Two National Treasures at the Oxford Literary Festival

Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in Conversation

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Earlier this evening I went into Oxford for my only visit to the Oxford Literary Festival this year. It was a sell-out event at the Sheldonian – with two national treasures who have been collaborating for decades in conversation. We were all crammed into the Sheldonian. I’d bought a lower gallery ticket, and the ushers were trying to fill the gallery up from the furthest corners. Not wishing to only see the back of their heads, I decided to be awkward and claimed a decent seat, happily moving to let people past – I’d got there early enough to pick my seat I’d hoped…

Time for the talk, and Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden lead the pair in, Bennett shuffling – he is 80 now. Ovenden then introduced them, and told us that Bennett had gifted his papers to the Bodleian in 2008. Bennett quipped that they were assured of legend status as both had been “a small stepping stone in the rise and rise of James Corden.”

They settled down to chat, and Bennett started off by quizzing Hytner about his time as a chorister aged 12 at Manchester Grammar School and the joy of singing under the direction of Manchester legend John Barbirolli. They then moved on to when they first worked together – on the Wind in the Willows in 1990 at the National Theatre. Bennett had been asked by Richard Eyre, then the NT director, to write a play coming out of Wind in the Willows incorporating Kenneth Grahame’s life, but Bennett found that too tragic and adapted just the book (I saw it twice – loved it). Hytner directed and went on to direct many more family-friendly productions for the NT including their adaptations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and latterly War Horse. Here Bennett interjected that he had been approached to adapt War Horse, but said no, “not a literary work at all.”  He said that there was not enough in War Horse for the playwright to do to it – it’s all in the action and production design and direction.

Moving on to The History Boys – Hytner thought it better on stage than film. They talked about how they collaborated on the drafts of the play. Bennett told a funny story about how he performed one of the scenes at the NT 50th anniversary gala – it was from the French lesson – so all in French – but he got a laugh in one bit where Richard Griffiths who played Hector never did – Griffiths would have loved to get the extra laugh.

Maggie-Smith-in-The-Lady-In-The-Van-531772Then, before questions, they talked about their latest project – the film of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. This is the true story of Alan Bennett himself and Miss Shepherd – who moved into Gloucester Crescent in her van – Bennett invited her to temporarily park her van on his drive – she stayed for fifteen years. Dame Maggie Smith will reprise her role from the stage as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett will be played by Alex Jennings (left). They filmed it in Gloucester Crescent in Bennett’s old house, so a real nostalgia trip for Bennett – and the remaining neighbours who remembered Miss Shepherd. I shall really look forward to seeing this film.

The early evening lecture finished with Ovenden presenting Hytner with the Bodley medal, Bennett already has one. I resisted going down to the book stall, there not being signing on offer (and I’d succumbed to a couple of purchases in Waterstones on my way to the venue earlier!). I could have sat and listened to Bennett all evening – he is just so simultaneously Eeyorish and witty – when he could get a word in edgeways – Hytner tended to be rather expansive, but it was a lovely event.

P.S. I forgot to say that Bennett finished off the conversation by reading a speech from his play A Habit of Art. Kay, the stage manager (as played by Frances de la Tour on stage) speaks the speech which defines ‘The Habit of Art’.  This speech was another collaboration between Hytner and Bennett – originally it had stopped halfway through, but Hytner suggested it needed more.

My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied':

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.

 

 

 

Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

My Les Mis-full day – not glum at all

Les Misérables – On Film and Stage

Over the years, the one musical that didn’t appeal to me was Les Misérables. In fact, I turned down free tickets back in the early 1990s, such was my lack of enthusiasm for it – the very thought of having to sit through it made me feel glum.

But, dear readers, I am cured!  Vivent Les Misérables!

My daughter, for reasons I’ll come to later, was desperate to see it.  I said I’ll book for the summer. ‘No, can’t it be Easter?’ she asked.  ‘I’ll see what’s available.’ I replied, and found us tickets for yesterday evening – good seats at a price, but as an irregular theatre-goer these days, I’m willing to pay out a bit for a good view, (I chose the 2nd priced stalls at £67.50 each!!!).

les mis movie posterHowever, as my daughter likes to understand what’s going on before seeing shows, (something that spoiled seeing War Horse for her with her old school – she hadn’t read the book, and they didn’t explain the play at all) we watched the DVD at the weekend as Les Mis is a complicated story, (I benefitted from that too).

I loved it – especially Hugh Jackman of course, who has a great pedigree in musicals (my late mum saw him in Oklahoma and fell for him). Even Russell Crowe wasn’t so bad, and was suitably brooding, and Hathaway we know can sing and was so brave getting her real hair cut off – and her collarbones made her look skeletal as the dying Fantine. The naturalistic singing, which was live rather than dubbed as I understand, made it seem so much more … miserable.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (SBC and HBC!) were great comic relief as the money-grabbing Thénardiers. I cried like a baby at the end.  I went through the story with my daughter and we were prepared for our trip down to London.

20140415_192219_resizedWe had a good afternoon shopping in Covent Garden, then a burger and shake at Ed’s Diner in Soho before the theatre.  Our seats were great (no need to pay £20 more for that prime central block).  Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was smaller than I expected, but very plush.

On time, the orchestra struck up and we were transported to 19thC France. The staging was wonderful – using a surprisingly quiet revolving stage and clever lighting which allowed both props and actors to keep the action always moving.  Originally staged by the RSC at the Barbican, you expect the slickness and clever use of backdrops and props. An American party sitting behind me, although they loved the traditional theatre, had been expecting something on a bigger scale ‘like back in Boston’ (yawn!).

My daughter (left) gets Carrie's (middle) autograph

My daughter (left) gets Carrie’s (middle) autograph

None of the cast (except one) were familiar to me, but they were touts merveilleux! I  did have a sniffle when Eponine died, and could see lots of hankies being dabbed to eyes then and at the end.

Eponine was the reason for going at Easter, she was played by Carrie Hope Fletcher (sister of McFly’s Tom) and my daughter follows her on the web. So afterwards, we quickly went round to the stage door and found ourselves in a small cluster of waiting fans and she kindly signed our programme which made my daughter’s day.

Les Mis has now trumped both Oliver! and Matilda as her favourite musical and film. My favourite will always be the original Jesus Christ Superstar, but Les Mis will now vie with Oliver! for my second spot.

Victor Hugo’s story is epic in its scope, I started reading it around two years ago, and ought to resume – I got as far as Jean Valjean being given the silver, i.e. not very far, and paused. Seeing the musical twice has renewed my enthusiasm for it.

Musically, Les Mis is sung-through; there is no dialogue at all, and the score relies on recitative to link the main scenes. I was fascinated by the way there are really only about eight (guessing here) musical themes which get mixed up and reappear throughout the show, most obviously the Thénardiers’ comic song, and Javert’s brooding one, but they all blend together and never appear repetitive at all. This made it feel less of a musical, more an opera.  I loved it.

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Here’s links to Les Mis at Amazon UK, in case you’re interested:
Les Misérables [DVD] [2012] starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway etc
Les Miserables 25th Anniversary [DVD] the concert at the RAH with Alfie Boe etc.

Wendy takes the lead …

Wendy & Peter Pan by Ella Hickson, RSC at the RST, Stratford

70115-wendy--peter-pan-programme-2013-extra-1What a treat!  Juliet and I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday night to see their new family production Wendy & Peter Pan.  Yes, you read it right – Wendy comes first in Ella Hickson’s re-telling of J M Barrie’s original story, which was originally titled Peter and Wendy.

Although keeping much of Barrie’s original story in tact, Hickson has changed the emphasis, giving Wendy the lead over Peter. She has also added in a new plot driver for Wendy and her family in the device of a third brother who dies at the beginning of the play, echoing Barrie’s own life. It is Wendy’s belief that he has become a Lost Boy that fuels her quest in Neverland. Wendy’s parent too, in their grief, go on a separate quest to find their way through the emotions that threaten their marriage, and the two stories intersect throughout the play with resonance.

Wendy and Peter Pan: Fiona Button as Wendy and Guy Henry as HookNo sooner has Wendy arrived in Neverland than it seems that all the females there are out to get her.  Tink tells Lost Boy Tootles to shoot her out of the sky, Tiger Lily is a warrior princess who nearly shoots Wendy too, luckily the Mermaids are off-stage in this production.  In the end the girls realise that being part of Team Wendy is the way to go.

At first Wendy agrees to be Mother to the Lost Boys, but when it becomes clear that Peter doesn’t realise that it is not really just a game, she leaves them and gets captured by the pirates.  Guy Henry, who many will recognise as Dr Hansen from BBC TV series Holby, was a rather world-weary Captain Hook, aware that his slightly Jack Sparrow-ish looks were fading, waiting for the tick of the crocodile come to take him away – he wishes he had Peter’s time again. His rag-tag bunch of pirates were suitably shambolic, led by a lovelorn Smee.

As befits the girl being groomed to be mother, Fiona Button as Wendy (actually 27) was wise beyond her thirteen years, but often has to fight against herself to get her words out, to make the boys understand – which they do for just a second or two having the attention span of gnats, you could sense Wendy’s frustration.

As for the boys, well they were straight out of boys own adventures, where everything is about fun. The minute it stops being fun, they do something different. They were very entertaining, and fulfilled all the stereotypes needed, the geeky one, the swotty one, the working-class Welsh one… Wendy’s brothers John and Michael too – bombastic and in touch his feminine side.  And this bring me to Peter…

Peter Pan Shadows

As you can see from the photo, Peter had not just one shadow, but a team of six, who helped him to fly. It sounds bizarre, but they were for the most part totally unintrusive, and manipulated Peter, and any others who needed to be ferried in air or water with great dexterity, and were in charge of the wires from the ceiling during other scenes. Sam Swann was a stocky Peter, bristling with boyish bravado, his hair bedecked with a little red quiff that made me think of a young Morrissey(!).

tinkA lot of laughs though come from Tink, the little fairy with a larger than life personality. She initially appears as a light, but underneath that is a roly-poly Essex girl trying (and succeeding) to get out! Charlotte Mills was a revelation, and Tink quickly became my daughter’s favourite character.

Everything about this production, like Matilda which we saw at the RSC too (review here), was classy and the way they used the space was wonderful; special mentions go to the balletic crocodile, and Captain Hook’s rather wonderful ship.  It was a proper play with just enough panto in it to get the laughs, no dog and completely un-Disneyfied, but full of heart too.

I laughed, I jumped, I gasped, I very nearly cried too, I cheered, I booed, I clapped – We loved it!  It’s on at Stratford until Easter – Go if you can – it’s rather special.

Panto season … 1951

Looking through some really old theatre programmes again, my eye was caught by the advertisement below on the back of one.  Dating from 1951, the ad is for a pantomime – Aladdin – put on my impressario Emile Littler at the London Casino.  Cast your eyes down to the bottom left and see who is playing the principal girl …

Aladdin 1951

Yes, it’s a young Julie Andrews. Already a star, at the age of thirteen she’d been the youngest ever solo performer at a Royal Variety Performance in front of George VI; in 1951, now aged sixteen she starred as Princess Balroulbadour in this lavish panto.

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie AndrewsThe following extract is from her memoir Home, which I reviewed here

That Christmas of 1951 I was invited to play the role of Princess Balroulbadour – the principal girl – in Emile Littler’s holiday pantomime Aladdin back at the London Casino. Jean Carson was to play the title role.

Aladdin was an elaborate production. The Genie’s cave at the end of the first act was dazzling to behold and there was a huge ballet, beautifully designed and executed, in the second act.

I wore exotic, sparkling headdresses, which I loved, and a lot of satin kimono-style robes with long, draped arms. The setting was Middle Eastern, but I looked more Japanese than Persian. I also wore ballet slippers, to keep my height down and make Jean Carson look taller than me.

The cast included a Danish acrobatic troupe, the Olanders – five lads who, clad in silk pantaloons and waistcoats, performed death-defying gymnastics: springboards, leaps, balancing acts. Every time they were onstage I had to come down to watch – they were that good: a special combination of bravura and muscular strength, with lean beautiful bodies.

One of the acrobats – the best – was a young man called Fred who executed something like twelve amazing butterfly leaps round the stage. He was attractive, fit (obviously), and very gentle and dear. My mother knew that I was fond of him and she said, wisely, ‘Bring him down to The Meuse for a weekend.’ Later she joked that he never stopped swinging from our chandeliers (we didn’t have any).

My mother was ever present. Fred and I would sit on the couch, bodies pressed together, and there was a lot of hugging and kissing, Mum plied her sewing machine across the room, her back to us but rigidly alert.

I was heartbroken when the run of the show ended.

What a cast!

A vintage theatrical diversion for you today… Sorting through a pile of assorted clippings, programmes etc of my late mum’s I found this theatre programme … and my first thought was ‘What a cast!’  You can see for yourself …

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The Way of the World is one of the very best Restoration comedies, first performed in 1700. The action is centred around two lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, who need the permission of Lady Wishfort to marry to get a full dowry. Lady Wishfort, however, would prefer her nephew Sir Wilfull to marry Mirabell.

Gielgud not only starred in and directed this production, but assembled an all-star cast: Eric Porter, Paul Schofield, Peter Sallis (Cracking cheese, Gromit), two young female stars in Pamela Brown and Eileen Herlie, Margaret Rutherford, and at the bottom – Catweazle himself Geoffrey Bayldon.

I was able to find a review of this production from The Spectator archive of theatre reviews from Feb 27th, 1953, selected quotes follow:

THE more faultless a play, perhaps, the more difficult a job there is for the producer. The Way of the World is a very nearly perfect comedy; against the original felicities of Congreve John Gielgud’s presentation—the latest period-piece at the Hammersmith Lyric, a kind of salty hors d’oeuvre before the tremendous meal of Otway- shows flaws which have caused it to be roughly handled. But, if these cannot be ignored, they are far less important than the style, judgement, and elegance of the whole; …
There are, certainly, some odd quirks of casting. Pamela Brown is a very queer Millamant, whom the effort of outrageous affectation seems to leave perpetually out of breath. … Margaret Rutherford, rolling and heaving her way, like the White Queen feeling an improbable access of desire, through the predicaments of Lady Wishfort, is even further from her ordinary territory, but she conquers the ground for herself. She is stupendously out of place and time, but she is stupendous; it does not really matter how Lady Wishfort is funny so long as she is as funny as that.
Beside this rollicking performance Mr. Gielgud’s Mirabell is hardly noticeable, retiring with admirable stage-manners to his proper place. This remains, however, the unobtrusive centre of the comedy, and Mr. Gielgud does not forget it ; around his debonair, cultivated, and elegant figure—such legs must have been the envy of all the beaux in St. James’s—the entire heartless, good-humoured, polite machinery revolves. … the most polished talk in the world spoken for the most part with spirit and intelligence—it would be possible to ask more, but it might be thought, rather greedy.’ C. S.

I love the critic’s description of Margaret Rutherford – stupendous!

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Caryl Brahms, writing for Plays and Players magazine in 1953, was also not a fan of Pamela Brown, describing her voice as “part turtle-dove’s roo-coo, part nutmeg grater” and bemoans the fact that “Miss Brown seems only to have up her sleeve Miss Brown – her ace of aces. But what a self Miss Brown has! … The Gods forfend that we should have Miss Brown act a character instead of her fascinating self…

I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to refer to “Plays and Players”: 1953-68 v. 1: Thirty Years of British Theatre (link to Amazon UK) to provide the photo and more information. I picked this volume up at a book sale, and it has sat there on the shelf for ages.  I have few of my mum’s theatre programmes left now, but I do have a diary of all the plays, ballets and operas she went to see from 1950 onwards – this could inspire more posts!

 

Books in Bath and a French Farce

Yesterday my daughter and I went to Bath, it’s only an hour and a half from us, and the delights of the city are many. Yesterday was all about shopping, dining and theatre – we’ve done the heritage bit on previous visits.  We arrived in time for lunch (Nandos), then got stuck into shopping…

One of the key shops to visit was Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a rather wonderful and well stocked bookshop, where I indulged a little of course, buying Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version, and an American import paperback Smonk, by Tom Franklin – a western that’s been on my wishlist for ages.

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Dinnner was at Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place, which is one of those posh little arcades of eateries and design shops.

Then our evening entertainment was at the Theatre Royal, a small but lovely theatre which has a formidable reputation for staging pre-West End runs of plays with top actors. Our mid-stalls seats turned out to be about the best in the house…

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The play we went to see was A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame). Feydeau was a prolific author in the Belle Époque era, and was famed for his farces.

This was not the first Feydeau/Mortimer farce I’ve been to. Back in 1989, I saw a production of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic starring Jim Broadbent. It was hilarious. Flea, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, was written in 1907 and involves: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments amongst its plot elements.

Feydeau HotelHotel, meanwhile which was written in 1894 is about: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments.  OK, they’re standard farce ingredients – just shuffle them about!

It’s about two couples, the Pinglets, and the Paillardins.  Mr Pinglet (Mr P), a builder, is rather hen-pecked by his domineering wife – he calls her the ‘hornet’, whereas Madame Paillardin feels ignored by her architect husband. Mr P and Mme Paillardin decide to have an affair and as Mr Paillardin will be away on business and Mme Pinglet is going to visit her sister, they set up their assignation at the Free Trade Hotel.  Before all this is to happen, Mathieu, a ‘friend’ of the Pinglets from their holiday turns up hoping to stay with them, and having brought his four daughters with him. Mathieu has a stutter, but only when it rains (loads of scope for f, f, fu, fu*, functioning type laughs there).

Needless to say, with his brood unwelcome at the Pinglets, they decamp to the hotel, where the Paillardin’s nephew Maxime is also planning to lose his virginity with the Pinglet’s maid, and Mr Paillardin has been legitimately hired to investigate poltergeists and ghosts.  So everyone, except Mme Pinglet, is in the same place at the same time. Mathieu and his girls are mistakenly given the same room as Mr Paillardin, who sees the girls in their nightdresses as ghosts and runs away.   There is much door-slamming – and Mr P and Mme Paillardin never manage to get a kiss before the police arrive on a raid and a lively chase ensues. Caught, Mr P says his name is Mr Paillardin, and Mme Paillardin gives her name as Mme Pinglet to the police. Mr P pays FFr5000 bail.

The next day, we’re back at the Pinglet’s house, and Mme Pinglet arrives back from her trip in a real state – her carriage’s horse had bolted and she ended up in a ditch. She declares her love for Mr P, saying ‘You nearly lost me!’ – only nearly he thinks.  Then a writ comes from the police for Mme P saying she must confirm her identity, and similarly one arrives for Mr Paillardin – of course neither were there at the time – how will this all be resolved?

An all-star cast was led by Richard McCabe, fresh from his Olivier award opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience, and maybe familiar on TV as one of Ken Branagh’s Wallander crew.

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In the late 1980s McCabe was at the RSC, and I will forever remember him as Puck in John Caird’s 1989 punky tutus and bovver boots staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (far right, with John Carlisle as Oberon).

Now in his early fifties, he made a wonderfully fleshy Mr P. His comic timing, facial contortions and asides to the audience were brilliant.  He was aided by Hannah Waddingham (whom we last saw as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz), was his toweringly tall and overbearing wife – a very scary woman!  Robert Portal and Natalie Walter played the Paillardins, he all brusque, she suitably histrionic, Tom Edden was manic as the stuttering Mathieu and, in what is little more than an extended cameo, Richard Wilson (familiar to many as Victor Meldrew in TV’s One Foot in the Grave), was the rather downbeat seen-it-all-before hotel manager.

It had some hilarious moments of slapstick and double-entendre, and everything happened at breakneck pace, yet there was something slightly not quite right about the ending, which was a little sudden.  I wasn’t sure that everything had been resolved satisfactorily – but that was deliberate on Feydeau’s part commenting on the Parisian upper classes habits of bending the rules to fit themselves apparently.

All in all this was a really fun performance in a great little theatre. We had a good time and it made a change from the unaffordable West End at less than half the price, and we were home before midnight.  A great day out.

Nice little surprises

It’s lovely when you get a nice little surprise (or ‘pleasing’ as Lynne at DGR would call them). I’ve had a couple of good bookish ones this morning.

berkoffFirstly, I unpacked my acquisitions from the charity shop yesterday. I know I don’t need books, but my daughter was having her hair cut, and what was I to do? It was too distracting to sit and read in the hairdressers, so I went shopping.

Among the books I bought was this hardback: Steven Berkoff’s autobiography Free Association.

He is one of those fascinating actors equally at home on stage or screens big and small, and he’s one of the very best actors at playing baddies there is.  Although an East-end lad, he comes from Romanian stock, which explains a lot.

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He has been in Bond films, and a Matt Smith episode of Dr Who, but apart from his baddie role, I always primarily associate him with Kafka.  He adapted three of his novels for the stage, and I can vividly remember the 1987 TV film of Metamorphosis which had a young Tim Roth scuttling around the stage.

I will look forward to reading this book, and it was a lovely surprise when I opened the cover this morning to find that my £2.50 had got me a signed copy. OK, so my name’s not John, but Berkoff has touched this particular book, and I like that a lot.

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billy and meMy second nice surprise was that my daughter and I were discussing a book that my niece had recommended on our visit to Croydon earlier this week. Billy and Me is a chicklit romance by debut author Giovanna Fletcher. I said we’d look it up and get a copy if Juliet wanted it. Juliet squinted at the bookcase in front of her and said, ‘You’ve already got a copy!’. ‘Gosh,’ I replied when I realised that I’d received a copy from the publisher (thank you), so my daughter has added it to her pile as it is not really a book for me.

One thing you should know about Giovanna Fletcher though, which I didn’t realise until I read the blurb of this book, is apart from having been in TOWIE, she is married to Tom from McFly – and she is the girl to whom he sang his wedding speech in one of Youtube’s most watched clips. I was sceptical, but had watched it some weeks ago when I saw it mentioned in a magazine and I was nearly in tears by the end. It was so lovely (and of course Harry Judd is in it too) – so I shall encourage you to have an indulgent break to watch it for yourselves…

Have you had any nice little bookish surprises lately? Do share…

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To explore these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Free Association: Autobiography by Steven Berkoff, 1997, Faber paperback
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback.

I’d go ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…’ if I could.

Well! Our (that’s the way I think of him, born 1960 like me, and comes from Belfast like my late Mum) Ken has done it again!

branagh macbethI wish I’d been able to go up to Manchester to see his take on the Scottish Play but tickets had sold out back in February in about ten minutes.  So, unlike my friend Fiona who did get tickets, I had to settle for the next best thing – a live screening streamed to my local cinema from NT Live.  We were in one of the bigger screens – and it was absolutely packed – loads of serious types – and not much popcorn in evidence!

To Macbeth then – co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, and co-starring River Song, the luminous Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth, and using a deconsecrated church as a venue, this was theatre staged in the long.  By this I mean, the performance area was the length of the aisle plus the altar.  The small audience sat either side of the aisle, and the action charged up and down it – in the mud and the rain. Yes after meeting the weird sisters, the company fought in battle with real, yes real, rain falling onto the earthen ground.  It must have been thrilling to be in the audience with the fighting coming that close.

The use of the church adds layers of symbolism to the text – Macbeth’s dagger that he sees before him is a projection of a cross, Duncan is slain on what would have been the altar, meanwhile the witches are like writhing young mud-caked Maenads (female followers of Dionysus).  All the colours are muted, heathery faded tartans, and muddy of course – except for Lady Macbeth’s pure white nightdress, and blood-red gown.

Photo by Johan Persson

Photo by Johan Persson

Branagh’s speaking of the text is so natural – I saw his full Hamlet at the RSC back in the 1990s and felt that I understood the whole thing properly for the first time. He completely inhabits the rôle, and wears all of Macbeth’s emotions on his face. Kingston and Branagh had good chemistry, and here was the really annoying thing! The cinema lost the signal for a few minutes – just as the two of them were about to meet again after the initial battle – and we missed the sexy bit!  Her mad scene later was great though.

The leads were ably supported by some RSC/Renaissance Theatre Co stalwarts – John Shrapnel as Duncan, Jimmy Yuill as Banquo, and Ray Fearon as Macduff. Fights were by master fight director Terry King and the music was by Patrick Doyle.  So the pedigree of the entire production was absolutely top class.

The camera work for the cinema screening was also brilliant – we didn’t miss a thing, and it seemed very unobtrusive – it must have been choreographed just like the fights. However, the fact that the action was so close-up with bloody battle scenes inches from the audience’s faces (you could see them flinch), it was impossible to feel as if you were actually there with them, whereas when I saw a screening of Frankenstein last year from the National Theatre with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, you could actually place yourself in the stalls for much of it.

However it was still two hours of bloody, bloody brilliant theatre, and I am totally in awe of our Ken, (who is ageing very nicely too).

Next on my list of these live screenings will be Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello on Sept 26 from the National Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner.