Thursday, 31 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirteen

The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe, London. March 2016.

After seeing such a good production of this in the main Globe a couple of years ago I wasn't certain that I wanted to see this but a friend asked me to go with him and who am I to turn down a trip to the theatre?  Sadly on the day he was poorly and I persuaded Mr Norfolkbookworm to join me.

The play was brilliant, the comedic characters stole the show but at the same time were reined in so that they never overstayed their welcome. For me the highlight was Ariel, she managed to be present on stage and act her role perfectly - she was a mix of petulant, put upon, rebellious and dutiful - the cast interacting with her also deserve praise as they managed to act as if she really was invisible even when she was touching them. Her relationship with Prospero was interesting too as again you weren't sure if she loved or loathed him.

Since studying Shakespeare, and this play in particular, I've learnt so much about the 'behind-the-scenes' stories of the play. The Tempest is apparently all about colonisation and this wasn't something that I had noticed in previous productions, but here it certainly came through for me. Caliban was just a native of the island and certainly was not a monster and he was certainly a victim of a European colonisation.

This production was also interesting as Ferdinand was certainly a stronger character than usual where as Miranda was weaker than others I've seen.  She was however very much the 15/16 year old the play describes but possibly just a touch too modern.

I'm heartbroken that my friend missed this as it is the best Tempest I've seen.  Mr Norfolkbookworm enjoyed the show too but is absolutely convinced that the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is just a form of torture and however tempting the production he'll just cross his fingers that it is released on DVD!

Monday, 28 March 2016

Holiday reading

Spring Break!

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I are just back from a week away in the sun. We both needed a break and the intention was to sit around doing very little whilst soaking up some vitamin D. I was doubly able to relax as the first draft of my dissertation was completed just before we went and so I could indulge in reading for pleasure guilt free!

I certainly made the most of the huge balcony and comfy sunbeds as I read 13 books in the week we were away! All that was distracting me was this view from my lounger:

The books I read (in no particular order)

Persuasion - Jane Austen.  I'm not sure why I've not read this before but my friend the Upstart Wren challenged me to read this on our break.  I wasn't sure at first but pretty soon found myself sucked in and I loved this by the end.
Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell.  This book came up as a suggestion on Goodreads and while I am pleased that I read it, I can't say that I enjoyed it. Orwell himself made me cross, especially once he got back to England but his insights into the underclass were interesting.
A Country Road, A Tree - Jo Baker.  I loved Longbourn by this author a couple of years ago and was excited to see this title on Netgalley.  I think my mistake with this one was leaping on the author and not reading more about the book as I found it stilted and the characters unlikable however once I got to the end and read the afterword it all made more sense and in retrospect I like it more. A warning to myself with this one! 
The Summer Before the War - Helen Simonson.  This was a pure delight to read, set in the summer of 1913.  War looms, and comes to pass, as the book unfolds but the book is not about the trenches - it is about how the war affected everyone.  This book isn't literary but is a delight and I was transported to the era perfectly.  This is a book I am going to champion for a long time. 
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - Mary Ann Schaffer.  After The Summer Before the War this book was the only thing I wanted to re-read as I wanted another book which balanced serious issues and whimsy. GLPPS is one of my 'desert island books' and I loved meeting my book friends again. 
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabther Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World - Matthew Goodson. I love the original novel by Verne (and the cartoon from my childhood) so I was intrigued by this book.  Bly was an investagative (and undercover) journalist in 1899 who decided that it would be possible to go around the world faster than Verne's Fogg.  She sets out eastwards... Bisland was also a journalist and when her editor heard of Bly's journey sent Bisland off in the opposite direction to both beat Fogg and her rival.  The book is part travelogue, part history and part biography and was all compelling! 
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - Joanna Canon. This is a much talked about novel set in the long hot summer of 1979, all the action takes place in just one street as two girls investigate a mysterious disappearance.  I'm not certain that I loved this as much as others but it was a good holiday read. 
Consumed - Abbie Rushton.  Abbie is a friend and I've been looking forward to reading her second novel since it was announced.  I really enjoyed this, it had a Norfolk setting and covered 'issues' in an interesting and new way.  It was a little more predictable than Unspeakable and possibly the issues were overcome a little too simply but this is a book for young adults and hopeful endings are always good. 
The Infinite Air - Fiona Kidman.  The early pioneers of flight lived in exciting times and I've long been fascinated with the female pilots such as Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart.  This follows the story of New Zealand's pioneering aviator - Jean Batten.  I'd not heard of her but found this fictionalised biography utterly compelling and a brilliant read. 
Eliza Rose - Lucy Worsley.  This is a young adult read set in Tudor times and Worsley creates a fictional foil to the ill-fated Katherine Howard. This book annoyed me intensely, it was simultaneously too adult and too childish and at no point did I warm to the Eliza or feel that the Tudor court was real. 
German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie - Monique Laney.  After WW2 many German scientist and rocket engineers were brought to the US.  With the start of the space race many of these scientists were relocated to Huntsville in Alabama right in the heart of the segregated Deep South.  This book is comprised of oral histories from all of the Huntsville community and attempts to be rounded but personally I'd have liked more of the histories and less focus on the Rudolph case.  More probing of the idea of possible Nazis (or Nazi sympathisers) being relocated to a deeply racist area would have been nice too as ultimately I am left with more questions at the end than I had at the start! 
Somewhere Inside of Happy - Anna McPartlin.  This was another book I requested through Netgalley because I'd loved the author's previous book.  At first I thought I was going to be disappointed, it seemed like a typical Irish-set, chick-lit read but the twist towards the end blew me away and while not quite such a tear-jerker as The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes this was still brilliant. 
Freya - Anthony Quinn.  A bit of a cheat here as I didn't quite finish this one on the plane home, but I was more than half way through before we landed.  Another real surprise of a book which follows one woman, her friends and family from VE Day through to the mid-sixties. It is full of unappealing characters but their voices and the plot is so good that I found it hard to put the book down, and I didn't want it to end - always a good sign.
Phew - what a lot of books in a short time!  Now it is back to the grindstone as I have to finish and submit my dissertation in the next three weeks, I bet I wish I was back here very quickly

Friday, 25 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Twelve

King Charles III, Theatre Royal Norwich, Norwich. March 2016.

A busy ten days of plays finished with another trip to my local theatre to catch another production on tour from London.  Although this had had two runs in the capital I'd not made it to either, I had however won a copy of the script from Twitter and so was keen to see the play when it was announced close to home.

The premise of the play is clear from the title, the Queen is dead, long live King Charles III.  However after waiting for such a long time Charles has ideas of his own as to how the monarchy should act and his first decision is not to sign a parliamentary bill.  This causes chaos and the slow burn of the first act ends with Charles dissolving Parliament in an attempt to get his way.  The secon act is clever in resolving this.

While pure fantasy this play is also alarmingly close to the mark in many ways and very thought provoking - like all convincing political issues all sides seem to make perfect sense, until you hear the next speaker.

In addition to the astute politics this play is a modern Shakespeare, many of the lines are in verse and as per many great Shakespeare plays all of the characters have their own defined way of speaking to highlight their differences further.  The staging is also very Shakespearean - all that was missing was the jig at the end.  King Charles III manages to also be like Shakespeare in that the blend of tragedy, comedy and history is all balanced perfectly to leave the audience off balance. I've seen reviews likening it to the great tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet but personally I found there to be a lot of resonances with both Richard II and Henry IV pt 1.

This is a long play, and personally I think the pacing is better in the second half. I don't know what could be be trimmed but I did feel that the first act was a little too long.  I'm really pleased to have seen this and as the theatre was full on the night I went I hope it proves that there is an appetite for new, complex plays and that they should tour.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Eleven

The Winter's Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakesepeare's Globe, London. March 2016.

After last autumn's less than brilliant trip to see the Brannagh version of this play I approached this trip with trepidation.  Brannagh and Dench are such respected actors and they were performing Shakespeare - perhaps I didn't like the play rather than the production, perhaps it wasn't as bad a we recalled it being...

Nope - The Winter's Take is a fascinating play and I am glad that I gave it another chance.

I know that having seats this time that allowed me to see nearly everything (no seat at the Globe has 100% visibility due to the architecture) was always going to improve the experience but this production was cohesive from start to finish, the actions of all the characters hung together properly. It is still a preposterous, confused plot but acted and directed well you can at least follow the story and see how daft it is.

The house style at the Globe made the jump from court to pastoral more natural and the costumes and setting were consistent, what was tedious at the Garrick became interactive here and also elements from this start to the second half continued all the way through to the denouement making for a much more balanced and consistent production. As ever at the Globe the comedy was played up but this helped The Winter's Tale and added to production far more than playing it straight had done (well for  me anyhow).

The use of the candle light was clever here too, and it made the infamous "exit pursued by a bear" part truly creepy, the Playhouse is very dark when all of the candles are extinguished.

The play wasn't without flaws, the first half was at times a little 'shouty' and on more than one  occasion actors fell over their lines audibly but on the whole this was a great afternoon at the theatre and proved to Rebecca and I that currently no one does Shakespeare better than the Globe.  I'm glad that I have two more productions still to see from this Winter Season.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Ten

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, Theatre Royal, Norwich. March 2016.

Talking about this production is hard, it isn't that I didn't totally enjoy it but at the same time I there was a lot about this production that left me cold - and I know these views are going to put me in a minority.

In fact I've been feeling so conflicted over this show that I've been talking about it loads with the other people I went with and each time I 'see' something new and simultaneously like it more and less.

From the subtitle "A Gothic Romance" you know that you are going to get something different from a classical ballet and I was fine with that - after all this is the third Matthew Bourne adaptation I've seen and none of them have been in anyway traditional. I didn't mind that the fairies were vampires and looked more like extras from a Tim Burton film, that was fine.

My worries started with their first arrival however where there was the beautiful music and the beautiful dancing but the two just didn't seem to correspond at all, I felt that there was no actual interpretation of the music.

We then met 21 year old Aurora and in her first scene she lays on her back, on her bed shows off her bloomers and rolls down her stockings - this is going to be quite a sexual performance rather than a sensual one...

The garden party scene was nice, and then at the end of the first act came the part I truly loved when Aurora and the gardener's boy dance together - they moved together beautifully and as well as being sensual there was character growth as Aurora threw off her sophisticated, sexualised, behaviour and became child like in true love.  The final scene with the enchantment was also very clever.

After the interval 100 years had passed so to highlight this we had a group of selfie-taking teenagers outside the overgrown, enchanted house, quite amusing in a way but when coupled with the huge projection of the narration to show time passing it all felt just a little much to me. This whole production made me think of other cultural references (Twilight, Tim Burton and Baz Luhrman's Romeo+Juliet) and I think this perceived lack of originality is what has really coloured my thoughts.

I liked Act Two but again it was very sexual, not sensual, and sometimes I had absolutely no idea what the dancers were trying to tell with their set pieces.  All of it was beautifully choreographed and danced but I lost the story, and again the only totally convincing scenes were when Aurora and her true love - the gardener's boy - danced together. The skill to dance that well and yet appear asleep/enchanted is incredible and at its peak reminded me, favourably, of Romeo and Juliet which is the pinnacle of all the ballets I've seen.

This sounds terribly damning, and I was very tired the night I saw this, but I am pleased I saw it - you can't love everything you see and I didn't (despite this review) dislike this ballet, it just wasn't as good as others I've seen and this made me sad.  I can't wait to see both more ballet in general and more Matthew Bourne ballets.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Nine

The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre, London. March 2016.

Many years ago my sister and I saw this but at the time all we could manage were seats right up in the Gods and our fellow audience members had no idea how to behave in a theatre. We still shudder at the memory! Fast forward a few years and Mr Norfolkbookworm sees some of the cast from this perform on Blue Peter and decides he'd like to see the show, all we had to do then was wait for our nephew to be old enough to sit through a full length musical.

That day came and off we all went to London for our joint Christmas presents!

This time we were sat on the end of a row very near the front of the stalls and for my sister and I it was like seeing a completely different show. Those who hadn't seen it were also spellbound! The plot is similar to that of the Disney cartoon but there are just enough asides and modern quips to make the spectacle feel fresh, funny and up-to-date. The cast were uniformly superb and being so close to the stage and aisle just mean that we could see the artistry in puppets and the puppeteers whilst also believing totally that they were 'real'.

The magic of the production worked on all of our party, the sad bits were sad, the funny bits funny and the comeuppance of the bad characters well received, not a weak link at all. A week on and I am still humming the songs!

I'm also pleased to report that the people sitting near us were much better behaved this time!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Eight (cinema broadcast)

Hangmen, from the Wyndhams Theatre, National Theatre Live at Cinema City.

This was a play that had been on my radar for a while but one that I wasn't quite interested enough in to scramble for tickets and fight with the trains to see, thus when a live cinema broadcast was announced I was very happy.

I didn't know anything about this play before going in and to be honest the opening scene was a bit of a shock, but really effective.  It set the scene between the darkness of the topic and the way in which it was going to be presented wonderfully and from the outset you weren't sure if it was actually okay to laugh.

Once the action moved to the pub it became even more claustrophobic and the worry as to whether or not you should laugh became even more pronounced. There were definitely comic characters but at the same time putting people to death is not a joke.

The not knowing what to think continued right through the first half, especially once we meet the creepy, sorry menacing, Mooney - even thinking about his actions nearly a week on sends shivers up my spine, that's powerful writing and acting!

I was thoroughly unsettled at the interval and this continued through the second act with the sense of dooming growing with every scene. I'm not going to go further here because I found the end to be very clever but at the same time asked as many questions as it answered.  I might not think of a family box of Weetabix in the same light again and run very fast if anyone asks you to "smell my hair!"

I'm pleased that I had the chance to see this on the screen and hope that more theatres join in the Live Broadcast schedule over time.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The 'Right Stuff'

Buzz Aldrin in Conversation with Brian Cox, The Science Museum, London. February 2016.

We didn't think we were going to get to this event as the day the tickets went on sale the Science Museum's website crashed and by the time I gained access all of the tickets were gone.  Talking with the museum's social media team on Twitter lead me to registering our continued interest on a waiting list and then two days before the event patience paid off and I got a call offering me the four tickets I wanted.

The drama continued as on the day of the event Mr Norfolkbookworm was poorly and this necessitated a huge change of plans, a mad dash to the train station and then an awkward cross country journey to London.  It was all worth it when I made it to St Pancras and met my brother-in-law and nephew. A very sad husband however as he is the original space-nut in the family.

On arriving at the museum we collected our tickets and then went to explore the space gallery, it wasn't too crowded at this point and we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits and explaining to N about the Apollo program. We also spent some time watching the floating globe waving at Nanny and Grandad who are currently in Australia!

From here we went into the big gallery and looked at the trains, planes, cars and of course the Apollo 10 capsule.  After a short break for lunch we made our way to the IMAX gallery and waited until it was time to take our seats for the talk.  Buzz's children's book about Mars kept us occupied during this wait and the museum's free Wi-Fi helped us look things up to add more details to what we were reading.

Once we were in our seats we got comfortable and then out came Brian Cox and Buzz Aldrin:

The event was then a conversation between the two men and started with the first selfie in space aboard Gemini 12, then talked about the Apollo program and the moon landing then went on to Buzz's plans for colonisation and 'universal' space cooperation.

If I am being honest this wasn't the best astronaut event I have attended, Cox tried his hardest to moderate and to keep the talk suitable for the audience (about half children under 10 - which was brilliant!) but Aldrin was a little vague and rambling. I was very impressed with the behaviour of the children in the audience however - my nephew included - as everyone was very quiet and respectful. After the moderated session the audience got to ask questions and although N and I had one we sadly weren't picked to ask it.

After this came the book signing and it was run brilliantly, I think that the Science Museum have been taking lessons from Space Lectures, and very quickly we were in line to meet Buzz and we were allowed to ask him our question in person "how did the moon smell?" It was very noisy and we think the answer was 'terrible' but Buzz made really good eye contact with N and they seemed to really connect.

We all enjoyed the event and meeting the 2nd man to walk on the moon is something we will all remember, I had heard him speak before but hadn't got to meet him.  

Before we went to the talk however N posed in front of the Apollo 10 capsule in a real astronaut pose alongside his class mascot Jelly the Giraffe:

We'd also talked about space travel and N had decided he didn't want to go to Mars right now as the journey is 8 months long and he'd miss his birthday, however he did want to go and visit Tim Peake on the ISS. I tweeted this on the way home and incredibly Tim Peake noticed the tweet and liked it which just made an already magical day even more special.