Sunday, 11 March 2012

using Prosceneium's Copacabana set

I've just finished doing a production of Copacabana with Belper Musical Theatre, and we hired our set from Prosceneium. If you're thinking of doing Copacabana with this set, here's what we found. This will be most useful to you if you have Prosceneium's booklet describing the set - they're very friendly and will happily send it to you if you give them a call.

We took the set in its "reduced" form, meaning that we only had two of the four revolves and we had everything at its minimum height, so the revolves and the platforms around them were 1' from the stage. We intended to use everything as depicted in Prosceneium's plans, but we ended up sending the DS flats back - they are designed to mask the entrance via the platform DS of the revolve itself, but the way our angles worked we didn't need them for masking, because the theatre's masking was sitting just DS of them, and it did make it easier to use that entrance. We angled the whole assemblies slightly more towards the audience than the plans showed; this makes the platforms a bit more usable because people at the front of them don't mask people at the back. The platforms are tight for space, even if the tables on them are the very small ones that Prosceneium supply; you'll need small chairs.

We had rehearsed as if we were going to use the double doors in the revolves, but we ended up leaving them closed all through the show and using the DS entrance instead; similarly, we left the mirror doors next to them closed. The mirrors work really well for changing the look of the set when you turn the revolve. The other change we made to the way the revolves are used was that we used them the opposite way round to the design; we used the palm tree side when we were in Cuba and the blue/silver side when we were anywhere else.

Although we'd rehearsed with the steps marked out on the floor, the height of the US rostrum still took a bit of adjusting to. The get-off treads are slightly different from what the plans show, meaning that the rostrum can't go as close to the cyc (or to the cloths between it and the cyc) as you think. Be prepared to lose a few inches - these are crucial inches if, like us, you need the space between the rostrum and the back of the revolve assemblies to get trucks through.

The lamp-post / bench truck looked very good although it is quite a big lamp-post for a small stage. The shower truck is pretty big but only just over 2m high total: we were worried about getting it on and off because we had to clear it under a 2.1m bar but we were fine. The shower screen itself is more transparent than we thought it was going to be; only the most exhibitionist of Lolas would want to actually be naked behind it. We ended up not using the keyboard truck because we had nothing on it but the keyboard so it was easier just to carry it on and off.

The bed is a glorious piece of scenery, absolutely fabulous-looking, but it is absolutely huge so it needs several people to move it. Our director was worried about how far US it has to sit (it has to go right back wherever the treads of to the rostrum are) but when we got into the theatre it looked fine.

In a small theatre, we had no flying facilities so we had to lose everything that was supposed to be flown and couldn't be fixed to work any other way. We didn't use any of the rope strung flats, or the palm trees, or the Copa outside sign, or the big Copa and Trop signs, or the two flats that sit at the sides of the El Bravo front cloth. The Copa and Trop signs are beautiful but huge and heavy; we looked at ways to use them without being able to fly them properly, but ended up using projections of them onto the proscenium arch instead. If you don't have flying facilities you need to plan to do without those two signs; email me if you're hiring the set and you'd like a copy of the photographs of them that we projected. We picked the cloths we needed and swiped them on tracks instead of flying.

The cloths, insofar as we used them, were very nice. The gauze works very well and is opaque enough not to need any backing so long as you light it carefully and don't clatter around immediately behind it, but goes nicely transparent when you put light behind it. The Havana gauze at the back, with the palm trees on, looked good although we didn't really use it as intended; we didn't have room to get any light to it from behind, because it was right up to the cyc. The two El Bravo cloths are fantastic: the front one really is two completely separate cloths so if you have limited room available (about 14'6" height and about 7.1 pros width in our case) you'll probably want to lose one of them. We just used the SL one, with the skull and crossbones on. We had planned to use the blue glitter slashes but decided in the end they weren't worth the trouble for the one scene they would get into, given that we had the gauze available as a neutral cloth at the front of the stage.

Our biggest problem was that not everything was in a good enough condition to be usable as it was sent to us. One of the piano backs was missing completely, which Prosceneium dealt with very well by sending a replacement down, but it would still have been nice to have it all along, and several pieces were distinctly tatty and needed painting. We repainted both of the pianos and almost the whole shower truck; fortunately, we had enough time and a skilled artist, but if we hadn't then those things would have let the look of the show down. The service from Prosceneium was excellent: Gary was very helpful on the phone in the run-up to the show, so we had no really major surprises, the drivers were prompt and helpful, and when we did have the problem with the piano back they were perfectly good about solving it.

If you're thinking about using this set but aren't committed to it yet, the thing to think about is whether you need something this big. The more space you have, and the more your director and choreographer are prepared to think about the set as they put the show together, the more you'll get out of it. If you just want to direct the show in a big room and then drop some scenery in behind it, you might save a few quid by going to Scenic Projects, who are also very helpful and whose stuff is perfectly nice; if you're really going for the wow factor, I don't think you'll do better than Prosceneium's set.

Monday, 24 January 2011

musicals in 2010

2011 in musicals starts tomorrow, with Christchurch Theatre Club's production of Copacabana. Let's look back at 2010 and see what we know now that we might not have known a year ago.

I saw 29 amateur productions of musicals last year, including one that I was in. They were produced by 25 different companies and featured 955 different performers a total of 1125 times, 19 of them at least three times. That's quite a lot of musicals and performances and it's hard to boil it down into one blog post. But here are the two main things I think we've learnt in the last year.

First, the best amateur performers are really really good. The best performances of those 1125 were Nick Hallam and Liz Brookes in The King and I, Jessica Nicklin in The Wizard of Oz, Keith Reynolds and Laura Orton in My Fair Lady, Stephen Godward in A Man Of No Importance, Jessica Nicklin again in The Last 5 Years, and Simon Theobald in Fiddler on the Roof. At least, those are the ones that leap out when I just read down the list. That's eight performances in roles that with one exception I've seen before, and all of which I expect to see again, which I think might be the best ones I'll ever see. There are literally dozens that could be added to that list in smaller roles which you'd be pleased to see on a professional stage for thirty quid a time. If you can fill all your principal roles with performances at that level, which Andrew Nicklin can apparently do twice in a week, then you can match anyone. There was also some dancing as good as you're going to find anywhere, in Christchurch's Crazy For You and Belper's King and I.

While we're here, there is the interesting point of the quality of the bands. The great majority of musicians, including MDs, are being paid to be here so you might think there's not a lot of room to contrast them with professional productions, but you'd be at least partly wrong. If you were to go and see a professional West Side Story you wouldn't hear anything like as good a sound as we got from Stephen Williams at Nottingham Operatic Society Youth Group's production, because they wouldn't have afforded that many musicians, and similarly with Derby G & S's Fiddler on the Roof under Andrew Nicklin. These are wonderfully orchestrated shows and typical professional productions are making do with a synthesiser instead of a string section.

The second thing we've learnt is that you get best results by picking a good musical and then doing it as written. The further you go from what the people who wrote the thing actually wrote, the worse you look. Almost all modern Gilbert and Sullivan productions, for example, introduce some sort of staging or business that Gilbert himself never thought of, but if you do it well, put in the business that Gilbert would put in if he were in 2010 with your cast and your theatre and your audience, you end up with a good show, like Derby G & S's HMS Pinafore or Three Counties's Mikado, and if you just chuck in some stuff you thought of you end up with an unconvincing one, like West Bridgford's Pirates. I enjoyed that show at the time, and I'm still glad I went, but it doesn't hold up next to the very strong Gilbert and Sullivan you can see elsewhere. The best productions of modern musicals were the ones like musicworks's A Man Of No Importance and Little Theatre's Titanic, where people took a good piece and did the best job they could with it, not the ones like the Lace Market's Sweeney Todd, where they sometimes seemed to be deliberately doing a good musical badly, or Greasepaint's Fame, where they picked a terrible musical and then evidently weren't that bothered how well they did it.

These don't seem very profound insights as a return on 29 theatre trips, actually 36 when you consider that we did King and I seven times and I saw HMS Pinafore twice, but I've looked down the list and thought about it and hey, they're what I have.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Virtual Booker Prize 2010

So, a month ago I set myself to read six Booker Prize-shortlisted books from six different years. Having completed this task, I find that they fell into three distinct groups: good short books that won, overlong books with ships in, and rubbish from before the dawn of time.

We will deal with these in reverse. First, the rubbish: David Lodge. Oh my. Was this really what they had instead of good books in 1984? The winner that year was Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, which is a good short book; also shortlisted was Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, which I've read and I remember liking although I can hardly remember a thing about it. But evidently it was pretty thin once you got far below them, because Small World is just a rubbishy book, an unfunny comedy, the sort of book no literate person can read without thinking that they could have written it themselves if they'd thought it necessary.

Overlong books with ships in: Sea of Poppies, English Passengers, Parrot and Olivier in America. The first two of these are set mostly on ships and I do feel that I learned quite a lot about ships and who is on them and what they all do and what a schooner is; the trouble is that I feel that I was supposed to be learning that. All three of these books are dragging huge weights of research around with them, research which is unnecessary for two quite distinct reasons: first because putting in makes the book worse, and second because you could just make the stuff up if you needed it, it's a novel after all, not a documentary. I liked the Carey most, possibly because I read it first before long-ship-novel-unease had had time to set in. Carey is obviously a terrific technician but I do wonder whether he might write a better novel if he didn't seem to be looking for ones that you have to a be a terrific technician to write. Sure, two voices alternating, different versions of same events, rounded picture, great, well done, but is he concentrating more on the achievement than on the novel?

Amitav Ghosh is a terrific researcher, I guess, almost to the exclusion of other considerations. I'm willing to believe everything he tells me about life on the Ganges when the opium trade was at its height, but where's the novel? He approaches the multiple-narrator thing more softly, using a bunch of different third-person perspectives, but it is still somewhat naggingly obvious that he is doing a series of turns. The comedy, when it arrives, is all stock characters and stock situations, comedy by numbers - it never feels like something he actually finds funny, just something he thinks other people might. I actually enjoyed the book more than you think, but when I think about it now it's the negatives that spring to mind.

Matthew Kneale's English Passengers is my least favourite of the ship-books. His multiple narrators are a whole bunch of different first-person ones, some consciously written, like one character's journal and excerpts from another's book, some presented as if orally narrated after all the events had taken place, some of the smaller ones not really very well decided as to what they are. The whole thing doesn't move forward linearly in time, which along with it jumping about in place makes it rather difficult to follow in places because you don't quite know whether one character is about to meet another on this island or was there twenty years ago. Again there is a quantity of research being dragged like a dead horse around every corner in sight, this time Manx dialect, the early history of Tasmania, and fad racist theories of the mid-nineteenth century. All fine but WHY?

The two I liked most were the short ones. John Banville's The Sea was the winner in 2005 and I'm right down with that. It is a concentrated careful novel, containing no unnecessary ingredients, with only one main character. It mixes his mistily-remembered childhood holiday in a coastal town in Ireland with his return there many years later after his wife's death when he is trying once more to get a grip on life by looking back at where he first found he was getting that grip. The supporting cast are not overdone as they would have been in some books; the ones from the past are remembered with a mixture of clarity of impressions with fuzziness of details and composition, just as the memories of childhood are for most of us, and the ones from the present are not probed but hinted, seen from the viewpoint of an observer who is not interested in going far beneath the surface. If you like modern literary fiction and haven't read this book, then you should.

Last and shortest, Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. I've been unsure about McEwan - I didn't really feel I was getting Enduring Love or even quite Atonement, and On Chesil Beach seemed compact to the point of being slight, an extended short story. But this is definitely a short novel and I thought it was completely successful as such. Two main characters, two third-person perspectives, one movement; the book is unified like a play, and structured like a play, in five acts. It takes three hours to read and if you start it with three hours to spare then you can read it right through, like you'd watch a play. If you're going to dislike it then possibly you're going to do so because both of the characters are unsympathetic, not very nice people, which is true, but they are real enough and our time with them is short enough that it doesn't bother me like it sometimes would. Of course McEwan is sometimes an awkward writer, not bothering to cut out infelicities, leaving Tom Swifties in when they occur to him, generally not giving a damn about the actual writing, but then again that's a method that's worked for a lot of people, Iris Murdoch for example, John Irving, and we must acknowledge that it is a method he has chosen on purpose.

My winner is definitely The Sea. I anticipate having a chance fairly shortly to get hold of the 2010 shortlist in its entirety; come back then, and we'll do the whole thing again.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The bad, the good, and the Disney

So, we're half-way through the autumn's musicals, more or less, give or take. What have we learnt?

Erewash Musical Society had a shot at Gypsy. Mercifully I have blanked out quite a lot of the detail but really this sums up everything that is wrong with mediocre-to-bad amateur musicals. The choreographer was sitting at the front corner of the auditorium, changing a notice-board that announced the locations, and enjoying it! Enjoying it! The real problem is that the people running this sort of thing have low standards. You couldn't have put on a great Gypsy with the resources available to Erewash Musical Society, but you could have put on a decent one. If you just did it the way it was written, that would be better. Gypsy is designed for two actresses playing June at different ages and two corresponding actresses playing Louise at different ages: what we ended up with here was three Junes and four Louises. Yes, four. No, they didn't look like different-aged versions of the same person. Yes, it was a mess. The stripping scene didn't work - why do directors cut the dialogue? The whole POINT is that Gypsy's "gimmick" ends up being her talking during her act, the pseudo-intellectual chatter - "zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night", as Lorenz Hart parodied it. It falls flat if it's just a 30-something woman pretending to be a 19-year old taking her clothes off. Meanwhile we had a very one-paced performance from Mama Rose. I realise it's tempting to come out with all guns blazing and blast your way through the evening if you're playing Mama Rose, but the job of the director is to point out that this is a stupid thing to do, because you've got nowhere to go and when you get to Rose's Turn the audience is sitting there thinking that they've just been watching this all night. Actually, quite a lot of them seemed to be quite enjoying it, but they were old and don't get out much.

The theatre itself, the new Duchess, was absolutely horrible. It was nowhere near finished. I'm not even convinced it'll be any good when it is. The box office is immediately inside the door so if there's any queue at all some of you are waiting outside, and the seats are too close together, and there's visible wiring just clipped in place along the walls, and you can't get a black coffee, and they won't let you take your ice-cream back to your seat. What's to like?

That was the bad. The good was (of course) Derby Gilbert and Sullivan Company, doing HMS Pinafore and Fiddler on the Roof. Pinafore was a beautiful example of why Andrew Nicklin's productions are so highly regarded: superbly played and sung, and constantly inventive on stage without ever seeming to be working against the material. I'm not sure about the general idea of setting things in different periods - it seems to be the convention for Shakespeare and opera, that a director can say "I am setting this in 1960s London" or whatever and have sets and costumes to reflect that without changing a word or a note, bringing in an air of constant disconnection. But for this production we were clearly in the 1920s and it didn't worry me, partly I suppose because very little about Pinafore is specific to the exact date. There are one or two things - pocket boroughs, for example, were abolished by the Reform Act of 1867 - but I'm not going to quibble. A 1920s setting does enable the wonderful and priceless Charlotte Clement to use her real hair, that very nice bob which would look wrong anywhere except the 20s or now. But really, the details are insignificant, this was just an all-round really enjoyable production.

Then in the second half of the week they had the very different challenge of Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler in some ways takes a lot more staging than Pinafore, because it is a Broadway-style musical with a lot of shortish scenes happening in different places rather than an operetta with a big static setting for each act. And it places much greater demands on your performing depth - of course, the chorus singing isn't as challenging as G&S, but you do need to fill a lot more small speaking roles. This was one of the two significant problems with the production, that several people in small roles were noticeably out of their depth. The other was the really noisy and pointless smoke machine. I know that Alan Jackson just loves things like smoke machines, but still, you don't actually need smoke ANYWHERE, let alone during "Far From The Home I Love", and if you can't release it silently you should just do without it instead of making a distracting noise behind a singer. I'm surprised Andrew Nicklin let this one past - he should have gone round the back after the dress rehearsal and just told them not to use it.

Also as ALWAYS the bottles in the bottle dance looked stupid because they clearly weren't glass, and one of the shirts that Golde put out on her washing-line had a modern-looking label in it. And at one point I thought Simon Theobald stumbled over a line and had to say something slightly different from what he was intending.

I think that's all the negative things I can think of to say. Apart from those, this was as close to a perfect Fiddler as I ever expect to see, and I do expect to see a lot. It really is a beautifully put-together musical, huge but with hardly any surplus parts, funny and serious, various but unified, a wonderful thing that shows what you can do with a musical that you can't do any other way, and this was a production to match its scope. Part of the secret, I think, of a good Fiddler is that nobody, not even Tevye, must be trying to big it up - if you all do it just the size it's written, it comes out right. Tevye is a funny guy but he's not a clown and his monologues aren't stand-up routines. If you just act then it doesn't slow it down and you don't have the discomfort of a jerk into seriousness when you need it. Similarly, it's too common to see a Yente who is underqualified for playing a lead and is determined to make the most of the biggest part she'll ever get, or will ever get again at any rate. But Joan Self pitched it beautifully. I've never seen that troublesome early scene with Golde and Yente ("nothing can kill a show like too much exposition") go so well. The production was filled with little things that turned out to have perfectly good reasons, like why was Jessica Nicklin wearing those glasses? So she can take them off when Fyedka comes on. I thought that was a great touch because Fyedka and Chava are pretty skimpily realised - there just isn't room for a lot of interaction between them, and if you're not careful it comes across as being all him making the running. Does she in fact care about him one way or the other? In the script itself we don't really see any evidence until we suddenly discover at quarter to ten that she's run off with him, so having those glasses there to give us a little extra insight into Chava is really nice. Again, why is one of the little girls carrying that doll around everywhere? I wondered about that all evening until the last 30 seconds of the show when she put it down on the front of the stage and I started crying.

The lovely orchestrations are never going to sound better than that either. There was a synth in the pit but as far as I could tell (I've only got one pair of ears and there was a lot else going on) all it was doing was providing the accordion and harp, both things which in smallish doses sound OK on a synth. What really kills you is when you start using it instead of strings, a depth to which I don't expect Andrew Nicklin ever to sink. All the strings were there and all the percussion and all the reeds - when Don Walker asks for a cor anglais you have to give him one, like in "You'll Never Walk Alone".

Incidentally, all three creators of Fiddler are still alive 46 years on, with a combined age of 265.

So, then the Disney. Good Companions and Beauty and the Beast. There is really hardly anything to say about this. It's not any flavour, is it? It's Disney. The baddies are more fun than the goodies, and the show seemed most alive when Gaston and LeFou were on, followed by the castle servants. The vapid goodies in cheap costumes just slowed it down. The whole thing felt a bit under-directed - when the actors weren't bringing it, there wasn't any it there. You wonder how interested Phil Simcox actually was. And where has all the money gone? They said, I think, that they had spend £45,000 on this production, but you'd never have known it. Many costumes (including Belle's blue and white in which she spends the whole of the first act) just didn't look like they fitted properly, and Keith Scott-Savage's shirt was just ridiculously inappropriate, rather like his performance. And as for the Beast's mask... it looked like something you would pick up for £3.99 in Tesco, and I suspect that's exactly what they did. The transformation can only have taken so long because he got his elastic stuck on his ears.

Also there were mistakes in the lighting. For 17 quid a ticket. Come on.

Still, if you just like Beauty and the Beast as a thing, and you wanted to see it on stage, here it was, slower and less sparkly than the film but all there and sung audibly and in tune. It will probably be better at Nottingham Operatic (although I'm a bit worried that they refuse to tell me who's in it - have they got some problem there?) and it will certainly be better at Christchurch Theatre Club, but I think that most of those around me were satisfied.

Going back to my question at the top, what we've learnt is what we already knew: directors matter. Choose your director carefully, kids, and be a bit cautious about one who never says no.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

new reading list

So it looks like there isn't a cheap way to buy this year's Booker Prize shortlist; even the almighty buying power of Book People hasn't been able to get the books down below fifteen quid each for the most expensive ones, which is too much.

This is a pity, because I was all geared up for a burst of modern-fiction-reading. So here's what I'm doing instead: I've found on my shelves six novels which have at some point in the past been shortlisted for the Booker, and I'm going to read them instead.

They are, in chronological order:
  • Small World by David Lodge (1984)
  • Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (1998)
  • English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (2000)
  • The Sea by John Banville (2005)
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008)
  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (2010)

My chosen pseudo-random reading order is alphabetical by surname: Banville, Carey, Ghosh, Kneale, Lodge, McEwan. This puts the two which we already know won at either end of the list, pleasingly.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

musicals for the autumn

The autumn season starts this evening with Gypsy in Long Eaton. Here are five musicals happening between now and the end of the year that I find particularly interesting.

Gypsy, Erewash Musical Society, September 13th - 18th

You don't see very many Gypsies around: it has no work at all for an adult chorus, except some dancers who should really be very young, and I suspect that it's a hard sell in spite of its moderate cult status among theatrical people. It is more than seven years since the last one I saw. I've found it a hard show to love but the real excitement here is that we're at the Duchess Theatre in Long Eaton, back in use for the first time since it burnt down in 2003. A new small theatre right on my doorstep is a terrifically exciting idea. Let us hope that with improved facilities EMS and LEOS will lift their standards - they are two companies who have persistently seemed to play to amdram cliches, static staging, old young women, choruses looking out into the auditorium to see Auntie Joan at idle moments. Perhaps we will see some life breathed into them now.

Fiddler on the Roof, Derby Gilbert and Sullivan Company, October 8th - 9th

Like last year, Derby G & S are doing two shows at the Derby Theatre, the old Playhouse, in the same week. They'd run out of easily sellable Savoy operas pretty quickly if they did two of them every year, so this year they're doing HMS Pinafore for three performances, taking a day off, and then doing Fiddler on the Roof for three performances. This'll be the first time I've seen them doing non-G & S and all I really know is that they're taking it pretty seriously, because I saw Peter Bostock last night and he's grown a beard for it. We know that it will be well sung, of course, but there are potential pitfalls here. In G & S it is a matter of convention that you often cast people who are wildly the wrong age for the part, as you do in opera (apparently), and you can stretch especially the heroines (who are all supposed to be very young) quite a long way before anything breaks. Fiddler falls apart sooner if one or more of Tevye's five unmarried daughters is quite obviously getting on for 40 or if their suitors are middle-aged. And whereas Andrew Nicklin's direction of G & S is always wonderful, I've not been so impressed with his American musicals for Derby Opera and Rolls-Royce. So we'll see.

Beauty and the Beast, Good Companions, October 12th - 16th

We're going to be having Beauty and the Beast for breakfast, lunch, and tea, and probably in church on Sundays too, in the next couple of years, just as we had Thoroughly Modern Millie and before that Jekyll and Hyde, but even more so. Fortunately we have a couple of what should be good productions to get us going, this one and Nottingham Operatic's a few weeks later, so we can get an idea of it and then not need to sit through whatever Mansfield and Ashbeians and LEOS make of it. (If we like it enough after twice then we can go and see what John Lewin makes of it with Christchurch in January.) I am slightly too old to have seen the film when young so I am uncertain about what to expect. It was a big effects show on Broadway and I guess this production will be trying to make a splash - Good Companions are back at the Derby Theatre for the first time since I think 2002 and I don't think they'll be skimping.

Parade, Greasepaint Productions, October 26th - 30th

Everyone must come to see this! If you don't come to see a production of Parade when one's available, then you will have only yourself to blame when all there is in the world is people doing Mamma Mia and Full Monty and Disney. Parade is one of the hardest and darkest musicals out there and it is typical of Greasepaint that they should be willing to give it a go, having taken on similar challenges in recent years with Sweeney Todd and Ragtime. I have never seen it performed and really I have no idea how it plays. But I am really looking forward to finding out.

Titanic, Little Theatre Company, November 15th - 20th

The mind boggles. It really does. Burton Brewhouse is a horrid place to put on a show of any scale, a narrow awkward stage with nowhere to move scenery to and nowhere to put a band and the stage on floor level at the front with a million short rows of seats rising steeply into the sky away from you. Little Theatre Company are (or used to be) laughably bad at doing musicals; I haven't been back there since they rolled out an absolutely dreadful King and I four years ago. And Titanic is enormous in its scale and ambition and amount of skill required. What is going to happen here? But as I said just now, if you don't come and see this sort of thing then everybody's just going to do Disco Inferno and "Back to the 80s", whatever that may be, for ever. So come and see it! What's the worst that could happen? (Apart from it hits an iceberg and everyone drowns.)

I don't think these are necessarily going to be the best five musicals of the autumn (in fact if they are I'll eat my head) but they're five interesting ones that I am certainly going to be at. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

how to think about RemoteViews

The RemoteViews mechanism in android is used in two crucial places which anyone writing apps is going to have deal with sooner or later: home screen widgets and status-bar notifications. But the documentation for it lacks a high-level overview and so it is quite hard to understand. Here is that high-level overview.

First, a RemoteViews object is not, whatever you might think from its name, a View. It is similar but don't fall into the trap of thinking it is a subclass; it is more like an alternative.

The RemoteViews mechanism is a way of letting one process pass a chunk of screen to another process to be displayed as part of the second process's layout. You create a RemoteViews object by specifying the layout xml file you're going to use for your chunk of screen and then calling a series of methods to populate the various bits of the layout.

These methods are exactly analogous to the ones you could call on a View object if you'd just used that layout xml in your own process, but there's no underlying View for them to be called on so what's really happening is they're getting stored up to be called later at display-time. When you've finished setting things up how you want them you pass the RemoteViews object to the other process, the one that's going to be doing the displaying.

In the common case you don't do this directly: when your RemoteViews is going into a notification you set it as a field of the Notification object and then when you pass that Notification to the NotificationManager it does the IPC for you, and when your RemoteViews is going into a home screen widget you pass it to AppWidgetManager.updateAppWidget and that does the IPC. When the second process receives your RemoteViews object, with it having been appropriately serialized and deserialized in a way you don't have to worry about, it calls the apply() method on it and then it gets displayed: at this point there actually is a View object and all the things that you did earlier get applied to it.

You can never yourself get to this View object: it's in someone else's process, after all. If at some point you need to change what's in the View you have to fiddle the RemoteViews object and then pass it again to the process doing the displaying, and it has to go through the applying process again.

A note on calling the setFoo methods: these methods don't map one-to-one onto the familiar methods you would use to set attributes of a View. So for example if your layout xml file contains a TextView element which you've given an id using the android:id attribute in your xml - say android:id="@+id/title" - then you don't have a TextView to call setText on but rather you must call setCharSequence on your RemoteViews object, specifying as your first argument the id of the TextView element (in this case and as your second the name of the method you really want to call, in this case "setText".  The third argument will then be the actual text you want to put into the TextView. This means that you can only get to methods of the eventual View which take a single argument, and only if that argument is of one of the types which RemoteViews supports. It also means that in effect your method type checking is put off until run time: if it turns out that there is no method setText(CharSequence) on a TextView, you get an exception when the other process tries to show your view and that's the first you know about it. So you have to be careful.  Observe also that you have to be more precise with thinking about types: there is no method setText(String) on a TextView but normally you can act as if there is because a String is a CharSequence so you will just get setText(CharSequence) instead. But if you try to do the same thing with RemoteViews, by calling setString instead of setCharSequence, then it won't work and you won't find out until you get the exception at run time.