The George Orwell Challenge – In Defence of the Novel (1936)

You can read In Defence of the Novel online here.

New English WeeklyIn the same month that Orwell published his essay Bookshop Memories, in which he drew on his own experiences working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead, he also wrote this essay, In Defence of the Novel, which was published in two parts in the New English Weekly magazine, on 12th and 19th November 1936.

Bookshop Memories is a very personal, and rather snobbish, account of his opinions of the bookselling trade. He’s quick to criticise and condemn those who want to read books that he simply finds beneath him, alighting on his bête noir Ethel M Dell for particular derision, even though she sold in massive numbers, so was obviously pleasing some people somewhere.

In Defence of the Novel takes his critical view of bookselling one stage further, by attributing what he calls the “extremely low” “prestige of the novel” to hack reviewers praising poor quality writing to the nines. As a result, he argues, “if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form.” He doesn’t believe that the novel is “a contemptible form of art” but believes “to salvage it you have got to persuade intelligent people to take it seriously.”

Old BooksIt’s a curious opinion to blame what he perceives to be the novel’s poor reputation on the industry’s reviewers, rather than the quality of the writing itself. However, he quotes from the previous week’s edition of the Sunday Times, “if you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” There’s no denying – that’s a trashy piece of reviewing! As Orwell also points out, “novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight.”

Equating the quality of a novel with the quality of its reviews sounds nonsensical. However, Orwell examines the problem closer and explains that reviewers themselves won’t get published or paid if they describe a book as a load of tripe – and reviewers have mouths to feed just as writers do. It’s the commercial structure of needing a good review to sell a book (and to sell advertising) that by necessity brings the quality down. Obviously, all publishers want their books to sell, so all publishers want good reviews. But Orwell points out that “even if there were no question of bribery, direct or indirect, there can be no such thing as good novel criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing.” As a result, Orwell questions whether it might “be possible to devise a system, perhaps quite a rigid one, of grading novels into classes A, B, C, and so forth, so that whether a reviewer praised or damned a book, you would at least know how seriously he meant it to be taken.”

What is surprising to the reader of today is that Orwell should have this opinion of the novel; because from our perspective, there’s nothing particularly wrong with 1930s novel writing. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald – not to mention Orwell himself – were all writing memorable and highly regarded novels that have stood the test of time. Maybe when you’re operating within a system, like Orwell was, it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees and take a pessimistic view of the future. Here’s the conclusion to the essay:

George Orwell“Various people have prophesied that the novel is doomed to disappear in the near future. I do not believe that it will disappear, for reasons which would take too long to set forth but which are fairly obvious. It is much likelier, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tomb-stones, or the Punch and Judy Show.”

To be honest, it’s an appalling over-reaction on Orwell’s part. Whilst there may be a glimmer of truth in his argument, he takes it too far. “Look for instance at the fourpenny novelettes that you see piled up on any cheap stationer’s counter. These things are the decadent offspring of the novel, bearing the same relation to Manon Lescaut and David Copperfield as the lap-dog bears to the wolf.” That may be true, but it in no way prevents future Lescauts or Copperfields being written. Counterbalancing the Ethel M Dell books of his time are Brave New World, Rebecca, The Hobbit; it’s easy to produce a list of stand-out 1930s novels for yourself.

Nevertheless, it’s an Orwell essay, and as usual demands that you pay attention and listen to his argument. The Road to Wigan PierWritten with clarity and authority, it’s an entertaining read and it’s always fun to admire him communicate his beliefs – even if you might not agree with him! By the way, a few months ago I read an article in The Stage that complained that over-enthusiastic reviews for a play that doesn’t deserve them can be as harmful as a bad review – so maybe Orwell was right all along!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge is The Road to Wigan Pier, a full-length non-fiction book about the bleak living conditions of working class people in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and an examination of the British attitude to socialism. I remember enjoying this book thoroughly when I read it in my early 20s and I look forward to reading it again soon – and I hope you read it too!

Review – Dara Ó Briain – So Where Were We? Milton Keynes Theatre, 6th November 2022

So Where Were WeAs only the cognoscenti know, there’s no finer place to be than Milton Keynes on a Sunday night in November – and a total sell-out appearance of one of Ireland’s finest, Dara Ó Briain, on his So Where Were We tour, which would have been a good name for those early days post-lockdown but seems a trifle anachronistic now. I  was surprised to discover it’s been seven years since we saw DOB live, with his Crowd Tickler show; although, to be honest, I was even more surprised to discover it’s been over five years since we’ve been to the Milton Keynes Theatre. Fortunately I had remembered that you need to sit in either Row A or Row E for maximum comfort, and that hasn’t changed.

Dara O'BriainA giant in comedy, in more ways than one, Mr Ó B wanders ungainly onto the stage and you’re instantly cocooned in his warm Irish garrulousness. He roams from subject to subject with a seeming lack of focus but it couldn’t be further from the truth. He knows exactly how his show is structured, and by the end of the show, you need both fingers and toes to count the number of callbacks he’s established.

DOBMuch of this is achieved, of course, by his connection with the front row, with whom he spends several blissful comedy minutes, discovering their jobs and other personal nuggets. Last night’s front row offered a high level of intelligence, including a data analyst for Kärcher (and his mum, who knew Mrs Kärcher), a supercomputer programmer, and someone who works for Red Bull Formula One. To say Dara was impressed was an understatement. Naturally, by the end of the show, he had worked up a hilarious scenario where all these people intertwined. The comic agility of his brain is amazing!

Dara O'BriainOther things we discovered during the show were the difference between a walking stick and a cane, how a staid Irishman reacts at the offer of a sexy massage, and how Mrs Ó Briain gains his attention when she doesn’t want to disturb the children. However, a large part of the second half of the show is devoted to one extended subject and monologue – and it’s an important, personal account by Mr Ó B, so I won’t offer any spoilers. Suffice to say he turns a serious quest into a comedy thread; plenty to laugh at, but also lots of amazing revelations to take your breath away. Fortunately, he ends on a very high note – it could have been alarmingly serious in other, less gifted, hands.

Dara O BAt almost 2 hours 40 minutes, including an interval, we got great value out of Mr Ó B. Supremely entertaining as always, but showing a slightly more serious side than in previous shows, this is an evening of sheer enjoyment. His tour continues into 2023 – but you’d better get your skates on, as he sells out rapidly!

Review – John Gabriel Borkman, Bridge Theatre, London, 2nd November 2022

John Gabriel BorkmanI’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Ibsen. Ever since we read Ghosts at school, I’ve always admired the grim grit of miserable 19th century Norwegian life that only Ibsen really seems to get. John Gabriel Borkman is one of his later plays, and was new to me, so I was curious to see if he’d cheered up at all in later life. Not a bit of it – I’m pleased to say. You don’t watch Ibsen for the lolz.

JGBNicholas Hytner brings us a brand new JGB, with a fresh translation by Charlotte Barslund then moulded into a new version by Lucinda Coxon. Comparing it with the original, there isn’t really a lot that’s changed. The role of Mrs Borkman’s maid has been dropped, which gives it a more contemporary feel; she has been replaced by Gunhild’s use of a mobile phone, poor thing, which I presume is the main reason why this new version is presented in the here and now, rather than 1896. Otherwise, I can’t see how presenting the play in a modern setting gives any other insights – more on some staging details later.

Gunhild and ErhartThere’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating story with two central, timeless, themes. First – the humiliation of the fallen hero. The John Gabriel Borkman of the title was once a “great” man; a banker, respected, wealthy, influential – but a fraud, who swindled people left right and centre, including his own friends. Unsurprisingly, he was sent to prison for five years, to return home to the hostile and unforgiving arms of his wife, Gunhild. As a result, he has spent the last three years pacing around the upstairs room of their house, doing hardly anything, seeing hardly anyone. An unmitigated failure.

EllaThis deadlock is broken by the arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who owns the property as all Borkman’s assets were seized. Gunhild and Ella haven’t seen each other in eight years; Gunhild’s animosity towards her sister is palpable. It emerges that young Erhart Borkman has been seeing an older woman in the town, Fanny Wilton; this introduces the second timeless theme – the desire of the older generation to control the lives of the younger generation. Gunhild is an overprotective mother and Ella a besotted aunt; and when JGB decides he also wants to take Erhart away and start a new life together, there’s only one possible outcome for all this delusion.

CastAnna Fleischle has designed a very classy set. Cool greys and blues straight out of the Dulux colour chart suggest an atmospheric Oslo winter but also create poverty out of what was once obviously opulence. Very nicely done indeed. James Farncombe’s inventive lighting enhances the set design and brings additional drama to the theatrical highlights. In the loft sits a grand piano, on which young Frida Foldal plays Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, the only remnant of artistry left in the building.

FridaBut there are a couple of odd staging choices. The sound effect representing JGB pacing upstairs at the beginning of the play doesn’t sound like footsteps at all – they are more like a muffled drum beat.  The programme tells us the setting is “outside Oslo”, so why does Gunhild drink Barr’s cola? Nothing against Barr’s cola, of course, but one would have thought that the factories of Forfar are a long way from Oslo. Does she swap to Irn-Bru at the weekends? And we’re clearly in the 21st century, with mobile phones, a flat-screen tv and so on –  so why is Ella dressed as an 1890s drudge?

ErhartThere’s also an accidentally amusing moment when Fanny announces that Frida is joining Erhart and herself on the journey to Rome, saying “Frida’s waiting in the car”; when she’s clearly still upstairs putting away her sheet music. Perhaps the production is peppered with these deliberately disconcerting aspects as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; or maybe, as I suspect, I can’t help but think that a few things weren’t properly thought through. Another of my pet hates – Ibsen has left us a beautifully structured four act play but there’s still no interval – 1 hour 45 minutes all the way through. When you get to my age you really do value a break in between!

BorkmanThere’s no doubt that you witness an acting masterclass. Simon Russell Beale is superb as the disgraced Borkman. A complex, riveting performance, you can see the charisma in the character, his ability to fool both himself and others, his loss of focus and his absolute selfishness. Sir Simon uses every note of his terrific voice to try to galvanise others, to convince himself, and to show his total sense of failure. He’s brilliant. Clare Higgins is also superb as the strident Gunhild; a loud, complaining, stifling characterisation that works perfectly. Lia Williams is terrific as the quieter, more reasoning Ella, resolute against her ill-health and hoping against hope that Erhart might take pity on her – but also completely accepting and understanding the reality of his situation.

VilhelmThere’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, including the always entertaining Michael Simkins as JGB’s friend Vilhelm Foldal, putting up with being treated like dirt by everyone who knows him, but always with a little optimism held back for the future. Ony Uhiara’s Fanny Wilton is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it; I liked how her voice and costume set her apart from the traditional respectability of the other characters.

Enjoyable, and very well acted, but with some odd production decisions. Great to see that Ibsen isn’t going away any time soon!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Crucible, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

The CrucibleYou don’t need me to introduce Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to you, gentle reader – if you do, where have you been all your life? Justifiably a contender for the best play of the 20th century, this 1953 allegory linking the Salem Witch Trials of 17th century Massachusetts with McCarthyism, where the Committee for Un-American Activities was trying to sniff out communists, is the stuff of legend. It’s powerful, it’s accurate, and it’s timeless; even more so than ever today. As I was watching it, ProctorI realised how seamlessly it fits into today’s politics; in a post-Brexit world, where Remoaners are blamed for a condition of the state’s own making. Yes, I know that’s political statement – but it’s a political play.

Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin have taken a very bold staging decision. Heavy rain lashes down around the perimeter of the stage, from the moment the audience starts entering the auditorium. It’s a stunning image, which continues up until the play starts, then resumes for the interval and at other scene change moments. Abigail and HaleIn years to come, this staging feat is what this production will be remembered for. However, even without the rain effect, this is still a superb production, with great staging, terrific performances, and a feeling of more relevance than ever before.

The interrogatorsThat’s why I question the decision to impose the rain on the production. The unfortunate theatregoers in the front row have to spend the entire performance (three hours including the interval) in rain ponchos. I can only assume they’re really uncomfortable, squeaky and splashy, probably sweaty, their programmes, coats, jumpers, bags etc getting soaked, and impossible to enjoy their interval Merlot, all in the cause of art. It also starts to smell a bit, as the play progresses. Personally I think putting the public through this special kind of hell comes under the heading of dissing the audience, one of my pet hates. My other problem with it is that it doesn’t even enhance our understanding of what the play’s all about. This is a play that’s riddled with substance in every line. But the rain effect is pure theatricality – style over substance – completely the reverse, imho, of what Miller intended. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of the rain!

Proctor and Mary WarrenAnd it’s a shame because every other aspect of this production is tremendous. The full Olivier stage is used to great effect, whether it’s overwhelming you with rows and rows of pews or recreating the court of law. The ensemble of young women who (apparently) see the devil at every angle are genuinely terrifying in their collective fervour, as transfixed in the presence of evil as you could possibly imagine. Their minutely choreographed mass hypnosis is extraordinary to witness.

Ensemble of young womenAll the performances are superb; perhaps the standouts are Brendan Cowell’s dignified, powerful and unbending John Proctor, Nick Fletcher’s vicious Rev Parris, Erin Doherty’s insolent and aggressive Abigail Williams, Matthew Marsh’s authoritarian Deputy Governor Danforth, and Karl Johnson’s plucky and brave Giles Corey. Eileen Walsh gives an excellent performance as the reserved Elizabeth Proctor, Fisayo Akinade is also excellent as the voice of reason Rev John Hale, and there’s great support from Tilly Tremayne as Rebecca Nurse, Alastair Parker as Thomas Putnam, Henry Everett as Judge Hawthorne and Nathan Amzi as Ezekiel Cheever.

Giles CoreyPerhaps the most impressive aspect to the play – and this production – is its ability to stir up a sense of true injustice in the audience. As I was watching it, I was fuming at the way all the decent people were being sacrificed on the altar of downright lies, and duped by those too stupid to recognise the truth and by those who allowed themselves to be swayed by their own bias. If they come gunning for you, remember to be like Giles Corey and insist on more weight. It is immeasurably powerful. Powerful enough, fortunately, to survive the whim of a design gimmick and still come out with five stars!

Production photos by Johan PerssonFive Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Mirror Crack’d, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2022

The Mirror Crack'd““Bugger!” cried Miss Jane Marple, as the pain in her leg prevented her from reaching the telephone on time” is a line that you won’t find anywhere in the oeuvres of Dame Agatha Christie, but it is the opening gambit in Rachel Wagstaff’s endearing new adaptation of the Queen of Crime’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, currently thrilling us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th November.

Katherine of AragonIn a nutshell: American movie star Marina Gregg has bought Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry’s old home Gossington Hall, and Marina is making a new movie Katherine of Aragon at a nearby film studio directed by her loving husband Jason Rudd. Unfortunately, at a drinks reception for local dignitaries, the neighbourhood St John’s Ambulance Chair, Heather Leigh, drops down dead, apparently poisoned by her Strawberry Daquiri. But was Heather the intended victim? And whodunit? Don’t think I’m spoiling it for you, by the way – all this comes out in the first couple of minutes!

Marina and JasonThe Mirror Crack’d, as it is now usually called, lends itself to adaptations like a duck to water. Perhaps most memorably, it became a glossy American movie with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the 1980s, a film which has survived the test of time rather well. As a result, I think many in the audience already knew whodunit; I did, mainly because it wasn’t long ago that I wrote about the book in my Agatha Christie Challenge. The fact that it’s still a remarkably entertaining show is a testament to the creativity of this production.

Miss MarpleAs you can guess from that opening line, the adaptation isn’t 100% faithful to the original book, which has heaps more red herrings, an additional murder and extra suspects; but then something has to be omitted when you distil a 200 page novel into two-and-a-quarter hours (including interval) of stage fun. There are quite a lot of liberties for the Christie purist to come to terms with, including a whole re-writing of two of the original roles, as well as presenting a much more up-to-date Jane Marple who’s not averse to showing her emotions and dropping the odd expletive. But Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is cunning, creative, pacey, fluid and tremendously rewarding. It’s also remarkably funny in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.

Jane MarpleIn most Miss Marple books, the wily old lady sits at home with her knitting and thinks out the solution to a crime, whilst her friends bring her nuggets of information to chew on. Appropriately, this adaptation concentrates on Miss Marple at home, whilst she (and we) see the accounts she hears of the crime being acted out in front of her. It’s a very clever staging that stays true to the essence of the character and books, whilst still bringing the whole drama very much to life.

Miss MOf course there are some scenes at the studios where Miss Marple attends, seemingly as the guest of Inspector Craddock – Chief Inspector Craddock as he would like to be known, or Dermot, as she mainly knows him, having looked after him as a child after his mother died young. Much is made of the personal relationship between Dermot and Jane, and it works rather well, being a source of both high emotion, as when he finally becomes able to talk about his grief, and a source of comedy because Miss M has a tendency to treat him like a child. “I know how to make a cup of tea!” he yells, as he storms off to the kitchen, whilst Miss Marple quietly takes over his investigations. There’s a very funny scene where Craddock interrogates Marina whilst Miss Marple is just sitting in a corner pretending to be much older and battier than she really is – but of course she’s dissecting every word she hears.

Miss M and CraddockAdrian Linford has created an intriguing stage design for the production; basically a revolving corridor with doors at either end and glass panels along the side, that swivels into place at slightly different angles, effectively suggesting all the various internal locations of the story. A very significant part of the production involves Max Pappenheim’s sound design and compositions, which eerily surge as the characters’ individual dramas unfold before Miss Marple’s eyes. The music certainly adds to the tension and atmosphere.

Marina and JaneSusie Blake felt like an intriguing casting choice for the role of Miss Marple and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could see her in the role. I needn’t have worried – she’s superb. She conveys all the character’s kindness and supportiveness, but also shows her devastating quick-wittedness and incisive mind. It’s a terrific central performance; the whole show revolves around her. Sophie Ward is also excellent as Marina, combining a superstar’s rather patronising sufferance of the public with an understatedly vicious aloofness when she’s had enough of you.

Marple and CherryOliver Boot is superb as Craddock, the butt of many of the jokes, balancing a nicely underplayed superiority against being the foil to Miss Marple’s more expert sleuthing prowess. Joe McFadden is excellent as the bad-tempered but earnest Jason Rudd, and Veronica Roberts is hugely entertaining as Dolly Bantry; gossipy, a bit stuck-up, but very supportive to her friend. Jules Melvin gives us a very hearty and brusque Heather, and I really enjoyed Mara Allen’s light touch of comedy as Miss Marple’s housekeeper Cherry. But everyone puts in a solid and enjoyable performance.

CastThere’s a moment at the beginning of Act Two where Craddock loses his temper with Miss Marple; and I’ve rarely seen an audience so rapid to intervene to their heroine’s defence! That’s a sign that we were really engaged with the play. There’s a lovely running gag with one of the characters desperate to be interviewed by Craddock but always being turned away in favour of a more interesting suspect. And if you’re from Croydon, prepare to have your hometown taken in vain!

MarinaMany years ago we saw the Agatha Christie Company present a stage version of The Hollow. Mrs Chrisparkle hated it so much that she vowed never again to see a Christie stage adaptation! I’m delighted to report that The Mirror Crack’d has turned her into a Christie aficionado once again. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by this production, but we were both shocked at how thoroughly enjoyable the whole thing is!

Production photos by Ali Wright

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Blues for an Alabama Sky, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

Blues for an Alabama SkyThe second stage (literally) of our three-part Blitz on the National Theatre was to see Wednesday’s matinee of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Lyttelton Theatre – Lynette Linton’s acclaimed production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play. Set in Harlem in 1930, Angel is a club singer who shares an apartment with her friend Guy, a clothes designer whose dream is to create extravagant outfits for his heroine, Josephine Baker, in Paris. Fired from her job and dumped by her gangster boyfriend, Guy carries her home drunk with the assistance of a handsome passing stranger. Supported by Guy, and their friends Delia (from the adjacent apartment) and Sam, a local doctor, Angel sets about picking up the pieces of her life. But then the passing stranger passes by again, this time deliberately, to see if Angel has recovered, and he doesn’t seem likely to take no for an answer…

CastPlays are peculiar things. A bunch of words on paper, they come to life when transferred to a stage – especially if the creative team behind the production gets it right. This is one such occasion; a superb production that – dare I say it – elevates the words on the page to a level way further than you might expect. Lynette Linton’s direction, Frankie Bradshaw’s set and especially costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, and so on, all contribute to presenting us with the most elegant of productions. It shrieks class, although it’s far too elegant to shriek.

Angel and LelandThere’s also something about the production – and I can’t quite put my finger on why – that lures the audience into complete involvement with it. So when a character makes a really telling statement, or a very dramatic event occurs, there are audible gasps, even cries, from the audience. To create that link between us and what happens on stage is a rare gift.

DeliaHowever, and it’s quite a big however, I must confess that I didn’t really like the play itself that much. It feels long – I’m sure it could have shaved at least twenty minutes off without losing any of its content. It was, occasionally, a little bit boring. There are a couple of major plot events that are telegraphed a mile off. I don’t believe it’s in Delia’s character to do what she does at the end of the play (no spoilers). And the suggestion in the final scene that Angel is about to embark on some kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of what has gone before means that nothing has changed, which is  a miserable conclusion, no matter how stylishly it’s conveyed. The direction also triggered one of my pet hates, when imaginary walls that divide rooms or buildings are unnecessarily breached by an actor walking through them. No!! What are you doing!! You’ve just picked that chair up and moved it through a brick wall!

Sam and AngelHaving said that, the play is genuinely fascinating with the development of a character who is absolutely committed to the cause of a woman’s accessibility to both contraception and abortion rights, particularly as it is progressed through promoting it through the church. It also nicely examines the bigotry of the Christian right through the character of Leland, slow to recognise homosexuality in his surroundings simply because he cannot believe it exists in any environment where he might find himself.

AngelThe performances are fantastic throughout and fully justify your decision to buy a ticket! Samira Wiley, in her UK stage debut, is incredible as Angel. She is the kind of performer you simply cannot take your eyes off. No movement, no gesture is wasted; she inhabits the role so fully that you are completely convinced she is Angel. Her singing voice is superb, her emotions get you in the guts, and she’s a dab hand at the comic timing and business too. A remarkable performance. Giles Terera impresses as Guy, with an entertaining range of camp mannerisms and vocal tics that delightfully bring out the humour of the character, but also complement his kindness and his realistic ability to the cut the crap and get to the truth. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo is brilliant as Delia, combining her earnestness with her innocence; she brings the whole audience with her on her gentle journey of love with the supportive Sam, another excellent performance from Sule Rimi. And Osy Ikhile is great as the handsome stranger Leland, the epitome of dignity and romance until the brutality of life stretches his patience too far.

Delia and GuyThe superb atmosphere that the production creates never lets up throughout the whole play, even if the play itself does occasionally leave something to be desired. But there’s a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy, fascinating character development, and an incredible connection with the audience which means the good definitely outweighs the not so good.

Production photos by Marc Brenner4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Boy with Two Hearts, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London, 25th October 2022

The Boy with Two HeartsIn our eternal quest for the best in theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sneaked a couple of treat nights away in London to see all three shows currently playing at the National Theatre. We started off with the show for which I had the least expectations – but which turned out to be a seat of your pants emotional thrill-ride from start to finish – Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of Hamed Amiri’s 2020 book The Boy with Two Hearts. A co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre, it was first seen on stage in October 2021, and now, a year later, it is playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre to spread its message of love to brand new audiences.

The familyA true story, Hussein, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, together with their parents Mohammed and Fariba, lived as best they could in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule. A normal family, but as if it wasn’t bad enough living under the Taliban, they have another significant problem – oldest son Hussein is born with a rare heart condition that can only be treated by specialist surgeons in either the UK or America. After Fariba makes a speech demanding freedom for Afghan women, she becomes the target of death threats from the Taliban and the family has no choice but to escape to save their lives.

SecurityWhat follows is two-and-a-quarter hours of anxiety-fuelled, nail biting excitement as we desperately hope the family can make their way through Europe, at the mercy of traffickers and thieves, but also sometimes assisted by genuinely kind people. Spoiler alert – but it’s not that much of a surprise really – they do make it to the UK. But what is the hope for Hussein and his heart, and can the NHS work its wonders and give him a life?

Under the shirtsThis beautiful adaptation takes this both horrific and delightful story and tells it with such lucidity and animation that it is a joy to watch from start to finish. In many ways, it’s a production like none other I’ve ever seen. For example, inventive use of projected surtitles throughout the play not only makes you aware of the continuous changing from English into Farsi and other languages, it also breathes life into your imagination to see aeroplanes taking off, or a road of busy traffic – you have to see it to appreciate it, but I’ve never seen titling used so eloquently.

Elaha SoroorSinger Elaha Soroor joins the actors on stage to provide a moody, atmospheric soundtrack of Iranian/Afghan music; this, combined with Hayley Grindle’s versatile set, Amy Mae’s evocative lighting and Amit Sharma’s creative and sensitive direction, makes for a true visual and aural feast. The writing is clear, pacey, and with a perfect balance between the humour of warm family life and the atrocity of the real world just outside; and I really liked the way the play ended up in the here and now with the brothers writing their book about their experiences.

CastThe five actors who play the various members of the family, but also the many strangers and familiar faces they meet on their way, work as a stunning ensemble. They move seamlessly from their main character to another by a simple change of a hat or the donning of a jacket. They also drive the story forward by occasionally breaking into what I can only describe as drama-school music and movement sequences. I mention it, because whenever I have seen it done before it always looks artificial and – I don’t know, is there a polite word for wanky? But here it really works and gives the dramatic tension an extra dimension.

Dana HaqjooEach of the five actors brings immense warmth and understanding to their role. Houda Echouafni is brilliant as Fariba, constantly caring for her family, always alert to danger, always the first with both a comforting word or a disciplinary ticking-off. Dana Haqjoo, also, is superb as the father Mohammed; a natural authority, an indulgent smile, a brave planner of escapes, the ultimate in resourcefulness. Ahmad Sakhi plays Hussein; as the oldest boy he too has an authority over his brothers and conveys Hussein’s essential seriousness, an inevitability of balancing childhood fun with a life-threatening health condition. Farshid Rokey as Hamed and Shamail Ali as Hessam have the joint challenge of portraying children (Hamed is ten and Hessam is seven when the play starts) who have adulthood thrust upon them too early in life. They are all 100% convincing in their roles.

thrillingAt the beginning of the interval Mrs C turned to me and said if Hussein doesn’t make it to the end, I’m going to have a bloody good cry. No spoilers again, but there’s no question this is a thoroughly emotional experience; fast paced, with the fear of disaster around every corner, and an exploration of the love within a family and by strangers outside the family. And it’s supported by a hugely creative and vigorous production with fantastic performances throughout. If you think refugee is a dirty word, this just might make you think again. It’s what theatre is all about.

Production photos by Jorge Lizalde

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd October 2022

Upfront-Comedy-SlamIt’s always a pleasure when John Simmit brings his Upfront Comedy Slam to the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. There’s always a gasp from the audience when he reveals his greatest role (financially at least) was six years in the Teletubbies as the furry green Dipsy. If only Tinky-Winky could see him now. Mr S is a great host, making us all feel very warmly welcome for what turned out to be a brilliant evening of comedy.

athena-kugblenuOur first act was Athena Kugblenu, whom we’ve seen a couple of times before, and whose act was chiefly built around the theme of working out what class you are. As someone with working class roots, middle class activities and an upper class accent, I’ve genuinely no idea what I am. She works up a great rapport with the audience, including setting up the burly chap in the front row as the butt of absolutely everyone’s jokes throughout the whole night – fortunately he’s obviously an extremely good sport! Very reliable material and delivery that never quite soars, but is always thoroughly entertaining!

Ali WoodsNext up, and new to us, was Ali Woods. Here’s a great new find in the Comedy World. Terrific attack, original material, spinning off male mental health in unexpected directions. I loved the idea of Erectile Dysfunction being the name of a Heavy Metal Group. Immensely likeable, and a great range of characterisations for the people he references in his act. We’d really like to see him again.

Jay-DrochAfter the interval came another act who was new to us, Jay Droch. Cutting a smart and dignified appearance, Jay surprised us with a mix of character based comedy and impersonations. The first few minutes of his act he concentrated on the characters in Peaky Blinders, which neither of us has seen, so these comic observations meant nothing to us. When he moved on to his political material, he was absolutely brilliant, with a menacingly ridiculous Boris Johnson, a ludicrously hilarious King Charles and, best of all, a blistering re-imagining of Rishi Sunak as a posh schoolboy skipping to the command of his grisly bullying Indian father. It was absolutely preposterous but utterly brilliant.

Kane BrownOur headline act, and someone we’ve enjoyed many times before, was Kane Brown, who is one of the few comics who has that brilliant ability to riff off whatever vibe the audience presents him. So he spent his entire set with fantastically funny observations about marital relationships, especially as you get older, imagining some of the audience members in the situations he describes. His is one of those acts that just washes over you in a sea of comedy, and it’s very hard to pick out any one sequence of jokes or humour that stands out because it’s all so very funny. We didn’t stop laughing the whole time – a true tonic for the soul.

A terrific night of comedy that flew by. Can’t wait till the next one!

Review – On The Beach and Resilience, Contingency Plan, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 21st October 2022

Contingency PlanSteve Waters’ two interweaving plays, On The Beach and Resilience, together known as The Contingency Plan, first saw light of day back in 2009 at the Bush Theatre in London. If the urgency of measures to deal with climate change was a hot topic twelve years ago, they’re off the scale today. Waters has revised the plays to bring them bang up to date – or as up to date as our daily changing political landscape allows – in this brand new production for Sheffield Theatres, directed by Chelsea Walker (On The Beach) and Caroline Steinbeis (Resilience).

RobinWe saw both plays on one day – On The Beach first, then Resilience – with a very interesting and informative panel discussion between the plays in the Playhouse including members of the creative team and scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. This helped to give the plays context and added to the sense that, if we don’t do something about it now, it really is too late. From a dramatic point of view, I’d recommend that you should see both plays, as they tell the same story from two very different angles. SarikaI also think it makes more dramatic sense if you see Resilience first; both plays end with catastrophe, but the nature of that catastrophe probably has a greater impact if you follow the political activity leading to the personal tragedy, rather than the other way round. On The Beach concentrates on domestic life on the front line of coastal vulnerability, whereas Resilience dwells on the political shenanigans of the COBRA meetings to discuss the imminent dangers. Act One of Resilience takes place the day after Act One of On The Beach; Act Two of both plays takes place at exactly the same time, five months later. Both reach the same conclusion – the inescapability of the disaster to follow. As such, you could say the plays are pretty pessimistic.

Robin and SarikaNo doubt about it, it’s a curious mix, this double play. What it has unquestionably in its favour is that it’s hugely thought-provoking, and you may well be talking for days about it afterwards. It may, indeed, change your life, your priorities, and whatever steps you might take to help save the planet. One of the ways it does this is by offering you the problem in bite-size chunks. You may well not feel able to save the planet – that’s an unbelievably massive task. But you might feel you could do something to help save Norfolk. That’s where the majority of our attention is turned, as elderly eco-warriors Robin and Jenny live a simple, detached, unsophisticated life; growing their own food, brewing their own drinks, eschewing the trappings of modern life like mobile phones and the Internet.

JennyRobin is a retired Antarctic glaciologist who has built a model to show how rising sea levels could cause a watery incursion onto their saltmarsh property; their son Will has just returned from a stint at the British Antarctic Survey, horrified at the change to the environment that he has seen out there, and determined to work directly with the government to alert them of the imminent dangers. Robin is aghast that Will is chucking in the research to work in London – and we learn more about Robin and his past that clouds his judgment of the future. As for those politicians, to what extent are they convinced by the dangers that the scientists’ research presents them, or are they more concerned with playing the electorate and doing what they know will win them votes? And are even the advisers themselves fully committed to revealing the truth, or do they also hold back for fear of aggravating their political masters?

WillSo, a vitally important plot, and a positively thought-provoking piece of work. It’s a little disappointing, then, that there are some difficulties with the plays that hold them back from being a truly gripping dramatic experience. Act One of Resilience is, for example, very wordy. You feel that a lot could be cut or tightened up with the advisers’ dealings with Secretary of State for Resilience, Chris Casson. Some of the lines in both plays come across as rather clunky, and don’t have that recognisable sound of a genuine conversation. The water tank that dominates the stage in On The Beach becomes a burden to the play and staging once its initial use to house the model has been completed. ColinIs it a real tank or is it a symbol of the sea or the storm? If the latter, then why do Will and Sarika say they come from the beach further downstage? If the former, why do Robin and Jenny get inside the tank and splash around? There’s an inconsistency with the way it is incorporated into the action which I feel muddles the story.

ChrisGeorgia Lowe’s stark, bare, grey, platformy set suggests discomfort; otherwise, it does very little to enhance our appreciation of either location, bringing to mind neither coast nor office; it also makes it virtually impossible for any action to take place upstage. And there are some peculiar vocal inflexions from a couple of the actors: as when, for example, Geraldine Alexander’s Jenny’s line about the birds flying overhead, “must be five-hundred-odd birds”, is spoken as “five hundred odd birds” as if there were something very peculiar about them all.

That aside, the performances are good; there’s a crisp disconnect between Paul Ready’s Casson and Geraldine Alexander’s Tessa that makes for some very ugly but exciting tension; Peter Forbes is excellent in his dual roles Tessaas the troubled and brutal Robin and the unsophisticated but sincere Colin; Joe Bannister’s Will and Kiran Landa’s Sarika are full of the enthusiasm of youth with the drive to get their message home, even if that works against their own personal circumstances.

An important, but far from perfect, work given an exuberant, but far from perfect, production! Nevertheless, I’d absolutely recommend it if your climate change complacency needs a kick up the backside – this will certainly provide that.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Local Hero, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 8th October 2022 (First Preview)

Local HeroAfter the matinee of the excellent Woman in Mind, it was time for another long-awaited premiere, Daniel Evans’ production of Local Hero, the stage version of that much loved 1983 film, starring Burt Lancaster as the stargazing oil tycoon Happer and Peter Riegert as his emissary Mac, sent to the Scottish Highlands to negotiate the purchase of an entire village so that it can be turned into one giant refinery. But as Mac grows fonder of this magical remote environment, and its quirky, lovable inhabitants, he starts to wonder if he’s doing the right thing.

The CastI should state that the performance we saw was the first preview, and it is possibly unfair to judge the show with what you might see today now that it’s more bedded-in. It was a little slow at times and a little cumbersome moving from scene to scene, all of which I am sure will have been tightened up now. Of course, its plot won’t have changed over the past week – and it’s a story with obvious, timeless appeal. If environmental worries were a big thing in 1983, they’re off the scale now. And with the world worrying about how it’s going to pay its next fuel bill, this new version, that inter alia questions the value of the oil industry (and other similar industries), couldn’t be more appropriate.

A Barrell of OilBut what does the new musical show give us, that the original film doesn’t? Sadly, the answer, I fear, is nothing. In fact, there’s something strangely sterile about this show. Rather than bringing the story right into the present time, it encapsulates and preserves it somewhere in history. Perhaps it’s the reliance on the phone box – there were no mobile phones in 1983, and it’s increasingly hard to imagine a world without them. Perhaps it’s the oddness of the set – an ugly steel backdrop onto which projections can be made, and with a beach coastline that has to be dug up by the cast from underneath the flooring of the Houston office. The steel backdrop works well for the opening number, A Barrel of Oil, as the Texan executives and traders scamper around to a scrolling back projection of 1983-style computer graphics, adding up to a suggestion of millions of dollars being flung here and there. But it feels out of place when virtually all the rest of the show is set in the sleepy natural environment of Ferness. In another interesting staging decision, most of the band are perched to the side of the audience in what appears to be an extension of the seating, thereby creating a distraction from the action on the stage – more than once did I find it more interesting to watch the keyboard player singing along to the songs rather than the cast.

Lillie Flynn and Gabriel EbertSo, yes, it was the first preview and allowances must be made; but you can’t change the set and you can’t change the score, wherein lies the show’s biggest weakness. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, any musical succeeds or fails on the strength of its score. And I’m sorry to say that Mark Knopfler’s new songs for the show contain no show-stopping numbers, or even anything mildly memorable. The catchiest song is Filthy Dirty Rich, which is what the villagers sing when they realise they could make a fortune from selling the village to the oil company; but it’s only memorable because that title phrase is repeated mantra-like so many times that it’s impossible to get it out of your head (and not in a good way.) Apart from that, I found the music uninspired and the lyrics depressingly uninventive and repetitive. As an example, Viktor, the visiting Russian boatman/capitalist, has a short song which, if I remember rightly, comprises of his repeating his name several times. We’re not talking Cole Porter here.

Gabriel EbertThe lead role of Mac is taken by Tony award-winning Gabriel Ebert on his UK stage debut. Mr Ebert has an impressive CV as long as your arm, although he’s completely new to me. He has a genial stage presence and weaves the story along nicely but I felt his voice was a little tentative to be carrying the lead role in a musical. Paul Higgins is very good as Gordon, the village entrepreneur who does everything from running the pub, doing everyone’s accounts to probably painting and decorating your house too. I wondered if it was a coincidence that visually he has the look of the young(-ish) Denis Lawson who took the role in the film. Either way, it’s a confident and enjoyable performance.

Hilton McRaeStealing the show in every scene, however, is the esteemed Hilton McRae as Ben, the beach-dweller who refuses to sell. There are few roles that Mr McRae can’t excel in, and here he is terrific with the character’s well-reasoned stubbornness and admirable adherence to the old values. Such as shame that Mr Knopfler has given him the bland and repetitive Cheerio Away Ye Go as his main song. The rest of the cast work well as an ensemble, and there are some entertaining moments; the beginning of the second act, for example, really gives you a feeling of what it’s like to have the mother of all hangovers.

Paul HigginsBut without a decent score to get your teeth into, and without any modernisation of the plot, the best this production can do is to offer you a different way at looking at a familiar old story; and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why you would need to do that. However – and this is a big however – I note that for the last week Twitter has been surging with love for this new production, so I completely accept this is more my problem than the production’s. It would be a sad world if we all liked the same things.

 

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Two Disappointing for More!