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Category: Recommendations (page 1 of 6)

Mantegna and Bellini

This exhibition is at the National Gallery in London.  I had a four hour gap between rehearsals yesterday and so I went to see it.  I really enjoy going to gallery exhibitions but I feel saturated by so-called once in a lifetime blockbusters, trekking round with people getting in my way and generally just ending up getting angry – possibly not the right response for viewing great art.

But this exhibition knocked me for six.  It’s extraordinary.  I couldn’t pull myself away from the paintings which is very unusual for me.  It’s focus is the relationship between these two artists who were related by marriage, and which is pretty much unique.  They didn’t paint together, they had different styles,  they had very different backgrounds and ways to success, but they painted responses to each other’s work. So this exhibition, superbly curated, hangs together paintings which have all sorts of links. That in itself is a reason to go, but the paintings themselves by both artists are breathtaking.  I rarely respond to  paintings on an emotional level, but these paintings are not only some of the most stunning technical feats, but carry a life in their composition, subject matter and faces which left me spellbound.  For me this is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen.  On a Friday afternoon it was busy but not annoyingly so (I get annoyed in art galleries – I really need my own private views.)  If for no other reason, if you can, just go to look at the faces of the people in the paintings.  No exaggeration to call this a once in a lifetime exhibition.

Measure For Measure

The lady sitting next to me asked me if it was over at the interval.  It was a fair enough question. Her English was good but she was Russian (and not Italian as I had asked her – that went down well….).  Josie Rourke’s blast of a production of Measure For Measure at the Donmar certainly seemed to have everyone in a place of disquiet by the end of the first half.  We’d seen the whole play in a condensed version.  I have to say I was quite pleased about  this as I have only ever seen it twice before: once with Josette Simon, and once with Romola Garai.  Both are actors I really admire but the play just never left and impression on me. At the end of the first half of this production I had physically jolted in my seat and my mouth was open.

I had heard the director talking about her production some time ago and had remembered her talking about Isabella’s problematic silence and a cry, but nothing prepared me for the roar that came out of Hayley Atwell into the face of Nicholas Burns’ Duke.

The play had been in traditional-looking costume up until this point.  I found Hayley Atwell one of those actors whom it was hard not to look at or listen to.  She had such presence. I think because this was a condensed version of the play, cut to the bone the power and darkness of its plot and emotions really came across.  It is like an anti-romantic comedy.  By the end, a man is punished with a marriage (I gather characters have been cut altogether) and Isabella, who wants no marriage with any one, is forced into a loveless one.  And her silence at the end felt painful.  It seemed to be “justified” by her powerful reunion with  Claudio (Sule Rimi) her brother.  Rimi was another actor I found it hard not to watch, so together with Atwell the reunion was intense. But then came the roar as Isabella ran at the Duke. It was one of the most shocking moments I have experienced in theatre and I am left wondering if the women watching in the audience were more relieved than surprised at this woman’s cry against the agony of her situation.

Then something else happens.  The cast change into modern costume and off we go again.  Only this time Atwell plays Angelo (Isabella’s tormentor) and Jack Lowden who has played Angelo now takes on Isabella’s role.  Instead of sexual repression within the context of law and religion, Lowden plays an ex-addict in a clinic.  This time “Isabella” is faced with the death of Claudio or being forced back into the life of a self-destructing addict.  There’s a lot of humour with the use of mobile phones but generally the modern setting is played with fairly lightly so as not to overwhelm the exploration of ideas here amongst the characters.   Second time around the woman wields power but she is the tyrant.  The male tyrant is now the captive.

I watched Atwell thinking is she playing a male part as a woman character or as the female actor she is. But these were pointless questions.  Atwell was a woman, playing the role as if written for a woman. Actor and role were hand in glove.  What was interesting was my response to the woman as “baddie” was to laugh more (along with many in the audience).  There is a pleasure in it (see Killing Eve).  And Lowden (who for me lacked Angelo’s insidious sexual charisma a bit in the first half) became a weak man and so for me unsympathetic. Yet at the end the horror of what Angelo has done (although his punishment as marriage to male Mariana (Ben Allen) was less effective, and the silenced Lowden forced into a kiss by the Duke was as unsettling as the end of the first half.

At the end I asked the Russian woman if she had enjoyed it.  She said she had (and she had laughed quite a lot). she said she had only read he play and she had missed some of the language play in the second half because of the gender swapping (I forgot to say there as some very funny moments in the second half for this reason).  But she said she didn’t like feminist things and wasn’t sure about the homosexual relationship.  I said to her that this wasn’t really a feminist production;  it put a woman in a conventionally male position but what it was also showing was that the abuse of power is one of the blackest of human behaviours. The final “gay” relationship was totally non-consensual. She looked thoughtful and then agreed with me.

Having said that though I have to say that, Isabella/Atwell’s scream is still a sound more likely to be buried inside a woman than a man, and for that reason it is just as important men see this production as women.

I’ve mentioned the main actors who were outstanding but I also have to not Jackie Clune’s hilarious Pompey (with Russian accent in the second half which fortunately amused my seated Russian neighbour), Rachel Denning comically and believably confident as Mistress Overdone, and Helena Wilson whose small parts as Mariana/Justice show her as an actor to watch (especially after her part in the Donmar’s previous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

I’m still thinking about this play and production as a friend said, those evenings are  the best.


(Apologies for errors in the above – I’m short of time and had to whack it out rather than not write it at all)


Working in the theatre means watching the same thing over and over again.  Which of course can be a nightmare, but at the best of times it means I can watch a performance and/or a production develop, deepen, reveal layers initially unseen and unexpected.  All that comes from the text and what the designers, actors and director add to it. I went to hear the playwright Chris Bush speak recently and she said something along the lines of: what is good is when the production is what you had in mind for your play, but what is great is when the production goes beyond your original ideas.  As performances repeat, no two ones ever being the same, that process can continue to uncover what the playwright had in mind and then go beyond.

‘Beginning’ by David Eldridge (as all regular readers know) was a case in point for me. I never failed to be moved by it, and it was a joy watching its growth on the West End stage – oh, and growth can go in all sorts of directions.  A play is an art form unlike most in that it gets handed over to adoptive parents. If you are a living playwright (for better or worse) you can continue to be part of its continuing life, but you still have to surrender it.

And so to Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Honour.  To be honest I had no interest it in. I had gone into a bookshop to get a copy of her play Switzerland, as I shall be working on it next month. Indeed after that I shall be working on her one-woman show Songs For Nobodies, so I feel like a stalker. Well, Switzerland was not there but I noticed a copy of Honour, which rang an bell, and a quick internet search reminded me it had an imminent production at the Park Theatre.  So I bought the text and booked tickets. (I’m not generally impulsive but I’m out of work and have the time.)

I tweeted my reaction to reading the text as “it’s left me breathless and thoughtful and slightly off-kilter.” And my reaction to the production at the Park theatre  I saw last night? I’d say the above again – plus about three emotional punches in the stomach that filled my eyes with tears.

This play, this production is for me what theatre is about; why theatre matters. In a series of short scenes I watched the complexities of four human beings manifest themselves without taking one side of any character, without simplistic arguments, without smoke and mirrors wit or aphorisms.  This play, these actors put me in their shoes, made me feel what they were going though. I read the play quickly as it felt like an intricate dance-fight. The production was slower. It gave the language time without taking away its musicality. The set and lighting designs by Liz Cooke and Sally Ferguson respectively were simple but used to cohesive effect showing less is more at its best. The text has no stage directions for the settings of its scenes, so here the director Paul Robinson chose his own ideas (taken out of suggestions in the dialogue) and conveyed it basically with the movement and placing of wooden blocks, the actors own movement and gestures, and a handful of props.  I’m sure it wasn’t a simple process getting to this end for the creatives involved, but boy, did it work.

It’s a play on a well known theme – the breaking up of a marriage – but where it surprises me is in two ways. Firstly the man is the least interesting character whilst the women are vibrant and whole and secondly, one character is the couple’s daughter.  This play is called Honour and it is more about the concept of honour than its eponymous character of the wife.  Honour is not a word I hear used much nowadays – certainly not in the context of marriage and personal relationships.  Here I watched the consequences of the disregard of honour, because of narcissism and greed stemming from dissatisfaction.  There’s so much I can write here but once the plot has gone into its main gear, its subsequent twists and turns are through character, and so to write about the characters is to give away the pleasures and pains contained in this play.  As I say, nothing is simple as each character reveals more than I expected.

Imogen Stubbs as Honour reigns in any risk of melodrama, a trap a lesser actor could fall into, by opening her heart in the most truthful of ways, so by her last spoken line of the first half, I was left so moved by the understanding revealed to me of her character in this situation that I was unable to speak for a few moments. All the time she conveyed surface and depth simultaneously, for example in moments when she shows she is feeling physically hot – it’s not in the script but it’s so truthful and revealing at those moments in the play and her characterisation.

Natalie Simpson as Sophie, the couple’s daughter, absolutely caught the confusion of an adult as young child (and isn’t that what we all are?) in the one scene of both text and performance that caught me off-guard as I realised the extent of consequences of the marriage’s disintegration.  Simpson did absolute justice to the writing in a scene between her and Claudia, the young woman, when so much is conveyed and so much is said in so few words.

Perhaps the most difficult character is Claudia, played by Katie Brayben, who I have to say in the initial scenes brought in more subtlety than I expected from the text.  when I was reading it I felt a later gear change for here that didn’t quite work, but which Brayben handled beautifully, and so truthfully.  I come back to that word again and again.

Finally Henry Goodman as George the plot’s catalyst.  Again there is a trickiness here as I believe George has to be likeable whatever his actions, and Goodman catches that perfectly in his performance. It has to be that way because otherwise there are moments later in the play he has with Honour that would not have some of the audiences audible in-taking breath and gasping, as they did last night. That’s what watching truthfulness in the theatre does.

Of the three plays by Murray-Smith that London is hosting, this is the one I won’t be watching night after night, the production I won’t be able to see develop, deepen, reveal layers initially unseen and unexpected, the production that I won’t be able to wonder at each unique performance, is this going beyond what its author had in mind?  Of course I cannot speak for her – but I do believe it is.

Short Stories

I’ve been reading a smattering of excellent books recently, though not as avidly as usual as, I have been caught up in podcasts too.  But the quote below reminded me of the two most perfect short stories I have ever read; both ideal for the darkening evenings:

Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cat Jumps by Elizabeth Bowen


I hate to start a review by praising the set, as this gives the impression that design is better than the content. However the set for the National Theatre’s production of Translations is genuinely one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in a theatre.  The photo above doesn’t do it justice.  It’s an Irish landscape, a moor where the peat is being cut.  This surrounds a man-made space which is a hedge-school.  These were local and locally-run schools in Irish villages, common all over Ireland at this time – the play is set in the early 1830’s – to educate Catholic children and which would eventually be replaced by state-run schools in which English will be the official language.  The children were taught in houses or barns.   In this design it was a house and it took me a while to realise the design for it was to have no (i.e. imaginary) walls.  It was dominated by the most extraordinary visualisation of an Irish sky, beginning with the setting sun in the first half, and rainstorm in the second.  The effect was achieved with lighting and controlled haze (goodness knows how they achieved that but I presume using large fans) to create clouds. It was stunning.  I was with an Irish acquaintance from Dublin who said she felt she was looking at a real Irish sky. The house  was an intimate area for the actors, whilst the moor and sky drew the action onto an almost epic scale, and let you remember how much landscape shapes people’s lives.

Just like the trick of the house’s invisible walls, so the play text plays tricks with language. The father and son teachers in he school teach Latin and Greek as well as their native Gaelic.  When the other brother returns having been away for some years, he comes back with English soldiers who are making a map of Ireland and in so doing translating the place names into English.  The whole play is  in spoken English but when the soldiers turn up, the audience comes to realise that they don’t understand the (Gaelic-speaking) Irish and vice versa.  Only the teachers can speak both languages and so are left to translate. It’s a brilliant device used by Brian Friel in this play which many people consider his masterpiece. The landscape an language are inexorably tied together.

Irish history is complex and I am too ignorant of it to write much here, but whereas the play could be a simple attack on colonialism, it is in fact a beautiful, nuanced examination of the beauty and dangers of  differing and common languages.  In one scene, an English soldier and a Irish woman express their attraction to each other without having a common language.  It is a beautiful, romantic scene but one which is undercut with dangerous currents.  The play has a tragic conclusion, but the horrors are left unseen and  the impact is all the stronger.  We know the future for these people; we are watching it being made.  The final stage picture converts 19th century Ireland into a stark, silent, menacing image of barbed wire and guns, which I felt was unnecessary.  In today’s tumultuous world of immigration, broken and newly created borders, individualism, and closed and open communities, the play quietly spoke for itself.  It was therefore with some surprise that I saw it was written in 1979.


We had tickets for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it was cancelled so into Pressure instead, which I had been planning on seeing, for obvious reasons, anyway.  I knew it was going to be good because everyone I know who had seen it recommended it.  What I was unprepared for in this “weather thriller” was its emotional depth.

It usually takes me 10 minutes or so at the beginning of a play to forget that I am watching a group of people standing onstage speaking someone else’s written lines.  Yet from the moment David Haig walks on, his shoulders hunched and his head dropping slightly, despite knowing his face so well, for me he just was James Stagg. Before hearing about this play I had no idea whom Stagg was, let alone what he did. A quiet, gentle man with integrity and stubbornness coursing through his veins, Group Captain James Stagg was the chief meteorologist who was in the extraordinary position of having to advise General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) on the weather conditions for the D-Day landings. The play follows the four leading days when England was experiencing fine weather, that Irving P. Krick, an American forecaster was saying would continue, and that Stagg was predicting would suddenly culminate in a terribleand disastroues storm on the planned day of the landings. Krick relies on using past examples of similar weather conditions to predict the future, but has no experience of the British weather that Stagg’s life has been rooted in. Stagg calls himself a scientist and so refuses to say the storm will definitely come, but that he believes the storm will arrive. He fears if Eisenhower ignores his warning, the toll of lives lost would be intolerable.

The play succeeds well enough as a gripping portrayal of this dilemma, with Eisenhower’s deliberation and final decision ratcheting up the tension despite the fact the audience knows the ending. The pressure doesn’t end there, though, when a fact I was not aware of is revealed adding another layer.

The acting, text, direction and design are harmonious and create an evening of crackling drama. Haig didn’t write the play for himself, but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Stagg.  I found tears running down my cheeks three times much to my surprise. The emotional pull of the characters is so intense. There is one moment, one of those rare moments when an actor – in this case Haig-  almost ceases to be an actor and takes performance onto a higher level. It’s a moment of no words and even as I write this, remembering it, I feel my stomach tighten.

The play is about three people, and again unexpectedly the third character is not really Krick, but Eisenhower’s driver and mechanic, without whom at one point Eisenhower says he could not have done what he did. Laura Rogers plays Kay Summersby so well – at this point she is also Eisenhower’s assistant. Their true relationship is unknown; the play hints at a love that could never be.  Summersby started as an ambulance driver which reminded me of Sarah Water’s meticulously researched Blitz-set novel, The Night Watch in which one of the characters is an ambulance driver. I’m also reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope, a follow up to his novel The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US), based on the experiences of the few women in WW2 who worked for the SOE and were dropped behind lines to work with the French Resistance. With the RAF Centenary also being celebrated, I was thinking of a BBC documentary about the women pilots who delivered all sorts of aircraft from the factories for the RAF wherever they were needed. What all these women had in common it seems to me was a sense of loss when the War was over;  that they were no longer needed and would have to return to the civilian life of a woman, which may or may not have involved marriage and children.  Haig’s writing and Rogers’ performance captured that, and in a quiet subverting of accepted gender roles, he portrays the men having their lives defined by their own children, and a woman who wants control of her own life, to be independent and choose her own path.

Pressure is simply a terrific night out at the theatre, one which holds the audience in the palm if its hand.

Go see, as they say.


Arrowood Book Cover Arrowood
Laura McHugh

One of those books that if you get the wrong impression about what sort of narrative it has, from the blurb and internet reviews, you may end up not enjoying it. I thought it was going to be a psychological mystery in the vein of Barbara Vine, especially as it is dominated by a house. Whilst it may be a relative of Vine's, it's a distant one. I would call this almost a mood piece, but even that gives the wrong impression because McHugh still uses the tropes of  psychological thrillers to a very rewarding effect. To describe it makes it sound less original than it is - a young woman, Arden, who may or may not be a reliable narrator, returns to her family home, having lived a life haunted by the disappearance of her infant twin sisters when she herself was a young child.  Reliability or lack of it, always a good bet for a mystery, lies deeper in this book than most. Arden is writing a thesis on nostalgia and this book continually undermines notions of history and memory. Both the house and the Mississippi river dominate the book in unexpected ways.  There are hints of the supernatural too. McHugh also undermines cliches of the mystery, like a visit to a fortune teller, in immensely satisfying ways. Rarely have I found such satisfaction in the final chapters of a mystery as in this book; McHugh reveals layers which continue to mirror and enhance her themes, whilst staying firmly in an utterly believable narrative. It left me  moved and reflective, lingering on in me as my favourite books usually do.


If you haven’t seen the film then don’t read further unless you know you will never see the film….

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Sky Marbles

I love and am proud to work for the Foundling Museum which I think is one of the most important museums in London.  It is a place of heartbreak, sadness and hope.  It is a beacon of how important the arts are for changing lives.

Even though I am used to being there amongst its paintings and objects telling their silent stories, occasionally I still get overwhelmed. This work done with the children of Thomas Coram Nursery, inspired by Tom Railton (the Museum’s 2014 Artist- In -Residence) brought tears to my eyes.  As you look at their Sky Marbles you hear their voices talking about why they have made toys for the foundling children, and what types and colours of weathers they have in the marble they have made.

Sky Marbles – The Foundling Museum

Tom Railton – Cluds

Waiting For The Last Bus

Waiting For The Last Bus Book Cover Waiting For The Last Bus
Richard Holloway

I picked up this book (partly because of its beautiful cover I admit) because I read Holloway's Doubts and Loves some year's back.  I found him a writer of profound compassion, with an ever-questioning mind and much wisdom.  He has journeyed from Christian fundamentalism, through the Church as Establishment, to the age of 84 as " a doubting priest" who writes and broadcasts.  I've been dealing with deaths of family and friends and knew I needed this book.  He writes from a Christian perspective but he is steeped in knowledge of many religions as well as science and his beloved literature.  Again and again he turns to quoting poets to describe the human condition.  To put it simply this short book is about us "denying" death because we have lost the rituals surrounding it that religion gave us.  But more than that it is a book about how to live at peace with ourselves, and how we can do that at the very end of our lives.  in so doing we help ourselves and those around us. He believes that we are resurrected through remembrance in the hearts and minds of those who know and love us, and writes much about the various ways we can create remembrance.  It is not a sad book, it does not depress  the spirit; it gives out hope and love. When Holloway himself dies, the world will lose an extraordinary mind.  But he will live on in the grace and wisdom of his beautiful writings.

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