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Saturday, 11 January 2020

Kneehigh's Ubu!

Terrible photos by me - sorry about that.
Ooh, the splendid Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in Bristol. And, as you’d expect, they are doing the unexpected. Although a Bristol Old Vic production, Kneehigh's Ubu! is being staged a mile or so away at the Marble Factory on Avon Street, which is more usually a nightclub and live music venue. As such, there is no official seating and the audience is free to wander around the auditorium, keep their phones in their hands, and sing along as loudly as their hearts desire. This is not your standard theatre show. 

Billed as an improvised promenade musical, Kneeigh’s Ubu! is a reinterpretation of the Alfred Jarry farce from the 1890s that stuck two fingers up to the government and incites a revolution in its audience. What could be more Kneehigh? Carl Grose has taken over the script and shares directing duties with Mike Shepherd, who also stars as a delicious Mrs Ubu.

Undisguisedly, Kneehigh's Ubu! is a poke at the atrocities rained down upon society when a narcissistic, unkind and selfish individual pushes their way to power (unelected) and then systematically undoes all the good that has been built up by some of their predecessors. Nobody is going to win any points for spotting that one. Especially given it is literally shown to us via a dance where the cast hold up masks of faces including Adolf Hitler, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

If only Johnson, Trump and co would see Kneehigh’s Ubu!, though. Not that they would recognise themselves in it immediately, but it might start to chip away at the back of their minds about the damage they are doing to the people they claim to represent. The anger and hostility and gleeful incitement to riot among the audience in response to these despots was palpable. 

Image from Bristol Old Vic website

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is an interactive celebration of humanity, though. Billed as a singalong performance, while nobody is going to make you singalong, they will also wonder why you came if you don’t. There is plenty of audience participation - including, delightfully, a mini Olympic Games. There is even a war: one that is started with a whistle and where both sides are given an equal number of weapons, just like in real life. More than anything, there are songs - loads and loads of songs. You will know them all. You will want to sing along with them all. And the lyrics are handily provided on the big screens for when you forget some of the words. Because even though the world is going to hell in a handcart, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can. 

There is an impressive cast behind Kneehigh’s Ubu! Mike Sherpherd I have already mentioned, and his counterpart - the repulsive King Ubu himself - is played with utter glee by Katy Owen, who Kneehigh fans will instantly recognise. Dom Coyote is a standout performer, as both President Nick Dallas and a very talented singer with house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats (and here also, a hefty head nod to Nandi Bhebhe, whose singing and dancing is simply extraordinary: a real joy to watch and listen to).

We are guided through the evening by Jeremy Wardle (played by Niall Ashdown) who does a sterling job at keeping the cast in check, bringing the audience in and reminding us what the absolute hell is going on. Oh, and of course he sings. Everyone sings.

It’s fun seeing Bristol Old Vic take productions outside the conventional theatre space, and the old stone walls and industrial metalwork of the Marble Factory lends itself well to a production such as Kneehigh’s Ubu!. (Just be warned, there is no tap water at the bar and bottled water is an eye-watering £3 (!) so bring your own water bottle with you so you neither get fleeced for water nor contribute to single use plastic pollution.) 



Kneehigh’s Ubu! is performed at the Marble Factory until January 25 but, be warned, several dates are already sold out. So click here for more information and to book your tickets. After Bristol, it continues to Salford and Leeds.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

'One Woman's Year' - Stella Martin Currey


At the start of a new year, it seems particularly pertinent to be writing about this curious collection of calendar-themed entries, recently published by Persephone Books

One Woman's Year is part-memoir, part-how-to, part recipe book, beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Malcolm Ford. Arranged into 12 monthly chapters, each begins with a musing for several pages from Stella Martin Currey on something topical that would happen in her life at this time. Maybe, in summer, it is the peculiarities of having a foreign exchange schoolboy come to visit. Maybe, in December, it is a piece about the joy to be found in the dressing-up box. 

The whole book, which was originally published in 1953 and has undercurrents of living in the tail end of rationing and war-time bomb devastation (most notably during a day trip to London when bombsites are everywhere), is very much of a type. Stella is a middle-class, married woman with wholesome children, and they all live in the countryside. Their activities number visiting a Norman keep or taking the children to see Shakespeare. Pastimes include going for picnics and deciding which mushrooms are the edible ones. 

Yet while One Woman's Year is clearly a calendar for a very particular type of privileged woman, there are some fascinating little curios in here. A short essay describing buying a large chest at auction and struggling to get it up the stairs, only for it to get wedged tight on a corner, can only be read with the word "Pivot!" echoing on refrain in the back of your head. The suggestion of taking the children to visit an automatic telephone exchange as a day out is extraordinary on so many levels: that such a place was still functioning in the 1950s, that this place of work permitted people in to have a poke around and, most significantly, how tempting Stella makes it sound that I actually feel envious that I now cannot go to see one myself. 

I often pass a small road in central Bristol called Telephone Avenue where, as you would expect, the city's exchange was one housed, and always look down the road with curiosity at the grand building hidden on it. This is Armada House, which I have had the pleasure of being in, and it is more like a National Trust property than a once-functional place of business. NB: Armada House was not the original telephone exchange but next door to it, although it was later bought by British Telecom. It was also the location of the first non-operator call in the UK, which was made by the Queen in 1958.

Sticking with the Bristol theme for a moment, Stella herself interests me because she was a woman who built Bristol: the title of a series of books I have written celebrating, to date, 500 unfairly forgotten important women from Bristol's past. Stella (1907-1994) was initially a journalist at the Bristol Times & Mirror until 1932 and her debut novel Paperchase End (1934) is a fictionalised take on her time on the newspaper. I have yet to read this book as it is hard to locate a copy but I would love to track one down. PS: In her later years on the Bristol Times & Mirror, Stella became the paper's zoo correspondent. She wrote about, among other things, Betty the bag-snatching chimpanzee. Imagine!

One Woman's Year is an extraordinary book. I have never come across anything quite like it and doubt I will again. It's a fascinating glimpse into the real life of an everyday housewife and mother who is living - comfortably - in the years after World War Two. She is a good sort, caring for her children, cooking them wholesome dishes, and making education interesting to their young minds. The illustrations are wonderful, too, and really bring the book to life. It's well worth seeking out a copy. 


Tuesday, 3 December 2019

'How to Save the World for Free' - Natalie Fee


If you're undecided about what to buy the eco-warrior in your life for Christmas, then this just might be the answer. Natalie Fee, the Bristol-based campaigner who set up City to Sea to reduce plastic pollutants (among her other achievements), has written a book full of everyday switches you can make to reduce your Earth-shattering footprint in everything you do.

This is a nice-looking product as well, and one would presume it is plastic-free! With it's uncoated hardboard cover and saddle-stitch binding, there's not a hint of glue or bleach about this book. But you would expect nothing less from Natalie. Especially given the fact she de-plastics your life from bedroom to gym throughout this tome.


Written in an accessible, chatty tone, Natalie isn't overly preachy but uses lots of recent research to back up her points (slightly annoyingly, none of the endnotes lead you anywhere as you have to log on to a website to access the citations used, which is a bit of a faff, but it's a minor grumble). 

A lot of the ideas in here you will already be familiar with or already doing (such as switching to plastic free packaging, ditching the car for shorter journeys, turning off taps, refilling your water bottle etc), but there are still plenty of suggestions you may not have considered. For instance, I had never really thought about the environmental impact of all these potentially carcinogenic WiFi signals clogging up the environment, and how often do we really remember to turn off absolutely all our electrical things (except the fridge, obviously) at the wall at night? I'm sure I'm guilty of a lot of the little things highlighted in this book but have been given a lot of pointers to make sure I do things better in the future. 

It's unlikely that anyone will do every single thing suggested in this eye-catching book, but even if you only adopt a handful of them, or mention a few of them to your friends, then you will already be making a big positive change for the planet. 

Published by Laurence King, you can find out more or order direct from the publisher here with free postage. After all, you wouldn't possibly consider ordering unethically from Amaz*n... would you?!

Sunday, 1 December 2019

'Expiation' - Elizabeth Von Arnim


Oh, how delicious Expiation is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Elizabeth Von Arnim's unlikely shero Milly Bott manages to tuck into second and third helpings without needing to go anywhere near a hot plate. 

In its prime, Persephone Books, that wonderful publisher of long-lost women's fiction, issued years and years of book after book of fantastically readable, unputdownable literature by writers you often had not previously heard of but would go on to seek out in every second-hand bookshop you passed. There followed a few years of slightly tougher tomes, but I'm delighted to say that in the past year or two, almost every single Persephone Book I've read has been a treat. None more so than this delight from Elizabeth Von Arnim. 

Elizabeth Von Arnim isn't a writer I had come across before, although she has written around 20 books (of which Expiation was the one of the few not still in print) and experienced a colourful romantic life that clearly influenced her writing. 

Because in this novel, our protagonist Milly Bott is introduced to us on the day she buries her husband, Ernest, who has been killed suddenly in a road accident. But (and this isn't giving anything away because the reader finds this out in the first few pages), wealthy Ernest has written her out of his will on account of finding out that for ten years she has been having an affair with an academic named Arthur. 

Surrounding Milly's disinheritance is the wider Bott family - who see themselves as the leading lights in the fictional London suburb of Titford. The small-minded Botts are terrified that the neighbours and servants will gossip and that they will lose their social standing. They are aghast at what to do about Milly, who has been left penniless and homeless, so that they are simultaneously least inconvenienced by her and least tainted by her sins.

In this claustrophobic but sprawling social satire, we follow closely behind Milly's shoulder in the few days following Ernest's funeral. We see her escape the Botts, reunite with her long-long sister and meet again with Arthur... and through it all we quickly see we are following the one, calm, steady influence in the book, the one who remains un-rocked by the constant disturbance that is whipped up in her wake. 


The Bott brothers and their wives are hideous people, painted as caricatures who deserve everything that they bring on themselves. The outsiders (solicitors, siblings, boarding house keepers) are painted as ridiculous, pseudo-Dickensian tropes who are fresh from the boards of your local pantomime. And all the while, grieving Milly quietly goes along trying to do the right thing and atone for her indiscretion - as the novel's title suggests. 

To my mind, the absolute star of Expiation is the very elderly Bott matriarch who, encased under shawls in her bed, sees her sons and daughters-in-law for what they really are, and has the authority to send them all away when she's had enough. Bravo, Mrs Bott. 

Expiation is a thoroughly enjoyable study into the social mores of the late 1920s. It's a delightful look at the small-minded Brits who live in fear of the servants finding out who they really are (the detailed description of Mabel Bott's terror of her preposterously named butler, Mr Butler, is an absolute hoot). It's the sort of novel that hooks you in from the very first page and keeps you turning until, 362 pages later, you have breathlessly reached the end and barely paused to think.