Monday, 31 March 2014

Theatre 2014: Review 10

War Horse (National Theatre Live: Cinema City) New London Theatre, March 2014.

Regular readers of the blog will know that this is one of my favourite shows currently running and I was interested to see how such an epic piece of the theatre would come across on the big screen.

I'm pleased to report that for me the broadcast mostly worked, and at times the camera close up actually added to the play rather than distracting me. This was especially true at the times the puppets were being manipulated to appear to be moving in slow motion. However the camera close ups were less successful when the horses were being carried to show jumping and especially when the little French girl is on stage.  Even sitting in the front of the stalls I thought that Emilie was played by a child, however this magic was lost on the screen.

I think that in the screening I saw well over 90% of the audience hadn't seen the play before and in the dramatic parts there were audible gasps from the room - something that I've never noticed in the large theatre building. That people were so swept up on seeing this on a screen is overwhelming proof that the play was suitable to be filmed.

The best thing - hearing so many people in the screen saying how much better the play was than the film from a couple of years ago.  Even the stellar cast/director couldn't make the film better than this play told by puppets.

Friday, 28 March 2014


London and Stratford-upon-Avon

It is coming around to essay time again and this term we can't just rely on books so I've spent some time recently exploring the archives at the V&A in London and those at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Both days have been really interesting, I work in a library that is connected to the local Record Office and that holds some rare books, images and ephemera but to visit some archives as a customer/student was really nice.

In both places the staff were incredibly helpful both before and during my visit and were endlessly patient with my queries about the catalogues as I tried to locate items relevant to my investigations and I think I have got some useful information.

The nice thing about both archives was the mix of people in them, there were some people doing very serious research, students and others who were almost there on a whim. It made the rooms feel very relaxed and open.

The only sad thing in some ways for me was that the theatre archive for the V&A is housed out at Olympia (in the building above) and not at the museum itself so I didn't get to study in the fabulous on site reading room:

I did spend an hour or so in the Theatre Galleries at the V&A before catching my train home and they were also wonderful - so varied. Everything from a poster advertising a Queen concert to a First Folio Shakespeare. The galleries are free and there is a daily tour which I shall endeavour to take at some point soon.

Monday, 24 March 2014

On the spectrum

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison

I've been spending a lot of time on trains just lately and this is great (as long as the connections work!) as I get lots of uninterrupted reading time.  Recently the book that captivated me was The Rosie Project.

The book has been around for a little while and a few people have mentioned it but recently Rebecca was really enthusing about it and as I had a copy sitting on my Kindle thanks to Net Galley I started it.

It is an odd little book and one that I really got drawn into, in many ways the plot is really quite predictable but that doesn't matter because the story, the characters and the writing are so good you have to keep reading.

The main character is Don, a university scientists and lecturer in Australia who lives by a very set routine and doesn't handle disruption well.  It becomes obvious to the reader in a very early, and very funny chapter, that he does suffer with some form of Aspergers or Autism, he however doesn't quite see this.

Don is lonely and decides to find himself a wife, using very strict criteria he thinks he'll have some success but this doesn't take into account Rosie and once they meet the plot really flies.  Rosie has her own issues and agenda which become clear as she and Don become friends.

The book is being compared to both David Nicholl's One Day and Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and while I can see why I think this book is more special than both of these, it just felt more real to me with the ups and downs being realistic rather than dramatic.

The book is being turned into a film but as ever I urge you to read the book first, although a little romantic this is great for readers of both sexes and pure fun.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Lost in a good book

Book Review: How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

This book nearly passed me by, but thanks to a tweet pointing me towards an excerpt I spent a very happy few days enjoying this book.

This book made me so happy - there is someone else out there who wants to be the characters they've read about. And there is someone who has thought about it even more than me - enough to write a book about it!

Samantha Ellis takes a look back at the female characters in literature that she's most wanted to be, and who's ideals she's tried to follow and then tries to decide if they are good role models or not. If they don't come up to scratch she then tries to find better ones.

I can't say that I'd ever thought as deeply about the subject as Ellis - generally I wanted to be a character for just as long as I was reading a book, although there are certainly some that have left me with a 'book hangover' and that I've found it hard to let go - many of Tamora Pierce's characters fit in this category.  However her thoughts have made me want to re-read a lot of books and look at them with the new ideas put forward in the book.

I hadn't read all of the books that Ellis talks about, and I didn't read those we had in common at the same age which may account for some of her ideas string me as new/unusual but my favourite bit of the book was that all books were championed from children's books to classics to bonk-busters.  It was the reading that was important not the book.

I find it hard to write reviews on non fiction that I've loved as much as this - it doesn't matter if you like books about books or are looking for a feminist rereading of classic books as this one slender volume covers it all.

I've already returned my copy to the library after strongly recommending it to two more people but I think I am going to have to buy this for myself and as a present for several people.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Theatre 2014: Review 9

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. March 2014.

The last play of the weekend was at the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and this time I had a much more comfortable seat - they've improved the cushions and there seems to be more space in general in the lower gallery.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle  was a contrast to all that we'd seen previously and as different from The Duchess of Malfi as can be imagined.  It is a play within a play and then some.

Players are trying to stage their melodrama but a 'citizen' in the audience is not entirely happy about this and insists that his apprentice should have a role. Once poor Ralph has a part the citizen and his wife spend the rest of the play trying to make his role bigger and thus subvert the normal play.

It could be a total mess, and to be honest by the end I'd given up trying to follow what plot there was, but for me it didn't matter as it was so funny, and well acted, that I'd have gone along with anything. Occasionally the ad libs and interactions with the audience felt more 21st century than early 17th but that aside it was fun. Pantomime for grown ups in the best sense and a nice way to finish the weekend.

Three plays, a visit to the British Library, a visit to the British Museum, nice food and a glorious walk along the sunny South Bank was a lot to cram into just over 36 hours but so worth it.  Time to start planning the next mad weekend I think...

Friday, 14 March 2014

Theatre 2014: Review 8

Red Velvet, The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London. March 2014.

With surprising ease we managed to cross London, find our hotel and then find this gem of a theatre. In fact it was the last step that was almost the hardest as the Tricycle Theatre is situated right on Kilburn High Road but hidden in plain sight. Once we'd collected our tickets there was time for a lovely cup of tea and slice of cake in the cafe-bar.  We did decide to have the Victoria sponge rather than the Red Velvet however - that just felt a step too far!

Now for the play.

Wow - what a powerful piece of the theatre. Put simply it is a play about one of the first black actors to make it to the big time in the 1800s. On a smaller level it is about acting styles, the importance of the audience, the power of the media and racism.

With so many themes you'd think that the play would be stodgy, but it is anything but and while that is mostly down to the fantastic Adrian Lester credit must go to the whole cast as there wasn't a weak link in the thing.

Once more this play linked in to my studies of performance through the ages and it was great to see various, now archaic, styles come to life in front of my eyes. It was also interesting to see Lester play Othello in this style having seen him in the same role last year at the National Theatre.

This was a straight drama but I don't think I have been so impressed by the actors in a long time. Lester convincingly turned himself from a young man just about to reach the heights of fame into an old, tired man in the time it took him to turn around.  Oliver Ryan, playing Charles Kean, terrified me.

I am so pleased that we had the chance to see this before it transfers to New York, it will stay with me for a long time.

For those of you wondering Rebecca was wonderfully patient with me as I got excited about seeing history come to life and listened as I regurgitated what I've learned this term.  She then took me to see the Picasso prints recently acquired by the British Museum and gave me a fascinating run through of how they were made.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Theatre 2014: Review 7

Oh What A Lovely War, Stratford East, London. March 2014.

March - the month of madness, well it was this past weekend as Rebecca and I decided to see three plays and an exhibition in just a weekend.  To make it even more awkward none of the plays were in the West End and the one tube line that made the schedule easy was shut...

It didn't matter in the slightest and the weekend started in East London with the revival of Oh What A Lovely War. Neither of us knew much about the show except that it was in the form of review, about World War One and the first 'anti-war' pieces.

Summing the afternoon up is still impossible, I was swept away by the show in many ways. It was very funny, incredibly well acted and sung and yet at the same time it did manage to portray the horror of war and immense casualty lists without seeming didactic.

However in the light of all of the books, television shows and films that have come since OWALW broke the ground it did feel dated and old fashioned and not shocking in the way it must have been in 1963.

And that is where my review founders because I had a great afternoon in the theatre, but even without knowing much about the show I went in with different expectations and feel disappointed that they weren't met. This feels very unfair to the show for it was engaging and fun, just not quite what I'd expected.

On another level it was very interesting as my studies in to the history of performance have just covered Brecht and I could see all of the theory I'd recently read acted in front of me - something that became a bit of a theme during the weekend.
My other thought was what a lot War Horse owes to OWALW, not just in theme but in staging choices, despite being such different takes on World War One.

I feel that I've damned Oh What a Lovely War with faint praise.  It was great fun, and moving, but perhaps just not quite so shocking now that the horrors of the First World War are so widely known, studied and written about.

Monday, 10 March 2014

What's wrong with chick-lit?

Book Review: The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg.

Fannie Flagg wrote the the book that one of my favourite films (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe) is based on and for once the book and film are very similar and I'd happily take either to a desert island.  I've read all of her books since, sadly importing them from the USA as they aren't always available here.

This book came from Net Galley and in a week that I was tired and a bit fed up it was a wonderful escapist read and it comes close to displacing Fried Green Tomatoes as my favourite book by Flagg.

It is a simple story to start - our main character has just married off her last daughter and and is starting to plan the rest of her life when a letter arrives and throws her whole world in to chaos.  The book then alternates between past and present until the two strands meet. It was also a really good book to read for International Women's Day as in their own way every single female in the book compromises nothing and carves her own path BUT at the same time had fun.

In many ways it is a predictable and typical women's romantic fiction novel but Flagg is a skilled writer and there are just enough strands of surprise and sadness to make the book a page turner.

I loved it - can you tell?

Monday, 3 March 2014

Theatre 2014: Review 6

Pixar in Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London. February 2014.

You know that you've infected your entire family with a theatre bug when your sister asks you for tickets as a Christmas present! Eighteen months or so ago the two of us went to see Fantasia in Concert at the same venue but this time we were accompanied by our husbands and my nephew, who although only 3 1/2 would go to the theatre as much as his auntie if it were possible.

We had a lovely time at this, I did wonder how the show would work as unlike with the Fantasia films the Pixar movies are whole story arcs and not animations set to music.  Very cleverly the films had been edited so that the sense of each film's story was given whilst the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra played the film's main theme.

It was a really nice afternoon which (I think) we all enjoyed, and I for one came out wanting to rewatch the entire back catalogue of Pixar movies - including The Incredibles which we didn't particularly enjoy the first time around.

The venue was splendid and just like the last time I went to the theatre with my nephew he was splendidly behaved and it is a real treat to able to take him out. Watching his delight is almost as good as what is happening on the stage and proof you are never too young for good theatre!