Wednesday, 31 December 2014

'Sugar Hall' by Tiffany Murray

Although I’m not traditionally a fan of ghost stories, what with being a susceptible fool who is easily spooked, I ended up reading Tiffany Murray’s latest novel Sugar Hall in almost a day… as I just couldn’t put it down.

Loosely based on the spooky Littledean Hall near the Forest of Dean, the Sugar Hall of the title is a grandly imposing, and reputedly ugly, old stately home built by the fortunes of the Sugar family – who made their money via the equally ugly businesses of sugar trading and slave purchasing. With centuries of grisly stories embedded in its walls and surrounding woodland, the latest inhabitants of the Hall are Lilia Sugar and her two children Saskia and Dieter.

Lilia is the widowed wife of Peter Sugar, who was the final surviving descent of the Sugar family. As such, their young son Dieter Sugar is now the only living heir to the crumbling Sugar empire. Lilia and her children have inherited the freezing Hall in Peter’s will, and with fate not on their side, they’re forced to up sticks from their cosy London flat and move down to the chilly, alienating old house to see if they can make it home.

Despite warnings from various locals who know the hold the Hall has over the Sugar sons… and despite the chilling stories Dieter tells her of the boy with the silver collar who he finds around the place… Saskia militantly remains rooted to the Hall, trying her best to make it work for her two children.

But as the months pass, creepy event after spooky encounter stack up… and everything comes to a head.

Tiffany Murray’s writing style is engaging, and after only two or three chapters I was gripped and literally couldn’t put the book down all day, not until I had found out how it all worked out. She paints such a vivid description of the hideous Hall and its world that I was desperate to see a real picture for myself, to see if the image I’d painted in my head matched the actual Hall. But it is her creation of the manipulative and sad slave boy, who himself suffered at the hands of a former Sugar master, that is truly at the heart of Sugar Hall.

Sugar Hall is up there with Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat as one of the two finest contemporary ghost stories I’ve read in recent years.

'Because Of The Lockwoods' by Dorothy Whipple

There’s a formula to Dorothy Whipple books and it’s a winning formula – that’s why back in the 1940s and 1950s she was such a bestselling author, and that’s why the Persephone Books reprints of those novels continue to remain among the publishers’ bestselling novels today.

The latest, and penultimate, Persephone reprint of a Whipple is Because Of The Lockwoods, which follows Dorothy’s formula to the letter and with glorious success.

Our heroine Thea is the youngest daughter of the Hunter family, who sadly lost their father far too young and his death plunged them into relative poverty. They were patronised and pitied by the loathsome Lockwood family, who indulged the Hunters with contemptuous charity… thereby fostering growing hatred towards them by the Hunters, especially Thea.

In the classic Dorothy Whipple style, our heroine is served a great injustice by the hands of a seemingly powerful man, Mr Lockwood… and the book is spent with her resolving to wreak her revenge, see justice done and ultimately emerge the victor. It’s giving nothing away to say that Thea does just this… and in delicious fashion.

Because Of The Lockwoods takes us on a lengthy, but thoroughly enjoyable, journey from outer Manchester to rural France and back again. As with most Dorothy Whipple books, this is a real doorstopper of a book; chunky and weighty. But as with all Dorothy Whipple books, this is also a deeply enjoyable, page-turner of a hotwater bottle book.

I first read this book several years ago during a summer heatwave in a Somerset garden, and although I generally try not to read a book twice (if you’ve got time to read one book twice, you’ve got time to read two books – is my rule of thumb), Because Of The Lockwoods was equally, if not more so, delicious the second time.

Revenge, as Thea finds, is a dish best served cold (with a wintry reading).

Sunday, 30 November 2014

'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, is essentially a love letter to Lucille Ball – the grand dame of 1950s’ TV comedy. Our hero Barbara is a working-class Blackpool girl blessed with beautiful looks, headstrong determination and a self-defined funny bone… who makes her way to London in pursuit of aping her hero Lucille and becoming a comedian herself.

But given the set-up for Funny Girl, it’s notable how little of this story is actually Barbara’s – or Sophie, as she soon becomes known as. Maybe this is because Funny Girl is written by a man, but we read very little of the book from Barbara’s perspective, instead following the story from the men that surround her: co-star Clive, producer Dennis, scriptwriters Bill and Tony. We’re only a few chapters in before Barbara herself seems like simply a device to drive the men’s stories forwards.

Once in London, Barbara/Sophie quickly attracts the attention of a kindly agent and before long she is cast as the lead in a new BBC sitcom – which naturally becomes a hit, catapulting her into the limelight and role of national darling. Yet we read very little of how all of this affects Barbara/Sophie and of the world in which she lives, instead we read more about Bill’s literary ambitions, Tony’s charade of a marriage, Clive’s emotional immaturity, and Dennis’ torch that he holds for the funny girl of the title.

But Funny Girl is an enjoyably readable book – the most engaging and compelling of Nick Hornby’s novels, in my opinion, since High Fidelity back in 1995. Maybe this is because Hornby’s own love for Lucille Ball rivals his passion for glorious record shops? I found it frustrating that so little of Funny Girl focused on the funny girl of the title, and that we learned so little about why Lucille Ball was such an inspiration on Barbara/Sophie, but as a call back to the golden age of light entertainment, the novel is a fun and light read.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Bridge Cafe at Avon Gorge Hotel

With a view looking across the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge (which turns 150 next week, fact fans), and a stunning terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge that people flock to in droves, The Avon Gorge Hotel’s stylish Bridge Cafe is celebrating winter with a brand new menu.

Despite it being a busy Saturday night in the crowded bar part of the Hotel, in the restaurant area diners are afforded a peaceful and stylish ambience to enjoy a tasty three-course dinner, with a menu filled with dishes inspired by French and British classics… with a few twists.

While we deliberated over the menu, I sipped a very elegant glass of pinot grigio, while my husband had a good old fashioned beer. And then for starters, he chose the Five Spiced Duck and Duck Liver Terrine (£6.95), while I kept things simple with the homemade bread, oils and butter (£1.50). The duck terrine was served with plum chutney, celaria remoulade and brioche, and presented beautifully. And while a starter of bread might seem dull to some, those people clearly haven’t tried this bread! Which is deliciously moist, fresh and beautifully simple. Just as bread should be.

For our main courses, I chose the Homemade 8oz Beef Burger with Hand-Cut Chips (£11.95), and my husband picked the Chargrilled West Country 8oz Sirloin Steak with Bearnaise Sauce and Hand-Cut Chips (£19.95). While a beef heavy table, remember this was divided between two people! The burger was juicy and thick, with just the right balance of lettuce and tomato to complement the meat. And although I’m not personally a fan of thick-cut chunky chips, these were very light and fluffy inside.

After all that, we were feeling pretty full, but found room to share the sorbet, with a scoop each of the lemon, mango and raspberry. Each was fresh and had tiny chunks of fruit in, which was a nice touch, and the raspberry in particular - although offering a bit of a bite - was a really nice way to round off a meal. But if you’re choosing the sorbet and torn between which flavour, I’d strongly advise a scoop of each as they set each other off perfectly.

We loved the fact so much of the menu is homemade on the site, and that much of the menu assures us the ingredients are local, so diners can be reassured of the provenance of their meals and of the low food miles. You can certainly taste the quality.

The Bridge Cafe is open daily for everything from tea and cake to a three-course dinner. For more information and to check out the menu, visit the website.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

'Made In Dagenham' - Adelphi Theatre, London

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan
Based on the 2010 film Made In Dagenham, this new musical is a fabulous way to bring feminism to the West End stage… without anyone batting an eyelid at the nerve-inducing ‘f’ word.

With Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, St Trinian’s) in the lead role as feisty Ford machinist Rita O’Grady, we know we’re in good hands. Gemma’s stage presence and confidence is assured right from the opening scene of her at home, trying to get husband Eddie (Adrian Der Gregorian) and kids Sharon and Graham ready and out of the house before they all go to work and school. A feat that is rewarded with a rousing opening song featuring many of the principle cast.

Rita is a machinist at the Dagenham Ford factory, where she and her female colleagues work in sweltering conditions to sew the fabrics for the car seats… while the bodies of the cars are constructed by many of their husbands, showing what a tightly knit Ford community Dagenham was in 1968 when the story is set. After the women’s work is downgraded to unskilled work, they go out on a strike led by Rita – and soon enough their husbands are also off-work due to a wily ruse by Ford bosses to try and get the women to quit their strike.

As you may well know, the plot is based tightly on the true events of 1968 when the Ford machinists made history by striking until they received equal pay for skilled work – events which led to the creation of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. And it’s fabulous to see such a pivotal moment in women’s, as well as society’s, history so brilliantly and cleverly reconstructed in a hit West End musical.

And with music by David Arnold, this isn’t just any musical. The man has scored five James Bond films, as well as a string of other Hollywood films and TV series, meaning Made In Dagenham is a stage musical like no other. Although I’m not necessarily a fan of musicals, there is barely a low note in this entire production and it’s safe to say everyone in the audience will have left with closing song Stand Up ringing in their ears for days afterwards.

Alongside Gemma Arterton, Made In Dagenham has a sterling supporting cast, and Mark Hadfield as a caricature of Prime Minster Harold Wilson is an absolute comedy dream. Other standout performances include Sophie-Louise Dann as no-nonsense MP Barbara Castle, and Sophie Isaacs as ambitious machinist Sandra.

Funny, touching and timeless, Made in Dagenham shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they stand together.

Made In Dagenham shows Mondays-Saturdays at the Adelphi Theatre, The Strand, London at 7.30pm Mondays-Saturdsays, with a 3pm matinee on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

Photo credit: MadamJ-Mo

Friday, 21 November 2014

'The Other Ida' by Amy Mason

Much of Amy Mason’s debut novel The Other Ida was written while she was cocooned in Bristol’s Spike Island as its first ever writer in residence. Nobody could have predicted that a few years later the book that Amy had been working on would trample over 400 other entries and win the Dundee International Book Prize.

And The Other Ida is the book in question. It is a raw exercise in sibling rivalry, alcoholism, parenthood and grief, all wrapped up in a chaotic world of faded theatre glamour and dusty boxes of crystalised ginger. Our anti-hero Ida returns home to reunite with her sister Alice as they prepare for their mother’s funeral. And in the days leading up to the burial, Ida and Alice are joined by a growing procession of lovers, old friends, forgotten relatives and buried memories as the chapters flit from decade to decade.

Ida and Alice’s relationship with their mother, Bridie, was never easy – caught up as it was with their mother’s alcoholism, which in part seems to have stemmed from her bitterness and unhappiness as the injustices she feels the world dealt her after her play, Ida, took the world by storm… a success she was never able to repeat.

Amy Mason’s style is honest and confessional, and it’s clear her second novel will be even more exciting and challenging than The Other Ida is.

Click here to read Amy’s article on The Guardian about women and alcoholism. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

'The Home-Maker' - by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The latest in the Persephone Classics series is this new edition of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1924 novel The Home-Maker. Originally published many years ago as one of the very first Persephone books, it’s easy to see why the London-based independent publisher chose to reprint this forgotten book about the emotional turmoil of an unhappy married couple finding comfort when they swap their traditional gender roles.

The Home-Maker is instantly absorbing and quick to read, yet an intricately clever book in the tools that Dorothy uses to draw the reader in. Divided into three parts (before, during and after husband Lester’s ‘accident’), the book also devotes different chapters to different character’s voices, giving a great insight into the plot and dilemma from a whole range of sides.

The book opens on housewife Eva furiously scrubbing her floors after one of her young children has accidentally spilled some food grease. Eva’s home is immaculate and symptomatic of everything in her life: ordered, neat, controlled. Frustrated by the cards life has dealt her, Eva aims for perfection from her children and constantly chides them, while refraining from scolding her disappointing husband Lester for fear they might think less of him. But of course, the result is that her children are terrified of her and her husband is an emasculated wreck. The Home-Maker is a story of standards that must be upheld, a story of the fear about what the neighbours will think.

What particularly interested me, though, was Lester’s story. He’s a man struggling to conceal his depression from his family and employers. Shrunken by missed opportunities in life, a soul-destroying job and a wife he has disappointed, Lester feels he contributes nothing. So much so that he is driven to contemplate suicide not once but twice. Yet this enormous crisis in his life is not dwelled upon in Dorothy’s novel, which I found really shocking, but also reflective of the way in which mental health issues are still brushed aside as uncomfortable topics. Lester was the character I empathised with and who I wanted to see receive some help or comfort, yet instead he was caught in a long string of desperate deception.

The Home-Maker, despite its portrayal of a proud family built on the concept of perfection and solidity, actually reveals a delicate family struggling to stay together behind a mask of lies and unhappiness. It’s a profoundly sad book in that the only way for Eva, Lester and the children to remain happy is for them to live a life of deceit and sickness. Yet this reflects just how awful the stigma was less than a century ago for a wife to be the breadwinner while the husband stays at home to bring up the children.

Longwave - Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Performed entirely without dialogue, this 75-minute performance piece is nothing if not testing. But since it is written by the always-interesting Chris Goode (The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, GOD/HEAD and more) who comes with consistently good form, it would be churlish not to take a look.

Originally devised in 2006, Longwave has returned in 2014 with Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood as the two actors charged with portraying scientists stranded in a shed in a bleak, hostile, unwelcoming environment. They play games and make music to pass the time while trapped in the middle of nowhere. Their only source of comfort is an old wireless, which also provides their only occasional links to the world they once knew.

Tom and Jamie do an excellent job of portraying the repetitive routines of the two scientists who live together in their tiny shed. Through intricately choreographed routines the audience gets an intimate glimpse inside their minds – to see who it is they’ve left behind at home, their struggles with the isolation, and their joy when their research yields positive results.

To achieve all of this with no dialogue is quite some feat, and this is where the tool of the longwave radio really comes in. Although we do hear some scripted dialogue via the radio at times, the words chosen are selected with such care and thought as to only be crucially necessary to drive the narrative forwards and give the audience further insight into the characters.

While in a world dominated by communication, music, chatter and social media it is easy to be deafened by the constant barrage of sound being thrown at us, Longwave and its silence initially seems like a daunting prospect. But the reality is a simply beautiful piece of theatre that is a fascinating experiment into silence, and how to chose your words more carefully.

I saw Longwave on its last evening in Plymouth, however it is touring to London, Crew and Lincoln. Click here for more information. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Eat My Heart Out - Zoe Pilger

It’s not often that you read a book so bad that it makes you want to go out and plant a tree in recompense for such an appalling waste of natural resources. But Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out is one such book.

This is a book so lacking that it makes me sad for all the genuinely talented fiction authors out there whose book are denied publication, despite the fact they actually have something interesting to say and the talent to construct their narrative in an engaging manner.

Zoe Pilger’s debut novel comes heaped with praise. ‘Perfectly pitched satire’ boasts the quote from The New Statesman on the cover, for instance. And this word ‘satire’ is one that comes up again and again in reference to Eat My Heart Out.

Satire is, of course, a strand of literature that paints a deliberately grotesque form of a current trend with the goal of shaming said trend-followers into seeing the error of their ways and conforming. But I don’t think that’s what Zoe Pilger is doing with Eat My Heart Out, no matter how many times I read the word ‘satire’ on the back cover or in the plentiful reviews. It feels to me as if the word ‘satire’ is being used in reference to Pilger’s book as an excuse - a get-out-of-jail-free card to excuse herself of any responsibility for all the obnoxious messages contained within the 295 pages of her book.

And this is a book that revels in its obnoxious messages. Our anti-hero Ann-Marie is a privileged 23-year-old who swans around London with her wealthy friends (the types who have names like Sebastian, Freddie and Allegra), who all take too many drugs, have no responsibilities and fuck anything that moves in the most in the most disgusting way possible - for no other purpose than purported shock value. *yawn* To make her seem more ‘real’, Ann-Marie has a job in an exclusive Soho restaurant - although it’s unclear whether her job is receptionist, coat check, waiter or chef. It doesn’t seem to matter, as she makes no bones of screwing even the most repulsive of diners simply to make us hate her even more.

There’s probably a message somewhere in Eat My Heart Out, somewhere deep in its self-consciously smug pages - the sort of pages that are overwritten with a desperate desire to match Will Self for erudite obfuscation (but rest easy, Mr Self, there’s nothing to see here). I’m struggling to find the message, but the blurb tells me this is a feminist book, and a ‘fiercely clever’ one at that. I find no evidence of either claim within the pages, simply a tedious catalogue of self-loathing by unpleasant caricatures.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Bristol and the First World War

As you cannot have failed to have noticed, 2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War and the extensive Bristol 2014 programme has been marking this with a year-long calendar of events all around the city.

Two elements that go hand-in-hand are the Moved By Conflict exhibition at the city’s M Shed museum, and the Bristol and the First World War book that is being distributed free all around the city as part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014.

Moved By Conflict (open until 1 March 2015, £2.95-£3.95) is a fascinating, interactive exhibition detailing the myriad ways in which Bristol’s residents became entwined with the war – whether fighting on the front line, working in mustard gas factories or repurposing landmark buildings to create makeshift hospitals for the wounded. What’s particularly pleasing about this exhibition is that in contrast to many stuffy museums, many Moved By Conflict pieces have notices that actively state ‘Please Touch’ next to them.

While the stories of love stories cut short and young men blown to pieces will be echoed in similar exhibitions in cities all around the country, there are a huge array of elements that root Moved By Conflict firmly in Bristol. One such part is the almost-forgotten White City. This city-within-a-city was Bristol’s contribution to the International Exhibition, designed to celebrate the British Empire, and engineered before war was even on the horizon. Doomed to fail financially, it opened mere months before war was announced, and the area was rapidly repurposed as barracks for the Bristol’s Own regiment. Visit the Bristol’s ‘White City’ exhibition at Bristol Record Office until 27 February, 2015; and read Clive Burlton’s book Bristol’s Lost City (Bristol Books, £14).  

As part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014, Bristol and the First World War is an anthology of short and accessible essays by a range of authors examining all aspects of the city at war, and is the ideal companion to Moved By Conflict. Particular standout pieces for me include the graphic essay ‘From White City To War’ by illustrator Alys Jones, which both sums up the relevance of the White City development to Bristolians as well as the overall futility of the war effort. One of Alys’ illustrations for the story is reproduced in colour on the book’s cover: a depiction of trenches being dug on Brandon Hill.

Other illuminating entries include Clive Burlton’s piece about the barbaric Shirehampton mustard gas factory, Eugene Byrne’s article about women’s voluntary war work, and Lucienne Boyce’s essay about the Bristol tram girls. While Anna Farthing’s piece about the Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Parties was particularly interesting after seeing her Anna’s new production War, Women and Song (also a part of Bristol 2014) at the city’s Redgrave Theatre in September. You can read an article Anna wrote for The Daily Telegraph here.

Some 20,000 copies of Bristol and the First World War have been produced by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and they are being distributed free of charge all around the city. For more information, please click here

For further reading on Bristol and the First World War, I also recommend Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-1918, by Eugene Byrne and Clive Burlton (Redcliffe Press, £15), which is a rigorously researched and highly readable account of how the war impacted on Bristol and it’s people. 

For more information on the many forthcoming events in the Bristol 2014 programme, please click here to visit the website.

Friday, 10 October 2014

'Dead Dog in a Suitcase' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo credit - Steve Tanner

Guest review by Jacqui Furneaux 

It didn’t seem appropriate to applaud at the end of this Kneehigh Theatre production of Dead Dog In A Suitcase, at a time when the stage was full of the debris and destruction of a world we have created by accepting greed and corruption as the norm.

Like The Beggars’ Opera which inspired it, Dead Dog In A Suitcase is alerting us to our demise but the journey was light-hearted and very funny. Throughout, with the wonderful use of puppetry, brilliant songs and great lines, we hope the lovable villain Macheath (Dominic Marsh) will leave his bad-boy days behind and sail off into the sunset with good and wholesome Polly (Carly Bawden). But deprived of a happy ending, the audience has to accept that in this instance evil gets the better of good and even Polly succumbs to hatred and revenge. This flies in the face of tradition to give us a wake-up call.
Director Mike Shepherd uses Punch and Judy puppets as a continuous thread starting with Punch killing the Devil, which encourages the residents of a mythical but realistic coastal town to commit unspeakable acts without the fear of going to hell. After all, Punch has no scruples and neither do Macheath or the town’s greedy industrialists, the Peachums (Rina Fatania and Martin Hyder) who also crave political power.
Dead Dog In A Suitcase was a faultless theatrical delight with rich acting, script, props (including a progressively decomposing dead dog in a suitcase) and tremendous music. There were gender changes and role-swapping, with characters who had been playing respectable citizens suddenly appearing as the opposite sex in provocative clothing in a bawdy-house. The songs were amusing and poignant, varying greatly in style and during the interval several people were heard to ask if CDs were available. 

The set by Michael Vale was cleverly adaptable for each part of the play and was complete without much scene-changing. The clever lighting saw to that, highlighting various parts of the stage as required
At times the play was pure pantomime with the front rows being balloted with voting papers and the puppets encouraging occasional child-like delight mixed with unsettling sinister characters. At other times farce crept in with three identical suitcases being mixed up and picked up by the wrong owners. But unlike pantomime, Dead Dog In A Suitcase does not have the baddies punished and the goodies rewarded. It’s a grim reminder to mend our ways and it is to be hoped that Kneehigh’s declaration in the programme is correct:We believe that theatre has the power to transform...”.

Dead Dog In A Suitcase is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 25 October. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dracula - Bristol Old Vic

Photo credit: Farrows Creative

Guest review by Bo Novak

Journey into the cold, black night with the Mark Bruce Company at Bristol Old Vic and share in a thrilling and romantic adventure to foreign lands full of mystery and danger.

The first half of Dracula is staggeringly creepy. The wolves circle and pounce. The vampire brides writhe and screech like inmates of Bedlam. Unspeakable brutality is vividly signposted, leaving our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

And what of the Count himself? Being more of the Interview With The Vampire generation rather than Twilight, I’m used to vampires being intellectual and conflicted. But Jonathan Goddard’s Dracula is not an urbane aristocrat bemoaning his cursed state but a hollow-cheeked, suede-headed, black-hearted thug with no compunction for his victims. His concubines are bawdy, ethereal and sensual. When they (literally) go for the jugular, it is frenzied and intense, not pretty.

The castle’s gothic splendour is conveyed by intricate ironwork and stone coffins, illuminated by a cold, white moon. The only warmth comes from the candles lit for visitors. Yet Christianity comes out as very flabby in the face of the animalistic and amoral Dracula.

This is dance drama of the highest order, with dancers who are all fine actors, and a dance style that is bold, physical and contemporary, wittily borrowing from other schools of dance to lighten the mood here and there, but always moving the story on.

Eleanor Duval is particularly expressive as Mina and her pas de deux before and after her encounter with Dracula - when she is changed forever - are both beautifully done. Kristin McGuire oozes raw physicality as she goes from cheeky ingénue to insatiable undead seductress.

There is plenty of humour to offset the pervading sense of threat. The ensemble pieces are fun, there is a light-hearted marriage proposal, and even a knowing wink to Rocky Horror’s Magenta the Maid. They also somehow pull off Dracula donning top hat and cane to do a Busby Berkeley number while he toys with his terrified prey.

The music, a patchwork of different styles and pieces lifted from classical and modern genres, slightly detracted from the cohesion of the piece, but credit to Guy Hoare for the immersive environment created by the lighting and Phil Eddolls for the beautiful and versatile set.

Like Matthew Bourne, Mark Bruce reinvigorates a classic story using accessible dance forms, and the Company richly deserved the raucous applause from the audience. A magnificent evening of light and dark.

Dracula is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 4 October. Formore information and to buy tickets, please click here

Monday, 22 September 2014

Running For Fun

As a schoolchild in the 1980s and 1990s, as punishment for being naughty we would be ordered to run laps of the playing field – an activity presented as the ultimate in hellish horrors. So it’s little wonder that generations of women grow up through their teens and twenties filled with horror at the idea they might voluntarily lace up their trainers and go for a run for, bleugh, fun?!

After a decade or more of being picked last for school sports teams and publicly ridiculed by malevolent PE teachers for being shit, I came to dread exercise as much as I dreaded maths lessons. During my final two years at school, I spent the PE lessons hiding in a disused classroom with my nose in a book, hoping nobody would come and drag me outside to stand in a soggy hockey field where a PE teacher would make me look like a dick in front of my friends.

I don’t think I’m alone in these experiences of school-age PE-induced torture. Since I started running about 12 months ago, I’ve discovered a whole community of other women who also took to running in their early 30s. For a wide range of reasons (anything from wanting to lose a few pounds, to having an hour to themselves, to wanting to conquer a personal demon), more and more women are discovering running as a means of escape and release.

It’s not hard to see why. There are no expensive gym memberships, you can do it where and when you like, and you can spend as little or as long doing it as you want. Throw in the fact that running burns a lot of calories, boosts your metabolism, and releases feel-good endorphins like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s not hard to see why committed runners can’t stop raving about the benefits of the sport to everyone they see.

And that’s also why I’m thrilled that earlier this month (September 2014), Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has finally been able to get it agreed that schools can no longer order compulsory laps of the playing field as punishments to truculent children.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Juno And The Paycock - Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Set in a 1920s Dublin tenement flat, Juno And The Paycock makes no bones about the fact it is a seamlessly gritty production.

Sean O’Casey’s 1923 play is considered one of the finest ever by an Irish playwright, and in its nine decades it has been turned into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a stage musical, three TV adaptations and countless stage versions.

This production at Bristol Old Vic (a collaboration with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse) is the latest such stage version. Directed by Gemma Bodinetz, and performed on a fabulously shambolic set designed by Conor Murphy, Juno And The Paycock takes audiences on a grimly absorbing journey back to one of the most turbulent times in Irish history.

The Boyle family is living on the breadline. Their home is a squalid tenement flat in an area of Dublin later condemned for slum clearance. Wife Juno (Niamh Cusack) is the only earner in the home, as workshy husband ‘Captain’ Jack (Des McAleer) prefers to drink the day away, daughter Mary (Maureen O'Connell) is on strike and son Johnny (Donal Gallery) endures post-traumatic stress disorder after losing his arm while fighting in the War of Independence.

When the family is thrown a bone in the shape of an unexpected windfall from a distant relative’s will, the Boyles go to town to revel in their new fortunes and finally enjoy the luxuries that life had previously denied them. For added good measure, the news is delivered by Mary’s impressive new beau – the well-to-do young teacher Mr Bentham. But while the family scrabbles to crawl up the class ladder… they quickly find that the snakes of bad fortune will send them back down again with more than their tails between their legs.

Juno And The Paycock encompasses class struggles, poverty, Irish history and the germ of what would later become The Troubles. With Cusack at the helm, director Bodinetz could hope for no finer actor to steer this production to a strong conclusion. While it would be grossly misleading to suggest that Juno And The Paycock will leave you with a warm glow, the touches of slapstick generated by Jack and his feckless sidekick Joxer provide enough hints of relief to soften some of the harder punches.

Juno And The Paycock is performed at Bristol Old Vic until September 27, 2014. Click here for more information and to book tickets. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

'Love, Nina' - by Nina Stibbe

It’s not often that you read a book which you desperately don’t want to end, but Love, Nina is one of them. 

Published a few months ago amid an enthusiastic flurry of glittering endorsements and rave reviews, the book failed to spark any interest in me until a friend sung the praises of Love, Nina on Facebook… and I gave in and ordered a copy.

Why was I reluctant? The book is a collection of letters that Nina Stibbe sent home to her sister Vic over several years during the early 1980s while Nina was nannying for a family in London. The book sounded so cutesy that it made me fear it would be a repeat of the horrible Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society episode from a few years back (a collection of - fictional? – letters that was so sickly sweet it made me want to pull all my teeth out in one go).

Anyway, I was wrong. Love, Nina is not twee, sickly or tooth-hurty. It is delightful, warm, funny and fascinating in equal measures. 

In 1982, Nina was the new, and ill-equipped, nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers (founder and editor of the London Review of Books) and her two sons Sam and Will (whose father is film director Stephen Frears). You’ll need to get to grips with the Guardian-esque name-dropping fairly soon because frequent characters around the Wilmers’ kitchen table include Alan Bennett, Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.

But while the insights into the notoriously secretive Alan Bennett’s culinary skills are fascinating, it is the simple exchanges between the eccentric and kindly Mary-Kay, Nina and the boys which is at the root of this book. The snapshots of conversation that Nina records in her letters are seemingly irrelevant (about emptying the dishwasher, or how to swear in German) but happen every day all around the country, yet are lost forever as most people don’t stop to notice the funny things we say without trying.

And that is where Love, Nina succeeds so well – at making the everyday things we do seem so silly.


I can only think of one other book I’ve read in recent years that has made me feel as warm as this one did and that’s Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis from 1955 (not read it? Oh, please do). Yet the book that kept popping into my head while reading Love, Nina was the 1931 novel The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson. Why? In Ferguson’s charming novel the three Carne sisters invent friendships with the Bronte siblings (as well as a very real local judge) to help them through their everyday problems… and then the real and imaginary worlds come to a head. It’s a truly wonderful book.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Wodwo - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo credit - Jack Offord
Bristol Old Vic’s subterranean Studio space has been overtaken by it’s Young Company and transformed into a peaty woodland kingdom. Less a paradise than a waking nightmare, this reinterpretation of Ted Hughes’ 1967 poem Wodwo breathes new life into the age-old angst of being afraid of the dark.

The poem for Hughes marked a departure in his signature style – moving away from formal constraints and into a more fluid exploration of mythology. Which makes it a fitting choice for the Young Company to develop Wodwo when they also break away from their previous, more traditional theatre style. And what better time to make a bold statement than on their twentieth anniversary?

Performed in the round, Wodwo sets the scene with a raised bed of soil as the stage floor, an overhanging canopy of litter as the forest roof, and neon light tubes planted in the forest floor. As always with the Old Vic, nothing is what is seems.

A girl is wandering the forest searching for her father, and on her journey she encounters all kinds of creatures – frogs, bees, wolves and many more that are less easy to identify! The malleable cast transform into these beings through an array of neon sports clothing, bright lights and well placed Adidas for ears as they crouch, creep and pounce through the scenery. The neon light tubes become essential props, most effectively to create a mini wind tunnel as the drama heightens to become a storm.

The plot itself is sometimes rather hard to follow, consisting of scant speech, many made up words and sounds and a lot of physical performance, but the effect is no less impressive for it. Coming in at a tight 50 minutes, Wodwo is a whirlwind of a show that explores issues surrounding loss, identity and approval, and is a brave and interesting departure for the Young Company.