Category Archives: Culture

Theatre review – Green Forms and Say Something Happened

Green Forms and Say Something Happened – review for Essential Surrey website.

This Alan Bennett double-bill is being performed at the Nomad Theatre in East Horsley until October 28.

Would you like some Marmite on your toast, Mam?’

Remember when our Margaret was late for school, Dad? She made that much of a fuss when we gave her Marmite soldiers for breakfast. She even missed seeing Bert, the Lollipop man, and got into proper trouble with Mrs Swinson.’

If you’re a fan of Alan Bennett, you will love this double-bill of a couple of his rarely seen plays (from 1978 & 1982), currently being performed by Graham Pountney’s Theatre Reviva! community theatre company.

In Green Forms, spinster Doris Rutter and younger married Doreen Bidmead idle their way through a working day in the Precepts and Invoices department of a large national organisation. Processing a single form gets in the way of endless cups of tea, gossiping about people in other branch offices, and re-directing forms to the dreaded Personnel department upstairs.

But the cold wind of change is blowing through their mundane working lives. The computerisation word is whispered in hushed tones. Redundancies have been announced at other branches. And why have they suddenly got a positive avalanche – well, six – Precept forms landing in their in-tray today.

With a bit of unusually energetic detective work, Doreen and Doris realise that Dorothy Binns – the ominous harbinger of change – is coming to work in their cosy office.

Mam Elizabeth and retired Dad Arthur Rhodes are in their 60s, comfortable sitting in their armchairs and with their own company, content reading the newspaper and twitching the curtains to watch the leaves falling from the neighbour’s garden onto their path. Mam is wondering whether she should wash one or two stockings today….

In Say Something Happened, their peace is interrupted one autumnal day by the unexpected arrival of June Potter, a gentle but inexperienced young lass from Social Services.

As I see it, young people have a lot to give old people, and old people have a lot to give young people. You know….caring.’

June has a questionnaire, so that she can make a list of at-risk elderly people for the local Council to keep an eye on. She means well, but is out of her depth with the independent, able-bodied and outwardly perfectly contented couple.

June crumbles as Mam and Dad resist her attempts to pigeon-hole them, and the emptiness of her own life is laid bare as Mam and Dad tell June about their ambitious high-flying daughter – ‘our Margaret’ – whose postcards from around the world adorn the lounge.

But Mam shares a secret with June, and as the deflated young council worker leaves there is a suggestion that the old couple might need to place the patronising HELP sign in their window at some time in the future, after all.

Image courtesy of Melville House Books

Bennett’s genius is his ability to wring meaning and nuance from the minutiae of daily life, and from the cadence of everyday conversations. That outward simplicity and inner depth is beautifully acted by the cast in these two short plays: by Reviva! Founder and Director Graham Pountney as a delivery man in Green Forms and as Dad in Say Something Happened, by Catharine Humphrys as Doris and Mam, and by Louisa Lawrenson as Doreen and June.

And whoever knew that the charming Nomad Theatre was tucked away behind the shops lining East Horsley’s Bishopsmead Parade, camouflaged like Bennett’s perceptive writing?

The Guildford Book Festival 2017

The Guildford Book Festival was established in 1989, and has grown in scale and reputation ever since.

This year was the first opportunity I have had to embrace the Festival….and there sure was a lot to wrap your literary arms around.

As a travel writer and blogger, I have wondered if I could ever make the leap towards crafting a readable work of fiction. Step forward Rachel Marsh, and her engaging Creative Writing Workshop which ran all week, and introduced the lively class to character development, writing dialogue, plot, editing and getting published, amongst other fun and interesting themes. Watch this space….

Before the start of the Festival I had written an article for TripFiction, giving a sneak preview of the GBF events that featured authors talking about books with a strong sense of location.

With my journalist’s hat on, and with huge thanks to TripFiction for opening the door and Tamsin Williams from Wigwam PR for shoving me through it, I was privileged to interview some of the Festival authors. Here are links to my posts, published on TripFiction:

Somehow, I managed to learn enough about the migrant crisis, 19th century French Impressionism, Venice, the Palestine/Israel conflict, political thrillers and mountaineering to bluff my way through chats with these esteemed writers. Hopefully.

A couple of disappointments. Something went desperately wrong with directions to the venue for the Alan Hollinghurst event, talking about his new book The Sparsholt Affair. I missed seeing Alan, but that did at least mean I caught all of the Chris Bonington talk, which  made my phone interview with the knighted adventurer rather more rewarding.

And I’ve been stalking author Laura Barnett for a while, since reading her charming and hugely successful debut novel The Versions of Us.  She has been touring the UK, promoting her second novel Greatest Hits by performing gigs with singer Kathryn Williams, bringing to life the soundtrack of the book. Sadly, their performance at this year’s Guildford Book Festival was cancelled at fairly late notice, and with no real explanation.

But those small mishaps did little to dent my enthusiasm for a brilliant Festival. Thanks to the many people involved in making t all happen, and looking forward to 2018 already.

Book review – Red Notice

I’ve said it before, but one of the good things about being in the West Surrey Book Club is that I get to read titles I would never have chosen myself.

I turned the last page of Red Notice by Bill Browder this morning, and am looking forward to discussing it with the gang this evening.

Bill Browder’s grandfather, Earl, was a labour union organiser in the USA and ran for President under the Communist flag in 1936 and 1940. The Browder dynasty were all high-achievers in various fields, and it was no surprise that the fiercely ambitious and intelligent Bill didn’t follow any traditional route after gaining his MBA from Stanford Business School in 1989.

He looked eastwards, at the same time as the Berlin Wall and any semblance of Communist principles were collapsing throughout Europe. He founded Hermitage Capital Management and moved to Russia in 1996, making millions for himself and for his investors by piggy-backing on cheap state asset deals being gobbled up so opportunistically by the oligarchs.

But 10 years later, Browder was expelled from Russia and everything fell apart. To try and summarise here the extent of the underlying greed, corruption and violence visited on Browder and all his associates by high-ranking politicians, security forces and police would be challenging, and certainly hard to believe.

One of his legal team, Sergei Magnitsky, stayed in Russia to fight trumped-up charges. He was beaten, tortured and ultimately murdered in police custody, after which Browder and his team fought relentlessly to try and bring some sort of justice for the young lawyer and his family.

Image courtesy of The Prisma

Red Notice is well written and reads like a pacy thriller. It really is hard to believe that this is all cold, hard well-researched and proven fact, rather than the latest Jack Reacher novel.

Image courtesy of Publishers Weekly

I suspect Bill Browder is a hard person to deal with, but it is to his credit that his business activities seem to have taken a back seat whilst trying to find a way, as a political activist, to preserve the memory of Sergei Magnitsky.

I’ve always wanted to visit Russia. I’m not so sure now….

Book review – Beautiful Animals

I have wanted to visit Hydra since reading Sylvie Simmons’ superb biography of Leonard Cohen, and discovering that it was where Leonard Cohen lived happily for many years in the bohemian 1960s.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra – image from GTP Headlines

The urge has only been heightened since reading Beautiful Animals, an unsettling book written by Lawrence Osborne, which places the reader firmly on this tiny Saronic island, in Greece’s Aegean Sea and almost touching the Peloponnese.

Naomi knows Hydra intimately, spending every languid summer there at the family holiday home with her wealthy father, Jimmie Codrington, and spiky stepmother Phaine.

One day, returning from her secret daily morning swim in a quiet cove beyond Mandraki and Zourva, Naomi meets the preppy American Haldane family.

The other girl was younger than Naomi, maybe nineteen or twenty to her twenty-four, with eyes that were steady and cool: perhaps like herself a student of human beings and their calamities.’

Naomi and Samantha become close, their friendship taking a darker turn after they stumble across a half naked man sleeping in a remote part of the island. Later, they learn that Faoud is a migrant, fleeing Syria on the well-worn trail in search of a safer Europe.

Naomi concocts a plan to help the intriguing Faoud, but what are her real motives…and when it goes badly wrong, can any of their lives be the same again?

The author has been compared to Graham Greene, and I can understand why after reading this haunting novel. Covering multiple themes and with Greene’s eye for physical and psychological detail, he embeds the reader deep inside the troubled heads of his characters and under the blazing sun of a Greek summer, before making a dash for freedom with Faoud through southern Italy.

For me, place is everything… I spend more time thinking about that than anything.’

Lawrence Osborne

Thank you, Lawrence….see you on Hydra.

 

Theatre review – Harvest

Harvest – review for Essential Surrey website

3 STARS, October 10-14. “If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest,” says Andrew Morris

If you want to understand how much rural England has changed in the last century, go and see Harvest, by acclaimed writer Richard Bean. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, this sprawling, ambitious play is currently being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, in a production by New Perspectives.

In seven separate scenes the parable spans several generations and 90 years of the Harrison family on their small Yorkshire farm, telling the story of their land in parallel with wider issues and events.

Opening in 1914, this early pronouncement hints at some of the challenges ahead, and at an underlying feud with a neighbouring landowner: “Sometimes I wish Grandad Harrison hadn’t med that wager with the Squire. He’s med a rod for the back of every Harrison following him.

The ever-present William is the glue that binds the farm and the play together. We first see him as a young man, arguing with younger brother Albert about which of them should go to war, and which should stay on the farm with Mam. William has just started courting local lass Maudie and, as their horses are requisitioned for the war effort, hints at his Secret Project idea for the farm.

1934. Albert and Maudie are married, but childless. William is an amputee, sharing his bed with Maudie, and driven by the idea of converting their land into a pig factory. By the 1950s, niece Laura and husband Stefan – a German POW – are managing the successful pig farm, thanks to William’s vision and disciplined system. This is as good as it gets.

Over the next 50 years, the family struggle against an onslaught of challenges: increasingly onerous legislation, from the UK government and then from Europe; Stefan dies from asbestosis, as a result of the pig sheds he erected; rising feed prices from the company bought by the Squire; the lack of youthful labour in the family.

By the time William celebrates his 100th birthday, the Harrison farming heritage is under threat but his stubborn stoicism and wicked humour remain. It is really in the final scene – set in 2005 – where I thought the writer stretched the parable too far, and failed to bring home the bacon.

Whilst undoubtedly a huge theatrical achievement to educate the audience on English rural history at the same time as entertaining us with richly drawn characters and dark humour, it is a fine line to avoid the sense of delivering a social history lecture.

In this ambitious production, 6 actors play 15 characters across the generations. The stand-out performances are from Tom Edward-Kane as William, convincing as both a stout 19 year-old lad and a dribbling, wheelchair-ridden shotgun-wielding centenarian. And from John Askew as plain-talking, pig-fancying labourer Titch, who arrives in the Punk era and threatens to steal the show: “I love pigs. They’re intelligent, but not too clever. Just enough to mek it interesting but not enough to get yer worried.”

Theatre review – Rotten Perfect

Rotten Perfect – review for Essential Surrey website.

4 STARS. Lynchpin Productions present Rotten Perfect, a witty snapshot of the impassioned backstage lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Andrew Morris reviews…

Henry Irving & Ellen Terry image from Lynchpin Productions’ website

Actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry are as inextricably linked as Hepburn and Tracy, Fred and Ginger, wattle and daub. Together, led by Irving as Actor-Manager and with Terry as Leading Lady, they made London’s Lyceum the foremost classical theatre of the Victorian era. They were married… though not to each other.

But whilst – over 20 years from 1878 – they were performing widely acclaimed versions of Shakespearean classics on stage together, their personal relationship was ambiguous. In Artifice’s Rotten Perfect, this innovative production immerses the audience in the white heat of that relationship and invites you to draw your own conclusions.

Henry is under financial and artistic pressure. He wants the Lyceum to continue performing what he knows is popular with its audience, but Ellen is becoming frustrated by the roles on offer and is keen to embrace exciting new writers like Ibsen and Shaw. Will she stay loyal to Irving, or will she succumb to the siren call of brash newcomer George Bernard Shaw, who is writing a play centred around her?

Claire Parker plays Ellen and has also written this fictionalised story for Lynchpin Productions and Artifice. When Ellen was just 16 she married George Frederic Watts, the eminent artist, who was 46 at the time. So performing Rotten Perfect in Surrey’s very own Watts Gallery adds another layer of authenticity to this engaging production. Artifice’s mission is “to perform classical plays in beautiful places, bringing together period text and period locations.” The gallery’s artwork, sculptures, high ceilings and cavernous spaces are all incorporated effortlessly into the performance, and the knowledge that a famous portrait of the artist’s young wife is hanging nearby makes this a very special theatrical experience indeed.

James Sygrove plays Sedgwick, introducing a deft comic touch to proceedings. A young actor at the Lyceum, initially a nervous understudy to the dominating Irving, he blooms when offered more responsibility, both on and offstage, and especially when stepping into the breach to play Henry V. This new-found confidence also empowers him to make advances to Alice Comyns Carr. Played by Lynchpin co-founder Edie Campbell, Alice is the Lyceum’s costume designer – brilliantly creative, astute, and married… but also inquisitive.

And all the while, George Bernard Shaw sits patiently – amongst the audience – biding his time. Played by Ray Murphy, he sporadically jumps into life and reads – with a gentle Irish lilt – his letters to Ellen, his acerbic wit increasingly aimed against the intransigent Irving.

But it is Will Harrison-Wallace as Henry and Claire Parker as Ellen who dominate the story and the stage. Henry’s vanity and purse take a battering when both a promised knighthood and funding for the Lyceum are in jeopardy, because of his relationship with Ellen. But is he too proud to implore her to stay and help save the theatre?

All the company embrace their unique surroundings perfectly to bring this story to rich, artistic life. Rotten Perfect has also been performed at the Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place, where Ellen lived, and I would urge you to try and see this wonderful production wherever it might be performed next.

Book review – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I’m not sure I can remember reading as compelling and timely a book as Home Fire.

Image courtesy of Firstpost

Kamila Shamsie forces us to think about one of the most important issues of our times through complex but believable characters, a shocking plot and a searing insight into Muslim culture and faith,  colliding painfully with the Western world.

The story unfolds like a flower in spring, through the eyes of each protagonist in turn as the seasons pass, until the bleakest of winters and all hope of fresh green renewal has been extinguished.

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s premature death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. Here, she gets to know Eamonn, the privileged son of a powerful British Muslim politician.

Back in London, Eamonn meets – and falls in love with – Aneeka, Isma’s beautiful, young and headstrong sister. But is Eamonn’s love returned, or is Aneeka cruelly seeking political support through Eamonn’s father to help her beloved twin brother Parvaiz?

The central core of the novel tells of Parvaiz, a British-Pakistani Muslim who comes to understand how his father fought for the Taliban and died a glorious death en route to Guantanamo Bay. Parvaiz’s vulnerability is seized on by Farooq, a cynical recruiter for the ISIS cause in Syria.

Image result for islamic state flag

Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and Home Secretary, arrives late in the narrative, caught in the crossfire of an unwinnable conflict between faith, ideology, politics, family and love.

But these are only the bare bones of Home Fire. The author weaves layer upon layer of complexity into the story through deft dialogue, subtle shading and brilliant scene-shifting.

Home Fire educates as much as enthrals. It would be a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize for 2017.

 

Book review – Exquisite

Where does imagination stop and reality kick in? How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction? How closely does art sometimes imitate life…..?

I’m asking myself all these linked questions a few minutes after turning the final emotional page of Sarah Stovell‘s striking debut novel, the psychological thriller Exquisite, published by Orenda Books.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Bo and Alice embark on a passionate affair that threatens to undermine the outwardly stable family life Bo has established in idyllic Grasmere. But do they both have the same perceptions of their relationship…and is one more damaged and needy than the other?

Author Sarah Stovell lives in Northumberland, where successful author Bo leads the Creative Writing retreat and first meets  damaged and vulnerable Alice, herself an aspiring writer. Sarah is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Bo was born in 1977, just like Sarah….

I enjoyed Exquisite. The juxtaposition between Alice’s chaotic life in bohemian Brighton and the calm family existence led by Bo in the beautiful Lake District is stark, but ultimately deceptive. The way the story is told separately through the eyes of both Bo and Sarah, from the initial mutual passion to eventual destruction, is skilful and deeply engaging.

Alice’s own debut novel was about her all-consuming relationship with Bo.

I wonder what Sarah’s next will be about….

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Movie review – Dunkirk

Between 26th May and 4th June, 1940 almost 350,000 British soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France. They were what was left of the British Expedition Force after the disastrous first foray by the Allies in WWII.

Operation Dynamo – men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail..

Most of the evacuation – with German forces closing in and the Luftwaffe wreaking havoc from the air – was effected with the help of a hastily assembled flotilla of 800 small boats. Pleasure craft, fishing boats, yachts, lifeboats and merchant marine boats answered the call in our hour of need.

A failure, but a glorious one in terms of morale and future war efforts. As Churchill said at the time: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

What a shame then, that such an infamous episode in our military history has been reduced to something of a Boy’s Own epic yarn of a film in the current Dunkirk movie.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar), the story is told from 3 different perspectives and over 3 different timescales.

  1. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the only one of his section to survive German gunfire as they retreat through the streets of Dunkirk. Over the next week, we follow his efforts to find safety as he suffers a series of terrible mishaps.
  2. During the course of a single day, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), together with son Peter and young helper George, joins the flotilla to help with the evacuation. On the way, he rescues a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), clinging to the hull of a sunken British ship, and who is understandably reluctant to return to the fray.
  3. In cloudless blue skies, three Spitfire pilots try for an hour to stem the damage being wrought by the Luftwaffe on the helpless troops on the beach below. The Squadron leader is soon killed. One of the pilots is shot down, but is rescued by Peter, just as water fills his cockpit. The 3rd pilot lands on French soil, and is captured, but only after the Spitfires have helped with the evacuation.

Some of the set-pieces in the film are technically brilliant, but I’m afraid the acting and plot left me underwhelmed, rather than awe-inspired.

A real shame. Such a momentous episode from WWII deserves to be more gritty than glossy.

Image courtesy of History vs Hollywood