Friday, 21 October 2016

'The Grinning Man' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Simon Annand

Victor Hugo wrote his novel The Man Who Laughs while exiled from France to Guernsey in 1869; exiled owing to the political content of his previous novels. So instead The Man Who Laughs focuses on a boy, Gwynplaine, who was mutilated as a child to have a permanent grin carved onto his face, committing him to a life in the freak shows. But his smile becomes infectious and soon Gwynplaine is embroiled in a quest to uncover his past that, inevitably, flutters over the heart.

While two Hollywood films and several theatrical adaptations have been attempted in the past, here Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris gives the story of whole new lease of life as a brand new musical called The Grinning Man.

With some of the Kneehigh Theatre crew helping out (Carl Grose has written the script, and Patrycja Kujawksa is in the cast), and with Morris re-enlisting some of the Gyre and Gimble puppetry tricks from the hugely acclaimed War Horse, The Grinning Man is setting its flag quite high with a strong pedigree.

Taking our seats in the Bristol Old Vic auditorium, you’re instantly hit by designer Jon Bausor’s impressive work - with the entire proscenium transformed into a terrifyingly huge grinning mouth, with the blood red mouth creases spreading up the sides of the theatre and poking into the upper circle.

Transferring the narrative from Hugo’s France to Morris’ Bristol, our revamped story is narrated by the bitter clown Barkilphedro (actor Julian Bleach steals the show), who has served a lifetime in the royal court at the hands of the selfish and unappreciative Clarence family. But how is this story intertwined with that of the small boy, now named Grinpayne (and played by Louis Maskell)?

Child Grinpayne is portrayed by a puppet, and shows us the young boy being brutally separated from his mother and left to fend for himself owing to his hideously disfigured face. Upon saving a newborn baby whose mother died in the snow, he and the blind baby, Dea (Audrey Brisson), are taken in by kindly travelling performer Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his dog Mojo (a work of puppetry genius from Gyre and Gimble). They grow up to live a life in the freak shows - notably the Stokes Croft Fair: a seedy underbelly of Bristol for those cast out by respectable society.

Of course, the stories of Grinpayne and the royal Clarence family become inextricably linked, and as Barkilphedro boasts of his past glories we uncover the true story of just what caused child Grinpayne to be separated from his natural parents and to be sentenced to an agonised life in the carnival. And all the while, Bausor’s designs continue apace throughout The Grinning Man, turning freak show carts into palace boudoirs, and the entire stage into a gothic cathedral complete with pillars and smashed stained glass. It’s all quite literally a work of art.

Combining the carnivalesque, the pantomime and the musical, Morris’ The Grinning Man is a feast for all of the senses - especially the ears, thanks to the live performances by the musicians at the side of the stage. Bravo!

Photo: Simon Annand
Read director Tom Morris’ diary about creating The Grinning Man in The Guardian here.

The Grinning Man is performed at Bristol Old Vic’s main theatre until 13 November. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

'A Footman For The Peacock' by Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson is one of those unfairly neglected turn-of-the-century novelists whose novels are being diligently kept alive by a variety of publishing houses. 

She first came to my attention via the 2006 Persephone reprint of her 1937 novel Alas, Poor Lady. Also via Persephone, I found the 1988 Virago Modern Classics edition of her 1931 book The Brontes Went To Woolworths, which I fell in love with first for its beautiful cover and second for its whimsical title, and finally for its magical story (you can read my review here). Later on in 2009, the same book was also reprinted by The Bloomsbury Group, an imprint of Bloomsbury, which reprints (is it still going, does anyone know?) long-forgotten turn-of-the-century titles. 

The discovery that Rachel Ferguson had been a suffragette and a leading member of the Women's Social and Political Union (an era of history that fascinates me, as regular blog readers will know) then inspired me to hunt down a few of her autobiographical novels, and I was lucky enough to track down original hardback editions of both Royal Borough (1950) and We Were Amused (1958), which I heartily recommend. Only Passionate Kensington (1939) is still out there, waiting for me to find it... 

So when I recently heard that new publishing house Furrowed Middlebrow, which is an imprint of Dean Street Press, was planning to reprint a series of forgotten novels by brilliant female authors, I was very excited. In the first volume of nine releases, there are three novels by Rachel Ferguson - of which A Footman For the Peacock is just one. 

So having now set the scene, and with the certainty that I will be writing about further Furrowed Middlebrow titles in the future... here's a short piece about A Footman For the Peacock.

This 1937 novel was considered controversial upon initial publication as it seemed to mock the privileged upper classes, those elite who were living a bizarre life of indulgence and isolation in their palatial country home - one where even the resident peacock's every whim is catered for as standard. But, as with much of Rachel Ferguson's writing, A Footman For the Peacock is a satire; a social commentary of the times. This is an era between the wars (well, World War Two starts during the narrative... although it takes the self-absorbed characters several days to realise it) when the age of the country house was dwindling and the power of the landed gentry was rapidly fading. 

In many ways, the Roundelay family who live within various quarters of the house of Delaye are reminiscent of Dorothy Whipple's classic novel about another faded country pile The Priory (republished by Persephone). In A Footman For The Peacock, the residents of Delaye are treated by Rachel Ferguson with the same lack of respect that they show to outsiders to their home. And her fantastical style of writing, which she carried off so well in The Brontes Went To Woolworths, is reminiscent here, although I feel it doesn't work quite so well with such a huge range of characters. 

I'm going to be honest: this isn't my favourite Rachel Ferguson book (and you can tell from what I've written above that I really do like her writing), but simply by judging a book by it's cover I feel certain that Furrowed Middlebrow will continue to keep reprinting lovely and fascinating novels by a variety of women who have been neglected by history. And with Rachel Ferguson's A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and Evenfield (1942) both also republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and both still yet to be read by me, there is every hope that one or both of them will tick the Rachel Ferguson boxes that, for me, A Footman For The Peacock didn't quite manage to. But you never know, this might turn out to be your favourite Ferguson... We're all different... 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

'Opal Plumstead' by Jacqueline Wilson

As part of my ongoing, and slow progress, mission to read every single novel about the UK fight for women's suffrage, I recently found myself reading Jacqueline Wilson's 100th novel - Opal Plumstead, published in 2014. 

I'd read a few Jacqueline Wilson books before (Tracy Beaker, The Illustrated Mum) out of curiosity for this writer who is so loved by young readers, and who I once had the pleasure of interviewing in the dingy basement of a Nottingham branch of Waterstones about 20 years ago. I can assure you that I, like everyone else who has ever met her, found Jacqueline Wilson to be an utter delight. 

So I was fascinated to see what she would do with a historical novel about the suffrage era. Having read several children's books on this topic, I am always slightly disappointed that every single one of them uses the tired trope of a down-on-her-luck working-class girl befriending a militant middle-class lady, immediately meeting Emmeline Pankhurst, being thrown into prison and experiencing force feeding, and then falling in love with a kind young man at the end. Every single one of them. Argh!

Thank goodness that Jacqueline Wilson broke that trend, and for that alone I applaud her. It's true, our heroine Opal is a working-class girl who is down on her luck. She is a bright 14-year-old with a scholarship to a good school, and a very bright brain. But when her father is imprisoned for a stupid mistake, her already impoverished family are left fending for themselves and Opal is sent to work at the local sweet factory. Here she indeed is befriended by a middle-class militant suffragette who teaches Opal the ways of the vote (and she does meet Emmeline Pankhurst at her first suffragette meeting)... but this is where the similarities to all the other stories ends. 

Opal Plumstead is truly a story about Opal Plumstead, not about suffrage or militancy or force feeding. Opal is a young girl growing up on the eve of world war one and in a society divided about whether women should have the vote or not, and these two factors unavoidably infuse her story. But they are not central to it. Instead, Opal Plumstead is a historical children's novel about being a girl in the mid 1910s.

In many ways, the character of Opal reminded me of Roald Dahl's mighty Matilda - both are intelligent young women who are exasperated by their silly, useless families but who instead go on to achieve good things with the help of women outside of the home. 

Opal's family infuriated me. Her selfish, mean, cruel mother; her vain, indulgent and spoilt big sister Cassie (who I grew to adore by the end of the book); and her ineffectual and pathetic father. In comparison, Opal's intelligence and goodness seem somewhat sickly and overbearing. And she is a rather hard protagonist to truly like. Opal is self-pitying and a bit sulky, but then again she's a 14-year-old girl who's having a shit time. Why should we expect her to behave like a grown-up when she isn't one?

At 520 pages, Opal Plumstead gives Harry Potter a run for his money in the hefty kids' book stakes, but like all of Jacqueline Wilson's books, it's a quick and easy read (even more so if you're an adult reader!). And ultimately, it is so important to keep reminding young people about the relatively recent history of the suffrage movement that if a popular writer like Jacqueline Wilson can help keep this movement alive for future generations then I'm all for it. 

Ada Campe was in Cress!

Ada Campe (photo by Emily Coles) performing at a What The Frock! Comedy show in 2015
If a show is so good that you need to see it twice, then it’s a show worth shouting about.

Up in Edinburgh last month, I ventured to the warmingly delightful CC Blooms bar on Greenside Lane: a top venue by the way - delightful staff, delicious drinks, and lovely downstairs performance space. On which note, downstairs was where I found Ms Ada Campe working her magic on a captivated mid-afternoon crowd of Fringe goers.

On the afternoon of the last Saturday of the Fringe, I took my seat amid a bustling audience and waited with a mixture of trepidation and excitement for Ms Campe to grace the basement stage, while the gentle soundtrack from Amelie lulled us into a false sense of security…

How does one describe the wonder that is Ada Campe? Part magician, part woman, part music hall genius… she rules her stage like a mildly drunken cat bedecked in costume jewellery, and convincing her audience that they have fallen through a hole in the space time continuum into a surreal and hilarious alternative. I must make it clear - there is nothing unkind about Ada’s performance. So although she includes a lot of audience participation, it is all good natured, good fun and heart-stoppingly hilarious. You will want to be a part of this.

Between genuinely impressive magic acts, improvised chatter with the audience, random and enthused shouting, and bursts of rehearsed material… you leave after an hour feeling bowled over and wondering what it is you’ve just seen. So much so that I went back the next day to find out… and found myself a very willing accomplice in Ada’s final trick of the Fringe. One that involved me donning unusual headwear, reading out cryptic messages, speaking to a spirit guide and so much more… which I will not say for fear of spoiling the show for future attendees.

And with that, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to make yourself a future attendee of the Ada Campe experience. Whether she is in Cress!, or whether she is elsewhere. You never know… you might find yourself going home with a slightly warm finger of fudge.

Ada Campe is the alter ego of Dr Naomi Paxton - actor, comedian, writer, suffrage expert and more!