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....

Friday, 13 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Two - The Emperor's New Clothes

The Emperor's New Clothes, The Blakeney Player, Blakeney, Norfolk. January 2017.

What a way to forget the grey, damp, chilly January weather!  As ever the Players have created a wonderful piece of theatre - this time their most faithful pantomime I think I've seen them perform, but of course with that very local twist.

As ever full of jokes on all levels: from the names (Sheik N'Not Stirred) to the lovingly ripped off famous productions (Miss Saigon this time) and the best ones of all coming from the audience ("Hello boys and girls" calls the Prime Minister, "Hello Nanny" replies a small child in the front row...!)

These really are shows where you have to be there to really find them at their funniest and the over enthusiastic smoke machine at the end of Act One (along with a miss behaving prop) really were delights but the whole show was funny from start to finish and it has to be said this is a group of actors unafraid of anything, including very cleverly done stage nudity.

It doesn't matter what sort of mood you are in before settling into the plastic chairs in the village hall as soon as the curtain goes up you are swept away by a tide of goodwill and enthusiasm which sets you up for the rest of the day/week/winter and has you demanding the dates of the next shows as you leave the hall.

(As ever knowing the cast means that I am always going to be incredible biased when reviewing anything the Players put on but I do think that their productions stand up there with the best professional shows,)

Monday, 9 January 2017

Theatre 2017 - Review One: All the Angels

All the Angels, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. January 2017.

Wow - what a way to start theatre trips in 2017! This play had appealed to me from the instant I saw it in the Globe's brochure a while back, and I was sad that I couldn't get to those first performances. When it was announced that it was coming back for the winter 2016/17 season I knew I had to go.  I'm not sure Rebecca knew what she was agreeing to but she gamely took on board my enthusiasm and we booked seats.

How to explain is the story of Handel writing and staging the first performances of the Messiah but it isn't a performance of the oratorio, nor is it a straight play about the writing process.  It travels from Chester to Dublin and is about redemption and the power of music. It is also a masterclass in singing and composing.  It was also utterly spellbinding and overwhelmingly powerful.

I've loved (the famous bits of) the Messiah for a long time and the power of the music was made clear to me when we heard excerpts performed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of their candlelit Christmas festival a few years ago.  Hearing the evolution of the music in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker was magical. The voices filled the space wonderfully and being both an intimate but still quite large space it was wonderful to feel the music filling the space.

The two subplots, one imagined and one real, did bind the music together and being interested in Shakespeare and performance history I really enjoyed Susannah Cibber's story while the Crow's provided a valve from the heightened emotion of the Messiah.

The use of the singers as almost actors was inspired too - they personified the power of music in a very clever way whilst being consummate professionals. Kudos to them all as they had to perform singing badly too which must have almost been harder than Handel's original.

I think that you can tell I loved this piece of theatre,  I could quite easily have sat through it again that day despite the discomfort of the seats. If this doesn't make my top 10 plays of 2017 then this year is going to be really brilliant in terms of theatre.

Now if someone can recommend a really good recording of the Messiah for me to listen to I'd be most grateful

Monday, 2 January 2017

That was the year I read...

The end of the year round up for me concludes with my lists of best books for 2016.

This was a year that saw me complete (and pass) my MA and find lots of time for reading. This year the grand total was 223 books finished between 1st January and 31st December.  There are quite a few I've started and wandered away from, none of them bad enough to give up totally on - just ones that failed to engage me at the time.  With so many read I haven't broken them down (yet) into fiction/non fiction or male/female etc.

In mid December I was asked to write for the work blog and list my top reads of the year there, that list can be read here along with the choices of my colleagues. After some more reading and reflecting many of my overall choices remain the same but I have made some last minute additions and alterations - books I remembered how much I'd loved them as I added the books from my journal to my spreadsheet.

My overall top fiction book of the year does go to my friend James' The Apprentice Witch.  It was such a happy read and one that I want to share with so many people that how can it not be my top book?  Before reading it I knew nothing about the book apart from the author but I know that as a child I'd have read and reread this one loads - it ticks all of my boxes, and while it is the first of a series it is also a complete story which is wonderful.

In non fiction my top book is actually one I read last year but due to restrictions that came with it I couldn't talk about it then. Philippe Sands East West Street went on to gain lots of praise (and prizes). It isn't an easy read but by heck has it stayed with me. I'm really sad that we were away when Sands came to Norwich as I'd like to have told him in person just what a brilliant book I found this one.

The rest of my lists have been really hard to compile - it seems that I have had a really good reading year after all!

Top Young Adult Reads 

Am I Normal Yet? - Holly Bourne. This was a World Book Night title and I read it down in one sitting. The sequels are good but didn't stay with me in quite the same way.

Chasing The Stars - Malorie Blackman. In the year of Shakespeare this retelling of Othello isn't just for a young audience. Shakespeare in space worked really well.

The One Memory of Flora Banks - Emily Barr. This was one of the last books I read this year, and as it was a Netgalley book it isn't officially published until next week but it was still gripping enough that I stayed up far too late to finish it! If pushed to describe it I'd say Before I Go To Sleep for a slightly younger readership, with added snow.

Nina Is Not OK - Shappi Khorsandi. Another 'issue' book but again one that had me reading from cover to cover avidly.  Coming from a comedienne it has a nice vein of humour running throughout but this never detracts from the serious point.

Top Fiction Reads

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Years Old - Hendrik Groen. Reviewed here.

The Infinite Air - Fiona Kidman. A wonderful tale of the first women fliers chasing records in the air.

Cartes Postales - Victoria Hislop. Reviewed here, and Father Christmas did take a hint and there was a copy of this under the tree for me!

Shtum - Jem Lester.  I read this early in the year and had almost forgotten it until I read through my journal, on seeing the title it all came flooding back - a deeply moving story about a mad dealing with a disabled child and a dying father. Put like that it sounds terrible but the writing was beautiful.

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain- Barney Norris. This made many of the 2016 'best of lists' and it is again a clever novel weaving 5 stories together.

The Summer Before the War - Helen Simonson. I can't praise this one highly enough, it really did make the summer before WW1 come to life for me and show what a shock the brutalilty of the war was for many.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment - D E Stevenson.  This was my discovery of the year, all about the life of the wife of a regiment's CO in the 1920s.  Reminiscent of Diary of a Provincial Lady, I'm now on the hunt for more books featuring the delightful Mrs Tim.

Top Non Fiction Reads (incl. graphic novels and poetry)

The Old King in His Castle - Arno Geiger, tr. Stefan Tobler.  I can't really explain this book, on the surface it is Geiger recounting his father's life and battle with Alzheimer's but it is so much more than this.

Eighty Days - Matthew Goodman. Two New York women set out to see if you really can go around the world in 80 days - one goes east, one goes west.

The House by the Lake - Thomas Harding. The history of Germany since 1900 told via just one house on a lake just outside Berlin.  Since reading this I've read a couple of other books that reference this village which has been a bit weird but added a lot to those books!

A World Gone Mad - Astrid Lindgren tr. Sarah Death.  Better known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books this was a fascinating insight into life in neutral Sweden during WW2, their ideas of shortages will make you laugh but it is a fascinating take on the war.

Frontier Grit - Marianne Monson.  The West of America is, rightly or wrongly, associated with cowboys, gold rushes and men so this book addresses this by telling the story of some of the women who opened up the West. Fascinating reading but I'm glad I can visit in the 21st century!

Food Fights and Culture Wars - Tom Nealon. A history of the world told via food stuffs as varied as carp and Bovril. Quirky and full of beautiful eillustrations from the British Library collection.

Marzi - Marzana Sowa tr. Sylvain Savoia. A graphic novel about growing up in Poland in the 1980s, before the fall of communism.

Jerusalem - Guy Delisle. I reviewed his books in general here but it is Jerusalem that has stayed with me as Delisle echoed so many of my thoughts about this troubled city.

Sentenced to Life - Clive James. This is the second year running that James has made my best of lists, and this time - to my surprise - it is his poetry book that I loved.  It is again a sad/morbid book but there is so much beauty and hope in these poems. As ever I didn't like them all but the volume as a whole was a delight.

The Print Museum - Heidi Williamson. In 2016 I got to be a shadow judge on the East Anglian Book Awards and this took me way out of my comfort zone with the reading I undertook but again, to my surprise, it was the poetry book The Print Museum that stayed with me - and I'm pleased  to say the main judging panel as it won the poetry section of the prize!

Here's hoping that 2017 will be an equally good year book wise!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Theatre of the Year 2016 - Good and Bad!

Top and Bottom of the year.

In 2016 I saw 38 plays.  It should have been 41 but for the being poorly scrubbed three off of my calendar.  I'll never know if Rattigan's Ross, First Light or Father Comes Home From the Wars would have made my top ten - from reading the plays I feel that First Light may have done but as this was a new play for 2016 I don't rule out the chance of a revival...

Let's start with the duds of 2016, not too many of these but they really were stinkers.

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany's heads the pack here.  Way to ruin a good film and a good book  in one hit.  The cat however was amazing!
  • Doctor Faustus was the other play I really, really disliked this year, although in its favour it started early and was short!

There were others that I found unmemorable but these were the two that I actually regret spending money on. The outings themselves were nice, and for one of them it was great to catch up with The Upstartwren but the shows themselves were dire.

Now for the nicer part. My top shows of the year, in no particular order:

  • Lawrence After Arabia - not as deep and detailed as Rattigan by any means but a play that left me curious and wanting to find out more about Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw.

  • Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins - this fitted in so well with my studies and the research I'd undertaken into Terry that it was a delight, and Atkins gave a tour de force performance.

  • Pride and Prejudice - not a book I'd read before seeing the play but the condensed version and retention of so many of the lines made this a delight to watch (and I've since read and loved the book).
  • Two Gentlemen of Verona - so much of this production could have made it unbearable but in the end it was very cleverly handled and some of the terrible misogyny mitigated by the actions of the female characters. I'm not sure I'd like all of my Shakespeare updated like this but for me this was a delight.
  • The Boys in the Band - a perfect comedy in so many ways but also a deeply dark and disturbing play. Not a weak link in the cast and made up for the dreaded words "rail replacement bus."

  • Madama Butterfly - I'm not 100% certain that updating of the opera by 50 years worked or was needed but once I'd got over this it was a sublime evening at the theatre.
  • Jess and Joe - months after seeing this I can still close my eyes and replay much of this short, perfect, two-hander. I really hope that it is rewarded at award time as it was just brilliant.
  • Merchant of Venice - this comes close to being my favourite play of 2016 as well as 2015. A case where rewatching a great peice of theatre was as good the 2nd time.  The ending still broke me.

Plays that nearly made this list were Pericles and The Tempest from the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the start of the year (but *not* Cymbeline!) and also Boys will Be Boys.

What I find interesting is that in a year where I went to the Globe so little 3 of their productions are still in my top lists with another 2 only just missing out...

It has been harder to pick my best of lists this year, I don't know if I am getting harder to please or if I just didn't see the right shows... apart from the two stinkers I pretty much enjoyed everything, or parts of everything, when I saw it - less just stands out now at the end of the year.  I'm looking forward to seeing what 2017 brings.