on me a bit; not least because we intend to stay in this house for the forseeable future. I have suffered at least all my adult life from this unbearably pseudo-intellectual kind of hubris; wanting to teach lessons everywhere I go. Exhibit A: Teabag stains on and around kitchen bin. Clean them up? No. Draw red chalk circles around each one and leave for guilty party to notice and feel embarrassed into action. Sometimes, this is satisfying, even if it doesn’t get results. Like a generous charity-giver, I feel I have done my bit. The world is now a better place, and I can sleep well knowing I have not neglected bad behaviour. Put in these terms, it sounds mortifyingly narcissistic and fascist even, but it centres around my unflinching desire to stick to what I believe in. Mainly good manners and avoiding waste.

The Neighbour will not be taught. He will not speak civilly, he will not listen or consider long enough to change his opinions, he will not branch out from this blinkered view of life that is stuck in his own house and yard, and relates only to everything outside that in a painfully negative connection with his own property. It must be tiring. The man has a red, raw face and a fat belly. He is front-heavy, surprisingly stocky on second glance, and always looks out of breath. He moves like a lumbering tortoise. Were they creepy and aggressively poisonous.

So, being at a stalemate of stolid grudges and behaviours, we play his game for a while. We turn off our shower fan – one of his main complaints – until we realise our bathroom is getting damp, and we could be liable to our landlord. We stop playing music (or anything loud) by 11pm sharp. We stop talking in our yard and tend to stay indoors. We even keep the cat inside more often to feed and sit, to avoid his power hose shenanigans (These being the most obvious and inexcusable of his calculated, sickening ‘retaliation’ against us and the world. When she’s left the garden, you can stop. You don’t need to hold it over the wall on her until she cowers into a gap she’s too big for between our two walls, and keep it there so she has no escape.) It makes me furious and sick in the pit of my stomach to recall everything he’s done. There is no hint of innocence about it, not a smack of any remorse or openness to letting old grudges go as long as we can all act peacefully and respectfully; just a cold, hard, indomitable mission to make us as miserable as he is.

And that is the nearest I can find to a reasoning of it all. Ex-navy, ex-alcoholic, now-stoner and completely holed-up agoraphobic sociophobe, he is caught in his own stale saga of dramatic arguments over nothing. And he refuses to do it alone. For someone claiming, “I just want to be left alone,” and requesting, “Do not attempt to contact me,” this man puts himself out there a foreboding amount. He insists on stalking the street up and down past our window regularly, just to stare through at us. He does the same in the alley behind our houses, staring up at our back windows. He even, on occasion, stalks calmly past the shop I used to work at, and that my housemate still does. The man is dangerous. He makes us uncomfortable in our home, at work, in the street, in our yard. He is wholly unpleasant and unrelenting. He is constantly on the verge of explosion; shouts and swears whenever he sees us or our cat, and actively seeks out confrontation, while apparently avoiding it, or at least keeping at a safe distance such as his bathroom window, when he wants to hurl some proper, loud, unmistakable abuse. And anyone who builds a rack to fill with electric drills, move up against an adjoining wall and leave on while they go out for hours, is a dedicated, certain psychopath.

I could write a book on The Neighbour, but I feel I’ve got out all I can, or need to, at this point. I know someone out there will relate to this or have worse stories. I just want it to be known now that this man has been noticed, and is worth preventing from becoming a killer, if he isn’t one already.