Sunday, 4 August 2013

EODS The Tempest

Last night I went to see EODS's production of The Tempest, in my job I see a lot of shows on an almost daily basis. I've never blogged about one before, but this is different. It's different because it blew me away!

Shakespeare's plays are always difficult to do well and if they aren't done extremely well then it is all too easy for the actors to lose their audience. It's simply a fact that the language he uses along with the similes and metaphors are not easily understood by today's audiences. A Shakespeare play is certainly not something you should attempt to watch if you have no prior knowledge of it, you'll likely get lost quite quickly.

That said, the quality of all the performances were truly outstanding. EODS is an amateur dramatics group, words that are sure to bring most professionals out in a cold sweat :-) However in this production there wasn't a single performer who didn't deserve their role. This is even more impressive when you learn that the lead Mike Barber (Prospero) only took on the part the week before due to the original actor having to pull out at the last minute. The fact he learnt his lines is astonishing, that he did so and put on such a strong performance is a testament to his abilities. Mike wasn't alone in taking over at short notice though, director Gareth Brighton had to step into the role of Stephano when James Bell was taken ill. Both he and Nick Carn as Trinculo played a great double act together with Nick ending up coming off worse having to take two full submersions in the pool.

Finally David Fricker as Ariel was also a fairly late addition to the cast, but his interpretation of the character was fantastic. He was very spritely in his movements and mannerisms, even when the action wasn't focused on him he remained very ethereal.

For a production beset with problems during the rehearsal period it certainly didn't show in the performances!

A stunning setting with superb staging, above
Nick Carn as Trinculo and David Fricker as Ariel
This year the choice of play really couldn't have suited the location any better. Taking place at Holywell's Italian Gardens the backdrop of the sea is the ideal setting for a play based on an island! The stunning view was aided by the natural sound effects of the waves lapping against the shore with the birds and other natural wildlife all playing their part to add to the atmosphere.

The innate beauty of the surroundings was enhanced by the fabulous staging built primarily by Ashley Jones. The central pond flanked by two catwalks and a bridge gave the actors a great set on which to work. It also had some nice hidden features that made for some memorable moments, most notably Ariel appearing from the opposite side of the arena after hiding in a wooden trunk. No doubt the input of legendary magician Paul Daniels as the magic advisor for the production played its part here. Also Calibans first entrance through the smoke from a trap door in the catwalk was simple yet tremendously effective. Mr Daniels input was evident in other small touches too and it all added to help flesh out the characters. It would have been all too easy to let the temptation of the magic overpower the show, but all the effects used felt right and were played well.

With the production starting before sunset you don't really notice the lighting until you come back from the interval. By then the moon is shining down and Douglas Morgan's design is able to take over from the sun, it's a difficult space to light with the limited resources available but he managed to do a superb job. There are general washes to make sure everything is lit well, but also numerous additions to highlight certain actors at key points. The lighting is subtle but crucial to the overall experience.

The full company
Sound is used at several points, and if there was a weak link, then this is where it lies. Although the spot effects for magical moments and storms were all good and worked well within the action, the quality of the PA was poor. It's a shame as so much more could have been made of the sound but it seems the equipment was holding them back. While being picky, the only other area that could have been improved was the set dressing. Rocks were represented with some painted ground row flats, it would have made a huge difference if they had been able to source some real rocks. Finally, the pond lining could have been disguised a bit, the blue plastic did stand out a little. But these are small things that in no way detracted from the piece as a whole.

The night I was there it was a complete sell out, and the reputation they have built over the years is well deserved. Unfortunately by the time this is posted the run will have ended, but you should never the less try to see one of their future productions!

Photos: Copyright Paul Spink, used with permission.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Triple monitors, calibration & Eyefinity

Just over a year ago I splashed out and purchased two matching Dell U2410 IPS monitors. While normally such a high end display would cost in the region of £500 a piece, I was lucky enough to pick up a couple of "reconditioned" displays. I've always been slightly wary of such bargains in the past, however these came with a 12 month warranty and the IPS panels were guaranteed to be 100% perfect, no bright or dead pixels. The only thing the description said was there may be some superficial marks or scratches to the casing.

Well, to be honest, I didn't really care about the casing, I don't look at that anyway! Besides, if they arrived and I wasn't satisfied with their condition, there would be nothing to stop me sending them back for a refund.

They had three available and I was able to buy two of them for a total of £600 including VAT and delivery. That's almost half price!

I'd been using two monitors for a good few years already, but they had always been different sizes and resolutions, not to mention wildly different brightness / contrast and colours. This was simply because the monitors were so wildly different there was no way of getting them to even closely match.

So anyway, the new monitors were delivered the next day by courier, excellent service. I eagerly tore the tape back to inspect the quality of my goods. I wanted to see how bad these marks were! It was obvious that they had been opened before, the boxes were missing original packaging and only one box had a manual. The thing is though, who actually needs a manual for a monitor?

Once I'd assembled the panels on their stands, I was able to take a good look. To my complete surprise, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't actually see anything wrong with them. Not a scratch to be found, these were to all intents and purposes brand new displays! WIN.

Having got them all connected things were so much better than before. As promised the panels were flawless. No dead pixels or anything to indicate they were anything other than brand new. However I wasn't entirely happy, no matter what I tried I couldn't get the colours to match across the two monitors. They were close sure, but being side by side it was still noticeable.

I lived with it for a few days and then I decided that spending so much on matching displays was a bit pointless if they didn't actually match. So I started looking into calibration. To cut a long story short I ended up buying a Spyder 3 Elite on eBay for quite a lot less than its price new.

This is a pretty cool bit of hardware, and it looks smart too. What it does is calibrate your display/s. This is important if you are into photography or any sort of graphics work and need to know that the colours you're using in your image editor such as Photoshop will match the colour of the final printed work. While this was of some interest to me, I had really bought it for its matching feature. This would enable me to calibrate one monitor, and then use the device on the other display to make sure everything matched.

Doing this was surprisingly easy, you just put the device which has a sucker on it on the monitor and run the wizard. Then save the profile and repeat the process for the second display. Once you are done you get a before & after comparison. I have to say the results were nothing like what I had expected.

I'd bought what I thought were expensive studio monitors, reviews had said these were a great choice. But the difference after calibration was like night and day! Colour reproduction was astounding, gone we're the heavily saturated colours which are frankly a marketing gimmick. Now when looking at a photo of a person, it actually looked like seeing them though a window. It's hard to describe it properly, but they looked lifelike and things seemed to have more depth. What I wanted we're matching displays, what I got was so much more!

I was so impressed that I would highly recommend you get your monitor calibrated too, even if you only have one screen. Having accurate colour reproduction will make it seem like you've invested in a new monitor! Now obviously results will vary, I got the excellent results I did because I invested in a quality display panel. If you try to calibrate a £150 display you shouldn't expect it to work miracles, but you will notice a marked improvement. Manufacturers like to set their displays to look good on a display stand, but not on your desk when you're editing your holiday snaps.

About a week or so after I'd been getting used to my new monitors, one of them just died. It came back to life, but from then on it had a habbit of just powering off at random intervals. Eventually one day it just wouldn't turn on at all, oh dear... Time to get in touch with the company who sold it to me and check out the 12 month warranty! An email to them resulted in a response within the hour apologising for the fault, they arranged for a replacment to be sent out that day and for me to return the defective monitor to them when the courier dropped off the new one. Amazing service! When buying reconditioned you're always taking a risk, that's reflected in the price you pay, but to have this level of after sale support was fantastic. As promised the replacment worked fine and I've never had a problem with them since.

I should probably tell you who this amazing retailer is, but part of me wants to keep it secret! If I tell you then you'll all buy cheap reconditioned items and leave nothing for me. But I will share it, the company is NRG:IT who can be fouud on-line at, you should check them out!

Anyway, fast forwarding to a year later which is more or less now, I'd been seeing lots of talk about Eyefinity or triple monitor gaming. In the past my PC would never have been able to cope, but I purchased a new system towards the end of last year. An Intel core i7 beast with 12 Gb RAM and an AMD Radeon 7870 with a 256Gb SSD. While it's not bleeding edge, it's pretty far up there!

I decided my PC should be capable of producing enough pixels to give me a reasonable frame rate across three displays. Hence the temptation got the better of me and I was back in touch with NRG:IT for a third Dell U2410 so I had three identical displays. This was again ordered and delivered the next day, again it was in pristine "as new" condition, the only thing giving away the fact it wasn't new being the box it came in!

With three moniors the desk space required by all the stands is quite significant, so I also picked up a XFX triple monitor stand from Amazon too, which actually cost more than the monitor even though it's one of the cheapest triple monitor stands you can buy! Anyway, with everything finally assembled and calibrated I had my triple screen setup sorted.

The above photo was actually taken before the newest screen (left) had been calibrated. You can see the difference in the colour reproduction, the centre and right monitors are the older ones which had already been matched. With everything setup it would have been rude not to try some games, which after all is the whole point!

First was Dirt 3, with this game the extra width really gives an enhanced sensation of speed as things fly past your peripheral vision in a blur. With so much width it's not really a case of seeing everything at once. It's more a sense of immersion where your entire peripheral vision is taken up with the displays. You would think, and most peoples first reaction is that the bezels would be intrusive and ruin the effect. However, it really isn't noticeable after a couple of minutes. Just make sure you configure the bezel correction in the video cards driver settings, this makes sure that things line up correctly in the games.

Dirt 3 Eyefinity

With my current graphics card I'm able to run Dirt 3 at the highest quality setting and still get a steady 60+ FPS from it. Quite impressive! Other games I've tried include The Witcher 2, Half Life 2 and a few others:

Witcher 2, struggles to get a good frame rate
With Half Life 2 being an older game I was able to get over 160FPS on my Eyefinity rig. However the Witcher 2 really suffered, I had to turn the settings right down to get 30FPS. Still playable but not as beautiful as it could be.

I hadn't really thought of using my third monitor outside of gaming. Sure my dual monitors always got a lot of use, but I didn't really see how I could utilise three screens at the same time. That didn't last long though, the first Formula 1 race of the season saw me setting up all the stats and data I could wish for!

As you can see, I have live timings, a driver tracker and the TV coverage all in view. It was fantastic to have all this information right in front of me and I can't wait for the next race.

In terms of productivity, I've even made use of all my screens during the recent revamp of the ugvm website. Below the live website can be seen on the left screen, my CSS editor is in the middle allowing me to make changes on one screen and see the results in the other. The third screen had my email, Twitter and web browser open. Quite a lot going on, but it's so much nicer having the space and not having to switch windows constantly.

So, three screens, it needs a lot of space and can cost a lot of money, but the difference is incredible. The down side is that my above average GPU can't really handle the pixel pushing required for three 24" displays in modern games. I'll probably upgrade it when the new range of AMD cards are launched later in the year. My current card only has 2Gb RAM and really it needs 3Gb or preferably more. I'm sure I can manage until then with lower quality settings or enjoying some games from my back catalogue until then. Check out my new gaming diary at to hear about that.

If you can afford it, I can't recommend it highly enough, and you don't need the expensive monitors. You could get a set of three cheaper displays for the cost of one of mine. For example NRG:IT are selling some Dell 22" displays which are 1920x1080 for only £94 each. I'm sure the experience wouldn't be a great deal different, you just need to make sure your graphics card can take the strain!