Wednesday, 18 December 2013

'Sue: The Second Coming', at Bristol Old Vic

For a musical comedy drag show to stand out in a crowded genre, it needs something more than for the main character to just wear intentionally frumpy clothes, a deliberately bad fringe and a goofy grin. In Sue: The Second Coming, the ‘something more’ is that Sue (played by Dafydd James) is pregnant with the son of God after a brief encounter in Debenhams.

But since that’s only brought in 30 minutes before the end of this 90 minute production, that’s not really enough to carry it. Instead, we’re led through on likeability, some decent enough tunes and a heavy dose of nostalgia-fuelled humour. There’s the 1970s-style drinks cabinet gags, the Christmas jumper gags, and – inexplicably – an enormous advent calendar behind the doors of which are a succession of former child stars (“Bonnie Langford” seems to be a recurring punchline, but we’re not told what the joke is). A gag that seemingly warrants its own song but has no place in the narrative.

And that’s a problem with Sue: The Second Coming… that there is no narrative. While that doesn’t need to be a problem if the material is strong enough to hold it, a 90-minute show with no strong gags and no direction soon becomes a drag in more ways than one.

The biggest problem, though, was that over the piano we couldn’t hear most of the words in the songs… meaning we missed most of the jokes in this largely musical show. So perhaps if we’d been able to hear the words, we’d have found this a lot more funny and entertaining than we actually did. Because looking online, Sue: The Second Coming not only has a cult following but wins rave reviews, so we’re clearly missing something. But looking around the Bristol Old Vic’s Paintshop, there wasn’t a great deal of laughter from anybody… so perhaps nobody else could hear the jokes either.

But even on the songs without piano, the sound levels were so out of whack that we still struggled to hear many of the lyrics… and the instruments played by Dafydd’s backing trio were also completely inaudible. That aside, Dafydd’s singing as Sue was basically a high-pitched squawk, which made it even harder to try and work out the words. My friend and I couldn’t help but think that if Dafydd had sung in his own voice it would have upped the comedy factor and helped people to actually hear the lyrics.

With 30 minutes lopped off the running time and a really tight soundcheck, Sue: The Second Coming could be a great night out. But as it stands, if it’s festive theatre fun you’re after, I’d recommend you head next door to the Bristol Old Vic’s main theatre for The Little Mermaid – which is an absolute treat of a show.

For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Rachel Cooke – Her Brilliant Career

Think of a woman in the 1950s and chances are you’ve conjured up a mental image that combines Betty Draper and a wasp-waisted woman in a pinny and a headscarf. There’s a daft belief that all women in the 1950s ever did was wave their husbands off to work, bake cakes and clean the house, and then make sure the kids were out of the way when hubby got home again.

Well, Rachel Cooke’s excellent new book Her Brilliant Career is here to stick two fingers up to that idea. In it, Rachel has handpicked ten wonderfully diverse women from the 1950s and celebrates each of them with a potted biography cataloguing their achievements in the face of a society that wanted women to be seen and not heard.

From chef Patience Gray to architect Alison Smithson, film director Muriel Box and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes… Rachel has collected together some truly inspiring women who, in many instances, have been sadly forgotten under the weight of their many male counterparts. But no more!

Her Brilliant Career is deliciously readable and engrossing, and Rachel guides us through the highs of these ten women’s achievements… while recognising that, at times, these were flawed women, or not always likeable women. (In my experience, the most interesting women are rarely the most well liked ones!)

The book also contains a selection of photographs illustrating our ten women and the decade that shaped them, many of which are little known to most people and bring a welcome extra dimension to these mini biographies. The photo of Iris Murdoch looking wildly purposeful beside her bed is easily my favourite – conjuring up a much more impressive figure than the genius author we’ve sadly come to remember as a fading fragile flower after her husband John’s posthumous biography of her mental decline.

It’s important that we remember the women who went before us and celebrate their achievements, which allow us to do the things we take for granted today. With the announcement in December 2013 from the Fawcett Society that this year, for the first time in five years, the pay gap between women and men has further widened, books such as Her Brilliant Career are a stark reminder of what has been achieved, but also how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic

The Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show has rightly earned itself pride of place in the theatre diary – circled on the calendar in silver pen and decorated with shiny stars. In recent years, we’ve seen the magnificent Swallows and Amazon, the mind-blowing Peter Pan, and the far-from-festive but resolutely brilliant Coram Boy. This year, Hans Christian Anderson’s much-loved tale The Little Mermaid got the Bristol Old Vic treatment.

The title role is filled by Katie Moore – who is not only a damn fine actor, but also an incredible singer and fabulous ballerina. As the Little Mermaid, we followed Katie in her underwater world where she lived with her father (played by Old Vic favourite Tristan Sturrock) and sisters… frustrated by the confines of her subterranean life and longing to explore the world up there where the ‘hoo muns’ live.

However, the wicked Sea Witch (a heart-warmingly brilliant Beverly Rudd, in an example of perfect casting) has a firm hold on the underwater world and insists all her citizens stay below the surface, avoid all interactions with the legged ones, and keep singing to ensure the constantly rolling tides.

Needless to say, our adventurous heroine doesn’t follow the rules… and on a trip to the surface, she can’t stop herself from saving the life of a handsome prince (delightfully played by Billy Howle) who is thrown overboard in a storm orchestrated by the Sea Witch. The prince is under a curse where he simply must marry before his looming 18th birthday… and this is where our above and below the waves stories combine.

Under Simon Godwin’s direction, Joel Horwood’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid is a magical, enchanting and captivating Christmas adventure for Bristolians of every age. The set design throughout is inspired… and the use of a curving metal frame to suggest the rolling waves works extremely well, as does the porthole frame to the whole stage.

As the Sea Witch, Beverly Rudd excels and I found myself missing her when she wasn’t on stage. And her sidekicks (a wise-cracking crab and eel dressed in knitted chainmail) are inspired – the armour-wearing crab quite possibly stole the entire show and had me clapping my claws in child-like glee!

The Little Mermaid is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 18. Click here for more informationand to book tickets. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

“Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire”

Despite engendering mixed feelings in many who have studied her, Sylvia Pankhurst was undeniably a woman who got things done. Perhaps most well remembered for her hugely significant role in helping to win UK women the vote, Sylvia was also a dominant campaigner against oppression and injustice further afield.

As part of Pluto Books’ Revolutionary Lives series, Katherine Connelly has produced a fantastically readable and informative biography and study of Sylvia – which refreshingly doesn’t simply focus on her suffrage activities, but also devotes a lot of time to her less well-known activism. And for all the reading around the Pankhursts that I’ve done in recent years, Connelly’s book - Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empiretaught me plenty of things I didn’t previously know. Confirming that there is still more to be said on the fascinating and important character of Sylvia Pankhurst.

Most people are acquainted with Sylvia’s role as a suffragette. As the middle daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (Christabel was elder, and Adela was younger), Sylvia for a long time lived in the shadow of the much adored Christabel. Ultimately, this was to be in Sylvia’s favour as she was more free to go in her own direction without such a close watch from her mother.

When the suffrage campaign simmered down during wartime, Sylvia became separated from her family as she disagreed with their support for the war. Instead, Sylvia opposed the war and set to work to support the women left behind and help those who found themselves in poverty because of the war – particularly fighting for the rights of soldiers’ wives.

In later years. Sylvia became involved with communism and soon evolved into an important figure in the movement, speaking at events worldwide. Finally, Sylvia moved to Ethiopia, where she adopted an anti-British attitude, which led her to be under surveillance by MI5.

Even Sylvia’s son Professor Richard Pankhurst has given this new book his seal of approval, stating: “Katherine Connelly has written an important work on my mother.”

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire is neatly arranged in hugely informative chapters covering Sylvia’s various different campaigns, and the whole package is gripping and compulsive. It’s an absolute must for anybody looking to find out more about this significant lefty campaigner.

You can listen online to a fascinating talk with Connelly, which she gave at the Bishopsgate Institute about the book. Follow this link. 

Click here for more information on the excellent Revolutionary Lives series, which covers some truly remarkable people. One to particularly watch out for is the publication of Ellen Wilkinson’s biography next February. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Why I Hate The Word 'Comedienne'

It’s only a word, it’s only a little thing. But since you can only eat an elephant in small bites (as the saying goes), let’s take things one mouthful at a time.

And one of the little things that gets my goat is the use of the word ‘comedienne’ to describe a woman who makes people laugh. It implies that the originally male word ‘comedian’ is superior, and therefore anything else is a poor substitute. It implies a sense of otherness with a female comedian, a sense of second best, it gives a hint of frailty, and suggests that a woman telling jokes is somehow different to a man telling jokes. Which is balls.

I run an all-female comedy night called What The Frock! Comedy. Not because I want to be mean and exclude all the boy comedians from the fun, but because for so long most of the women comedians have been excluded from the comedy circuit (on average, only 4% of all acts booked on comedy nights in the UK will be female. It’s 2013!).

Because I make this deliberate gender distinction in my booking policy, I inevitably spend a lot of time reading cuttings about my acts that refers to them as ‘comediennes’. Now don’t get me wrong – I am DELIGHTED when anybody writes anything about my events, I am over the frickin’ moon. But, given the opportunity, I do find myself saying to journalists who contact me: “I don’t want to be annoying, and I’m not going to ask to approve the copy… but please call the acts ‘comedians’ and not ‘comediennes’. It’s about what comes out of their gob, not what their gob looks like.” On the whole, they listen.

But last week the word seemed to come up a lot. Maybe that was because What The Frock! put on a big show that generated a lot of press – in print, on radio and on the telly box. Wooh! But in every instance, at some point the acts were called ‘comediennes’. Even by female journalists (journalistas?).

But why? You don’t get the same gender distinction in a lot of other professions. You don’t get male dentists and female dentistas; you don’t get male lawyers and female lawyerettes; you don’t get male accountants and female sumsticians. For one thing, they’re all really ugly words. For another thing, they’re all really stupid words. And for a third thing, they’re all made-up words. Just like ‘comedienne’.

Every single one of the 100+ acts I’ve worked with to date refers to herself as a ‘comedian’. Some make a point of saying they actively distance themselves from the word ‘comedienne’, while others say they don’t like the word but they’d rather somebody wrote something about them than nothing at all.

Which leads me to say that the language used to describe female acts also baffles me sometimes. For instance, we had Lucy Porter on last week, who was variously described in the local press as “sweet voiced”, “a familiar funny maker” and “sweetly demeanored”, while previously Tiffany Stevenson was said to provide “amiable and chatty banter”. All phrases to imply maternal hugs or bland giggles. There’s an interview with Bridget Christie in the current issue of Vogue with the headline “Pretty Funny” (not only would that headline never go with a piece about a male comedian, but it also implies that Bridget’s appearance is somehow relevant, and that it is surprising that she should be amusing. Being a laydee and that).

I know there are bigger things to worry about, but when we are still giving the same job different words depending on the gender of the person doing it, we still need to think about how much further we have to go in the equality battle.

Women typically get short shrift in the comedy industry – thanks to venues that will only book a maximum of one woman a night, panel shows that ignore them altogether, and stadium tours populated almost exclusively by the boys. And don’t get me started on how few female comedians are able to put out comedy DVDs.

And if people keep on calling them ‘comediennes’ rather than ’comedians’, things aren’t going to change any time soon. I’m not for a second implying this is the only problem women face in the comedy industry, far from it. But the nuances implied by a distinctively lesser word, one that is feminine and dainty in its sound and appearance, suggest that a gurl comedian is going to be a disappointment. When, frankly, that’s just poppycock.

Here’s a top ten of my favourite comedians right this minute. What do they all have in common? (Clue – none of them are shit, none of them are dainty):

  • Aisling Bea
  • Amy Poehler
  • Bridget Christie
  • Jayde Adams
  • Jennifer Saunders
  • Katherine Ryan
  • Luisa Omielan
  • Sara Pascoe
  • Tina Fey
  • Vikki Stone

Sunday, 10 November 2013

50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers – Holly Kearl

I can guarantee it’s happened to every woman reading this. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business and in a perfectly fine mood. When some man (or men) yell at you from the safety of their car/van/scaffold/whatever… they yell something about how hot you look, how much they want to screw you, or simply advise that you ‘cheer up, love’. And that’s it… your mood is ruined for the rest of the day. Your personal space has been invaded, your appearance has been critiqued, your personality reduced to your appearance.

Holly Kearl founded Stop Street Harassment in the US in 2008. What began as a blog has grown and grown, and in 2012 it became an incorporated company. The aims of Stop Street Harassment are to raise awareness of how damaging and intimidating street harassment is for its subjects, and for people to share their stories of how they’ve been affected by – or responded to – their harassers.

As part of this, Holly has recently produced this new book, 50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers (which you can buy for $10 plus postage from this link, with proceeds goingtowards her organisation). As well as the 50 stories you’d expect given the title (of which, I’m proud to say, my own story is the first), Holly has included short essays about what street harassment is, suggestions for how to respond when it happens to you, and links for more information and advice.

It’s a great book, and really empowering for the 80% of women around the world who will experience street harassment as part of their day-to-day lives.

Enid Bagnold - The Squire

Enid Bagnold’s 1938 novel The Squire is apparently the only novel ever published about birth. By which the publishers Persephone mean that although there have been plenty of novels about women who have given birth, none have covered the days before and after the birth in such fine detail as The Squire.

Although there is no defined narrative arc in The Squire – rather, it is a series of interlocking events surrounding the act of birth – there is still a drive throughout the novel to hold the reader’s attention. Some critics have claimed the book is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and you can indeed see the almost stream of consciousness style throughout.

Enid Bagnold’s novel is written extremely closely – there is so much detail that you feel almost claustrophobic within the pages. This is surely intentional, to mirror the building pressure the squire of the title must be feeling in the final days of her pregnancy when she wants everything to be just so. And there is also a strong sense of the British spirit of ‘just getting on with things’, which is surely what the squire was thinking.

For instance, throughout chapter six there is a debate between the squire and her friend Caroline about plants, and those they like and dislike. Which is a loose way to discuss things ending and beginning, with plants being a metaphor for the existing children and the imminent baby, as well as the frustrations for the squire of her servants.

What struck me as particularly interesting about The Squire is the way it approaches the intricacies of household management between the wars. The squire is consumed with handling her frustrating staff and the difficulties of replacing them with suitable people. And there is the constant anxiety and irritation for her of dealing with the problem of people who she pays to make her life easier. The minutiae of the middle classes is apparent on every page, and that in itself is a fascinating opportunity to glimpse into a bygone age.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

DE Stevenson – The Two Mrs Abbotts

The news that the third instalment of the Miss Buncle trilogy was being reissued by Persephone was very welcome information. The first two books (Miss Buncle’s Book and MissBuncle Married) have both been reissued by Persephone in the last few years, and proved enormously popular with fans.

For readers who love the homely warmth of a Dorothy Whipple or Frances Hodgson Burnett (two more much-loved Persephone authors), reading the country cottage concerns of Barbara Buncle are like being enveloped in a big woolly hug by a favourite granny.

Barbara Buncle originally lived in a sleepy English village, until she ruffled the feathers of her neighbours by exposing their shenanigans in a loosely disguised novel. So the second instalment saw her up sticks to her new village, where she settle with her publisher husband. And now we catch up with Barbara who is safely ensconced in her new home and getting to grips with England in wartime.

As the title suggests, The Two Mrs Abbotts (Mrs Abbott is Barbara’s married name) has more than one protagonist. And the other Mrs Abbott is Barbara’s sister-in-law Jerry, who largely takes over as the protagonist of this tale with Barbara assuming a secondary position.

In theme, The Two Mrs Abbotts reminded me of another Persephone book – A House In The Country byJocelyn Playfair (which, it pains me to say, is one of very few Persephone books that I have not enjoyed… which is more to do with the style of writing than the content). In that both books are concerned with the women left behind to pick up the pieces in England’s countryside while most men are fighting the war overseas. In both books, the capable and strong women find themselves sharing their country homes with unlikely characters, making do with some trying situations, experiencing awful longing for their absent other halves, and managing the awkwardness of unwanted attentions from interloping men… themselves displaced by the awfulness of the war.

However, where The Two Mrs Abbotts succeeds for me is that the war is not presented as a character in itself… it is simply the backdrop for the situation that our characters now find themselves in. There is no sense of self-pity, and no searching for sympathy. In fact, there is scant narrative thread through The Two Mrs Abbotts – rather, we are presented with a series of interlinking short stories (a young man and his unsuitable fiancée, a soldier and his unrequited love for Jerry, the resentment of a refugee family, a runaway London girl, the morality of whether a man should fight or not etc), that compel us to turn the pages as fast as possible to find out what happens next.

Although The Two Mrs Abbotts is the last in the Miss Buncle trilogy, the character of Barbara Buncle spills over into several other books by DE Stevenson – such as The Four Graces and Spring Magic. So, if you will mourn Miss Buncle as much as I will, then I suggest we start trawling second hand bookshops until we find her lurking in the pages of other novels by the same author.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Jennifer Saunders, 'Bonkers'

While Bonkers is certainly not a warts’n’all book, Jennifer Saunders’ autobiography is a gripping and compulsive read, with Jennifer’s distinctive voice almost reading it aloud in your head – such is the strength of her character on the pages.

While we read about her relationship with lifelong comedy partner Dawn French, working with the legendary Comic Strip team, and her love for Joanna Lumley, we learn little about her experiences as a wife, mother or friend. But that’s hardly surprising as Jennifer has always been a woman who appears to have struggled with the concept of finding herself a celebrity.

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival this year, Jennifer talked so engagingly with Kirsty Young about some of the stories in Bonkers, and it was a joy to hear her chatting on stage. But the sense of keeping everything close to her chest remained. And while you love every second you spend reading Bonkers and hearing her talk about her life, you also come away feeling like you haven’t really learned very much about her. Which is surely what she wants!

But what shines through is a hilarious woman, who is living a life she loves. She’s a woman who loves her family, her animals and her friends. And the fact she comes across as a genuinely good egg is reinforced by the fact she has one of the longest marriages in showbiz, and her friendships have all endured through the decades.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic

Pip and Estella - photo by Mark Douet

“A strange meeting in a churchyard sets in motion a chain of events that will shower a young man with money, break his troubled heart and lead him deep into a labyrinth of deception and discovery. Great Expectations is a story about transformation, loss and - ultimately - forgiveness.”

The team at Bristol Old Vic has pulled out the big guns for this reworking of the famous Charles Dickens tale, Great Expectations. This version is adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, who graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1981 – and this is his first Bristol production since that time. So there’s no pressure on him, then!

We flit between protagonist Pip as an adult and child – with the differences marked only by a lowly accent and rolled up trousers. But in a production that is marked by minimalist yet effective design (set, lighting, costume) this works well. In fact, the only thing that’s not minimal in this production is the booming sound effects.

Orphaned as so many of Dickens’ protagonists are, Pip is dragged up by his begrudging elder sister, who is married to a henpecked blacksmith. However, between the above-mentioned chance meeting with a man in a churchyard, and a later chance meeting with the bitterly insane Miss Havisham, Pip is set to walk along a bumpy road.

On the whole, I felt Neil Barlett pulled off a big achievement with this Bristol Old Vic production. As Pip, newcomer Tom Canton (who graduated from RADA in 2012) sometimes seems a little out of his depth in such a demanding role, but on the whole he was engaging and convincing, and has an impressive stage presence.

However, it was the supporting cast who really bring this production of Great Expectations to life. As the decaying Miss Havisham, Adoja Andoh was captivating and it was hard to take your eyes off her as she hobbled around the stage, trailing shreds of tatty dress behind her. And Miss Havisham’s protégée Estella (Laura Rees) was almost as entertaining – stomping and stropping around the stage like a possessed Tiny Tears doll.

But the two clear stars of this show are Tim Potters in the role of weasly lawyer Mr Jaggers, and Miltos Yerolemou (last seen here in A Midsummer Night's Dream) in the role of sycophantic Mr Pumblechook (who wins the, ahem, crown for the funniest moment of the play during the Christmas dinner scene). Throw in Yerolemou’s gently hilarious interpretation of Sarah Pocket, and hopefully we have ourselves a new Bristol Old Vic regular cast member. Fingers crossed!

Great Expectations is performed in the main theatre at Bristol Old Vic until 2 November. For further information and to book tickets, please click here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Boy Who Cried Wolf!

“I fooled you!”

The recurrent smug smirk of the titular boy to his frustrated mother is the best page marker for this fantastic collection of Aesop’s fables.

After the sailaway success of 2011’s outdoor production Treasure Island (directed by Sally Cookson, who is also behind The Boy Who Cried Wolf!), Bristol Old Vic has once again created an outdoor magical land on the cobbles in front of its historic theatre on Bristol’s King Street.

And whereas two years ago we were swept away by a swashbuckling tale aboard a recreated pirate ship, this year we’re immersed in a forestry set that feels like the living embodiment of Enid Blyton’s famous Magic Faraway Tree. The set includes real trees coppiced from West Tanpit Woods, as well as imaginatively painted corrugated iron backdrops, ladders and gangplanks above head height, and a fabulous treehouse for the musicians.

The ancient Greek slave Aesop was responsible for hundreds of moralistic fables, and beloved children’s author Michael Morpurgo whittled these down to just 21 for his edited anthology, and of those a small handful were picked for the Old Vic’s new show. Some are well known (The Hare and The Tortoise, The Boy Who Cried Wolf!, The Goose and the Golden Egg), while others are less familiar (The Sun and The Wind, The Cat Belling, The Miller, His Son and The Donkey). But by the end of the show, all will have become much loved by a new audience.

The three main cast members are Chris Bianchi, Lucy Tuck and Tom Wainwright – all of whom assume a number of roles, and all of whom support each other magnificently with a joyous camaraderie. They are backed up by the musical Bower brothers Benji and Will, who also join the cast in a few supporting roles. Benji’s terrifying brown bear is one of the highlights of the evening – with his rolling eyes and wild hair perfectly supporting the ferocity of his megaphoned roars.

Alongside the title story – which is told in three parts throughout the evening, highlights for me were The Miller, His Son and The Donkey (complete with wonderful donkey sound effects), and The Goose and The Golden Egg (for which the goose is magnificently represented by a shopping bag, feather duster, salad tongs and rubber gloves – pictured above). The subtlety of the goose gently grooming herself as her greedy owner fantasised over the apparently luxurious pages of Clifton Life was a thoughtful little something extra.

The only segment that worked less well was The Sun and The Wind, which failed to hold my attention – and I found myself gazing away from the stage and over the rooftops of King Street.  There was also an over-long song towards the end of the performance, for which the cast was uncharacteristically sedentary, which again lost my attention. But these are small niggles.

However, the music, led by Benji Bower (below), is what really makes The Boy Who Cried Wolf! a magical show. He’s obviously an extremely talented composer who is perfectly placed to score theatrical productions. 

The Boy Who Cried Wolf! is performed on the cobbles of King Street outside Bristol Old Vic until 1 September. Click here for more information and to book your tickets. The first 50 tickets for every show are just £10 each.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Emily Wilding Davison: A Suffragette’s Family Album

We’re spoilt for choice with suffragist and suffragette literature at the moment, and much of it centres around Emily Wilding Davison, because June was the centenary of her death under the hooves of the king’s horse in Epsom.

This latest offering by Maureen Howes is something extra special, though. A Suffragette’s Family Album is the result of ten years of exhaustive research from Maureen, who has dedicated the past decade to uncovering every possible scrap of information about Emily. The book aims to help us try to piece together a complete picture of one of the best remembered suffragettes, and to try to help inform us about her actions on that fateful derby day.

Emily’s closest surviving relative Geoffrey Davison has written the book’s preface, which is an indication of the close involvement of Emily’s family with Maureen’s research. And through postcards, letters, photos – even Emily’s christening gown, Maureen pieces together Emily’s entire life story, which really comes to life thanks to the many photographs.

With the aid of timelines about Emily individually as well as the suffrage campaign generally, plus a great deal of supporting background information about the other campaigners who worked with Emily, A Suffragette’s Family Album is an extremely authoritative and comprehensive guide to Emily Wilding Davison. Maureen has evidently worked extremely hard on this book, and her decade of research has more than paid off.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Tristan and Yseult

Tristan and Yseult. Yseult and Tristan. Tristan, Tristan, Tristan…

I’ll admit it. I’m totally smitten by actor Tristan Sturrock, who plays the hero of the latest Kneehigh show to reach Bristol Old Vic. And as a leading love interest, Sturrock is more than perfectly cast – sharp cheek bones, nicely toned arms, and a devilishly handsome face. My heart has melted.

I thought it was best we cleared that up from the start, and then moved on with the real review of Kneehigh’s most well loved show, which is touring again to celebrate ten years since Tristan and Yseult first delighted audiences around the globe.

Bristol Old Vic’s press officer and I were chatting about our shared love of Kneehigh before the show. “Nobody ever forgets their first Kneehigh show”, she told me. And I agreed, adding that my first Kneehigh show was The Red Shoes in 2010… peering down from the Old Vic’s nosebleed seats, utterly mesmerised by the fantastic spectacle.

The star of The Red Shoes was Patrycja Kujawska, who tonight returns as Yseult – our love-struck heroine. And with Tristan Sturrock as her lover Tristan, Kneeigh founder Mike Shepherd as her brother King Mark, and the mesmerising Carly Bawden as the leader of the unloved, the casting was as strong as you would demand from a Kneehigh show.

The multi-layered set for Tristan and Yseult resembles a circus ring, with the stepped floor on the stage, acrobatic pulleys, and rising platforms, as well as sails and sheets flying up and down the stage. And as the audience files in, we’re entertained by nightclub singer Whitehands (Bawden) on the stage, and her flock of anorak-bedecked trainspotters popping up in the audience and on the side of the stage – searching through binoculars not for wildlife, but for love.

As the story unfolds, we find Cornish King Mark battling to protect his country from Irish invader Branigan (Craig Johnson). However, he’s quickly slain by elegant Frenchman Tristan (Sturrock), who conveniently happens to be passing (“he’s the prince of hearts and the kings of oceans”, as one character swoons).

When King Mark said to Tristan, “I don’t know who you are, but I recognise you”, I wanted to yell out: “He’s Peter Pan!” But I restrained myself. Even when Sturrock was recreating his festive Lost Boy acrobatics on ropes and pulleys.

Believing he is exacting the ultimate revenge on his dead nemesis, King Mark issues Tristan with a quest to hunt down Branigan’s beloved sister Yseult and bring her to Cornwall to be King Mark’s bride.

Well, you can imagine what happens. Tristan and Yseult fall head over heels in passionate love, despite the most hilarious efforts of Yseult’s maid (Johnson again – doing a magnificent impersonation of Tubbs in A League of Gentlemen) to keep them apart.

A little part of me found it hard to feel sorry for King Mark, who is heartbroken to discover Yseult is in love with Tristan. I mean, this is a man who only hunted Yseult down to spite the memory of her beloved brother… whom King Mark had killed. I mean, this is a man who forced a woman to marry a man she had never met, giving her no choice in the matter, and expected her to love him unconditionally. Did he really think that would work out well?!

However, don’t stop to dwell on that sort of thing, and just let yourself be swept up in the ride. Tristan and Yseult has everything – puppetry, mime, fire, blood, balloons, boats and sunglasses. And Tristan Sturrock. If you didn’t already love him, you certainly will now.

Tristan and Yseult made me feel joyful, tearful, and appreciative of my own happy relationship. Just go and see it. (If this was the sort of site that lowered itself to rate things out of 10, Tristan and Yseult would receive 20.)

Tristan and Yseult is at the Bristol Old Vic until July 20. Please do anything you can to grab a ticket. Information on this link. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Bristol Suffragettes – Lucienne Boyce

One of the very first UK suffrage centres was established in Bristol, and outside of London we saw the most active suffrage activity here in Bristol. So now local author Lucienne Boyce has celebrated the work of the militants in the city with her new book The Bristol Suffragettes.

Focussing on the militants (rather than the suffragists), Lucienne’s book launches us into the world of 1907 when former Lancashire mill worker Annie Kenney was dispatched to Bristol by the Pankhursts to head up the South West branch of the Women’s Social & Poltical Union (WSPU).

From this point on, Lucienne guides us through the following years as the suffragettes ramped up their activity, including arson attacks, whipping Winston Churchill, and disrupting political speeches. But along the way, we also hear about rousing suffrage plays performed at a (now vanished) theatre on Park Row, coffee mornings at the Victoria Rooms and the suffragette wood in Batheaston.

The Bristol Suffragettes is a very nicely put together and accessible book, with a clean design and voting ‘x’ motif throughout. It also includes a foldout map offering a walk around the Clifton area to take in some buildings of suffragette significance, as well as lots of appendices with timelines, biographies, and further reading suggestions. A very neat resource.

March, Women, March – Lucinda Hawksley

Published to coincide with the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, March, Women, March is a truly impressive collection of suffrage memories.

The subtitle Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women succinctly sums up the contents of Lucinda Hawksley’s book, which is a thorough and authoritative anthology of quotes from important early feminist figures, many of whom have been sadly forgotten in the wake of their headlining grabbing 20th Century suffragette sisters.

The suffragettes were the militant women who only rose to prominence in the very final years of the suffrage campaign, before the First World War saw Emmeline Pankhurst call her army of women to stand down. But the suffragists far out-numbered the suffragettes – being the peaceful campaigners who had tirelessly worked for decades previously to overturn not only marriage acts, but also health bills and working rights for women, alongside campaigning for the vote. The right to vote being just one of the key demands of what is now called the first wave of feminism.

Lucinda’s beautiful book (with two large sections of fascinating photos) quite rightly pays great respect to the many, many forgotten women who campaigned for decades before the suffragettes arrived on the scene. Meaning that we begin with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, and follow through the decades via legendary and reforming nurse Florence Nightingale, and the poet Caroline Norton – whose story particularly sung out to me.

Caroline was obliged to marry an older man who she didn’t love in order to ensure financial security for her family – only for her husband to violently abuse her, kidnap their children and steal all the money she earned as a successful poet. However, after leaving her abusive husband, Caroline threw herself into studying law and was ultimately successful in bringing about the Custody of Infants Acts 1839, which finally saw mothers recognised as joint parent of her children (previously, in the event of a marriage break up, children automatically went to the father). It’s shocking that Caroline isn’t better known today.

Through the following chapters we learn of so many other, equally amazing and astonishing women who achieved so much in such stiflingly oppressive times. And while a large part of the book is occupied with the women who helped us win the vote, Lucinda doesn’t focus too heavily on the better known figures.

What we are left with in March, Women, March is a very accessibly and compulsive book, which is a testament to a great deal of library research and archival work. Lucinda supports the many quotes and excerpts with very readable historical background information – and the volume of these facts that relate back to Charles Dickens are clearly a nod to her very well known great, great, great grandfather.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

"I Laughed, I Cried" - Viv Groskop

There is nothing worse than regret. The ‘if only’ feeling that haunts you when you realise it’s too late to put in the years of grit and determination needed to make your lifelong dream come true… or even find out if you’re any good at it. Regret sucks.

The old cliché goes: ‘You can only regret the things you haven’t done’. So jumping on the back of this, wife, mum and journalist Viv Groskop decided that with her fortieth birthday knocking on the door, it was time she put her money where her mouth was to find out if she really was any good at this stand-up comedy business. Or if she was just wasting her time.

And so begins Viv’s mammoth quest to perform 100 comedy shows in 100 days. Despite having three young kids at home (including a baby who was barely one), a long-suffering but patient husband, and a very busy career as a freelance journalist for most of the UK’s bigger newspapers and magazines.

I Laughed, I Cried documents – sometimes hilariously, sometimes painfully (this book delivers what it promises) – Viv’s progress gig by gig, gag by gag, glug (of Diet Coke) by glug.

Part diary, part memoir, part self-help book for aspiring comedians, I Laughed, I Cried is a no-holds-barred expose of Viv’s 100 days. We meet the best and the worst of the amateur comedy circuit with her – from the award-winning clown-comic Dr Brown who likes to take his clothes off, to the misery of the shared car journey to an out-of-London unpaid gig. Through all of this we root for Viv, and we want her to succeed. It’s to her advantage that she doesn’t try to disguise the fact that her quest involves performing night and after night in smelly hot clubs meaning she sweats into her only sequined cardie, and eats a lot of bad fast food, or runs up an exorbitantly high bar tab on watered down soft drinks.

The ‘quest book’ format is a well-tested market. The Danny Wallaces, Dave Gormans and Tony Hawks of the comedy world have all trodden the ground in recent years and sold a zillion books and built careers off it. It’s nice to finally see a woman dipping her sequined toe into the market – and it feels right that Viv should be the one to do it.

Her honest and funny writing, and shameless style, meant that I sped through I Laughed, I Cried in only two sittings – absorbed in the ups and down of Viv’s mission, and drawn in by the journalistic inclusion of various quotes and facts from established comedians on the circuit. This book makes you want to be Viv’s friend – even if that means being dragged along as her ‘bring a mate’ to a dingy club that smells of sewage (I refer you to gig four).

Viv Groksop will return to Bristol on July 3 with a preview of her Edinburgh solo show about I Laughed, I Cried atWatershed at 6.15pm. Tickets are £7/£6. This special event is co-hosted by What The Frock! and Bristol Festival of Ideas. After the show, Viv will be signing copies of the book – published by Orion on June 27.

Suffragettes – Frank Meeres

As the name of Frank Meeres’ new book Suffragettes (published by Amberley) suggests, he is focussing on the militant aspect of the votes for women campaign. And he does so very thoroughly.

Beginning with a short introduction to the lengthy suffrage campaign until the WSPU’s militancy began to dominate around 1907, Frank inevitably also includes a long-ish mention of Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

However, the body of the book is a chronological guide through the main stages of the campaign between 1907 and 1914, when the First World War broke out and Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the campaign for women’s votes. Frank includes plenty of hefty quotes from newspapers and suffragette autobiographies, giving his volume weight and authority. (Although, I felt a little piqued that Christabel Pankhurst is incorrectly called ‘Charlotte’ in one instance towards the end – a typo that marred an otherwise factually clean book.)

There is also a substantial selection of images in the centre of Suffragettes, including one or two photos I hadn’t seen before – such as a photo of women sleeping in an unoccupied house to avoid the 1911 census, and one or two photos from the author’s collection of suffragette activity in his home area of Norfolk.

While Suffragettes may not add much to those already familiar with the campaign for the vote, it is a good starting place for those without much existing knowledge of the subject. And the photos in the middle are a bonus.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Campaigning For The Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary

When editor Elizabeth Crawford was alerted to the discovery of a box of ancient diaries and memorabilia, she knew she was onto something extraordinarily special. In 2013, it is now so rare to come across forgotten treasure troves stuffed away in attics and cupboards – not least because we’ve all converted our attics into studio flats, and our cupboards into extra bedrooms. But what Elizabeth was shown was a complete set of a suffragist’s diaries throughout her entire life, in which the suffragist had painstakingly preserved flyers, photos, banners and other mementoes.

Shortly before Christmas I was lucky enough to go up to Parliament and hear Elizabeth talking about her new book – Campaigning For The Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary. She brought with her some of Kate’s diaries, and some of the (now very fragile) treasures that had been preserved within them. The talk was only an hour long, but it was the most engaging and fascinating session about the life of a woman nobody had ever previously heard of.

Kate Parry Frye was not a suffrage leader, she was not a militant, she never went to prison and she was never force-fed. But she was an extremely active member of the suffrage campaign from 1911 onwards, and toured all over the UK setting up meetings, organising speakers, campaigning, building awareness, knocking on doors and tirelessly raising people’s consciousness about how vitally important it was that women were entitled to equal political representation.

Just some of Kate's diaries. Photo by Elizabeth Crawford.

Kate was an avid diarist throughout her entire life (1878-1959), meaning that Elizabeth has worked hard to edit down Kate’s voluminous notebooks into this beautiful book that focuses on the suffrage era. Carefully introduced with a chapter by Elizabeth setting the scene and telling us about Kate’s upbringing, aspirations as an actress, extraordinarily long engagement to John and bringing us up to her life in 1911 when Kate launched herself head first into the suffrage campaign. Although the first suffrage entry Elizabeth finds in Kate’s diary was in March 1896 (when Kate would have been 18) when she attends a meeting with her mother where Millicent Fawcett is the guest speaker.

Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary is a deeply important book. Never before have we been able to see such a detailed, first-hand, day-to-day account of the suffrage campaign from someone who worked on the ground level, doing the un-thanked drudge work. The finished book is an absolute credit to Elizabeth and her publishers Francis Boutle – it is easily the most beautiful book in my suffrage library, and is wonderfully illustrated with scans of many of the letters, flyers and photos found in Kate’s collection, as well as containing side panels on each page explaining who the many extra characters Kate refers to are. The attention to detail in this book is exemplary, and so rewarding to read. What a treat.

For more information or to buy a copy, please visit the Francis Boutle website

Please click here to read an article by Elizabeth about the book, illustrated with photos from the diaries.