Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Twelve - Travesties

Travesties, Apollo Theatre, London. March 2017.

After the wonderful performance of Hamlet in the afternoon there was always a danger that the second play of the day will be a let down and as Stoppard has a reputation for being 'hard'.

It started ominously when Tom Hollander shuffled into the theatre acting as an old man wearing slippers and a dressing gown. We then met all the protagonists of the drama in a crazy, frenetic scene and I was left feeling bewildered and totally at sea.

It calmed down in some ways as it became clear that the old man was the 'now' and the other scenes were his memories.  It got a bit confusing again when scenes started playing and then replaying themselves all slightly differently.

The plot of the play was full of information as the basic plot is that the old man, Henry Carr, is the British consul in Zurich in 1917 at the same time that James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dadaism) were living there and that all of them crossed paths in the library.

In this play they all get to explain their ideas and ideologies and so much information is thrown at the audience that by the interval my head was reeling. Oh and thanks to the stage props I was also craving cucumber sandwiches!

After the interval the play continues in much the same vein, scenes played and replayed interspersed with appearances from the elderly Carr. However as the play comes to an end you realise that the replaying of scenes isn't indicating the passing of time (as I'd thought) but the unreliable memories of a man trying to write his memoirs.  So much of what he remembers is incorrect that I came out wondering if any of the facts/ideologies presented by Joyce et. al. were true and this took away some of the shine of the play - I guess that I have a lot of reading around the topic to undertake!

Mixed in with all of this confusion are jokes, songs, dances and a wonderful sub plot comprising of a farce plus a play within a play and while I came out confused and questioning I also came out smiling after having had a lot of fun at the theatre - just unsure if I can trust anything I learned during the 2 1/2 hours.

Interestingly the one bit of the play I  know to be true involved Lenin, the Russian Revolution and his return to Russia in 1917. These historical events happened exactly 100 years ago on the day we saw the play which did add some poignancy to the play, and accuracy here makes me hope that the explanations of communism etc were also correct.

The programme summed the play up as Oscar Wilde meets Monty Python and I can see this - but I'd add in a dash of Open University to account for the vast amounts of information included.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eleven - Hamlet

Hamlet, Almeida Theatre, London. March 2017.

Reading back through this blog it becomes obvious that while I love Shakespeare seeing the plays performed by anyone other than the Globe often leads to disappointment.  I also struggle hugely with Hamlet as a play - my confession is that I've never really understood what the fuss was about and why this is considered one of the masterpieces of theatre.

I didn't enjoy the Barbican's Hamlet a couple of years ago and I had reservations about the was Shakespeare is staged at the Almeida from when we saw Richard III last year so why on earth were we going to see a four hour version of Hamlet at the Almeida?!

As the play started my trepidation grew yet further as this was a Hamlet in the modern world, complete with big screens and breaking news on cable television. Old Hamlet's ghost is first noticed on the CCTV...

However this version worked absolutely and the time flew, in fact I was quite sad as I realised we were entering the final act.  The updating of the setting worked perfectly, all of the cast seemed real and alive - they all had an (unspoken) back story and the tragedy that unfolded seemed real.  Hamlet was a broken man after the death of his father and swift remarriage of his mother.

When he learns that his uncle/step father murdered his father he tips from grief into insanity and although he claims he is feigning the madness I utterly believed that he lost his grip on reality and became mad.
Equally I believed that Claudius and Gertrude did love each other, that it wasn't just regicide and a power grab. The play was just a series of tragic accidents. The only time I fell out of love with this play was late on when poor Orphelia has become unhinged due to grief too. She seemed sidelined and unbelievable and her death/suicide was almost glossed over, as was the later graveside scene.

This small point didn't detract from the play however and for me this was a fantastic afternoon of theatre and  I finally see why this play is one of Shakespeare's masterpieces.

We decided to see this play mainly because of the lead actor, Andrew Scott, and we've been caught out by this before but our gut instinct was right. His delivery of the lines was spot on and at no point did I think I was watching Andrew Scott play Hamlet - I was just watching the tragedy of a Danish family fall apart.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

My own personal landmark birthday reading challenge

The Norfolkbookworm Birth Year Reading Challenge 

Being 40 later this month it would have been far too easy just to say that my reading challenge was just to read 40 fabulous books this year.  The problem with that is however I have already finished 60+ books this year and 2017 might not be a stellar year and there might not be 40 fabulous books...

Instead I've thought about this a little more and I've set myself twelve goals for the year and they all relate to books that have a connection to 1977.

This year I will try to read the following books from 1977:
  • The Booker Prize winner – Staying On by Paul Mark Scott
  • The Carnegie Medal winner – The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp 
  • The Greenaway Medal winner - Dogger by Shirley Hughes
  • The Whitbread Best Book Award winner – Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge
  • The Newbery Medal winner – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor
  • Miles Franklin award winner – Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Parks
  • Governor's General  Award winner (English language) – The Wars – Timothy Findley

In addition to these I also am challenging myself to read the following:
  • A book written by an author who was born in 1977
  • A book written by an author who died in 1977
  • A non fiction book published in 1977
  • A sci-fi book published in 1977
  • A book in translation from 1977
I will also try to see a play that was originally from 1977, as well as the Oscar and BAFTA winners - hopefully over the next 12 months I will manage all of this and  using lists from Good Reads and Wikipedia I might even discover some other great reads/watches from the year!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Reading with purpose

It has now been almost a year since I finished my MA and have been able to read what every I've wanted. Sure there have been some books I've been required to read for projects such as the Fact Not Fiction book club on Radio 2 but generally I've just been browsing the web, Netgalley and bookshops looking for things that appeal.

In the main this style of reading suits me fine, as soon as I am required to read something my obstinacy gene seems to kick in and I struggle mightily - I've failed as a member of so many book groups it is unbelievable, especially as I am such a bookworm generally!

I am feeling like I do need some sort of guide to my reading and so this morning I have been browsing the web, and other bookblogs to see what other readers have challenged themselves to.

Lots of the challenges appeal as they suggest reading from a genre rather than giving a title, and I might follow some of them 'unofficially' rather than signing up and feeling bad if I don't complete them.

The two that particularly appeal are the Bookriot #ReadHarder Challenge and then the Picture Book Challenge complete with a bingo card to keep track of your progress!
I particularly like the Picture Book bingo as these are books that I do rarely read, even when I was a bookseller I didn't read that many and so to get a little more familiar with this genre will be a 'good' challenge.

However the challenge that appealed the most to me was a really obvious one - read books from the year you were born.

This year does see me celebrate what is termed a 'mile stone' birthday and so what better way for a bookworm to celebrate than by reading books that are the same age?!

I'm just in the process of working out how to actually make this a manageable challenge but I'll post the details very soon and then try to remember to update my progress regularly!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Ten - Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! Theatre Royal, Norwich. March 2017.

I wrote about seeing this show, with my mum, when we went to New York and in that review I explained why, however cheesy the show is, I am always going to think of it fondly. I was wary of a return visit to the show - what if it was all location, location, location that made me enjoy it before?

I'm pleased to say that the slightly scaled down tour version made just as fun event as before, and in fact with a better behaved audience it might have even been just a little bit better as nothing got drowned out.

What really impressed me was just how much like Greece the set looked, and also just how well some lighting and a backdrop created absolutely the light and feel of a Greek island in summer.  The shutters were thrown open and with a simple cloth, a cut out tree and the lights I believed I was looking out over the Aegean sea.

I also noticed a lot more of the peripheral action this time, perhaps because we had such excellent seats in the circle, however there did seem to be a lot of character acting from the support cast which really added to the main characters.

All of the cast seemed in fine voice this week and once more my admiration for anyone who can sing, dance and act in ridiculous costumes is total.

However I think that my favourite bit of the evening came from the audience. Just in front of us was a family of mum and three teenagers. When it came to the last number/curtain call where audience participation is encouraged these three teenagers sat there literally head in hand in embarrassment as their mum danced and sang along - they really didn't want to be there at that point.

Mamma Mia! has a daft plot but it is great fun and I can even recommend it as a cold cure - I felt really quite rough with my first cold of the winter when I saw this but for the 2 1/2 hours I forgot everything and had a super trouper time, well worth the money. money, money!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

A reading holiday

A week doing nothing!

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have just spent a week in Tenerife where the only thing on the agenda was relaxing. For me this meant a lot of sitting around reading with breaks taken for lovely food and drink.

Once more the week's break allowed me to read 13 books of my own choosing - I have several review projects on the go as usual but I didn't take any of them with me.

So again in no particular order here's what I read:
Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth. I was intrigued by these books as so many people watch the TV series, and some that I wouldn't necessarily expect to be fans.  It has to be said I skipped some of the medical details but I loved the social history of the East End and I have ordered the next two from the library to see how things change as the years move on. 
The Smell of Other People's Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.  I heard the author on the radio last year and thought the book sounded good. It is set in Alaska just as it became an American state and the treatment of the indigenous people is the underlying theme told through the eyes of a group of teenagers. I'd forgotten that this was a book aimed at the young adult audience and in truth I would have liked it to have had more details and been longer but it was a really nice insight into another America. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Three Martini Lunch - Suzann Rindell.  This could easily be billed as a sort-of-sequel to Catcher in the Rye, none of the characters are particularly nice but the car crash of their lives made the book a real page turner. 
The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden.  Fabulous. Set in a Russia pre the Tsars it blends history and folklore beautifully. It was odd to read a book set in such a cold location while being in the sun but this was the best fiction book I've read for ages. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
The Good People - Hannah Kent.  I didn't find this book quite as good as Burial Rites but the clash of traditional beliefs and religion made a gripping tale as played out in one Irish village. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Once in a Blue Moon Lodge - Lorna Landvik.  Wonderful family saga from one of my favourite authors. Unashamed chick-lit which did move me to tears at several points. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
The Stars are Fire - Anita Shreve. Another chick-lit family saga. This one set around a real event in New England just post-war. I loved the first two thirds but found the ending a bit rushed and I'd have liked it to have been a bit longer to allow this part to match the bulk of the book. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
A Little in Love - Susan Fletcher. Eponine is one of my favourite characters in the musical Les Miserables and so finding a book all about her story was great. Sadly in this I found her to be a modern woman removed to the era of the book rather than a real character from Hugo's time. Fun but not the best fill in/ sequel to a classic. (This got a brief mention in my end of February review but I did read the majority of this while on holiday.) 
Idaho - Emily Ruskovich.  A nice idea for a book and the use of different characters to tell the story was good but the end left me confused. I had no idea of motives or what had actually happened. Subsequent reading about the book calls it experimental and for me the experiment didn't quiet work. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Little Deaths - Emma Flint.  Another book set in New York in the mid twentieth century and this is a book with a crime at the heart of it so quite an unusual read for me.  Two children are dead and as the mother isn't behaving as society thinks a grieving mother should it is decided that she is guilty of their murder.  A fascinating study into preconceptions and stereotypes. This has gone on to be nominated for the Bailey's prize and I hope it does well. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Mussolini's Island - Sarah Day.  A new to me tale set in Italy just before WW2 and all about the treatment of a group of gay men on Sicily under the fascist regime. It is hard to describe this book as again many of the characters are deeply unlikable but it was an interesting read and I want to know more about the trues story behind the novel. (Netgalley electronic proof) 
Greatest Hits - Laura Bennet. This is the life story of a successful musician told in snapshots as she is selecting her 'greatest hits' for a new album. This was a deceptively light weight book, on the surface it seemed like any novels about a person's life but Cass really worked her way under my skin and I was on the edge of my seat at some of the events and did have a huge lump in my throat at several points.  I really hope this does well. (Netgalley electronic proof) 

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson. Simonson's book The Summer Before the War was one of my top books last year so I was looking forward to reading her first book and while I did enjoy it to a certain extend I wasn't as bewitched as I'd hoped. The dry humour was fun and the challenging of long held views great but it did occasionally feel a little didactic.

Interestingly several of the books I read seemed to have connected themes. Two were about the clash of traditional beliefs and organised religion, two were about matricide, two included characters with eating disorders and several were all about challenging stereotypes/long held beliefs/prejudices.  Not all of these themes were clear from the book blurbs and so I found these connections intriguing.

Hopefully after this reading splurge I won't lose my reading mojo this year - however I think switching to reading some non-fiction will help this.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Talking Books Four: Reading Allowed

Reading Allowed: True Stories & Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling.

This book should be given to everyone who wants to work in a library, or thinks that we just get to sit around reading all day once we have the coveted job!

Paling's accounts of his life in a public library were like he'd just popped into our staff room and written down many of the conversations we have.  It was bittersweet to know that what we experience daily is the same as in other libraries!

People who like fly on the wall television, and blog-to-book style writing will probably enjoy this as well as anyone working in a library - but it will shatter a lot of people's ideas of what a modern library is.

The most important message I took from this book, and my day to day job, is that libraries are vital. They are still the heart of a community - just not in the way they once were. Please fight to keep your local library open - sign petitions, demonstrate etc. but most of all use it.  Where else can you get a dozen or more books for free as often as you like?

Friday, 3 March 2017

February Reading Round Up

February was another book filled month for me and for the first time in a while when I've looked back through my journal I can see that it was a month in which I read a lot of young adult fiction.

This was unintentional, one book did just lead to another but I don't think I've read so many in one go since I worked in book retail.  I'd forgotten how good they can be and reading for pleasure is what it is all about after all!

Highlights this month included those that I have blogged about here and here and I blame the latter for the number of sequels and reworkings I have gone on to read this month - these including A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher (Les Miserables retold for a teen audience from Eponine's point of view) and Lydia by Natasha Farrant (Pride and Prejudice from Lydia's point of view).

Another sort of sequel that I enjoyed was recommended by a friend at a book group meeting. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R King introduces a young woman to a mostly retired Sherlock Holmes and as she can almost match his intellectual powers they join forces to solve mysteries.  I think I will go on and read some more in the series but I did have an element of unease as I read this - the historically accuracy was a little out (WW1 dates in particular) and the close relationship of such a young woman with an older man was just a little creepy at times, although the action did mostly occur when Mary Russell was over 18.

Thanks to Netgalley I also got to read Katherine Woodfine's The Painted Dragon which again is a simple younger teen mystery.  I didn't know that this was the third part of an on going series when I started it and I'm pleased to say that it didn't matter as the book stood perfectly on its own but yet made me want to read the prequels. Happily for me a friend has reviewed this book on her blog so you can read more about it there.

In adult fiction the stand out this month was the next installment of Jack Sheffield's series of being a head teacher during the 1980s, these books cover my primary school years wonderfully and it is a slice of true nostalgia reading them.  Winters really were colder and snowier then even in my home county of Kent rather than the Yorkshire of the books.  Star Teacher is the tenth in the series and it is like catching up with old friends when a new book comes along.

There's one more book that blew me away in February but it was so special it deserves a whole post to itself - which will be coming very soon!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Nine - The Red Shoes

Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes, Theatre Royal, Norwich. February 2017.

As has become clear to regular blog readers I have developed a real love of ballet, and especially those choreographed by Matthew Bourne.  A group of friends contemplated travelling to London in the height of the Christmas madness to see this but as Norwich was announced as a tour stop we decided to see it closer to home.

Theatre location didn't seem to matter at all for as soon as the curtain rose you were fully immersed in the show and travelled between London and France with the cast as the story unfolded.

Although Mr Norfolkbookworm is a huge Powell and Pressburger fan, and has seen the film, I only had a vague outline of the plot in my head but as with the best storytelling that didn't matter at all as it all unfolded clearly and with great emotion in front of me. In fact when it comes to emotion on stage I think that this was one of the most erotic pieces I've seen as well as the most romantic - I utterly believed in the love and relationship of the two leads.

The set was so clever, for the most part recreating a theatre on the stage with the house curtains spinning to take you front and back stage as the action needed. When we were taken to France this again was clearly and simply shown with a simply balustrade and a back drop. I think the way to sum up the whole set is 'deceptively simple' with the finale coming totally out of the blue (for someone unfamiliar with the film) and packing an incredibly emotional punch.

Everything about this production was superb, the dancing, set, costumes, music all worked together to create a feast for the senses.  I think that special credit must go to the dancers who had to fake poor dancing as part of the plot - I can only imagine how hard it is to make something look bad while doing it safely and professionally.

As a friend said afterwards - the only problem with this show, and anything by Bourne, is that there are so many details you just want to see it again instantly to make sure you catch everything. Sadly for us however it is a total sell out in Norwich and this won't be possible currently.  I do urge you to give it a go if it tours near where you are this year.

This is definitely my show of the month for February and I think it is likely to appear in my 2017 top 10 at the end of the year.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Norfolkbookworm at the Movies: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (film and book)

Here's something you don't often hear the Norfolkbookworm say - the movie was as good as the book!

From reading past entries on this blog it is pretty obvious that I have an interest in reading biographies/autobiographies and that I am fascinated with space travel. Here the two passions collide and for once everyone wins.

The book by Margot Lee Shetterly is a great read, it covers the lives of many of the people involved in the early era of manned (and it was only men at this time) space flight but this time from the rarely covered point of view of the backroom women. In addition to this these women were black and living in a segregated America in a highly segregated/racist state.

The book covers their lives from childhood through their fights for education and then into their wartime careers where colour of skin temporarily mattered less than winning. After the war these women - incredible engineers and mathematicians continued to work for NACA/NASA and were an integral part of the space program.

I've read a lot of books about this era and I'd never heard of them so they really were hidden figures. I enjoyed the book but found it a little chaotic in style, however it covered so much time and so many people that I was worried how a film could ever be made from it.

The film sensibly narrowed its focus to tell the story of just three women and tightened the time frame to a taut two years or so.  This lead to a fast paced, tense story with real heart.  It also retained most of its accuracy and I do feel that if you just saw the film you would get a pretty fair idea of what the space program and NASA were like at this time. Apart from the amalgamation of NASA characters in to one or two leads the space history itself was spot on too if occasionally played a little too much towards dramatic crescendos.

I had two issues with the film, while I didn't expect the actors playing the Mercury Seven astronauts to look exactly like their real life characters the wrong hair cuts, especially on John Glenn really annoyed me.

The second issue is a little more nuanced - in no scenes where the actors depicted as smoking, and I really do think that in those offices where people were frantically trying to solve problems to safely send men in to space there would have been a *lot* of smoking taking place. Even in the climactic scenes of the film no one lights up in Mission Control and I know that is inaccurate from NASA images of the time!  Further investigation into this by Mr Norfolkbookworm gave the answer - if there had been accurate portrayals of smoking in the film then the cinema rating would have been higher and the distributors rightly wanted as many people to see this as possible! Full details on this here.

My final thoughts are a little more controversial, and point the finger at an American Hero somewhat:

In this film (and book) John Glenn is portrayed as the Mercury Astronaut who is the most accepting of the black women's roles. In the film his trust in Katherine Johnson is so great that he won't fly without her working a mathematical problem.
Yet... I've also read a lot of books about the Mercury 13 - the women who also went through the same training as Glenn et. al. (and performed better on many of the tests) - and it was Glenn's word that got their training scrapped and the idea of women in space, via NASA, postponed until 1983 - 21 years.

Since learning this I've always felt very ambivalent about Glenn's status as 'all American hero' but I guess that this just shows that no one is as good as they are portrayed and at least he wasn't a racist as well as sexist.

Digressions over - Hidden Figures is nominated for 3 Oscar awards this weekend, including Best Picture, and I would love for it to win. It is a heartwarming film, based on a great book, that shows viewers that gender and colour of skin really shouldn't be a barrier to doing what you love and being successful in it. #ThisGirlCan

Edited to add - Mr Norfolkbookworm has just let me know that his mum was also a computer, just like the women in Hidden Figures, in the UK and Switzerland - including on this project http://www.chilton-computing.org.uk/acl/literature/earlyhistory/p014.htm.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eight - The White Devil

The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. February 2017.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse really is the perfect place to see these wonderful Jacobean revenge tragedies. The eerie lighting really does let the evil of the plots shine through.

The White Devil was wonderfully nasty (in the best way) within this setting. The playhouse was dimly lit at the start and at first it was hard to work out who all of the characters were but as more candles were lit it became clearer to work out who was who and then the absurdity and evil really shone through, and as the play drew to a close the candles were put out and the room grew darker as the madness drew to a close. I don't think that the candles have been used to greater effect in anything I've seen in this location.

Vittoria is unhappily married - her family arranged this to save their own reputation and finances - and pursued by Bracciano who seems to love her despite being married himself.  We also have a scheming brother who will do anything, including pimp his sister, to advance his position, a disgraced Duke who will do anything to get back into the good books and then there's the corrupt cardinal and his lackey.

It is a revenge tragedy so no spoiler to say that by the end of the play the stage is littered with corpses - all of whom the audience doesn't really grieve over. And some of the deaths are wonderfully staged and incredibly amusing to watch. At the start I was concerned that the darkness of the plot wouldn't emerge as there seemed to be much overplaying of the crude humour but, like the lighting, this all just helped to show the true nature of the characters.

Since coming out of the Playhouse I've been discussing the play on and off with Rebecca and the Upstart Wren and like the best things I am liking it more and more.  As I said there are no characters that you admire wholeheartedly but unlike so many plays from this era I find Vittoria to be a believable and strong female lead. She is manipulated and used by all around her and yet throughout this production she remains strong and dignified, her crime is to fall in love with a man who is not her husband and then be caught up entirely in the wider politics of the time.

Unlike Rebecca I didn't dislike Bracciano completely, he is an out and out cad but he is also being manipulated by forces that he doesn't quite appreciate. His fickleness was played superbly and in the end he did seem to love Vittoria, however short their union was!

The true villain for me was Flamenio who had no care for anyone and would do anything to get what he wanted, the way he was played on stage actually made my skin crawl slightly.

On reading the programme on the train home I've learned that this production has cut text from the original and reassigned lines so I am now off to read Webster's original and see how it compares...

Monday, 20 February 2017

Talking Books Three: Sequels again

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

After the success of Holly Webb's Return to the Secret Garden I ventured back in to the work of reworkings/sequels to classic children's books.

Black Beauty is one the books that my dad recommended to me as a child, in fact I do still have his childhood copy on my shelves, and so to discover that there was a modern reworking available was exciting and nerve wracking!

Once more I am pleased to say that, for the most part this book, I really enjoyed this book.  Rather than being a sequel or prequel (something that the Pullein-Thompson family have already done*) this book took one small, but pivotal, character from the original and imagined a story around this.

Most of the story was believable, even the cross dressing, and Kuenzler's love for the original shone through and I found myself believing her version of the action totally.  My misgivings came in the London section when I thought the plot became a little obvious and unnecessary - although it had been signposted since the beginning. My quibbles might just be because I am an adult reading a book for children and so can spot this in writing more easily.

My main query about all of these modern day reworkings and sequels is hard to articulate - they seem to be so much easier to read than the originals. I know I read the source books as a child and these as an adult but they do somehow seem easier. I can't tell why though as I can't actually spot any clear examples of 'dumbing down' and in some ways these new books cover topics more adult and more explicitly than the originals.

It was good to be pleasantly surprised by this book and I think that the balance in good/poor reworkings has now equalled out so I will continue trying them with hope.

*I am 90% certain that I read this as child (I probably chose the book because of how thick the book was) and that it wasn't a book I reread unlike Black Beauty itself.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Seven - The Simon and Garfunkel Story

The Simon and Garfunkel Story, The Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone. February 2017.

I first saw this show in 2015 and even back then I knew that I wanted to see the show again. It has taken me a while but the duo's tour took in Folkestone on a weekend that I was in Kent seeing family it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

This time my companions were my mum and dad - and as it was thanks to them that I fell in love with the music it seemed right we all went together.

The show hasn't changed since I saw it last and once more it hit the spot totally for me - a great mix of the classic songs, some less well known ones and chat about the history of Simon and Garfunkel.  Again the two performers nailed the originals and it was a little like travelling in time.

Mum and Dad were doubly revisiting the past as they used to go to the Leas Cliff Hall to see theatre/bands long before my sister and I came along.  The venue did have some drawbacks as it was a little large for the size of audience in attendance and it was also decidedly cold in the room, but for me it didn't matter it was just like being at a concert again and I love hearing this music live.

Once more I was one of the youngest people in the audience but it was more mixed this time, and to show the true appeal of this music when we saw my 90 year old grandmother the next day she also professed to be a fan of the duo and expressed some regret that she hadn't come to the show too!

I know that I will look at this show's schedule occasionally and if it does come back to Norwich on a date I can make I will see it a third time.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Talking Books Two

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. Edited by Francis French.

I've read an awful lot of biographies and autobiographies from the early manned space programme but none of them were quite like this one.

Eisele died before he could revise or publish his memoirs and they only came to light a few years ago despite being first penned in the 1970s and boy are they frank.

Eisele flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, and it wasn't an entirely happy mission. This was partly due to illness and partly down to the temperament of the commander causing issues with those left on the ground - almost to the point of mutiny.

Even though ultimately the mission was a success it was never highly respected and none of the crew flew in space again and Eisele is not backwards in coming forwards in saying exactly what he thought about all of the treatment the crew suffered, nor does he spare his tongue when giving his thoughts on his commander.

Eisele also talks frankly about the behaviour of the astronauts when they were away from home, which has been alluded to before but never in quite such frank terms!

This book is interesting as it was put together by French from notes that Eisele left and I imagine that he had to also be respectful of Eisele's remaining family (sadly his second wife passed away before publiciation) but even so this is a book that fills in the details gleaned from histories of the era but never mentioned in the official autobiographies and biographies.

It probably won't appeal too much to people who aren't intimate with the players from the Cape at this time but I loved the background colour this gave.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January reading non round up!

I read lots of books in January and while none of them were bad nothing stood out quite as much as Take Courage which I did review at the time.

There are a couple of books which are worth mentioning but none of them are particularly ones I'm leaping up and down pressing into people's hands.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

This was a graphic novel based on the 1001 Nights, again a woman has to tell stories to save herself but this had a really strong feminist message as well as being all about the power of stories.  I missed some of the allegories but overall this was a really nice read.

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Back in 2011 when I set myself the challenge of reading all of that year's World Book Night titles I read my first book by Hamid and loved it since then I've tried others but did wonder if he was a one trick pony.
This book started the same way, I wasn't very involved and thought it decidedly off, but then I found I was over half way through and utterly gripped if incredibly unsettled.
It is a book about how easily a nice life can become disrupted and any of us could end up as refugees fleeing for our lives.

The book veered in to magical realism with doors appearing around the world for displaced people to travel through and it did get very bleak at times, however in our 'interesting times' it feels very pertinent.
This book isn't published until the start of March, I read an advance copy thanks to NetGalley

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A trip to heaven and hell - behind the scenes at the Globe

Heaven and Hell Tour, Shakespeare's Globe, London. January 2017.

As regular readers of this blog know the Globe and Sam Wanamaker Theatre are places that I like and willingly spend my time (apologies for the appropriation of Shakespeare for that line!). Before I'd even seen a show here, way back in 2010, I took the general tour and fell in love with the space.

When the extra special tour for Friends of the Globe coincided with a night Rebecca and I would be in London it seemed like fate and we were at the Globe before 10am on a Sunday morning for our tour of the theatre from top to bottom.

We were encouraged to take photos as we were taken right up to the very top of the theatre, in to the heavens, and then even under the stage to peer up through the trap door.  We even got taken down below this level to the room where (some) of the costumes and props are stored.
Our guide was wonderful and gave us a talk that included how the building was built, how the shows are staged, how the effects work, anecdotes from past productions and tidbits of information about plans for the theatre,  He was also wonderfully balanced and talked about things that had gone wrong and also what was incorrect about the building as has been discovered through research in the past 20 years - not least that the stage is built from the wrong wood!

I can't begin to replicate the tales so I am just going to fill this post with pictures from the tour!

We started on the stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

We then went, via the "dressing room" to the very top of the building, to the heavens.

The trap that lets people fly from down from heaven was then opened for us

We then went down to the musician gallery level

And then we got to go on the stage - the audience are *very* close!

The we went under the stage, right down to hell - it was surprisingly chilly!

Then we got taken to one of the costume and prop store, we were allowed to touch the costumes and wield a sword

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Six - She Loves Me

She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, London. January 2017.

After the confusion that was Nice Fish I was certainly a little bit nervous about going to see this musical on the same day. While I love the film You've Got Mail I was underwhelmed by the film that is adapted from The Shop Around the Corner and so the musical version of the same story could have gone either way. Then I saw it has Les Dennis in and to be honest my heart sank a little lower.

However this time I had a pleasant surprise. After reviving dinner with a glass of wine we arrived at one of our top theatres and the familiarity of the place, plus the knowledge that some of our favourite theatre productions come from this place calmed the nerves.

From the second the houselights dimmed I was transported into a beautiful, Technicolor whimsy that for two and half hours did make me forget everything else.

Again the set really needs to get a mention here as it was enchanting and revolved from a basic street scene to the beautifully decorated interior of the shop seamlessly. Then later on more scenery slid on and we were in a cafe/bar, a hospital and a bedroom - it all worked and was all so beautifully decorated and detailed that it really did look like you could step into these real places.  We were in the front row and seeing the small detail here set the tone for the detail and precision of the whole production.

The story could be hard to stage as the main romance is epistolary but as the protagonists meet in real life and dislike each other there is wonderful tension - they played the oblivious romantic connection really well and right up to the end there was just enough tension and doubt to keep the story interesting.  The subplots were also fun and this felt a real ensemble piece where everyone got to tell their story. Even Les Dennis was good in his role, and managed to make me feel sorry for his character.

The singing and dancing were great, the comedy funny and the right level of sadness/tension reached making this a wonderfully balanced show. I was also pleased that despite it being set in a perfume shop and scents being 'sprayed' throughout the creatives had decided to make this just visual and not olfactory - my imagination supplied the smells I'd like to sniff and not overpowering ones that cause headaches!

I'm not sure how highly it will feature on my best of lists come the end of the year but in a January that seems cold and bleak (weather-wise and politically speaking) this was just what I needed, pure escapism that left me feeling warm and happy.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Five - Nice Fish

Nice Fish, Harold Pinter Theatre, London. January 2017.

This was a play that Rebecca and I booked to see solely because it had Mark Rylance in it.  We know that this is a risky business. There is always the chance that the 'star' will be off sick when tickets are booked for the name but we've always liked the things we've seen him in so we took a risk.

I think it was worth it.

Let me start with the things that I loved. The set, which was visible from the moment we got into the theatre. It is a white expanse of ice tilted slightly upwards as you look at it more you realise that there are models on this, a town in the back ground with a light house and traffic and then also a small hut and a fisherman. These are used to great effect during the show as what is small and far away suddenly becomes life size with real actors, and then as the vignettes change these pop back to being models far back on the stage.  This is a really clever use of perspective.

I also loved the scenes on the ice with the fishermen that were 'real' the humour and affection between the two friends was brilliant, and the slap stick comedy very amusing. Highlights were the beer can, the mobile phone and the officious official.  These scenes reminded me utterly of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and also many of Lorna Landvik's Minnesotan set books.

I was however often confused watching this play, what was real, what was fantasy and basically what the heck was going on! The frequent total scene blackouts became annoying as I was scanning the stage Where's Wally style looking for the differences and then there was the breaking of the fourth wall and the final transformation scene...

I didn't dislike this play and bits of it were wonderful I guess that I am just a literal person who needs anything slightly surreal explained.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Four - Murder, Margaret & Me

Murder, Margaret & Me, The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich. January 2017.

I hadn't planned on a midweek excursion to the theatre this week but the arrival of an email while Mr Norfolkbookworm and  I were sitting in a local pub advertising this caught our attention.  Well to be more accurate it caught Mr N's eye - he is a great fan of Margaret Rutherford's work and she is also 'his' Miss Marple.

It isn't hard to persuade me in to a theatre outing and while I'm not a huge Agatha Christie fan the premise of the play sounded intriguing:

Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie didn't want Margaret Rutherford to bring her fabled spinster to life. And Margaret Rutherford was mortified at the prospects of sullying her reputation with something as sordid as murder... 
This is the story of the real reason why the acting legend and "the funniest woman alive" didn't want to take on the role that made her celebrated across the world. Margaret and Agatha form an unlikely friendship filled with high tea, brandy snaps and gossip. Meanwhile Agatha turns detective herself and she's on a mission. She's determined to unearth Rutherford's tragic and shocking secret.
I'm not going to talk much more about the plot, you either know the secret or you don't (Mr N did, I didn't) and the way the story unfolds is a delight if the story is new to you. Equally if you have a Norfolk Library card you can borrow the biography about Rutherford that this play draws heavily on.

This was an amateur production from the Norwich Player and while it was a little creaky in just a couple of places I was enchanted from the start to the end and more importantly this three-hander convinced me utterly that I was watching Agatha Christie and Margaret Rutherford explain their friendship with the spectral interfering of Miss Marple herself.

Miss Marple is the Me of the title and in a wonderful twist she was portrayed as 'my' Miss Marple - Joan Hickson! In a way she was the weakest character as she struggled with her lines the most but being a sherry drinking, interfering old lady this could be explained away as being in character.

The tow people sitting behind us commented on something I noted - just how much scenery kept being carried on and off stage. This is one of the things that can really bug me (it was something I commented on when I saw The Wipers Times last year) but when Mr N and I discussed this afterwards he suggested that it was another way of showing the utterly cluttered way in which Rutherford lived and so was a conscious staging choice.

I'm not 100% convinced but this niggle certainly didn't ruin my night out and for an impromptu night out on a very cold night I came away feeling I'd seen a very competent drama which was performed with poignancy, humour and great love for the characters.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Three - La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux Folles, Theatre Royal Norwich. January 2017.

Unexpectedly Mr Norfolkbookworm accompanied me to this which was a nice surprise, he isn't a great one for theatre or musicals as a rule but as he'd liked the film versions of this he kindly kept me company when Rebecca wasn't able to.

I still am unsure what I felt about this show. Visually it was stunning, the costumes, the set and the dances from the Cagelles were a feast for the eyes and the live music was very good, but...

At heart I thought this was supposed to be a bitter sweet comedy with a strong, but unconventional family being tested. This production was all surface humour, I found no depth in it at all and the dilemma that the son puts his parents through was so played for laughs that there was no poignancy or emotion to be found. Every so often pathos was approached with some straight acting and then the cast broke into song - and as only two of the four main singers could actually sing this broke the momentum time after time, especially as only two of the four main singers could actually sing well.

It would also have been nice if all of the cast knew their lines - this is a major tour with (allegedly) big names and yet three weeks in lines were still fluffed repeatedly.  Worse than this was the fact that I never believed in the relationship between George and Albin, they were supposed to have been a couple for 20+ years and yet to be it came across as no more than a working relationship. I know that after time the passion can diminish but here I thought it had vanished totally!

I did feel sorry for Partridge, playing Albin, however as there is one scene where he is 'doing' his cabaret and talking to the audience. The night we were in the house was less than a third full and as the Theatre Royal in Norwich is a big venue it must have been hard to keep the energy needed for this part of the show.

All in all this was an okay night out at the theatre, but I expected much more from a headline show and not all of this can be put down to the small audience.  It made me want to come home and watch the film again to remember that there is a good, funny, sad and enjoyable story to La Cage.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Keeping the resolutions and talking about books!

Take Courage by Samantha Ellis

By jove, Biggles by Peter Berresford Ellis & Piers Williams (Jennifer Schofield)

Non fiction always makes up a large part of my reading year and this year has started both strongly and interestingly with two very different biographies read for two very different reasons.

I picked up Take Courage by Samantha Ellis mainly because of how much I loved her book How to be a Heroine which I read back in 2014 and which ultimately made my best of the year list.
This book is a biography of the 'forgotten' Bronte - Anne and again I found it to be a book I couldn't put down - despite the only Bronte book I've every read being Jane Eyre!

The lack of knowledge of the books didn't matter as Ellis deftly wove enough of their plots into the biography to inform and pique curiosity but without giving away their entire plots.  I also liked how we learned about the whole family, but from Anne's point of view, in this volume - again a brilliantly rounded picture appeared. For me the winning formula was how Ellis herself kept appearing in the book, it made it feel a wonderfully personal story and I think that before 2017 is out I will read at least Anne's books if not more by Charlotte. I'm afraid that Emily's Wuthering Heights still holds no appeal whatsoever.

The second biography I picked up recently was that of W E Johns, creator of Biggles.  I expected this to be slightly more of a chore to read and indeed it is only because of work that I started it.  The library service's World War One online project this year is going to have a slight aviation theme and I knew that Johns had trained pilots here in Norfolk during WW1.

Despite being an avid reader of series fiction as a child I'd not read any Biggles (or Worrals) before and I know wonder if this was because of the campaign against him for being sexist, imperialistic and racist.

My eyes were opened during this read, Johns' links to Norfolk were deeper than I thought (although I will write about that for work not here) and his biographers make a compelling case that he was far more liberal in outlook than he is given credit for.

I've just started my first Biggles book, set in WW1, and I can see already how much his own war is retold in the stories but I will have to report back later on the case of sexism etc., however as during WW2 he wrote a whole series of books about a female flying officer who did fly I think that perhaps he was more liberal than later critics say.  The problem with the books is that they were updated/edited and republished in the 1960s and 1970s and so I wonder if this is where these ideas come from.  I of course am on the lookout for the three different editions of at least one book so I can draw my own conclusions!

So there we have it not yet the end of January and two books reviewed here and also proof that you can enjoy biographies of authors you've not really encountered before - even if it becomes bad for your to-be-read piles and bank balance!

Monday, 16 January 2017

The irony of my book review blog

I am well aware of the irony of this blog being called Norfolkbookworm when I spend much more time talking about the theatre.

One of my unofficial resolutions for this year was to write more about books and I think that to do this I am going to try and do a monthly round up of what I've read as well as talking about outstanding books as I come across them.

Watch this space as they say....