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The York Realist

Despite having a keen interest in this play with its North Yorkshire setting (I grew up not far from York), I have never seen or read it.  My expectations were high as the reviews had been glowing, and I had taken part in one of the Donmar’s Open Workshops on it the morning of the day I had seen it

– and a big plug here for the Workshop which was excellent and a huge thank you to Lynette Linton for running it with such infectious enthusiasm –

but I have to say ultimately I was left slightly disappointed, without quite being able to put my finger on why.  I know that the 2002 Royal Court production of it, directed by  the playwright Peter Gill, was half an hour longer than this, despite no changes to the text.  (At that time it received very mixed reviews.)  It is mostly a realistic play set in the kitchen and main room of a Yorkshire farmhouse, in 1962, and it is peopled with the family and local community.  It is framed by a beautiful timeslip and is not a long play, short enough that I wondered if it could have done without the mid-point interval to keep it burning.

Perhaps it is too subtle; perhaps it needs more than one viewing or reading.  The actors are uniformly excellent, but even so Jonathan Bailey and Ben Batt, the development of whose love for each other the play charts, are powerful players.  The former a Southerner, the latter a man of the land which surrounds the cottage (Batt’s thrice repetition of “I live here” is profoundly moving), the play slightly subverts expectations in the way the men behave with each other. Even saying that, though, there is a flicker of emotion across Batt’s face as George leaves to go upstairs with John which, not visible to a lot of the audience, showed him not being all he seemed to be.  As George is playing a part in the York Mystery plays on which John, up from London, is the Assistant Director  – and indeed John emphasises what a good actor George is in the Plays –  that flicker of emotion is therefore perhaps a telling moment.

It is a play in which much action and passing of time are not experienced directly by the audience. The Mystery Plays, which could be the unwitnessed core of the play, didn’t overshadow it enough for me.  The family are united in their pleasure of seeing the Plays when they return to the cottage, and George quotes a couple of lines from it at the very end (which I didn’t hear clearly).  We know George’s character in the Plays is one who torments Jesus, which seems at odd with his “real” self. For anyone not knowing anything about the Mystery Plays, then the point of them just seems prosaically to get John to meet George.

This is not a play of symbolism as such.  It looks to class, sexuality, conformity, change, fear and questions where we find happiness. It is left up to the audience to fill in gaps.  No character is simplistic or easy to analyse.  Yet, as I write this I keep coming back to the thought that it is too subtle for one viewing.  Ben Batt has found his George from the text and he gives so much, some of which is almost too painful to watch on stage.  He becomes George on stage, having evolved through rehearsal and continuing to do so through public performance. This thought leaves me wondering if the text of the play as a whole, like the love it contains, has been left not fully grown.

Fanny and Alexander

(Probably best to skip/skim read the second paragraph)

My favourite film, in the sense that it is the film closest to my heart and affects me on a personal level like no other, is Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.

Scandinavian 19th century drama has fascinated me since I studied Drama at university, and my love of it led me into the theatre and film world of Bergman. In my twenties I had a tendency (as many others) to get obsessive, and I duly did with the films of Bergman.  (I was partly “cured” by attending pretty much every film in a National Film Theatre [as was] Bergmann retrospective years ago and quickly realised what’s too much of a good thing.)  Bergman’s films capture life (and death) as I understand it and as I want it to be.  Fanny and Alexander, his swansong, was the film he made to retire from directing film.  I have seen the cinema three hour version many times, and only once the original five hours plus TV version (now unavailable in UK, although I do have it on video and I can’t get our ancient unused video player to work).  I also saw Bergman’s own directed Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican in 2003 with Pernilla August, who plays Maj in Fanny and Alexander.

I could go on and on and on…and on, so in summary: I’m fascinated with 19th century Scandinavian drama, the life and works of Ingmar Bergman, and therefore Fanny and Alexander is my desert island film. Being in a quandary as to whether to book to see this stage adaptation of it at the Old Vic, I twittered something to that effect, and a quiet Irish lady asked me why would I pass the opportunity to see the great Penelope Wilton on stage….

Why indeed? And what a fool I would have been to pass it.

In a nutshell, to save you reading any further, I absolutely loved it.

Of course Penelope Wilton as Helena Ekdahl, the Grandmother and core of the Ekdahl family whose story this is, was stupendous and held the stage and audience with barely the raising of an eyebrow.  I learned only recently that Gunn Wallgrenn, one of Sweden’s greatest actors who played the part of  Helena in the film was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after finishing filming and died the following year, which adds huge poignancy to her performance. Penelope Wilton is very wonderfully different, as are all the actors.  I had been afraid that a stage interpretation of the film would weaken it for me, but the story is so strong and the acting at the Old Vic so excellent, it passed my critical test of fire.  And the actors who played Fanny and Alexander were extraordinary.  They are on stage for much of the the three hours.   Of the four child casts, we saw Misha Handley as Alexander who has a large speaking part.  Katie Simons was Fanny, younger and with less speaking but I watched her witnessing a scene where Alexander battles with his Bishop stepfather, and saw her quietly give such natural and convincing facial expressions.  They both gave the adults a run for their money.

What the stage version could never replicate is the visual beauty of the film, its sumptuousness and its austerity, and wisely they had made a virtue of this in Tom Pye’s design with Alex Baranowski’s lighting. The second act in a stylised box for the Bishop’s harsh house worked particularly well.  I really liked Stephen Beresford’s adaptation idea to punctuate the action simply with recited lists of the food that the Ekdahl’s eat which is so lavishly visualised in the film.

There were moments I don’t remember from the film which must have been taken from the television original.  There was much cut, but nothing that bothered me.  The last act is perhaps the least successful, and if I have a criticism it is that the grotesque, fantastic magic of it in the film could have had a more engaging theatrical visual language.  There are effective stage illusions but I felt they were not pushed far enough. It could have been truly breathtaking.

I haven’t touched on its ideas and portrayal of the relationship between actors  and the theatre, with life itself.  Maybe another blog post.  To finish here, Fanny and Alexander fills me with awe and wonder, if you’ll forgive that overused phrase. The fullness of life bursts out of it: the joy and pain of family, the suffering from death and loneliness, the agony of self loathing and the damage that causes, the necessity of laughter and of humour in all things, and a mixing of religion, superstition and magic into something “other”.  It offers the mystery of what it means to be human

Beginning Of Food

Kiwi fruit, porridge, banana, pie, yogurt, Peroni, Chablis, cupcakes, cherry, pesto, shoulder of lamb, fish finger sandwich, scotch egg, tomato ketchup, hot dog, sausage roll, lemon, salami, artichoke, mushroom crostini, HP Sauce, cheeseballs, bag of crisps, wine, candyfloss, eggs, bacon, ale, bitter, sausage-meat, toast, breadcrumbs, “dirty Ginsters”, cheese & pineapple, pickle.

I feel a PhD coming on.

(with apologies to David Eldridge)


I suppose true sexual equality will come when a general called Anthea is found having an unwise lunch with a young unreliable male model from Spain.

John Mortimer

I Need A Job (Again)

I really need a job from March 26th.  I’m clean and tidy, can use a knife and fork and tie my own shoelaces.

All  offers and suggestions gratefully received.

Anything involving writing and/or the theatre would make me too happy for words.



If I see Keep Calm and Carry On anywhere today…….be warned.

Waterstones Sale

Can recommend Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

Waterstones Sale – click here



One of my most important jobs at the moment on Beginning (now showing at the Ambassadors Theatre – book early) is Audience Watch.  It is in fact vital to the smooth running of the evening.  I may (or may not) be seated in such a position that I can see out over a large swathe of the auditorium.  There is a chandelier in the middle of the ceiling and some Wit on the company said I “look like the Phantom of the Opera” and that they “wouldn’t walk under the chandelier with you sitting there”.

I digress.

The point is, I can see the audience coming in to take their seats.  They can be categorised as follows:

The Faffers – I mean really, does it take THAT long to find your seat, take off your coat and sit down. Apparently it does.

The Fashion Statements – usually (but not always) female and involves large hats, and scarves.

The Picnickers – sandwiches, glasses of fizzy wine (masquerading as champagne), crisps.  The sort of thing you take to the Heath on a summer’s day.

The Tinklers – generally about 7.32pm one of them will go off to the loo.*

The Cocktail Party  Guests – stand with drinks in their hands at their seats looking all around

The Rather-Be-Somewhere-Elsers –  involves looking at mobile phones which continues into the performance.  Obviously thought they’d booked for The Mousetrap next door.

The Quaffers – usually seated in the middle of a full row, need a drink in each hand and have to get to seat at the last minute.

The Arctic Explorers – wild horses will not get them to take off that coat

The Passepartouts – three attempts to find the correct seat

The House Movers – Passepartouts plus lots of bags and coats

*in fairness I have to visit the Little Boys’ Room about three times in the 45 minutes before curtain up.  I think the Front of House Staff pity me slightly.

During the performance I have to keep an eye anyone leaving, mobile phones and other bleepers going off, the front row not getting sprayed with “beer”, rustling sweet bags (one of which caused a loud SHUSH last night) and eccentric laughers.  At the end it is very important that I note high-hand-clappers (there’s been a few specialist vertical-high-hand-clappers) and standing clappers.  The Audience Exit needless to say involves:

More Faffers

The Selfie Generation – usually standing in front of a plain wall

The Left-Behinders  – lost phones, bags etc.

The Discussion Groups  – GO TO THE BAR

…..all of which is incredibly tiresome but I am always stoic in adversity, and wait without complaint for them to get out.

Other news –

I am still finding remembering the actors’ names a bit of a challenge  – with a cast of two, that’s understandable – but having watched the play for a few weeks now, I have realised I am witnessing a masterclass in opening and closing oven doors, placing sauce bottles on a kitchen counter, absorbing spilled “beer” from carpets, opening beer cans and wine bottles, pulling down tinsel curtains and dancing to Bros and Modjo.

Hear me tonight – I owe you a lot.


Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing.

Clive James

Cat Imitating Art

I’m in the middle of watching Vanished By The Lake, a French mystery TV series filmed in Provence near a town, Esparron du Verdon, where we had a holiday a few years back.  This is one of a lot of photos I took – the cat wandered into the sculpture, in an artist’s garden, just as I was taking the photo.  No remembrance of where the garden was or how we came across it.