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.