Friday, 29 January 2016

Responding to an Upstart Wren

Thinking about the classics

A close friend has just started a new blog which can be found here, and is well worth a read. She is much more erudite than 'wot i is' but we often end up debating books and the arts world in general and so when she posted her take on reading what are deemed 'classic books' it made me think a lot and here is my partner post to the Wren's.

Reading the classics
Although attending the same school as the Wren I don’t have quite the same recollections regarding English lessons, the fruits of being in a different form and then following an arts track through the years perhaps?
I don’t think we had to keep a book journal, but I feel that if I had done so similar comments about reading age appropriate books would have come my way. The TARDIS may not have featured on my list (I confess I was scared by Doctor Who as a child and so would never have sought out books on the topic) but there were certainly books set in schools, space and an awful lot of teen books with a didactic environmental message. 
There weren’t any classics however. 
I don’t know why.  As a younger child I raced through books such as Black Beauty, Heidi, Little Women, Pollyanna, Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden etc., and then I repeatedly borrowed the more modern classics, by authors such as Arthur Ransome and Laura Ingalls Wilder, from the library. The language and style of these is as complicated as any contained in an adult classic novel so I don’t know why I didn’t naturally move on them.
When I did graduate on to books published for an adult market (not adult books, that’s another whole can of worms) I moved onto authors such as John Wyndham, and R F Delderfield before the more traditional teenage fare of Jilly Cooper and Virginia Andrews.  
I missed out the classics.
Like the Upstart Wren my GCSE English course didn’t introduce them to me, although my teacher did pick drama as our topic and I did meet Shakespeare (although I now realise that this was an abridged version and not the full play) and J B Priestley. 
Interestingly on asking my English teacher for book recommendations when stuck in a reading rut I don’t recall being pointed towards the classics at all – Gerald Durrell is the author who I know I discovered at this point. 
I didn’t continue with English past GCSE, focusing on languages – in which I enjoyed reading French and German classics, occasionally in the original language. 
Fast forward twenty years and I am now nearing completion of an MA in Shakespeare Studies. More interestingly I still haven’t read that many of what are considered classic novels. I always intend to but then get side tracked.  
So to many my reading does have a big hole in it. 
I love reading translations of classical Greek and Roman works, and also Elizabethan/Jacobean drama but then I skip forward about 300 years to my next love – rediscovered books from the early twentieth century. Publishers like Persephone Books and Virago are just made for me.  They  republish books, or authors, that were hugely popular in their day but have since slipped into obscurity. I don’t mean people like Nevil Shute (who I also like) but people like Elizabeth Bowen, R C Sherriff and then the well-known authors of children’s books like Richmal Crompton and Noel Streatfeild who also wrote for adults. 
I read an incredible amount of translated fiction, literary fiction and also narrative non-fiction. I  like reading historical books set in all eras so my avoidance of the classics seems even odder.  I’m not even that keen on TV adaptations of them, but the reasons for that is a post for another day! 
I do feel guilty for having this gaping hole in my literary life, I know I should read more of the classics and I don’t even have the excuse of ever being expected to read them and so rebelling against this edict.  But – and here is the big but READING SHOULD BE FUN, and although I do read a lot for improvement/education I do expect to enjoy what I read and so far that hasn’t been many of the classics. 
I will keep trying new ones but I feel my split personality when it comes to books will keep me either in antiquity or the near past, for some reason I seem to empathise with both settings far more than the period 1700-1900.

As my studies come to an end in the next few months I am hoping to have more time to respond to thought provoking blogs and statements from friends as well as statements in the press, but for now it will just be the Wren and the Bookworm replying to each other!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Five

Mr Foote's Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. January 2016.

The joy of a weekend in London means the chance to see more than just one show and after Guys and Dolls our second show was this oddball.

Once more we went in knowing nothing about it, other than the fact that Simon Russell Beale has been fantastic in everything we've seen him in and I don't think either Rebecca or I were expecting quite what we got.

The story is that of Samuel Foote who was a theatre actor, manager, director and cross dresser in the latter half of the 1700s.  He was a contemporary of Garrick and Benjamin Franklin and lived an incredibly varied life,  he also had only one leg and was at the heart of a sexual scandal big enough to rival anything in the tabloids today.

The play is also by Foote's biographer and having read the programme notes it is quite hard to separate fact from fiction and as soon as I have finished my dissertation and have time to read about the theatre in a manner not connected to my specialist topic I will be hunting the biography down.

The play is very funny, very rude and very funny and shies away from nothing when it comes to making jokes, and I can see why this play isn't for everybody* but I'm afraid that is really appealed to my (warped) sense of humour and once I realised that it was pushing buttons to make you laugh and then feel guilty for doing so I was fine.

I very much liked the way that it brought in lots of minor points about the history of theatre and Shakespeare in the eighteenth-century, it was like seeing some of the drier texts I've read over the last few years come to life in front of me, a little like happened when we saw Red Velvet.

Act One ends very dramatically with Mr Foote saying something along the lines of 'how do you top that in the second half' and I did find this to be fairly accurate. For me the story arc wasn't quite so clear after the interval, but it was interesting to see how an over the top character can all too easily tip over a line and go from funny to offensive in the blink of an eye.

Several times the play appeared to break the fourth wall and address the audience, but in fact this wasn't quite the case - the cast were addressing an audience but it was the audience of their time and not us. This made the call for a 'doctor in the house' very odd as just for a minute I wasn't sure which audience was being addressed. Later, when Foote dries on stage, it isn't the modern audience heckling him and causing him to respond but 'his' audience which gave the me a very other-worldly feel, and let me feel the history of the theatre and the 'ghosts' very clearly.

The nicest bit of the play was that it had transferred from Hampstead to the Theatre Royal Haymarket as this was in fact the theatre in which the play is set - a nice (probably intentional) circle of history. It was also fun to know that a theatre I now see as being a very 'proper' building once had such a turbulent past.

I'm glad that this transferred to the West End and that we managed a trip to London before it closed as I think this is a play I'd have been really sorry to have missed.

*I wish the couple sitting next to me had left at the interval like they talked about as their audible disapproval was most off putting!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Four

Guys and Dolls, Savoy Theatre, London. January 2016.

January and seeing a musical starring Jamie Parker is starting to become a tradition, last year it was Assassins and this year Guys and Dolls. Once more I went in 'blind' so to speak as apart from Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat I didn't know any of the songs and I certainly didn't know the plot. I'd heard that it was about a floating craps game but thought that this meant it had a riverboat setting and not that the gambling roamed around New York.

I think that this is the way to go sometimes as it is a good test for a musical's book - at no point in this show did I feel lost, or did I forget who was who.  The two love stories are very sweet and, despite being writ large for the stage, very believable and the plot as a whole pretty coherent. All of the cast were on top form the night we saw this and they had so much energy - impressive for the coldest night of the winter so far!

The cast were all British but speaking and singing with American accents and I don't think that I noticed once this falter, although I'm not sure they all came from New York!  I thought I was going to find Miss Adelaide annoying as her accent was so over the top but this was needed for the role and she quickly won me over and I was totally on her side, and ready to do battle with Nathan on her behalf.

I think that what impressed me about this was the parity in the roles, a musical about illegal gambling could so easily have been one sided and just had the female roles as an after thought but in this production Miss Sarah and Miss Adelaide were so strong that it was definitely a four-hander. That being said there wasn't a weak link in the cast, either those with speaking roles or the dancers.

The Savoy Theatre is a beautiful theatre and we had excellent seats in the Stalls and although I primarily went to see this because it is one of Rebecca's favourites (and yes because of the male lead) I am so glad that I did go, I came out with a big smile which hasn't gone yet.

The production is coming to Norwich on tour later in the year and I may go again then, although I think that it will have had a major cast change, but something that has left me this happy deserves a second viewing. I will also look out the stories by Damon Runyon that the show is based on.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Three

Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre, London. January 2016.

My new semi regular theatre companion and I made the trip to London - it was his first trip to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and my first Shakespeare in the venue.

This is a venue that has grown on me slowly, now I know which are the comfiest seats it is a place I look forward to going to but this has taken time, I was worried that my companion would find it too uncomfortable and also would struggle to hear.

I'm pleased to say that we both had a thoroughly good time at this.  It is one of the lesser know plays and deals with incest, prostitution, piracy and child murder but it came together admirably and was believable where it needed to be which is no mean feat with the story.  The play meanders around the Mediterranean as the titular Pericles is buffeted from pillar to post by fate and throughout the afternoon I didn't lose track of where we were once, impressive when you work out just how many roles some of the cast were playing!

James Garnon was playing Pericles and I've seen him a lot at the Globe in the past few years, usually he is playing a decidedly comic role and it was great to see him in a more serious lead role, at least in the first half.  In the second half both my companion and I found it played just a little too much for laughs than our own reading had allowed and 'mad' Pericles' wide eyed mania was just a little too over the top.  However the revelations at the end do pile on top of each other and the plot is ludicrous and so I can see why this directorial decision had been taken.  He wasn't alone in this interpretation as Gower, the sage/chorus figure also got broader with her interpretations of the lines and laughter at the denouement was with the cast and not in disbelief.

After two seasons it was a delight to see some Shakespeare in the venue and the way that the sea storms were portrayed and acted was incredible - a simple rope net, a sail and then body language had me as convinced as some the most expensive special effects on screen.

I am so glad that I have booked tickets for all four of the winter season's plays - it will be fascinating to see how the further storms and ludicrous plots manifest themselves in this theatre.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Two

Sleeping Beauty and the Daleks, The Blakeney Players, Blakeney. January 2016.

as ever this isn't an impartial review - after all I do know one of the cast!

It was a wet and wild day when we ventured up to the coast for this winter's treat from the Blakeney Players but as ever the drive was worth it.

The simple tale of Sleeping Beauty was here reworked so that Frozen and Doctor Who were integral parts. The Princess Jean was a thoroughly modern girl in a kingdom who'd stupidly forgotten the events of her Christening.  A young(!), brave, athletic prince was found to rescue her but only with the help of some rogue female Daleks longing to become good enough to grow legs and lose their traditional form.

As ever the script and plot (which were extremely funny) isn't entirely the point of this play - it is about the cast having a good time, many terrible puns, some wonderful dance routines and a final gag that is so diabolical that remaining in your seat as realisation dawns becomes hard.

I'd love to know how Princess Jean managed to keep so still and feign sleep while so much was going on around her (and what tricks the cast played on her during rehearsal) and I'd also love to know who has taught the cast how to fall on stage with such comic effect.

I already can't wait for the summer show!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Theatre 2016: Review One

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: The Live Tour, Norwich Theatre Royal, January 2016.

Hurrah! 2016 is going to be as theatre-filled as the last couple of years and what a way to start.

A couple of years ago, thanks to the kindness of a friend, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I got to go to a live recording of the Radio 4 'antidote to panel games' and came away thinking that we'd never laugh as much again.  On discovering that the team were coming back and that this time it wasn't going to taped for broadcast we queued early for tickets.

On arrival we discovered that Graeme Garden was unwell and that he would be replaced by Miles Jupp - not something that upset any of us as he is very, very funny in his own right.

The evening progressed much like a radio show, it was possibly a little ruder and a little more on the edge politically than usual but by the interval our sides really hurt.  After the break it got better with audience kazoo participation and possibly one of the best "You'll have had your tea" sketches I've ever heard.  Mornington Crescent with addition of the SatNav had me nearly falling off my seat.

This was just the ticket to start the New Year, and a real antidote to any incipient January blues.  I will confess that some of us are still trading jokes from the show each time we meet.

If you don't know the joy of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue I suggest looking through the Radio 4 and 4extra schedules to look for past episodes, or visit your library and borrow the best of compilations that they are sure to have...just be sure to do it in your pants..!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Box Office Top 10 (or 11)

My favourite theatre 2015.

In 2015 I made 39 trips to the theatre and saw 37 plays, and it seems that this year there were a lot more that I either didn’t enjoy or felt pretty flat about.  

Unlike most reviewers I think that the Cumberbatch Hamlet and the Branagh A Winter’s Tale were two of the biggest disappointments – although to be fair the big named starts (Dame Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch) were both excellent in their roles, shame about the rest of the productions!

  • Assassins – I’ve never been so freaked out (in a good way) by a production before!
  • Edward Scissorhands (ballet) – this was pure frothy fun and a treat from start to finish.
  • Farinelli and the King – Mark Rylance (and the Sam Wanamaker Theatre) made this slight play punch well above its station for me.
  • Romeo and Juliet (ballet) – I studied and wrote about this ballet and the chance to see it at the Royal Opera House was the icing on the cake.
  • Measure for Measure – a real problem play on reading and studying but this clever production at the Globe ironed them out for me and I really enjoyed this.
  • Merchant of Venice – a hard play to pull off in a post-Shoah world but I think this production managed it wonderfully, the ending especially was very moving.
  • The Bakkhai - I love Greek drama (2016 sees the return of the Cambridge Greek plays and seeing them in the original language!) and I thought this was a clever way to keep very true to the original while updating slightly.  I didn't have the problem with the Chorus that many did.
  • Shakespeare in Love – I wasn’t sure, but Shakespearean adaptations formed a large part of my spring studies and as I prefer theatre to film I treated myself and don’t regret a penny!
  • Book of Mormon – I knew nothing about this going in except that it was hugely hyped and quite hard to get seats. It might be short but it is very funny – if you can get over the blasphemy, rude language and scatological humour, which I can!
  • Richard II – sneaking in at number 10 is my 3rd Globe production (4th if you count Farinelli). It wouldn’t have made it from the viewing early in the run, but it changed so much during the run that it was a different beast by the last night and a play I can’t wait to own on DVD.
An honourable mention has to also go to the Simon and Garfunkel Story which wasn't a play, a concert or a musical in the traditional sense but was a brilliant evening and also introduced me to new songs by the duo - something I was surprised by as I've been a fan for over 30 years.

Here's hoping that 2016 is a good theatrical year, I've already got 13 plays booked for the first 3 months of the year and this is before a lot of the Shakespeare productions get announced. 2016 will be big for the Bard as it marks 400 years since his death, and should also be big for me as I will finish my MA (and have more time for the theatre...!)

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Top books 2015

Better late than never but I am always wary of posting this too early and then reading the best book of the year on 31st December (it has happened!)

2015 has been an odd reading year, my diary lists 194 completed books but this doesn’t take into account the dozens of journal articles and chapters I’ve read from academic books as part of my studies.

The balance between male and female authors remained pretty close to as 84 books were by men and 107 by women. However as I said earlier in the year the sex of the author doesn’t bother me as much as the content of the book!

It has felt like I’ve read far more non-fiction than fiction this year too, but again counting through my records this isn’t quite so with 106 works of fiction, 23 plays and 65 non-fiction books making up the balance.

So after all of this pointless number crunching what do I actually recommend…?

Top 10 Fiction books (in no particular order)
  • The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (translated by Jane Aitken) – second book by the author of The President’s Hat, not quite so good as the first but still wonderful, escapist whimsy.
  • The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks – a retelling of the Biblical tale of David and his advisor Natan.
  • King of Shadows by Susan Cooper – a time-slip story for children set in 1599 in and around the Globe theatre.
  • Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickman – another delightfully whimsical story all about a journey allegedly made by Hickman’s parents as they return an alligator to Florida.
  • When Marnie Was There by Joan G Robinson – another children’s time-slip tale, this one set in North Norfolk so felt a really cosy read.
  • God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – I liked this one so much more than Life After Life even though it is very similar, hard to categorise but a really rewarding read.
  • George’s Grand Tour by Caroline Vermalle (translated by Anna Aitken) – as this book made me cry in public I’m as surprised as anyone that this has ended up on my top 10! I’m a sucker for road trip story and the two main characters stole my heart totally.
  • Hearts of Stone by Simon Scarrow – archaeology, a Greek Island I’ve visited and a World War Two story made this a hit for me.
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim – this one was recommended to me by two friends who were shocked they’d found a book I’d not read and they had.  They were right – I loved it but as a word of caution do read this book and not the ‘updated’ Enchanted August.
  • The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock – I reviewed this book back in February and even after 10+ months it remains my book of the year.

Non Fiction:
  • Oregon Train by Rinker Buck – a real life Little House on the Prairie
  • On the Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson – Bryson back on top form (if slightly potty mouthed) with his latest trip around the UK.
  • Latest Reading by Clive James – James looks back at his reading life, sharing old favourites and new finds with his readers.  A poignant and expensive read as I added lots to my wish-lists!
  • Blue Stockings by Jane Robinson – after seeing the play Bluestockings in 2013, and thinking a lot about feminism this year I found this book a fascinating insight into those women who broke the mould and went to uni early on to make it absolutely normal by the time I went.
  • Fallen Glory – James Crawford – it is a close run thing as to whether this book or The Last Pilot is my best of the year.  I loved Crawford’s take on telling history through the rise and demise of buildings and have been recommending it to all and sundry since finishing it.

It has been harder to pick out the best of 2015, I don’t know if I’ve become harder to please or if there was less good stuff out there…however as I have recently finished two excellent non-fiction books that are to be published in the middle of 2016 I think it may be shaping up to be a vintage year!