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Friday, 15 February 2019

Princess & The Hustler


There is nowhere more appropriate for Princess & The Hustler to be performed than at the innovative Bristol Old Vic, given that this new play documents the story of the infamous Bristol race actions of 1963. As such, it was an honour to be sitting in the audience with Paul Stephenson OBE: the very man who spearheaded those pivotal events 56 years ago and who is rightly name-checked in the script.

Written by Bristol-based Chinonyerem Odimba (who was also behind the all-female production of Medea at Bristol Old Vic two years ago), Princess & The Hustler focuses on 10-year-old Phyllis Princess James who, in 1963, is determined to win the glamorous Weston-super-Mare Beauty Contest. But Bristol in 1963 is a city on the cusp of change as the black community start campaigning for their basic rights in the face of hostility.

All of this means that young Princess has to work extra hard to find out what true beauty really means. Chinonyerem explains in an interview with The Bristol Magazine that she wanted to “write a story that spoke to what I call ‘black girl joy’ – a celebration of what it is to be a young, black, British girl full of dreams for the future, and the joys of being young and innocent, as well as the magic of that.”  


As Princess, Kudzai Sitima puts in a strong and compelling performance that guides us through the events her family is at the centre of, and through her innocent eyes we share with her as she learns about the realities and injustices of the world. 


On Christmas Day, Princess and her older brother Junior (Fode Simbo) and hardworking mother Mavis (Donna Berlin) are settling down to a modest meal when their day is interrupted by the return of 'the hustler', aka Wendell (Seun Shote) - Mavis' husband who has been absent for all of Princess' life. To cap things off, he has brought with him his younger daughter Lorna (Emily Burnett)... who has a white mother.

This family drama provides the focus for Princess & The Hustler. As the family initially resists the return of Wendell but welcomes Lorna, the arrival of the newcomers sparks unrest. At school, Princess starts to realise that she is different from her new sister, who is suddenly much more popular than black-skinned Princess ever was. Mavis' friend Margot (Jade Yourell) reveals her casual racism, when she agrees that black people have no place taking jobs from white people. While Wendell throws himself into the 60-day Bristol bus boycott, in protest at the bus companies refusing to employ black people. Against all of this, Princess struggles to come to terms with a different kind of beauty and her lifelong dream of winning the Weston-super-Mare Beauty Contest.

Chinonyerem's script is believable and emotive; there were lots of audience members dabbing their eyes by the end of the performance. While Simon Kenney's recreation of 1960s' interiors and fashions is both jarring and fun to soak up.

Princess & The Hustler is an important new play that tells the story of a significant point in Bristol's history, and shows us that there are still many lessons we need to learn.




Princess & The Hustler is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 23 February 2019. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

You can read a recent interview with Chinonyerem in The Bristol Magazine here.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Wise Children

Photo: Steve Tanner

Emma Rice’s adaptation of former Bristolian Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children is quite easily my favourite show that I have seen at Bristol Old Vic in several years. It is faultless.

Bristol theatre goers will know director Emma Rice from her years of work with the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre Company (Tristan & Yseult, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Brief Encounters etc), and more recently her brief tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. She has now launched her own theatre company, also called Wise Children, and this production of Angela Carter’s final book is their debut show. And what a way to make an entrance!

Photo: Steve Tanner

Everything about Wise Children is deliciously over the top. It is camp, musical and sensational. It is a delirious celebration of the theatre, of the spectacle and of that business called show. It is also holding a mirror up to the claim that actors like to make that the company they work with is all just one big happy family… except it often isn’t. Because at the heart of Wise Children are twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance, who have been deserted by their biological family but embraced by Grandma Chance who takes the orphaned babies to her heart and brings them up as her own. Sparking a degenerate family tree of adopted family connections.

Nora and Dora originally come from a big theatrical family. Their father Melchior Hazard (and his twin brother Peregrine Hazard) are both acclaimed actors. Their grandparents Estella and Ranulph Hazard were also actors, with Estella known for being the best Hamlet who ever graced the stage. This Victorian female Hamlet also hints at Wise Children’s fondness for characters switching sex, skin colour, age and anything else at the drop of a hat. Not to mention the adoration for Shakespeare himself that runs through the entire production. So it's no wonder that Nora and Dora also take to the stage.
Photo: Steve Tanner
In Emma Rice’s hands, Wise Children is an utterly joyous, colourful, spectacular show that will tickle all of your senses, as well as leave you a little horrified towards the end. With most of the cast slotting into a handful of roles, it is hard to single out a particular lead, which also gives the production a seamless flow. As showgirl-era Dora and Nora, Melissa James and Omari Douglas are inevitably fabulous; and as Grandma Chance, Katy Owen enjoys a delightfully silly role. And I always love Kneehigh stalwart Patrycja Kujawska, who only has relatively small parts in Wise Children but still manages to effortlessly capture your attention even when she is left of stage in the background of a scene.

Wise Children is an utterly magnificent production. I need to go and see it again. Soon.


You can read more about Angela Carter’s life in Bristol in my book The Women Who Built Bristol: Volume One.

Click here for more information about Wise Children and to buy tickets. Wise Children is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 16 February 2019, after which it continues its tour around the UK. Click here for tour details.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

'Ikigai' - Beating Blue Monday


In recent years, we have embraced 'hygge', loved 'lagom' and simpered over 'sisi'. But enough with the Scandinavians and their idyllic lifestyles. Now it is all about the Asian way of being and the latest state that we are urged to adopt is 'ikigai' from Japan. 


Which is why, coinciding with Blue Monday on 21 January, the new book Ikigai and Other Japanese Words to Live By has been published, written by Mari Fujimoto and David Bulcher. This book contains 42 Japanese words and phrases that have been selected to help coax the troubled Western mind out of its ruts and to think in a new and refreshing way.

For instance, the book's title 'ikigai' is simply 'something to live for' and many say that once they have conquered this concept they have truly uncovered the secret to being happy. While 'yugen' is the goal of prioritising what is mysterious and profound, and 'hatsu' means finding something new in what is routine. You can spot a theme in these examples: living in the here and now while embracing the everyday simplicity of life. 

Ikigai is illustrated with beautiful black and white photographs by Michael Kenna, whose work has been exhibited in galleries all over the world. His landscape images are hauntingly beautiful and, if anything, would benefit from bigger pages to be printed on! But that's hardly a quibble. They are an excellent compliment to the text and succeed in making Ikigai a beautiful book visually as well as literally. 

Friday, 11 January 2019

'Live Happy' - Beating Blue Monday

According to the people who work these things out, 21 January is ‘Blue Monday’: so called because it is apparently the most depressing day of the year. Christmas and New Year celebrations seem a long way in the past, January’s pay day seems a long way in the future… and it’s cold and raining outside, so we’re all feeling blue. To try and counter this, Bridget Grenville-Cleave and Dr Ilona Boniwell have published Live Happy: 100 Simple Ways to Fill Your Life with Joy.


I’m a sucker for a book with a nice cover and beautiful design, so Live Happy is already ticking my boxes: elegant illustrations throughout, soothing paper stock (yes, paper stock can be soothing) and a classy design, all instantly draw you in to Live Happy. But obviously, a book needs more than just pretty pages.


Life coach Bridget has teamed up with psychologist Ilona for this book, which is based on academic research and the study of more than 100 separate sources. So Live Happy neatly combines practical tips that may seem obvious but often need spelling out (eat well, meditate, be kind to others, build routines) with more abstract ideas (mindfulness, keep your expectations realistic, stop trying to change the unchangeable). The result is a very appealing package of text and visuals that is designed to take the edge off your January blues and keep you calm throughout the rest of the year.


The particular draw of Live Happy is that all of the 100 ideas are simple and achievable by anyone, regardless of income or resources. And it’s also interesting to think about how happiness is constructed. Of course, what do we mean by happiness? What makes someone happy is a very individual thing. But it’s helpful to be reminded every now and then to take stock, to evaluate your life and to consider ways to build on what you already have. And what better time to do that than on Blue Monday?