Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Eight

The Scottsboro Boys, The Garrick Theatre, London. October 2014.

After a visit to a challenging art exhibition Rebecca and I continued our day to see a musical - not a genre of theatre we see an awful lot.

We hadn't picked a light-hearted musical either as the Scottsboro Boys tells the story of 9 young black men arrested and imprisoned in Alabama after being falsely accused of raping two while women on a train.  At the first trial the young men are sentenced to death but this is overturned and the trial considered not to be legal.  Over the next years the trial repeatedly comes back to court and the same verdict is given - even after one of the women admits to having lied.

A truly shocking story by any account.

However this production is even more uncomfortable as it is staged as a minstrel show with the Scottsboro Boys being run by an old white man. It is hard to explain just how well this works and just how uncomfortable it is whilst at the same time being as fantastic as I found it. The bit that unsettled me the most was when the black actors themselves appeared in the 'black-face' of the minstrel show but then even this was subverted and reclaimed...

The actors/dancers/singers are all on stage nearly all of the time, many of them play two or three roles and the only scenery is some chairs and a couple of planks of wood and yet I was there in 1930s Alabama with them throughout.

At times the story is a little badly paced and as the characters aren't individually named at the start it takes a little while to work out who is who.  Right up until the last scene I was also very unhappy with the way the one woman in the cast was used but this all becomes clear in one of the best twists I've seen.

I didn't come out singing any of the songs and even now, a week on, I feel deeply unsettled by what I saw and am struggling to put a review into any form of coherency yet I'd happily go and see this again and have been recommending it to all and sundry.  Sometimes you can like a production despite everything, and it is good for me to be jolted out of my comfort zone.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Pictures at an exhibition

Anslem Kiefer, Royal Academy of the Arts, London. October 2014.

Rebecca was keen to see this exhibition but unsure if it was my thing (I am pretty conservative and mainstream in my liking/understanding/appreciation of the art world) but I do like to try new things and so off we went to the RA no thanks to the combined efforts of various rail companies.

In advance Rebecca had warned me that some of Kiefer's work was bleak but thanks to the excellent website run by the Royal Academy I watched some films about the artist and his work and entered the exhibition with an open mind.

Like so many exhibitions where there is an audio guide the first room was a bit of a nightmare with people walking in and stopping but after this it thinned out and there was plenty of space to really spend some time looking at the pieces displayed.

I can't say I liked it all, but I had a very visceral response to many of the pieces and some of them grew more and more haunting the longer I spent looking at them. Some of the work I found myself rationalising in to things I was familiar with in an attempt to understand them and a few (many of the ones including the sunflowers below) I treated like astronomy.  The longer you actually look directly at something the less clear it becomes, but when you look to one side you clearly see the image...

The real downside to the exhibition was that they had run out of leaflets/guides to the works and so if you didn't take the audio guide then there was very little description to help you understand the pictures and installations - this was liberating in a way as we could invent our own narratives to them but I'm pretty sure we were wide of the mark!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Reviews Thirty-Six and Thirty-Seven

Henry IV parts I & II (RSC), Theatre Royal, Norwich. October 2014.

This past week I have spent a little over 6 hours in the theatre watching the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV and even now a few days on I am really not sure what I thought of the two plays.

Overall I enjoyed the duo but not as much as I'd expected, and this isn't just because the theatre seats weren't that comfortable for that length of time - after all I am happy to spend this much time at the Globe on wooden benches in the rain...

Whilst saying that I enjoyed the plays overall I am hard pressed to think of any specific moments except the choreography of the battle in part I and the deathbed scene and aftermath in part II. Both of these captivated me wholly and were a wonder to watch, and the latter did move me. The speaking and singing in Welsh during part I were also impressive.

However it would be fair to say that had these plays been renamed Falstaff part I & II it would be a fairer account of how the plays were staged/directed. As I never warmed to Sir Antony Sher's version of the character this was a bit of a problem.  I felt no chemistry at all between him and the rest of the cast, especially Prince Hal, and thus when he was rejected at the very end it didn't feel a surprise or a betrayal - something I keenly felt when seeing the DVD of the Globe version and from reading the texts.

The direction of Hotspur in part I also caused me some problems as he was played as completely unlikeable, again not something I've come across before. For sure he should be hot-headed but there was no reason at all for Henry IV to prefer him over Hal in this version and rather than hoping that the underdog would win I wanted to cheer when he was killed.

Possibly the biggest problem for me was that from the circle I couldn't tell Prince Hal and his companion Poins apart and for much of the production (whether intentional direction or not) I felt that Poins was more imposing than Hal and thus I mistook him for the prince in many scenes.

It all sounds very negative, and after part I that is certainly how I felt, part II did improve the experience for me but it all felt very worthy and the joy that I've found in Shakespeare (even in the versions of Macbeth and Richard III at the Trafalgar studios) was missing here.
My complaints could be because the staging didn't work so well in a traditional, dark, proscenium arch theatre where the acoustics were not the best but I think that my unease and dislike of the production are deeper than this and again it is that I prefer the Globe's interpretation to that of the RSC.

I'm glad I saw this, and after the recent treat that was Two Gentlemen of Verona, I am a little disappointed in my reaction but it does confirm that I am right to travel to London regularly rather than struggling to Stratford.  I will keep trying the RSC versions at the cinema however!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce.

Proof provided by

A couple of years ago a very gentle book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was published and became a hit. I read it, enjoyed it and thought it an interesting premise. Over the summer excitement has been building for the companion book and I was interested enough to request an advance copy.

I'm glad that I did for this is an interesting book that faces dying head on but without slipping over into mawkishness or forced humour. It does remain moving and funny however.

In Harold Fry we follow Harold as he makes his epic journey on foot from Cornwall to Northumberland. This book focuses on Queenie - the woman he is trying to reach - and recounts her life as she remembers it, and how it intersects with Harold's alongside daily life in a hospice.

A book about dying should always be read with caution and this book will certainly not be for everyone. If I still worked in retail I would be cautious about recommending this to customers - it is such an emotive topic that people should come to it on their own, even fans of the first book should take care before reading. That all being said books on topics like this are important and the quality of writing and the ending make this a good, if sad, read.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Five

Seminar, Hampstead Theatre, London. October 2014.

I was very glad that I'd made the Friday a Globe double bill for although the weather started fair on Saturday it didn't stay that way!

However before the rain fell Rebecca and I managed to get to the Tower of London to see the amazing Poppy installation at the Tower of London. This is a truly powerful way to mark the centenary of World War One and the sight of that many poppies marking those from Britain who died in the war is mind blowing.

One small section of the final 888, 246 poppies.

After this the long suffering Rebecca agreed to accompany me to Gordon Square to see all of the Book Benches in one place prior to them being auctioned off for charity.  I love these projects of installation art with themes and spent a happy half hour photographing the front and back of all 51 seats.  Poor Rebecca sat under a tree with a book hoping that the drizzle wasn't going to get worse before I was finished.  We were mostly lucky and it wasn't until we were walking towards the West End that the heavens truly opened on us.

Wet through we made our way to Hampstead, dried out a little in a cafe and then got drenched again on our way to the theatre.  Not entirely in the mood for a play that hadn't had great reviews we took our seats.

Again I find myself out of step with other reviewers.  Seminar is an odd play in that it is all about the craft of writing. We follow four aspiring writers as they present their work to an expensive and well regarded editor/author.

None of the characters - including the superb Roger Allam - are likeable and all are almost caricatures of different types of writers/artists. For me this didn't matter as the play was about how and why people write and read, and I found it easy to transfer a lot of the ideas to both my studies in theatre and also my job in the book world.  I really could see several people I've met over time in all of the stage roles - not all of them flattering!

A play about writing is hard to talk about strangely enough as it sounds terribly dull but it wasn't, in fact I found it very human and very funny.

Concentrating at times did feel hard however as Allam was playing against characters called Martin and Douglas and his accent was just like the one he puts on on the episode of Cabin Pressure called Paris.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Four

Doctor Scroggy's War, Shakespeares' Globe, London. October 2014.

After meeting Rebecca, having a cup of tea, saying goodbye to companion number one and locating our hotel we returned to the Globe for the evening.

We started in the lecture theatre below the theatre for a "Perspectives" talk. This involved Howard Brenton (author of the play) talking about the play and then taking questions from the audience.  The talk tried very hard not to spoil any surprises in the play for those of us who hadn't yet seen it but at the same time gave us a good idea on how it came to be written and some of the research undertaken to formulate it.

I was most interested in the areas of the talk, and questions, that talked about how Brenton wrote the play for the space and the uniqueness of the Globe, and how the audience interaction can both be a help and a hindrance to the playwright and actor.  I was also really pleased to hear Brenton talk about how WW1 wasn't the first mechanised/trench war - he acknowledged the American Civil War! This is a pet peeve of mine - can you tell!

After the talk we had very high hopes for the play and were in our seats well before the start.

The plot follows three people Jack Twigg - a temporary gentleman with a commission in the London Irish Regiment, Penelope Wedgewood - a leading socialite, and Dr Harold Gillies - a pioneering plastic surgeon with a progressive and unorthodox take on medicine and the importance of morale on healing. There are many other incidental characters helping to drive the plot and in historical terms the play focuses on the Battle of Loos in 1915 and the incredible mistake made by high command.

The play purports to be, and the pre show talk lead me to believe, that the focus would be on the dramatisation of the real life Gillies and his unorthodox but effective treatment of soldiers who suffered facial injuries - he was in fact mentioned recently in the moving ITV series The People's War - however for me this didn't turn out to be the case.

For me the play felt like it was put on stage too early - I think that there are three excellent stories to be told, but that to develop them better each needs more space, or a play of their own.  Jack's story is fascinating and I wanted to know more of him in all ways, without spoilers it is also still very pertinent in asking what does being British actually mean.

Penelope undergoes the most radical of changes and has a fascinating arc to explore, especially in the light of last year's Bluestockings and as for poor Gillies...he was played by the ever wonderful James Garnon but was woefully under used and I felt that there was a lot more mileage in his character. It almost feel disrespectful to use a real person in such a desultory way.

My final grievance with the play was the jig at the end, I can't explain why but for me to see people dancing to Goodbye Dolly Gray and Tipperary seemed wrong.

On the plus side the play held my attention throughout the (scant) two hours, I laughed lots and learned lots of new things about a subject I do know well. It was acted brilliantly and the use of sound was incredible.  I hope that perhaps some more work is done on this play and that it does come back again as it is an interesting story, I'm just not 100% sure that at present the play tells it.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Three

Pitcairn, Shakespeare's Globe, London. October 2014.

I'm just back from another of my epic trips to London. This two day stay saw me take in three exhibitions, three plays and a 'setting the scene' talk at The Globe!

I'd enticed a new friend to London with me this time and before we went to the Globe he suggested a visit to see the Magna Carta exhibition at London's Guildhall.  The display was small but we still managed to spend ages looking at the document and trying to understand what it was all about.  We came to the conclusion that it was a wonderful piece of propaganda that seemed to be offering the common man a lot of things but that in actual fact it was firmly maintaining the status quo and protecting the rich! The one surprise for me was how protected women were in the document and how progressive society was towards us.
After this we also visited the Roman Amphitheatre buried below, and again although small was fascinating.  I shall go back and explore other areas of the building in the future.

Pitcairn in the afternoon was another surprise.  Reviews for this had been decidedly lukewarm and I was apprehensive - was my run of great new writing at the Globe about to be broken?

Absolutely not - from the very start I loved the play, the story, the acting and the use of space.  I wasn't hugely up on my historical knowledge of Pitcairn, Fletcher Christian, Captain Bligh and the Bounty but the story was so clear that this never became an issue, without resorting to too much back story narration I understood everything clearly.

My theatre companion is more knowledgeable in this part of history and he also agreed that this was a good imagining of what could have happened and neither of us spotted the twist in the story and the very funny denouement at the end. One element of the plot was very Enid Blyton but such was the story that it just added to my enjoyment. I was impressed that even a play about the Mutiny on the Bounty could get in the obligatory dig against the French!

The play was a bit rude, lewd and crude and I can see why some might not like it but for me it was a great piece of entertainment that made me think and also made me want to know more about the history around this version.  I also adored the jig at the end becoming a South Sea Haka.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Theatre 2014: Review Thirty-Two

My Night With Reg, The Donmar Warehouse, London. September 2014.

Not quite an impulse trip but one that Rebecca and I planned after reading several reviews and realising that this looked like a good play in one of our favourite venues.

We weren't disappointed.  The play is a very clever three act piece featuring six men all of whom know Reg in some way and it then follows their lives over the next few years as the importance of this friendship becomes known.

All three acts take place in the same room and it is very clever how they segue into each other, it is only by paying close attention to the words and body language that you you can see what is actually happening - even thought the play has now actually closed I am loathe to explain too much about this as this is so cleverly done that I don't want to spoil it for anyone who may see this, or who looks for a copy of the film.

The play managed to go from causing tears of laughter to tears of grief in a heartbeat and was totally wonderful, like the best drama it kept me guessing and the third act for me was a real surprise and shock, and I don't just mean thanks to the full frontal male nudity.

There was so much detail and nuance in this play that part of me wishes I'd caught it early in the run and had the chance to see it again but then it was close to being perfect when I saw it and perhaps a second viewing would have spoiled that.

I love the surprise of theatre - every time I see a good play I think 'that's it - I'm never going to see something that good again' and lo and behold the next play is even better...

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Bookaday September

I love that this challenge is continuing for at least another month, this time the questions have been posed by We Love This Book which started as a print magazine for book lovers from the team behind the trade journal The Bookseller but now exists solely on line.

As ever some of my answers went on line but here I do think about them all...

1st: Favourite book about books and/or bookshops
Torn between 84 Charing Cross Road  and the fabulous Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society both are contenders for desert island books.

2nd: Favourite book set in a school (Back to School)
Again two choices - stand alone novel is R F Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days but my favourite series would be the Chalet School books by EM Brent-Dyer.

3rd: Best Home Front novel (declaration of WW2)
Eeek so hard to chose for this one as I read a lot of wartime fiction, I think that Goodnight Mister Tom might win here.

4th: The book you bought for the cover
I love the Persephone books and am always seduced by the look and blurb, although not all of them turn out to be as suitable for me as I'd hoped.

5th: The book you bought despite the cover
Probably anything in my collection with the film cover as the book is always better, I really need to get a traditional version of Anne of Green Gables!

6th: Favourite book of short stories
Collections by Katherine Mansfield or Mollie Panter-Downes win through here.

7th: Favourite fictional monarch (Elizabeth 1st birthday)
At the moment I'm quite taken with Henry VI as portrayed in Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses novels.

8th: Favourite literary dinner party
Not a dinner party as such but the feasts described in the Redwall books by Brian Jacques always made my mouth water.

9th: Literary crush
It changes all of the time but one of the first I can remember is Peter from Heidi - I wanted to run barefoot on the mountain and eat bread and cheese for lunch.

10th: A book that gave you hope
I think the books written by Holocaust survivors fit the bill here, to come through such an experience and then write about it without hate gives me hope.

11th: Best book recommended by a librarian
I can't remember if it was actually a recommendation or an anti-recommendation but I know I lread and oved This is All: The Pillowbook of Cordelia Kenn after talking about it with a librarian

12th: Favourite Austen character (Austen Festival)
Shhh! Don't tell anyone but I've not read any of Austen's works.

13th: Favourite Roald Dahl character (Roald Dahl Day)
Matilda - the girl who made reading cool!

14th: Character most like you
Oh dear lord - I hope there isn't one out there, it would be a very dull book.

15th: Favourite Agatha Christie story (Christie’s birthday)
I've only read a couple but I did enjoy And then there were none but my copy had the original title!

16th: Favourite picture book
Diary of a Wombat is my all time favourite but for reading aloud then currently it is Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman.

17th: Favourite literary detective/policeperson
Not a favouite genre of mine but I liked Alan Grant in Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

18th: Favourite coming-of-age book
Never entirely sure what compromises a coming-of-age book but I do like Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name.

19th: Favourite seafaring novel (Talk Like a Pirate Day)
Think this one has to be The Cruel Sea.

20th: Favourite literary friendship
In fiction then I think the friendship portrayed in the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants novels is great. In real life I loved reading the accounts of Vera Brittain's friendship with Winifred Holtby.

21st: A book to turn someone into a reader (International Literacy Day)
This is a very personal thing and you need to know about a person before you can do this well but I know that Journey to the River Sea and The President's Hat have gone down well when I've shared them.

22nd: Best book recommended by a bookseller (Bookseller's Association conference)
Recently this was Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore which I'd never have picked up without the recommendation.

23rd: Favourite prize-winning book
Captain Coreilli's Mandolin

24th: Something to do with Gatsby/Fitzgerald/20s (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday)
Both the opening and closing lines from Gatsby are memorable and ones I've used in literary quizzes.

25th: A book recommended by your parents
We share books all of the time but as a child mum gave me her childhood copies of Heidi and Little Women, and I had my dad's copy of Black Beauty.

26th: Favourite poetry collection (TS Eliot’s birthday)
Not a huge poetry fan but do like Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and some collections of WW1 poetry.

27th: Book set in your favourite country to visit (World Tourism Day)
My favourite destination changes all of the time but I guess Birds Without Wings would be a desert island book and thus counts here.

28th: Favourite literary troublemaker
Paddington Bear although of course he doesn't mean to be causing trouble!

29th: The book that made you question everything
I don't think I've come across one that made me question everything...

30th: The best book you read this month.
I think that this will be Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk as I have recommended it to so many people.