Edinburgh Fringe 2018

I’ve just had my annual visit up to Edinburgh to see some of the Fringe. I was going to write about every show I’d seen, but I managed to fit 22 shows in (plus an exhibition) and the idea of writing about them all seems pretty exhausting. So, here’s my tips if you’re heading up to Edinburgh during August:

Jerry Sadowitz – Making Comedy GRATE Again

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I’d never seen Jerry Sadowitz before, even though he’s quietly become something of a legend in comedy circles. His reputation as an incredibly bitter, offensive misanthropist goes before him, and it only takes about two minutes to realise that it’s a reputation that’s well deserved. There’s something here to offend absolutely everyone, and the room is pretty divided between being helpless with laughter and sharply drawing in breath. None of the jokes are repeatable (not only because of the constant swearing but also because most of them are libellous) but it’s impossible not to be swept along in this hour of misanthropy. When he’s not libelling all and sundry, he’s performing some card tricks which are genuinely astonishing. I’d hesitate to recommend Sadowitz as he’s pretty much comedy Marmite, but it’s certainly an experience.

Daniel Kitson – Good for Glue

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Anyone who knows me knows I’m a massive Kitson fan, I’ve been lucky enough to see him three or four times a year over the last fifteen years – tickets for his run at The Stand are like gold-dust, but if you get there an hour before the doors open, you may get some last minute returns. Good For Glue is billed as one of his ‘stand-up’ shows, but it’s basically Kitson on stage for nearly 2 hours and going off on various tangents. And, as usually, it’s brilliantly exhilarating – at one point, I was clutched double, doing a weird snort laugh, which wasn’t my most attractive look.

Jessie Cave – Sunrise

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I’d never seen Jessie Cave before but heard good things so was keen to catch her third Edinburgh show. This is more of a monologue than a stand-up set, with Cave talking about trying to move on from the break-up of her relationship with fellow comedian Alfie Brown. It’s honest (sometimes uncomfortably so), funny, sad and poignant, and little touches like creating cushions embroided with the faces of her old and new boyfriend, and conducting imaginary conversations between them. This all may seem too kooky and twee, but the performance I saw was almost ridiculous emotional. Towards the end, it all seemed to get too much for her, and she burst into tears before running off stage – which seemed to put half the audience in tears as well. It was genuinely one of the most emotional and startling moments I’ve been witness to. And to make things all rather too weird, we came out of the venue to see Alfie Brown waiting for her with their two kids. This is one of my tips for the Comedy Award which is announced at the end of the Fringe.

Island Town/Sticks And Stones

 

I’ve put these two together, as they’re both at the same venue (Summerhall’s lovely if very warm Roundabout theatre), feature the same three-strong cast and are both directed by Stef O’Driscoll. The subject matter is very different though – Vinay Patel’s Sticks And Stones concerns a woman who unwittingly says an offensive word (we never find out what the word is) and the consequences that follow. Island Town, by Simon Longman, meanwhile is about a group of three friends trying to escape their small town. Of the two, I’d say Island Town has the more emotional impact, but Sticks And Stones is clever without being preachy and both productions are brought to life by the three fantastic actors. As the excellent Paines Plough is behind both of these plays, hopefully we’ll see them both touring over the next few months.

Fin Taylor – When Harassy Met Sally

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We probably don’t need another straight white male’s take on the #MeToo movement and gender politics, but if we do, then let it be Fin Taylor who provides it. Taylor’s stand up is clever and funny, even if you don’t always agree with what he says (for example, his thoughts on Louis CK). But it’s delivered in such a thoughtful and frequently hilarious way that I found it to be one of the highlights of my Fringe.

AAA Stand Up Late

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One of the joys of Edinburgh is going to a late-night stand-up show, with a couple of comedians performing their sets and a compere holding the show together. AAA Stand Up Late is on every night at Pleasance Courtyard, presented by Paul Savage and this year featuring Saskia Preston and George Zach. Of the two, Zach is the more crowd-pleasing, his tales of a Greek immigrant settling in Newcastle getting a lot of laughs. Preston is funny too, in a slightly other-wordly way, while Paul Savage is an excellent compere, interacting well with the audience and keeping the evening moving at a rapid pace. If you find yourself at a loose end in the Courtyard and don’t want an early night, AAA Stand Up is an excellent alternative to bed.

The Greatest Play In The History Of The World

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Julie Hesmondhalgh has left Hayley from Coronation Street far behind her these days, and this monologue (written by her husband, Ian Kershaw) only underlines her talent. It’s a tale of true love and time travel (not to spoil things too much) and is funny and enchanting, mostly thanks to Hesmondhalgh’s understated and charming stage presence. At times, it’s reminsicent of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling pieces, and while the little twist at the end is signposted if you look for it, it all comes together beautifully.

Rip It Up – The Story of Scottish Pop Music

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Not actually part of the Fringe, but still well worth catching if you have any interest in music. This exhibition at the National Museum Of Scotland details, as the name suggests, the history of Scottish pop music from the 1950s with names like Lonnie Donegan and Lulu, right up to the present day of Young Fathers and Belle & Sebastian.

Almost every Scottish act you can imagine is  represented here, and there’s items such as Annie Lennox’s suit, Jack Bruce’s bass guitar and two giant robots that danced onstage during Franz Ferdinand’s set. There’s also an impressively huge mixing desk from the Chemikal Underground label and momentos from the careers of the likes of The Proclaimers, Texas, Deacon Blue, Hue & Cry and Frightened Rabbit. A good alternative if you need to shelter from the rain which suddenly appears in Edinburgh!

Also recommended: Paul Sinha, Lucy Porter, Bethany Black, Richard Wright, Lauren Pattison, Laura Davis

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Tramlines at 10 years old

Sheffield’s ‘inner city music festival’ is 10 years old this year. What started as a relatively small affair on the city’s Devonshire Green has slowly grown in size. The initial idea was for it to be like the now discontinued Camden Crawl in London, where festival goers could travel from venue to pub to bar seeing a weekend’s worth of bands.

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A couple of years ago, the main stage was moved to The Ponderosa, just outside the city centre, and now it’s moved even further away from the city, in Hillsborough Park. The city centre presence is still there (under the title Tramlines Free Fringe), but the move to Hillsborough has enabled Tramlines to feel more like a ‘proper’ festival than in years gone by.

I only went to the Saturday of Tramlines, but after being a skeptic over the move to Hillsborough, I was completely won over. The site is, frankly, perfect – compact enough to walk around, with stages set far apart to stop any sound leakage. The area in front of the Main Stage is absolutely huge, and you’re guaranteed a decent view even if you’re perched near the back. There are also two other stages – The Leadmill Stage and T’Other Stage – covered by a giant tent, while a smaller stage (The Library Stage) is situated right by the main entrance of the West Gate.

Also, the atmosphere was excellent – I’ve always found Tramlines in the past to be a bit gruelling, with thousands of people crammed into the city centre, fuelled by alcohol. Although I’ve never seen any trouble, you always felt that it could start at any moment. This year, it was much better, far more family friendly (I think this may have been many children’s first ever festival), and the general atmosphere was friendly and happy.

The first act I saw was Self-Esteem at The Library Stage – this is Rebecca Taylor (from Slow Club)’s solo project. Now anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Slow Club fan, and I was intrigued to see how Taylor’s solo songs would differ from her (former?) band. Happily, she sounds like a woman reborn – the Self-Esteem material is very different from Slow Club, but just as accessible and addictive. It’s electronic pop, with a slightly wonky edge, and the influence of Taylor’s collaborators Django Django can be heard loud and clear. Taylor has obviously worked hard on the visual side of things as well – all band members dressed in identical t-shirts proclaiming (ahem) “squirt isn’t pee”, and songs like Your Wife and Wrestling were accompanied by some impressive synchronised dance moves. I’m just desperate to hear the album now (as, incidentally, was the little girl dancing down the front who looked like she was having the time of her life).

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After Self-Esteem, I took a walk around the site, before watching the last couple of songs from The Everly Pregnant Brothers on the Main Stage. This eight-strong ukulele band have pretty much become local heroes in the last few years, but I have to admit I don’t really ‘get’ them. They cover well-known songs like Kings of Leon’s Sex On Fire, but replace the lyrics with comedy references to Sheffield culture (i.e. No Woman No Cry is reborn as No Oven No Pie, with plenty of references to Hendo’s). Not my bag particularly, but they were going wild at the front, so they must be doing something right. Plus, the man of the moment, Sheffield’s new Lord Mayor Magic Magid made a crowd-pleasing appearance on stage.

Then it was over to T’Other Stage – I caught some of Norfolk soul singer Mullally who didn’t make too much of an impression, and he soon made way for Fickle Friends, who won the day for best stage set-up: a huge banner with their name on, plus an impossible amount of plans and foilage. Fickle Friends created a fantastic atmosphere, with the entire tent bopping up and down to tracks like Hard To Be Myself and Swim.

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Back over at The Library Stage, York’s King No-One were marking themselves out as stars of the future by whipping up their young fans into a frenzy with their sleek indie-pop songs like Alcatraz. They were quickly followed by Scottish duo Honeyblood, who were one of the highlights of the day. There’s only two of them, but they create an almighty racket – old songs like Killer Rat still pack a punch, while more recent tracks like last year’s Babes Never Die already sound like classics. The only surprise is that they weren’t playing a bigger stage.

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As the sun started to draw in, Rae Morris closed out the Library Stage, but I wanted to get a decent spot to see Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Gallagher is probably the most high-profile headliner that Tramlines have attracted yet, and his booking felt like a bit of a statement of intent.

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The sound quality on the Main Stage for Noel wasn’t great – it was a bit quiet, which is understandable in a residential area, but a bit of extra volume would have worked a treat. It was a set heavy on highlights from the most recent High Flying Birds album – tracks like Holy Mountain and It’s A Beautiful World were greeted like old friends, but it was clear what the Tramlines crowd were really waiting for.

“You like Oasis, right? OK, this is going to go well”, before launching into Little By Little. There was also the always welcome Half The World Away, before the inevitable raucous reaction to Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger. Those songs have become as familar as wallpaper in an old house, but it’s impossible to deny the power of thousands of people bellowing along with them (the crowd even forgave Noel for baiting them with “the only good thing that’s come out of Yorkshire is the teabags and you know it”….well, if you will boo the very mention of Manchester…).

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With a final cover version of All You Need Is Love by The Beatles (you may not have heard, but Noel really likes The Beatles) closing the evening, it was time to beat the queue for the buses and take my leave.  Tramlines 2018, against all the odds, proved to be a huge success.

 

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Sheffield Theatres round-up

The last month has seen 3 excellent productions at Sheffield Theatres, which I’ve reviewed for The Stage and Exeunt.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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Revival of Dale Wassermann’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s famous novel – never quite manages to shake off comparasions to the classic film, but stands up well in its own right.

Full review can be found at Exeunt: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/review-one-flew-cuckoos-nest-crucible-sheffield/

On Behalf Of The People

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Ray Castleton (who co-wrote the excellent Chicken Soup that was at the Crucible back in February) wrote this initimate 4-hander set in a mining village in South Yorkshire after World War II.

Full review over at The Stage’s website: https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/behalf-people-review-crucible-theatre-sheffield/

Love and Information

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Regional premiere of Caryl Churchill’s disorientating but dazzling play, consisting of 58 unrelated scenes, 100 characters (played by a cast of 6) with no specified gender, age, race or even name. Technically brilliant, and impossible to tear your attention away from the stage, even if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on at any given time.

Full review at The Stage: https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/love-and-information-review-at-crucible-studio-sheffield/

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Solo – A Star Wars Story

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When word first appeared of a Star Wars film exploring the origins of a young Han Solo, the general consensus seemed to be…”why?”. For a start, only one person could ever play Han Solo, and that’s Harrison Ford. And, as talented an actor he is, and as advanced as CGI technology can be, it’s unlikely that the 75 year old could pull off playing his iconic character as a boy.

Add to that the well publicised squabbles onset (culminating in original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller being fired in favour of old stalwart Ron Howard), and rumours that the new Han, young  actor Alden Ehrenreich had been told to take extra acting lessons), and it’s fair to say that expectations for Solo: A  Star Wars Story are pretty low.

So is it as bad as advance word has it? Well, it’s not a bad film, in fact it’s a perfectly serviceable sci-fi romp. There is, however, an air of formula and predictability running through it – there’s no real surprises and Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan’s script is pretty pedestrian.

In fact, it sometimes feels like fan service by rote: hey, here’s Han and Chewie meeting for the first time. OK, right now, we’re going to see the Kessel Run. You know, that thing you’ve imagined for 40 years? Well, you’re actually going to see it..

The trouble is that all these things were a lot more exciting in the imagination. Han “doing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” is part of Star Wars legend, something referred to by characters from Luke Skywalker in A New Hope to Rey in The Force Awakens. It’s something that should be built up to and feel like an ‘event’. Instead, it’s a quick scene of Han piloting the Millennium Falcon very fast. And then we’re onto the next scene.

There will be some fans who will be very excited that we eventually get to see the card game between Han and Lando where Han wins the Millennium Falcon, but the truth it that it’s just a scene of two men playing cards. However, there are some good moments, including a genuinely funny reference to Han’s most famous line in The Empire Strikes Back (you’ll know it when you hear it). There’s also an undeniable thrill to seeing Han and Chewie behind the controls of the Falcon for the very first time.

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The cast do well, and once you’ve got used to the fact that Ehrenreich doesn’t look much like Ford nor has many of his mannerisms, he makes for a decent lead. However, it’s Donald Glover who’s the star of the show here – as young Lando Calrissian he’s funny, charismatic and steals every scene he’s in. With his excellent TV show Atlanta, his musical side-project Childish Gambino and now a burgeoning film career, it surely can’t be long until he’s one of the biggest stars in the world.

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There’s also good support from Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany and an underused Thandie Newton, although the fact there’s barely any chemistry between Ehrenreich and Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke means that she’s scuppered as a love interest from the start. Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge does have a gloriously weird cameo as Lando’s love interest, a robot called L3-37 (really).

Overall, while Solo is a decent enough film if you like that sort of thing, it’s missing the sense of occasion that should come with a Star Wars film. Only three and a half years since JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise, it’s already feeling worryingly stale. There’s some hope though – Marvel have proved that, by hiring young, exciting directors like Ryan Coogler and Taika Watiti, a long-standing franchise can be refreshed and revitalised. We’ve got 18 months till the next Star Wars film: hopefully Kathleen Kennedy and the powers that be at Disney can work on breathing some new life into this galaxy far, far away.

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The York Realist – Sheffield Crucible

I normally would have reviewed this for The Stage or Exeunt, but as both sites covered it during the play’s London run last month (The Stage’s review is here, Exeunt’s is here), I thought I’d write a quick review here instead (especially as the lovely people at the Crucible were good enough to invite me to press night).

Ben Batt as George and Jonathan Bailey as John in The York Realist. Photo by Johan Persson.-min

The York Realist is a revival of Peter Gill’s 2001 play which opened at Salford’s Lowry before having runs in Bristol and at the Royal Court Theatre. It tells the story of George, a farmhand and aspiring actor and John, an assistant director from London who stages a production of The York Mystery Plays, which George has a starring role in.

George and John fall into a relationship, and Gill’s script tells of the troubles of a love affair that’s defined as much by class as it is gender. John wants George to move to London to follow his acting dream, while George feels like he has to stay in York as his class dictates that he can only ever work on a farm.

We first meet George and John after the former’s mother has died, and it’s clear from the start that there’s some sort of tension between them. Quickly, we flashback to when they first meet, and also get to see George’s family. It’s a clever structure and one that pulls you into the play straight away.

The cast of The York Realist. Photo by Johan Persson.

A play about a doomed love affair may seem a depressing one, but nothing could be further from the truth in The York Realist. It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in quite a while, and although it premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London, Sheffield feels like its natural home – there is plenty of Yorkshire humour which receives knowing chuckles at the Crucible, and Gill’s naturalistic dialogue is absolutely whip-smart.

Ben Batt, who you may remember from Channel 4’s Shameless, is absolutely magnificent as George, completely confident in his sexuality, but wildly insecure about his social standing. His monologue about the delights of London (“dinner…at night!”) is worth the price of admission alone. Jonathan Bailey is equally good as John, George’s polar opposite, all puppyish enthusiasm about visiting “the North” but obviously far more at home back in the capital.

Lesley Nicol and Ben Batt as Mother and George in The York Realist. Photo by Johan Persson.-min

There’s good support from Brian Fletcher (making his professional theatre debut) as George’s droll nephew Jack, and a poignant performance from Katie West as Doreen, the local girl who holds a torch for George, even though she knows it can never be. West was absolutely superlative in Simon Stephen’s Blindsided at Manchester’s Royal Exchange a few years ago, and it’s surely only a matter of time before she becomes a huge star.

Although this is being held in the Crucible’s main space, it’s the sort of small, intimate piece that would work equally well in the Studio. Peter McKintosh’s immaculately designed set of a country cottage pulls you into the action, and you feel like you’re sat in the front room with the family.

After the excellent Chicken Soup and Frost/Nixon, Robert Hastie (who directs this with flair and style) is really helming a superb season for Sheffield Theatres.

The York Realist runs until April 7th. For more information, please visit https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/the-york-realist

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The Trouble with Eyes (part 2…)

I did promise to give an update after my vitrectomy last month, but didn’t want to jinx my recovery! Anyway, all seems to have gone well, so here goes:

After the operation, I was patched up (see the fetching picture below), given three loads of eye drops with instructions to apply them four times a day for a month, and was told to come back to the hospital the next morning.

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(one hour after being discharged)

So the next day, the patch was removed, and the sight in my right eye was blurry – I can only compare it to swimming underwater with your eyes open. Everything was out of focus and I could only see indistinct shapes. Luckily, the nurse assured me this was perfectly normal! I had a bit of a shock next time I looked in the mirror – my eye was swollen, and completely bloodshot: but, once I’d put my rational head on, that made perfect sense, given that I’d had needles and injections stuck into it less than 24 hours beforehand.

After a vitrectomy, patients are instructed to undergo ‘posturing’. This may sound like walking round with a bit of an attitude, but it involves making sure your head is still and in one particular position. This is to ensure the bubble of gas which is keeping the retina in place while it reattaches stays in position. Lots of people are told to keep their head down for the majority of the day, and to sleep on their front. I was dreading this.

Luckily, my surgeon recommended that I just sit with my head upright, and to sleep on my right hand side. To stop myself turning over in my sleep, I put a wall of pillows against my back, so if I was to turn over, this should wake me up and remind me to stay on my right hand side. During the day, I listened to a lot of radio, podcasts and music – reading books wasn’t an option and watching TV was possible although as I usually had to watch with one eye closed, then that became a pain.

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After a few days, I noticed a little line appear at the top of my eye – it was a bit like the line you see on a spirit level, and there was clear vision above this line. Over the next few days, this line dropped gradually. About a week after the operation, the line was down to about halfway, and then after approximately two weeks, it suddenly turned into a little circle. On Saturday 10th March, sixteen days after the operation, the circle had disappeared which means the gas had eventually dispersed.

Now, my eye still aches a little bit but my vision is completely back to normal and the ‘blind spot’ which persuaded me to go to the opticians in the first place has disappeared. I have one more appointment due at the hospital at the end of April – I’ve been told that it’s more than likely I will develop cataracts within the next 12 months (it’s a common side effect of this operation), and will have to have surgery for that, but that is a relatively minor procedure.

Plus, it will make good content for a future blog!

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The trouble with eyes…(part 1)

I’ve not blogged for a while, due to a number of reasons. So I thought this would be a good one to come back to, as it may help people in similar situations.

A few weeks ago, I noticed my right eye was a bit blurry. I also noticed ‘floaters’ (little invisible objects floating by) which were becoming more intense, and every so often I’d see a little flash of light in the corner of my eye. Most worryingly, I also noticed I’d developed a blind spot in the right hand side of my eye, like a curtain had been pulled over.

To be honest, I put it down to insomnia and stress. I’ve had a whole heap of personal troubles to work through over the past 6 months, and I thought this was just the natural reaction, and a few nights sleep would do me good. But it seemed to be getting progressively worse, so I booked my first ever eye test at Specsavers.

Yes, my first ever eye test. I’m not proud of this, but it’s something I’ve never felt the need to have. My eyes have never been a problem, so I didn’t think there was much point. Anyway, all seemed fine – my eyes were scanned and photographed, and little puffs of air were squirted into my eye to check that the pressure was ok. I read the letters off the chart and all seemed perfectly normal.

Then I told the optician about the ‘blind spot’ I’d developed. His face fell, and he immediately told me that he’d examine my eye using the special machine they had. Let me tell you, there aren’t many phrases likely to cause you to break into a panic attack like an optician saying “Oh” while he’s doing this.

“This is very serious, and you need to go to hospital immediately. You have a detached retina, it requires surgery as soon as possible, and if you don’t have this surgery, there’s a very real danger you will lose your sight”.

So, with those words ringing in my ears, I made my way to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, which has a walk-in emergency eye clinic. I wasn’t waiting for too long, and after speaking to several nurses and doctors (all of who were absolutely fantastic), the diagnosis of a detached retina was confirmed.

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So what causes a detached retina?

All sorts of things – usually it’s a sports injury, or it happens when someone bangs their head. This wasn’t the case with me, and it turns out I was just one of the unlucky ones – about 1 in 15,000 people develop a tear in the retina which causes detachment. The former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is probably the most famous person to have suffered a detached retina due to a rugby injury when he was a child, which resulted in the loss of sight in his left eye.

What is it exactly, and why is it so serious?

The way a nurse explained it to me made the most sense: think of the retina as the wallpaper at the back of your eye. The lens in your eye sends images to the retina, which beams those images to the brain. If a tear ever develops on the retina, then it can start to peel away, like a corner of wallpaper peeling away. If it’s not treated, it will continue to peel off, and eventually come away completely. There’s still vision when it detaches, but that’s what the ‘blind spot’ was. If it was left, the blind spot would become bigger and bigger, until the vision in the eye disappears.

How can it be fixed?

I was booked in for an operation the next day. I was to have a vitrecomy – if you’re slightly squeamish about eyes, you may want to skip this. Under local anaesthetic, the surgeon makes a couple of pinpoint incisions into your eyeball. Then the vitereous gel in the back of the eyeball is scraped away, and a small bubble of gas is injected into your eye to push the retina back in place. Then, over the next few weeks, that bubble holds the retina while it reattaches itself to the back of the eye. In the weeks after the operation, the patient has to sit in a particular posture recommended by the surgeon in order for the bubble to stay in the right place.

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So, the next day, I arrived at the Hallamshire again. It was a pretty long day – although I wasn’t due to have the operation until the afternoon, I had to be at the hospital in the morning to have the pre-op checks done. There was a lot of scans, several lots of eye drops administred, and a lot of form filling to be done. Eventually, I was sent over to the Day Care Centre where the operation would take place.

More waiting around (by this time, my pupils were so dilated due to the eye drops that I couldn’t even read a book while I was waiting!), and I was called into surgery at 1.30. Then there were more questions, more talk about the possible side-effects of the vitrectomy (one of which is that I’ll probably have to have cataract surgery later in the year).

After changing into the fetching hospital gown you have to wear in theatre, I was taken through to the operation at around 4pm. I won’t lie, I was pretty terrified. I’ve never had an operation before, and the whole idea of someone messing around with my eyes makes me feel a bit squeamish. Yet the whole team who performed the operation did a brilliant job at putting me at my ease.

Firstly, eye drops were administered again, and  a cloth was placed over my face, which had a hole for the right eye. As the drops began to take effect, my sight slowly became darker and my eye began to feel numb. Eventually it all became a bit of a blur, and although I could feel some pressure in my eye while it was being worked on, it was totally pain-free, and I ended up talking to the surgeon while he was performing the operation.

The whole process took about 45 minutes, and then I was wheeled through to the room next door and asked to lie on my front with my head face down for the next hour. My ‘posturing’ for the next few weeks was to sit upright with my head up, and when I went to bed, I had to lie on my right hand side. This would keep the bubble in place.

Around 6pm, I eventually left the hospital with a collection of eye drops, and instructions to return at around 9am the next morning.

To be continued….

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