Sunday, 30 October 2016

Postcards from a happy place in book form

Book review: Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop

A couple of years ago I read and reviewed Victoria Hislop's last book The Sunrise and was left a little wanting at the end.  I was therefore looking forward to this one nervously.

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to get a beautiful sampler to this book and my fears were allayed. This book made me think I was back in Greece throughout.

It has a clever structure that allows Hislop to pull together all of the little stories you hear in a place (but aren't enough for a full plot) along with the stories of two other people - all linked thought postcards.

The ending was a little too predictable and trite for me but it didn't ruin the overall effect and the whole time I was reading this book I felt like I was sitting on a harbour-side taverna in the Greek sunshine.  My copy came from the library and  I loved this so much I've asked for a copy for Christmas.  Greece is my happy place and this book took me there on a day I didn't feel well (and had to miss a trip to London).

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-Two

Jess and Joe Forever, The Garage, Norwich. October 2016.

A very brief review on line had me wishing I could see this in London and I got very excited when an Internet search said this would be in Norwich for one night only - tickets were hurriedly booked.

Why the interest? Well the reviews saying it was fabulous but nothing more for fear of giving away the plot plus the fact that it was set in Norfolk. How could the Norfolkbookworm resist? In a busy month the 70 minute run time was also a bonus!

Like everyone else I'm not going to review the plot more than to say it follows two young people from the ages of 9 to 16 in a series of snap shots of their childhood and it alternates between hysterically funny and tear-inducingly sad in a heartbeat.

It is performed by just two actors and they have you utterly believing in them whatever age they are being. Jess is a rich kid in Norfolk on holiday and Joe is a local.  The Norfolk accent is notoriously hard to perform and for the most part Joe is credible throughout, I didn't wince and it only occasionally slipped into generic 'yokel.'

I wish I could say more about this play but I don't want to spoil it for anyone else who may catch this on tour and I urge you to find it and go and see it.  I'm pleased to see that it has also earned an award nomination for the playwright, Zoe Cooper.

In a stupidly busy fortnight it would have been all too easy to skip this after a long, stressful day at work but I am so pleased we braved the unreserved really uncomfortable seats to see such a great play.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-One

The Boys in the Band, Park Theatre, Finsbury, London. October 2016.

Perhaps not enjoying the comedy Greek play had me offending the travel gods as neither of the lines to London were running this weekend and the dreaded rail replacement bus had to be braved.

Happily the play was absolutely worth it, act one was incredibly funny, pushing on farce and then act two sees a party descend into vitriol, anger and sadness.

This isn't a happy play, and none of the characters are particularly nice but as an ensemble piece it is terrific - not a weak link in the cast and so much to love whether in the lines or the acting.

It is a period piece, and some of the lines are eye-wateringly off colour but I feel that some of the nastiest 'jokes' were unacceptable even when the play was new - this is the way that self loathing is deflected out onto other people. Some of the lines are terrible, some of the actions of the characters are terrible but there are also some stonkingly funny lines and scenes as well as some truly tender moments. A great balance.

We also came out wanting to know more about the characters, the story was complete but I wanted to spend a little more time with the characters, to reassure them that things will get better and to know more about their histories. I don't think I'd accept a party invitation from any of them however!

Friday, 21 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty

Cambridge Greek Plays 2016, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge. October 2016.

I can't believe that three years have already gone past since the we had a really mixed experience at the 2013 Greek Play - this time without Rebecca who decided that once was enough!

This time the serious drama was Antigone and not at all a chore to watch.  The cast were uniformly superb as they performed Sophocles's play. This is the third in a trilogy but the story telling was so clear that from the start you knew exactly what was going on, and I found it an emotional watch. Even though this play is nearly 2500 years old the point couldn't be clearer and in today's political uncertain times a play reminding us that dictators who don't listen are dangerous. Is upsetting the accepted status quo the same thing as upsetting the Gods? The setting was also very clever (although one of my companions wasn't so sure), it reminded me of the wonderful Othello at the National Theatre - again something that predisposed me to like this play perhaps.

After the interval we came back in for Aristophanes's Lysistrata - the comedy.  From the outset the audience is under no misapprehension that this is being played for laughs - the surtitles even tell you so! In this play the women of Greece are fed up of the war and so go on a sex strike until peace is declared. Plenty of scope for humour, and this was really piled up during the performance and for me it just went that little bit too far. I had to spend so much time reading the surtitles that I lost a lot of the action on the stage and it was also so contemporary and politically up-to-date that I also lost the original play.  It was great fun, I laughed lots and it was wonderfully risque at times but I have no clear idea of how the original play panned out.

I'm really glad I went, and it was good to see a packed out house for such a niche production but again for me it was a game of two halves, and this time it was the serious play that was the hit.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Not a space oddity

An afternoon with Colonel Chris Hadfield, National Space Centre, Leicester. October 2016.

After the joys of meeting and hearing the Kelly brothers at the weekend we were on the road again to meet another astronaut - this time the Canadian Chris Hadfield.

We got to the National Space Centre in plenty of time and had a little look around before the event - yesterday however it was full of school children (all of whom seemed to be inspired and enjoying themselves) and so we let them explore and retreated to the quieter areas before heading into the Sir Patrick Moore planetarium for what had been advertised as a q&a with Chris Hadfield.

We were however thoroughly spoilt as we got a wonderful talk and slide show from Hadfield. he has a great sense of humour and this came through in the anecdotes he told and the slides he showed - from the space heroes he thought he'd emulate to the little boy sitting in a box pretending to fly! I'm not sure what the Space Centre team thought of his demonstrations of how water behaves however...

After the talk there was time for questions and again these were answered with great thoughtfulness. He made sure that the children in the audience got to speak as well and again deflected some of the more 'interesting' questions with great humour.

After the talk we also had tickets to the signing session and here we were really surprised and impressed.  Chris Hadfield wasn't sat behind a table just signing but was wandering around and really chatting to everyone who was getting a book signed.  Mum got to ask him about boredom - and again he said that you can't be bored in space (before adding that there are only boring people not boring things!) before signing her book, shaking her hand and giving her a hug. I'm not sure she's stopped smiling yet!

My question was something that occurred to me at the Kelly talk when they talked about their medical training as astronauts. I was reminded of this when Chris Hadfield took a break in signing to talk about his medical training - how would you give CPR in space with no gravity to hold the giver in place and apply the pressure.  Apparently there are two ways. Both people are strapped down, the giver by the thighs, so that the compressions can be given. The alternative is to put your feet on the ceiling and push down on to the unwell person.  After this I also got a handshake and hug so like mum I've also got a silly grin on my face.

This was a great afternoon, and it was so nice to find that Colonel Hadfield is as nice in person as he seems on screen and page. I'm now off to re-read his autobiography.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Sky Is Not the Limit

Space Lecture's Autumn Event: Mark and Scott Kelly. October 2016.

Another first for the amazing Space Lectures team - not one, but two astronauts to give the talk.  Not only that one of the guests only returned from space on 1st March this year.

As ever the event was wonderful, the Kelly twins make a great double act as they tell their stories with a great deal of humour and self-deprecation. There was also a great deal of light-hearted sibling rivalry on display.

Two people telling their life stories when these people have eight space flights and 500+ days in space between them mean that the talk is always going to be on the superficial side but I felt that I got a good feel for who these men were and how important their military and astronaut careers have been for them.

Both men were refreshingly open - Mark about the terrible events surrounding the assassination attempt on his wife, and Scott regarding the health issues he has (and still is to some extent) experienced following spending almost a year in space.

They took lots of questions - including mine (well mum's) about boredom in space: no they don't get bored on the ISS however long they are up there, many other feelings but not boredom.

The hour and a half event just whizzed by and although this was more of a motivational talk than in-depth biography/history as Tom Stafford treated us to in April but I found it just as interesting and gripping. I'm hoping that both men do write their autobiographies in the next few years.

Tickets are booked to the next event already - another Shuttle commander - and I can't wait.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Twenty-Nine

The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe, London. October 2016.

I saw this last year and reviewed it very favourably here. In fact by the end of the year it was in my Top 10 plays of 2015, this time I was with Rebecca and my mum - the former missed it through illness last year and after I raved about it so much mum decided she wanted to see it after all!

However as I loved it so much I was a little scared that it was a mistake to see such a great production a second time...

I needn't have worried as from the very start I was straight back in the Venetian world and wrapped up in the story.  Once more my sympathies moved from character to character and the antisemitism is still as shocking, especially the ending.

What I did notice this time around was the less overt antisemitism. Portia might accept Jessica into her house as Lorenzo's wife but she is always treated with disdain, scorn and is never an equal of the others.  The little looks and actions felt, in some ways, worse than the ending to me - far scarier that is for certain, at least the treatment of Shylock is visible and easy to call out...

By the end the three of us were moved to tears, and yet at times we'd been helpless with laughter.  If there had been tickets left I'd have gone to see this again. As it is I treated myself to the DVD from the shop and can't wait to watch it again.

I think that this will once more end up in my top 10 of the year!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Twenty-Eight

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. September 2016.

I'm used to walking into the candlelit Wanamaker Playhouse and being transported back to the early 1600s, thus is was a bit of a shock to walk in and find that there was 1960s pop music playing and the stage was set for an intimate music gig complete with electric lights. I confess my heart sank, after the recent reworking of Dr Faustus a 'concept' play seemed doomed to disappoint me.

From the very first moment however I was captivated. It was a very clever idea to bring an awkward play to life.  We started in repressed Verona with a young cast all in modest, drab clothes - a place that the swinging sixties certainly hadn't reached.  As they leave for Milan colour and life comes into the world and the music becomes far more upbeat. After the interval we've left Milan and are with the outlaws and now the costumes and music show this by being very 'hippy.' The music had my toes tapping throughout and this was before the audience was encouraged to join in.

The plot of Two Gents is somewhat slight. Valentine and his best friend Proteus live in Milan, Valentine leaves for Milan but Proteus stays behind with his true love Julia.  Proteus' father sends him on to Milan as well where he finds his friend has fallen in love with Sylvia.  All so simple, however Proteus falls in love with Sylvia too and goes out of his way to wreck the budding relationship - this all goes far too far as he tries to rape Sylvia before she is rescued by Valentine and Julia (disguised as a boy trying to discover what has become of her lover).

Even more uncomfortable than this is the way the 'boys' just decide the futures of the girls - fair enough that Valentine and Sylvia remain as a couple but the assumption that Julia will want Proteus again after his actions is incredible.
This production handled this nicely as after the boys have said their piece Sylvia and Julia take to the microphones and sing a lament - it is obvious that they are not accepting of the decisions made on their behalf.

The modernising of the play in setting worked for me entirely because Shakespeare's words had been kept (in fact lines from other plays had been added to one scene to huge comic effect!)and because his plots are universal I believed the story worked brilliantly with a sixties setting.

The cast of 9 were all incredibly talented actors and musicians and the comic character was reined in to maximum effect, and the staging of Crab the dog was very funny. A plot so simple could easily have been tinkered with far too much but in keeping everything as the original except the era it felt fresh and different, everything that updating of Dr Faustus failed to be!

I'm finding it hard to express my love for this show, for me it just really resonated, it started as a touring production and I really hope that tours next year so I can catch it again!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Artistically Inclined

Georgia O'Keefe, Tate Modern, London. September 2016.

I discovered O'Keefe's work through Ansel Adams. They took inspiration from the same locations and he took several portraits of her. I wasn't that familiar with much of her work however, although as soon as I saw some of her pictures, uncredited on posters, I knew they were by her.

From entering the exhibition I was immersed into her world, her colours and her ideas. Each room held images that I was instantly drawn too and even the more abstract works, which I usually skim past, had an impact on me.

I also liked seeing O'Keefe's work put into context with Stieglitz and Adams (amongst others) and I did spend a lot of time looking at them in detail too.

However as this was supposed to be an O'Keefe exhibition I was a little concerned how many of their works, and how much prominence they were given. At the start of the exhibition I did find that Stieglitz's works were overshadowing O'Keefe's, not in size or colour but quantity. This did reduce as the exhibition continued, and I suppose as he 'discovered' her and was her husband this is understandable but as the tagline for the exhibition is her desire to be taken as the best artist and not just the best female artist I am still a little perturbed.

Unsurprisingly the images from the American southwest were among my favourites, as an amateur photographer I love the colours and light in that area, I could feel the desert warmth shining through. I surprised myself however by liking the more abstract images - the desert through windows created by bleached bones in particular.
Pedernal 1945 / image from
Her images of New York just before the Crash of 1929 were also stunning. Although often stylized or impressionistic I found O'Keefe's work to be incredibly photographic in style, and her ability to make things look three dimensional was stunning.

I think that my admiration and love of her work comes from the fact that she painted scenes that I like to photograph and I now really want to go back to the desert.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Twenty-Seven

Pride and Prejudice, Theatre Royal, Norwich. September 2016.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Norfolkbookworm had not read Pride and Prejudice before seeing this at the theatre. Even the brilliant Longbourn hadn't inspired me to read the original but when a friend asked me to see this with him I wasn't loathe even though I did rush into the theatre straight from work and was a little hassled.

I am so pleased that I went, like all good theatre not knowing the plot didn't matter as the story unfolded clearly and with great pacing. Not knowing the original novel I'm not sure what was cut, I'm guessing some smaller subplots, as what we got was very linear and straightforward - I expected Austen to be more complex.

The staging for me was a little fussy and at times I was a bit distracted by it - a revolve has been built on the stage and the main scenery was a metal staircase/balcony. The cast and the props came in and out through this and the movements were all highly stylised. Quite a lot of the run time did seem to be the stage revolving and furniture being moved.

This sounds like I'm ambivalent about the show, and I'm really not - these are all niggles. I liked the actors and also the use of the orginal text into the script. I also liked the feminist message that came through without it feeling out of time for the play. It has also finally inspired me to read the novel.

This is the second touring production from the Open Air Theatre that I've seen and enjoyed in Norwich - I must make an effort to see one in their original location next summer.