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Category: Recommendations (page 1 of 5)

The Way Of the World

It’s long.

Right – got that out of the way.

It has to be to its upmost credit that the production at the Donmar Warehouse held my attention for three hours as I was very, very tired.  I think a lot of that has to do with the intimacy of the venue where you can pretty much touch the actors, or feel as if you can even in the Circle, and a superb cast.  Take the first scene.  I happily watched it but only got hold of a little bit of plot exposition and character relations plus a few witticisms, whilst remaining lost on about 80% of the conversation between the two friends talking in a coffee house.

I better add here that I did not know a thing about the play when I sat down in the theatre.  The  plot is deliberately complicated and boy, is there a lot of talking.  I do understand a director wanting authenticity of text, but there is no need to do any lopping here.  I reckon thirty minutes could be delicately pruned at no expense to the text and to the benefit of the actors; it’s a fast-talking comedy with elements of farce and it has to keep energy and pace or it’s going to lose its audience.  The first three acts pre-interval were beautifully acted.  The fourth act is very funny indeed and the last act (successfully here) walks a fine line resolving itself between comedy and, if not tragedy, certainly an unexpected seriousness when characters revealed depths unseen before.

There is a lot of teamwork for the actors as in all good comedy and that’s why I think they need a shorter production.  No one misses a beat in their performances, but a shorter text would bind the actors even tighter, rather than (what they must be doing) have them concentrating on saying so much the audience isn’t going to care about or understand.

I hate to gripe as this is a crack team of performers and the production is well directed with visual and vocal clarity by the very experienced James MacDonald.  Haydn Gwynne had me laughing uncontrollably at her Lady Wishfort, Fisayo Akinade as Witwoud just had to walk on stage to make me smile; but again his repartee with Simon Manyonda’s Petulant would have sparkled more with some pruning.  Justine Mitchell  fleshed out Millamant in such a way that made me desperate to see her play Beatrice, and her chemistry with Geoffrey Streatfield’s Mirabell was perfect.  I’m loathe to fail to name them all as not one actor struck a false note.

Hats off to all involved and I really mean that.  In a way I’d like to see it nearer the end of its run when it will have bedded down and the actors will be even more comfortable with each other.   Even if it was fire instead of fireworks, just writing about it here has brought back the many pleasures it gave me.

Birth Marks

Birth Marks Book Cover Birth Marks
Hannah Wolfe 1
Sarah Dunant
Simon and Schuster
1992

I've read all but one of Sarah Dunant's novels set in Renaissance Italy, but I knew she had started her published writings with crime.  Three of them feature P.I. Hannah Wolfe. Being written in 1992, it is unnerving to read a book where no one has a mobile phone, and so solving an investigation is so very different from today, a mere 25 years on.  It's in the style of Chandler with a struggling, lonesome private investigator, full of sardonic quips and cynical views of life, but also a single woman aware of her place in society and in the eyes of other people - both men and women. This gives the book a nice edge without it feeling as if it is dealing with "issues".  The plot is speedy but filled with sadness as well as mystery. It's interesting to see a well established author at the beginning of their career, especially as her recent books have such different settings, though they still concern women swimming against the expected tide.  If you want a short, thoughtful crime page-turner this fits the bill, though as it is out of print in UK, I read it as a gift from someone who loves second-hand bookshops.

The Chalk Man

The Chalk Man Book Cover The Chalk Man
C J Tudor
Penguin
2018
Hardback

I suspect this book will get a lot of fuss when the paperback comes out later this year, and I will not be surprised if a film comes along at some point later (which personally I would avoid if it does). Having said that, it deserves to have a runaway success.  Without question this is a way-cut-above-the-rest novel.  I was disappointed with the opening: yet another description of a dead girl, and not long after a stupendously grisly depiction of an accident. However what makes this book stand out, is its subversion of expectations that continue to remain credible, pushing on the narrative and delving into the characters' minds.  One narrator is split in two by telling the story as a child and as an adult.  It continually confounded me, but its revelations (maybe too strong a word) are subtle but vice-like gripping.  It is a real web of a book and if the author is the spider in the middle, I got caught and eaten alive at the end.  Brilliantly written.

- I must add here that I listened to the audio book read by the mesmeric Andrew Scott and by Asa Butterfield who also does a fine job.  (And if you do listen to it, you just have to accept the fact that despite the doubling younger/older but same character narrator of the book, in the audio version Butterfield is English and Scott is Irish - it matters not)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles Book Cover The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Hiro Arikawa
Penguin
2017

This is a gentle and very moving account of one man's road trip around the friends from his past.  The objective of his journey is to find someone to look after his cat.  Gradually tiny layers are peeled away as we learn about him through these meetings and flashbacks into his past where the friendships began.  Added to this the voice of his cat is mixed into the narrative, and if you are not a cat lover, don't let this put you off.  The device is not cute but another way of quietly revealing what lies beneath the surface of this man's life.  It is utterly beautiful. The author prefers to show rather than tell, allowing the reader to construct the jigsaw puzzle-like nature of the narrative.  It being a road trip, the landscape and places of Japan play  a very important part in the proceedings.  The descriptions are vivid. The book is  sad but life affirming, and often very funny.  It slowly got under my skin and entered my heart.

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 2

I know I could set the cat amongst the pigeons with the above photo having added lettuce and lemon, but I could not find a photo I could use with just the fingers and bread.  I could have gone out and bought the ingredients for a photo shoot in my kitchen….but it’s cold outside.  (Shame on me for not having any already in the freezer and this being north-east London I only have wholegrain bread)

I’m still riding high on my new job which is working backstage on

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Strictly Come Dancing

Let’s make it clear.

I do not watch Strictly every week.  I do not record it and watch it over Monday and Tuesday evenings. I do not spend Tuesday and Wednesday mornings reading Heidi Stephens’s “Strictly As It Happened blog in the Guardian.  I do not watch It Takes Two up to four times a week. I do not think about it as I am going to sleep or in my yoga class on a Monday evening.  I do not go to the toilet in the middle of the night and get back into bed thinking about it.

Right.  Just wanted to be clear.

So this week was hard.  Tears over Jonnie whom I have secretly wanted to win but knew he wouldn’t.  He has been a gentleman and a gentle man.  Laid back, reserved but at ease with  himself, and rather than showing an ambition to win as you would expect from an athlete, just wanting to learn and get a bit better each week.  And he got to Blackpool and what an exit.  His final thank you to the judges for treating him as an equal to all the other contestants was so moving.  I don’t use the word of people very much, but he is an inspirational man.  And when the gorgeous livewire Oti (who will partner me when I go on Strictly) said being with him had been life changing, who would doubt that.  Seeing his surgeon who amputated his leg, and his friend from school who had pushed him in his wheelchair (because as Jonnie said, he – his friend – needed someone to be his friend) dancing in front of them were great moments.  How they must have felt watching him dance is hard to imagine.  I am so going to miss watching him.

So who are we left with?

Professional dancer Alexandra Burke.  Not the brightest light in the house. She can stop the tears and telling us it was the hardest dance yet.  I’m hoping people will get bored with her as she’s only had one score out of the 30’s since the beginning.  And there’s no warmth between her and Gorka, the most beautiful man in the world.

Debbie McGee.  Well on age I think she is amazing but she is a trained ballerina.  But I love her with Giovanni (“Deb-eh”).  They seem genuinely to adore each other, but sadly no romance.  I struggled with the Spice Girl episode which frankly was a bit weird. Tess did say Geri had sent her a message but we never heard what the message was…pause for thought…

Joe McFadden. I thought he was a bit vacant but I have really grown to like him.  He is a bit like a big puppy and comes across as genuine.  I love it when they are all waiting to hear who is through to the following week and everyone looks like they are about to mount the scaffold except Joe who just can’t hold back a grin at the camera.

Gemma Atkinson.  She’s Northern so a superstar by default.   Prejudices aside she never has make-up in the VT’s which is sweet and I think she is the real dark horse.  She’s a grafter. I’d like her to win.  And she and Aljaz are hilarious together.

Davood Ghadami.  Now he really annoyed me at the beginning as I thought he was full of himself but as time has gone on I have realised he is just very serious – nay intense – and now he has not only lightened up but is proving himself a grand dancer.  I did have a problem with his James Bond shirt in Blackpool, though Tess and the judges obviously didn’t.

Mollie King. Not the greatest dancer but she’s had a really  hard time to fight on psychologically after two dance-offs.   I like the fact she’s so attractive and admits to finding it hard to be sexy in the Latin numbers. She and AJ are like Von Trapp siblings.

Susan Calman.  Oh Susan we all love you. Well most of us. You and Kevin are a match made in heaven. Part of me thinks it should have been you and not Jonnie.  What does Saturday hold for us to see???

Yes Aston’s gone but he’s setting up a dance school which is brilliant.

Shirley.

Yes we need to talk about Shirley.  I like her but her scoring is a bit odd.  Once you have Craig’s you can generally work out Darcey’s and Bruno’s.  But she does throw in quite a few from leftfield. There’s a lot of pressure on her and I don’t think she’s comfortable in the role yet.  She needs to do another series.

Some of my favourite bits that spring to mind:

“It’s hard for the man”

Eammon Holmes and son in every week till Ruth was out

Claudia’s and Tess’s dresses

Darcey’s earrings and Shirley’s glasses

Celebrities who get motion sickness spinning

“I’ve  got a friend for life.”

 

I’d probably enjoy Strictly if I ever watched it.

The Butterfly Effect

This is a Podcast review.  It’s on Audible, though I believe extending to iTunes.  It’s by Jon Ronson, whom I think has become a very perceptive and sympathetic writer and broadcaster.  I say sympathetic because the last podcast I listened to, S- Town, left me morally uncomfortable despite its gripping exposure of the dark underbelly of an American town held me in its thrall throughout.

I think the beauty of the Podcast – well, I would say Radio because

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Balancing Acts

Balancing Acts Book Cover Balancing Acts
Nicholas Hytner
Jonathan Cape
2017
Hardback
320

This book is partly a book about business.   It may be the business of  theatre but it's business nevertheless.  It tells of Hytner's 12 years running the National Theatre.  The reason his time was so successful there was because of his harmonious and necessary relationship with his business partner Nick Starr.  Although broadly the former was Mr Arts and the latter Mr Money, they understood each other implicitly.  It is a fascinating balancing act and really makes you understand how incredibly difficult it is to make theatre a successful business without losing its integrity.  But business is business in whatever field and because theatre is my interest, this book gave me a business insight I previously would have expressed no interest in.

Also if you have no interest in theatre as an art form, Hytner is such an engaging writer that I think the book is worth a go. He really knows his stuff.  He is very insightful on his own directing and productions and there's a lot to learn from him - you don't need to know much about the subject to enjoy his writings

What it isn't is a gossipy showbiz book, or an insight into Hytner as a person.  But it's an easy read: he is funny, charming and modest (not self-effacing).  He owns up to mistakes and explains how he learnt from them.  If theatre is a mirror of life, then there is much to learn from this book.