Saturday, 23 December 2017

'Polly's March'

Continuing my mission to uncover and read as many fiction books about the UK suffrage campaign as possible, today I finished the children's book Polly's March by Linda Newbery. Which, fun fact, is part of a series of six books with two other authors where they all set their stories in the same London house but in different eras, giving a fascinating spin on history through the eyes of the girls who lived there (well, I imagine it does, I've only read this one!).

Linda's book is set in 1914, on the eve of World War One, and sees 13-year-old Polly pining for her friend Lily who has recently moved out of the flat upstairs, only to be replaced by two unusual ladies... who turn out to be suffragists called Violet and Edwina, much to the horror of Polly's prissy parents and the other family who live in the Chelsea Walk building. 

Through a chat in the garden with her new neighbours, and later visits up to their flat, Polly learns about the suffrage campaign and quickly understands just how important it is for women to have the vote if they are ever to achieve their ambitions (Polly wants to be an explorer, something women just didn't do in 1914 - well, some women did but not many). Militant suffragette Edwina is recovering from an imprisoned hunger strike, while her peaceful suffragist friend Violet opposes the violent strategies and prefers the calmer approach to campaigning. 

Polly's March is an inspired way of getting the suffrage message across to younger readers, and is very accessible. There's a lot of historical information in here without making it seem like a text book. Yes, I definitely recommend this one for younger readers (maybe for children of about 10 years). 

PS - Linda has another young adult book about the suffragettes as well, called Until We Win. I will report back once I've got a copy.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Bristol’s absence of female statues

Statue of Sabrina - 
History Workshop wrote about the lack of female statues recently. The author of the post, Bee Rowlatt, explained how every time she visits a new city she asks one question: is there a statue of a clothed woman who is not a queen? Similar to the Bechdell test for films, Bee is dubbing hers the Rowlatt test.

Bristol would fail the Rowlatt test miserably. Despite being the seventh largest city in the UK.

I have just finished writing The Women Who Built Bristol (published on 26 February 2018 by Tangent Books), which is a compendium of more than 250 women who helped to shape the city of Bristol. They encompass everyone from teachers to spies and factory workers to temperance campaigners. And one of them is a goddess.

I included Sabrina, Goddess of the Severn, in the book because - apart from the statue of Queen Victoria at the bottom of Park Street (Queen Victoria visited Bristol once, very briefly, so I’m not sure why she warrants a statue) - Sabrina is the only statue of a female form in the city. Unless you count the wooden monument to Wendy the elephant at Bristol Zoo. It’s all rather embarrassing. Especially since Sabrina is naked in her Bristol statue (created by Gerald Laing).

But here's a fun fact about Queen Victoria’s statue, which was unveiled in 1988 by her grandson Prince Albert Victor:  in January 2016 it experienced a feminist makeover by Fishponds-based street artist Vaj, who added legs and pubic hair. Unimpressed, Bristol City Council removed the additions within 24 hours. Spoilsports.

There are more than 250 Bristolian women featured in The Women Who Built Bristol. You would think some of them would warrant a statue in the city they helped to shape. Perhaps more so than some of the many men who are immortalised in bronze etc around the city.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

'The Little Matchgirl' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Steve Tanner
It's Christmas time, there's no need to be afraid... or is there? 

The annual Bristol Old Vic Christmas show is a date to be circled on the calendar in red, splattered with glitter and looked forward to for weeks. Bristol Old Vic knows how to do Christmas shows well. But they've taken a big risk with the 2017 production, directed by the exciting Emma Rice: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales.

Those familiar with Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Matchgirl will know it is one of - if not the most - tear-jerking of fairytales. Which of course prompts the And Other Happier Tales element of the sub-title. Those other tales being Thumbelina, The Emperor's New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea. Although I'm not sure 'happier' is the word I'd apply to these, especially Thumbelina, despite a truly magnificent performance from the mighty Katy Owen. 

Big issues are at play on the Bristol Old Vic stage this Christmas, and themes ranging from domestic abuse, forced marriage and emotional abuse sit alongside the equally cheery ones of extreme poverty, homelessness and soldiers scarred by warfare. Of course, it's right to acknowledge that for many people Christmas is not a happy and sparkly time, and that plenty of people don't even have a roof to spend Christmas under never mind a family to spend the time with. But is it appropriate to tackle these important issues in what is billed as a Christmas show for the family (the publicity recommends it is for ages eight and above, although Bristol Old Vic has a separate Christmas show for much younger children)?

It felt a little jarring to set the homeless and destitute Little Matchgirl off against singing and dancing beetles; to see Thumbelina trafficked by Mrs Fieldmouse into a life of slavery and domestic abuse and set this alongside the all-singing storytelling troupe The Shuteyes... and so on. It felt rather like two different productions going on alongside one another but that they didn't quite gel. Separately, they would have doubtless been two excellent shows.

The real highlight was The Emperor's New Clothes, where Niall Ashdown triumphed as the preposterous and bumptious Emperor, and the big reveal at the end was well worth the wait. Just magnificent. 

Photo: Steve Tanner
With the popular blend of puppetry and human performance, there are some excellent turns from the cast - notably Katy Owen and Niall Ashdown who are mentioned above, but also puppeteer Edie Edmundson. And the stage design and live music are, as always, excellent. 

Director Emma Rice defends the decision to put on a less jolly Christmas show by saying it offers us a window into other people's lives: "We want to think of others at Christmas, we want to share stories and take time to imagine the lives of others and maybe even consider what we can or might do to help." While I certainly don't disagree, I still wonder if a Christmas family show is the right place to do so. 

Regardless, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is, as you would expect from Bristol Old Vic and Emma Rice, an accomplished, satisfying and largely tight production. It is inventive, imaginative and, at times, laugh out loud funny. But given it's very closing scene, I wonder if it will leave audiences with the warm and fuzzy festive feeling they had hoped for... 

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 14. Click here for more information and to book tickets. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

'Guard Your Daughters'

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

The first of the autumn/winter Persephone books this year is the 1953 novel Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton, which is a return to the hot-water-bottle texts that Persephone became so well loved for. But it's not an entirely comfortable read. 

While in one sense, Guard Your Daughters is a gentle read where nothing spectacular happens, in another sense it is also a stifflingly claustrophobic text where the face-value peculiarities of the Harvey sisters are peeled away to reveal a deeply dysfunctional, isolated and unhappy family. 

Interestingly, instead of Persephone's usual habit for commissioning a foreword to introduce the book, in this instance they have instead offered at the end a very mixed bag of existing reviews for the book: some of which adore it, while others detest it with a passion that seems extraordinary for a mere novel. But of course, there is nothing 'mere' about a novel. 

Our protagonist Morgan Harvey is the middle sister in a secluded country family with five daughters. Their father is a talented and successful author, but their mother is an emotionally fragile and delicate character who is prone to hysteria, sobbing and wilting if she doesn't get her way or, worse, one of her daughters shows signs of independence. It is clear from the off that there is a deep secret lurking in the background of this family to explain Mrs Harvey's possessive behaviour, and it is the desire to uncover this oft-hinted secret that keeps the reader feverishly turning pages. 

It is strange that Guard Your Daughters is such a compulsive page-turner given that really nothing happens until the end. The body of the book consists of the sisters dreaming about meeting men, or attending a French lesson in a convent, or taking tea in the local cafe. But such is the reader's desperation to know what the family secret is that you rapidly keep turning the pages. I dreamt up such fanciful excuses for Mrs Harvey and such florid reasons for her extreme behaviour that I admit I felt a little let down by the real ending. But I won't give anything more away on that note.

All I will say is that while Guard Your Daughters is a strange but enjoyable little novel, I did find its attitude to mental health rather infuriating. Although I suspect this has a lot to do with the era in which it was written, and had Diana Tutton written the text now she may have approached things differently. 

It is lovely to see Persephone back publishing hot-water-bottle-esque books, and I hope there are many more in this mould to come. It's a long time since I read a book as heart-warming as their Miss Ranskill Comes Home, Miss Buncle's Book or any of the Dorothy Whipples (although I believe one of the spring/summer 2018 Persephones will be the final Whipple available to republish. What a treat!). 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

'Things A Bright Girl Can Do'

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Two Young Adult books about women's suffrage in as many weeks is just wonderful stuff. And hot on the heels of last week's enjoyment of Anna Carey's excellent The Making of Mollie comes Sally Nicholls' Things A Bright Girl Can Do, which steps things up a gear and moves us on a few years in terms of age range.

From the blurb:

"Evelyn is seventeen, and though she is rich and clever, she may never be allowed to follow her older brother to university. Enraged that she is expected to marry her childhood sweetheart rather than be educated, she joins the Suffragettes, and vows to pay the ultimate price for women's freedom.

"May is fifteen, and already sworn to the cause, though she and her fellow Suffragists refuse violence. When she meets Nell, a girl who's grown up in hardship, she sees a kindred spirit. Together and in love, the two girls start to dream of a world where all kinds of women have their place."

I loved everything about Sally's new book. Our three sheroes are all well-rounded, engaging and involved characters and involve none of the stereotypes that some previous suffrage novels have fallen into (and which I grumbled about in this post). Instead, Sally gives us raw and gritty depictions of the realities of suffrage campaigning on the eve of the war and into the war, leading to perspectives I've never previously seen in suffrage literature. 

For example, while Evelyn is arrested for her suffragette militancy, it is the depiction of hunger and particularly thirst strike that dominates the description of her prison stay. Indeed, the harrowing explanation of the damage that six days of thirst striking can do to the body was both compulsive and repulsive in its reading, and is not something I've seen in other suffrage novels which have instead favoured the more conventional graphic depiction of force feeding. 

Another good example is the peaceful campaigning of Quaker May and her mother. May's mother has refused to pay her taxes in common with many suffragettes and suffragists who wouldn't pay taxation without representation. But while popular history has us believing that suffrage campaigning ended the second war was declared, May and her mother show us how untrue this was. Through their characters we are also shown the bitterness that many campaigners felt at the volte-face shown by leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett in their support of the war. Instead, May's mother continues to refuse to pay her taxes well into the war... to the point that the bailiffs come round and not only take away all of their possessions, but also move in with the women for six weeks beforehand. Just startling. 

And to have teenage lesbian romance written about without fuss is also highly commended, as is Nell's insistence on wearing men's clothes because she prefers them even though she is jeered at and ridiculed for it. 

Things A Bright Girl Can Do is utterly wonderful, hopeful and inspiring. Please buy it, read it and share it. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

'The Making of Mollie' by Anna Carey

If there's one thing I am guaranteed to love, it is a novel about the suffrage era. Especially those novels aimed at younger readers, because I am passionate that children should be taught about this important and exciting part of our not-so-distant history. So I was delighted to come across Anna Carey's 2016 novel The Making of Mollie. (I'm no expert on guessing the appropriate age range for kids' books but, given our shero is 14, I'd suggest that's about the right age range for younger readers - although I'm nearly 40 and I also loved it). 

Dublin-based Anna is already a well-established children's author thanks to her popular Rebecca series, for which she has won at the Irish Book Awards. But Mollie is her first piece of historical fiction. You wouldn't know it, though. 

There are many reasons I loved reading Mollie but the absolute number one reason is that it doesn't follow the very well trodden path that so many other suffrage books have. So before I tell you what Mollie is, I will reassure you about what she is not. Mollie is not a working-class girl who meets a middle-class lady who educates her about suffrage; she does not suddenly make friends with Mrs Pankhurst (who was presumably less accessible than the novels suggest); and she does not go to prison and endure a graphic episode of force-feeding. Thank goodness.

Instead, here is what Mollie is. This is a really engaging book written in the form of letters from a schoolgirl to a friend, and our shero is instantly likeable and warm. The period in the book only spans a few months and arguably nothing hugely significant happens (as in, Mollie doesn't do outrageously militant acts, she doesn't get arrested, her parents don't disown her), but because of this it is so much more believable. 

You believe that Mollie and her friend Nora were real people, and that there were hundreds of young girls like them who did exactly the same sort of stunts to feel part of an adult movement. You believe that Mollie existed in Dublin and plucked up the courage to chalk pavements after school and sneak her way out of the house to attend impassioned meetings. You believe that Mollie is real. And that's what makes Mollie stand out from so much other suffrage fiction. Hurray.

I also loved that fact that this book is set in Dublin, and the focus is away from the Women's Social and Political Union and the Pankhurst family and instead is on the Irish Women's Franchise League and its leader Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (of whom I did not previously know). Anna has used several real-life Dublin suffrage events as anchors around which to pin her story and characters, and it works like a charm. The end result is I plan to go away and find out more about suffrage in Ireland (and surely that's a great result for any author, to inspire her readers to read more).

There is so much to praise about this book, so I urge you to buy a copy for the young teenagers in your life and also a copy for yourself. 

The best news of all is that, judging from Anna's recent tweets, it looks like it won't be too long before another Mollie book hits our shelves. And I, for one, cannot wait. Deeds not words.

Friday, 10 November 2017

'The Tin Drum' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Steve Tanner

Hurray! Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in town. Everyone loves Kneehigh - the experimental but accessible Cornish company that prides itself on breathing new life into forgotten fairy tales. And now here they are with a re-telling of the 1959 Günter Grass post-war tale The Tin Drum, directed by Kneehigh artistic director Mike Shepherd. Grass’ original book received the Nobel Prize for Literature, such was its impact and its reflection of World War Two.

When Oskar turns three, he decides life would be better if he never grew up so he resolves to remain a child forever by taking drastic action. Fueled by his anger, his angelic singing voice and his indestructible tin drum, Oskar steels himself to face the world from perpetual infancy. But plans don’t always work out how you want them to, and Oskar hasn’t accounted for the Black Witch and her hold on his world.

What follows is a story about love and war, written by Carl Grose from Grass’s original text, and with a musical score composed by Charles Hazlewood; another two Kneehigh stalwarts. I feel special mention must be given to Hazlewood’s score here, which is truly extraordinary. It has strong echoes of early, raw, electro, Travelogue-era Human League throughout, and is extremely successful in conveying the growing, claustrophobia and panic that consumes a community being enveloped by war and hatred.

But how do we know we can trust Oskar as a narrator? He is a peculiarly self-aware foetus at one stage, and later an angry, precocious and bitter toddler, resentful in the most childish of ways. But he has insight and wisdom. And despite being a mere puppet (and I’ll be honest, when I saw there was a puppet in the cast I really sighed as I do feel puppets have been done to death in contemporary theatre lately), his hollow, dark-eyed face manages to convey a range of emotions depending on which angle the light catches him.

However, the stars of this Kneehigh production of The Tin Drum are undoubtedly Hazlewood’s compelling and effective score and the actor Patrycja Kujawska, who has been with the company for almost 10 years and is always an utter joy to watch.

The Tin Drum is a very special and important show, and has stripped a complex novel down to its bare bones. The audience is left with no doubt that although Grass’ novel was about World War Two, the Kneehigh production is equally a statement about the current state we find ourselves in a terrifying new world.

The Tin Drum is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 18 November, when it continues its tour to Cornwall and then Shoreditch. Click here for more info.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

"The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities"

The latest book to land on my shelf from the mind of wordsmith Paul Anthony Jones is The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities. Jones tweets as @HaggardHawks, specialising in archaic and bizarre words that are all real but have somehow largely slipped through the net of daily use. Well, no more! Not with Jones keeping an eye out for them.

Inside The Cabinet, Jones has sourced a word for every day of the year, meaning that this literally is the book that keeps on giving. He's even gone so far as to find a reason (however tenuous) as to why each particular word has been assigned to the day he's chosen. Jones says he hopes to give you a "daily shot of vocabulary", which is an intense way of saying he's determined to bring us all up to his speed when it comes to Scrabble. (On which note, I would imagine playing Jones at Scrabble is ill-advised.)

Since today is October 24, I give you (well, Jones gives you) HARDIMENT:

October 24

courageousness, audacity; a daring exploit or stunt

Before it came to mean ‘resilient’ or ‘robust’, hardy meant ‘courageous’, and it’s from this original meaning that the word hardiment developed in the early fifteenth century. Originally simply another word for boldness or bravery, by the early 1500s hardiment had come to be used more specifically of a singular act of courage, audacity or heroism, and ultimately a daring stunt or exploit. And as daring exploits go, the one that took place today is up there with the most extraordinary – not least because of the somewhat unlikely character who performed it.

On 24 October 1901, the first person in history went over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. That person was sixty-three-year-old music teacher Annie Edson Taylor. Hoping the stunt would bring her fame and fortune, Taylor had an elongated oak and iron barrel especially constructed for her stunt that was lined with mattresses and fitted with a short breathing tube and safety straps to keep her in place. After she had clambered inside, the barrel was sealed, the pressure inside compressed using a bicycle pump and the hole plugged with a cork. It was then set adrift and bobbed its way down the Niagara River and over the Canadian side of the famous Horseshoe Falls. Twenty minutes later, the barrel was pulled from the waters by a rescue boat and Taylor was found alive and uninjured except for a small cut on her head. The stunt earned her the nickname ‘Queen of the Mist’ – but alas, not the fame and fortune she desired. She died in poverty in 1921.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Rita, Sue & Bob, Too' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Richard Davenport

What has the potential of being a murky, seedy, gloomy piece of class tourism is far from it. The Out of Joint Theatre Company revival of the classic 1982 play Rita, Sue and Bob, Too by Andrea Dunbar is as much a commentary on youth and optimism in 2017 as it is a statement about early '80s Thatcherite dissatisfaction and rising unemployment for the disenfranchised.

With Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson assuming the roles of sassy 15-year-olds Rita and Sue, the play is already in good hands. These are two capable and assured actors who are more than at home playing the self-assured sheroes of the title. And while Hollyoaks' James Atherton has the, perhaps, unenviable task of playing the potentially unlikeable Bob, James somehow manages to makes us feel just a tad sorry for this discontented young man who is stuck in a loveless marriage and angry dissatisfaction with his lot. 

Whether you've seen a previous version of this play or you've seen the seminal 1987 film directed by Alan Clarke, there's a strong chance you know the plot. But just in case you don't... Bradford schoolgirls Rita and Sue are seduced by the father of the children they babysit. And when I say 'seduce', I use the word loosely. While driving them home, Bob stops by the moors and asks the girls if they fancy a "jump", and they do. What follows is 10 minutes of delightfully uncomfortable stage sex while the three cast members have sex while squashed into the front of a makeshift car. This is the least sexy sex scene you will ever see, but it is a triumph of deadpan acting and bored one liners. 

On paper, we should hate Bob. This is a 27-year-old married man with two young children who repeatedly seduces two underage girls. He's cheating on his wife (who angrily knows he's having it off with someone but can't work out who), he's breaking up the family home for his two children, he's knowingly committing rape by having sex with two minors... But Bob is such a pathetic character. He steadfastly refuses to believe he has done anything wrong. He certainly doesn't think he warrants the mouthful of abuse Sue's father (David Walker) delivers him. Poor old, Bob... (I say this with my tongue in my cheek).

But the reason why Rita, Sue and Bob, Too works is that to all intents and purposes it is Rita and Sue who are in control. While young, they're far from innocent. They may tell Bob they're virgins, but they're not. They have no belief initially that Bob will leave his wife Michelle (Samantha Robinson) for either of them. They're just bored. They're on the cusp of leaving school knowing there are no jobs for them once they finish their unpaid Youth Training Schemes in a boring factory. They're living life while they can. They're just having fun.

The loyalty of the two young women to each other is impressive, and this is the true core of Andrea Dunbar's play. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered that they are sharing the same man. Neither Rita nor Sue is bothered when they find out that Bob has been meeting them both secretly for sex without the other one. Rita and Sue live very much in the moment... until Rita becomes pregnant. At which point, true to her loyalty to her best friend, Sue becomes righteous with indignation at the suggestion that she will carry on having sex with Bob, because now he's having a baby with Rita there are boundaries to respect. Wow!

Much has rightly been written about Andrea Dunbar's extraordinary rise as a playwright, as well as her tragically short life. Much of what Andrea wrote was, at least partly, autobiographical, and she grew up on the kind of estates that Rita and Sue did. Doubtless she knew a Rita and a Sue. And it's this distance from the private school upbringing, the university education, the well-off parents of the majority of writers that means Andrea actually knows what she's talking about. She was a writer who actually understood what it was like to be a woman. 

Respect to Out of Joint Theatre for this production, and bravo for an excellent choice of casting. Rita, Sue and Bob, Too is only on at Bristol Old Vic until October 7, but the play continues to tour the UK until February 2018. Click here for more information.

Photo: Richard Davenport

Friday, 15 September 2017

'The Caretaker' at Bristol Old Vic

We are so accustomed to our multi-screen, sensory overload, short attention lifestyles that to see a three-hour, three-handed, dialogue-heavy classic play such as The Caretaker comes as a welcome jolt into concentration. Harold Pinter’s 1960 play is a fascinating study of power: who has it, who deserves it, who wants it.

Homeless older man Davies (Patrice Naiambana) is offered a place to rest by kindly Aston (Jonathan Livingstone) who lives in a rather squalid bedsit, which is where the entire play takes place. In Oliver Townsend’s set, the stage is decorated with salvaged random objects (ladders, sinks, broken cookers, shoes…) in an orderly reconstruction of the Steptoe & Son set. As time moves on, we are joined by the unsettling character of Mick (David Judge), who is Aston’s younger brother and the landlord of the house where the bedsit is. As The Caretaker progresses, the three men move up and down a metaphorical snakes and ladders to determine who has authority, who has power and who can determine the future of the others.

All three cast members are outstanding, offering something very different to the production. With his excuses, his precise mannerisms and his desperation for certainty, Davies is the character most on the edge of the precipice. But Aston, who initially seems quiet and mild, reveals his behaviours to be a result of barbaric electroshock therapy he endured in his youth, from which he has never fully recovered. While cunning, manipulative Mick appears to have no goals or loyalties other than fun and games: but if he was really the successful landlord he presents himself to be, why does he has the time to provoke and agitate Davies?

In this new production at Bristol Old Vic, directed by Christopher Haydon, the three cast members of The Caretaker are all played by black men, which puts an interesting spin on some of Davies’ more opinionated and racist comments, such as complaining about the “blacks” next door and worrying they might use the same shared toilet as him. However, in the play’s programme, director Haydon insists that he did not consciously set out for an all black cast.

It would be interesting to consider what an all-female cast of The Caretaker would be like (and given Bristol Old Vic’s recent all-female cast of Medea, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility). The Caretaker is a very domestic play: the three characters are much like a father with his sons; it obviously has a domestic setting; and it concerns blatant issues of the home. The effect of an all-female cast on this would be extraordinary - the dynamics and intentions would change entirely because of perceived notions and stereotypes about gender roles. It would be fascinating.

The Caretaker is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 30 September 2017. For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

'Effi Briest' by Theodor Fontane

Oh, I’ve worked hard to like this book. All the initial signs were good: female protagonist, cold-hearted man, turn of the last century novel, Persephone reprint. But it took me a month to plough through it… and when a novel takes you four weeks to read but is only 320 pages long, well it’s not a sign of enjoyment.

But boy, I tried. I wanted to enjoy this book and it seemed so promising.

Effi Briest, 16, is a young girl from a privileged German family and she is full of romantic, naive ideas. Then this older guy comes along, Innstetten. He is 20 years older than her and was weirdly obsessed with her mother when they were teenagers, except Effi’s mother married someone else. Never having quite got over this rejection, Innstetten marries his sweetheart’s teenage daughter Effi instead. Which struck me as deeply unpleasant on two counts: less the age gap but more the emotional differences between a 16 year old and a 36 year old; and the fact this older guy was so hung up on a woman he married her daughter as second best. Move on, dude. Stop fixating.

It’s clear from day one that this marriage isn’t going to go well, and of course it doesn’t. Innstetten whisks his child bride off to a small village far away from her home and family and installs her in his gloomy home that is supposedly haunted. Once the honeymoon is over, Innstetten goes back to his work and leaves his lonely, frightened teenage wife to take care of the home: something she has no experience of. And of course, it’s not long before she has a baby… although this baby features bizarrely infrequently, which is also odd. It’s not a spoiler to say that lonely Effi ends up having an affair and being hauled over the coals by her cold, unfeeling husband who feels let down by her. Yes, HE feels let down by HER. Huh! (Men make me so angry sometimes, with their entitlement and false superiority. Urgh.)

The absolute problem with Effi Briest, the reason I found it so wholeheartedly unconvincing and un-engaging, is that its male author Theodor Fontane was 75 years old when he wrote it. How on earth is a 75-year-old man supposed to get inside the head of a 16-year-old girl? This explains the clunky dialogue, the lack of emotional insight from Effi’s perspective, the lack of understanding of how a teenager would react or feel when married to a much older man… It’s an utterly preposterous notion for a book. And more male arrogance, that a man that age would deign to think he could possibly understand a 16-year-old girl.

Yet Effi Briest the book is lauded and admired. It has received glowing reviews in its long history (it was initially published in 1896), is apparently still widely taught in German schools and has been turned into several films. Perhaps as a film, without the clunky dialogue, loss in translation and with a script rewritten by someone who is in tune with how a young girl would actually think, the story works better. But I found the book turgid and soulless to say the least.

I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. I want to like everything that Persephone publishes.

As an aside, I also feel sad that Persephone is reprinting a book by a man. I mean, it’s not up to me and they can do what they want. But Persephone is one of those publishing houses that its readers and fans feel like they own a little, and to me the USP of Persephone is that is republishes lovely, forgotten books by WOMEN authors. And men have hardly had a rum deal in the publishing - or anything else - stakes to date, it's not like we need a publishing house specialising in republishing books by forgotten MALE authors. So although I know they’ve had a small handful of men in their 122 strong back catalogue, I automatically start reading the men Persephones with a sense of ‘You’ve got to really work hard to prove yourself to me here, buddy.’ Sorry. Sorry...

Friday, 12 May 2017

'Medea' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Jack Offord

“What mortal man is not guilty?”

An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, this modern re-telling of Medea is written by Chino Odimba for the Bristol Old Vic in yet another innovative and exciting production from this fabulous theatre.

In the classic Greek play, Medea is abandoned by her husband Jason (of ‘And The Argonauts’ fame) for another woman, and then threatened with exile from her homeland by his father. And to avenge Jason, she calmly kills their children in an effort to take control of her own destiny.

So buckle up, folks, this is going to be a bumpy ride.

In this new version, Odimba weaves Euripides' ancient world with a contemporary story of a single mother Maddy who faces losing her children and home following 11 years of marriage after her husband Jack takes up with another woman.
Performed by an all-female cast and using the tribal power of song while led by director George Mann, this production asserts Medea as a powerful female character who fought against the injustice of the patriarchy at all costs.
The strength of an all-female cast is undeniable; there is something very powerful about seeing a group of women working together for the same purpose. And the six cast members deftly flit between the contemporary and classic story, largely playing their character’s counterpart in each version.

Akiya Henry as Medea/Maddy is truly stunning, and demonstrates her mind-blowing versatility as an actor, while Jessica Temple who plays Medea/Maddy’s confidant Naomi is equally impressive - and her singing talent really makes you sit up and listen. Akiya has excellent comic timing - a skill you wouldn’t necessarily think was required in a play this intense and harrowing. But while singing her plea to Jason's father, she is genuinely hilarious in her tone of voice and knowing facial expressions to the audience. Bravo, Akiya, bravo.

While the story of Medea - the ultimate scorned woman - is millennia old, the story of a woman mistreated by a selfish man who wields all the power is as relevant now as it was in 431 BC. Which is utterly depressing. When the original Medea is overlooked by Jason for a newer model, she no longer has any claim to live in even the same land as him because he has all the power. When contemporary Maddy is abandoned by her husband Jack (who stops paying the mortgage on the house which is only in his name), she is evicted and made homeless with her children. These stories are as relevant today as ever they were.

Photos: Jack Offord
The character of Jack (Stephanie Levi-John) is very interesting. In two separate speeches he illustrates the hatred, disgust and disregard that certain men show for women, once they no longer serve a purpose. Jack’s repulsion of Maddy, and apparently women in general, is grotesque and fascinating. He is a vocal version of the hate spewed at women every day by faceless cowards online. Jack thinks women are the cause of all the misery and suffering in the world, with their only purpose being to breed children.  

The lack of loyalty that the men show towards the women in their lives is staggering, considering the loyalty Medea and Maddy showed Jason and Jack. And the disregard that Jason and Jack show for the work of motherhood and homemaking is extremely unpleasant; they see Medea and Maddy as having enjoyed easy lives while their husbands have toiled and sweated. Compare this to the loyalty and compassion shown by the women in this play towards other women and it’s not hard to join up the dots and see what’s going on here.

But it is the unity of women that shines through. The support networks, the sisterhood, the strength to hold each other up while men try to knock us down. On the cusp of a general election, at a time when the government is doing its best to marginalise women and push us into a domesticated box, while the cuts continue to disproportionately ravage services that prioritise women who have been mistreated by men… Jesus! We need a play like Medea more than ever.

The privilege of men makes them blind to their monstrous behaviour. And so even though Medea herself behaves, err, somewhat irrationally, by the close of the play when we see her standing firm, halfway up a white staircase that extends and unfolds all the way into the skies of the Bristol Old Vic’s stage, it is clear which is the dominant gender.

Please go to see it.

For more information and to buy tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

La Strada - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo - Robert Day 

"If you spend long enough on the road, you forget what home is", or so says Zampanò in this new production of La Strada.


I mean, really, what’s not to like? Directed by Sally Cookson? Check. New musical score by Benji Bower? Check. Starring Audrey Brisson? Check. Yep, everything is in place to make Bristol Old Vic’s latest production La Strada a hit.

Based on the 1954 Federico Fellini film of the same name, La Strada (aka The Road) is set in Italy in the years after World War Two and follows a young woman called Gelsomina (Brisson) whose mother sells her to a cruel and intimidating strongman street performer named Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin). Given that Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa on the road and that Rosa had perished within a year, her mother was utterly desperate or she would not have allowed her to go.

Zampanò takes Gelsomina on the eponymous road and by brute force teaches her to work in the carnivals, but his cruelty takes its toll on her spirit. When they hole up in a circus and Gelsomina befriends another street performer, the kindly but mischievous Fool (Bart Soroczynski), the tale unwinds.

It is hard to imagine anyone more perfectly cast as the innocent Gelsomina than Brisson. In a beautiful homage to the emotional yet slapstick performances of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Brisson manages to convey the willing enthusiasm and big heart of Gelsomina, combined with a feisty determination to keep true her promise to her mother and to ultimately do the right thing. In many ways, Gelsomina is Chaplin's Little Tramp in female form. Despite being on stage for virtually every scene, Gelsomina has remarkably few lines compared to the overbearing Zampanò, yet she steals every moment with the expressions she conveys via her facial gestures and body language.

In addition, Bower’s musical score performed by the cast of actor musicians perfectly supports the narrative without being intrusive, and without realising it the audience are tapping their toes in the stalls… and still humming a few bars as they leave the theatre.

Sally Cookson as a director is a good choice for this production of La Strada. Via Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Sleeping Beauty, she has already shown us her flair for imaginative productions with strong female leads - something theatre generally needs a hell of a lot more of. And in her hands, the theatrical version of La Strada is a tour de force.

Photo - Robert Day
La Strada is on at Bristol Old Vic until 22 April 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Long Live The Great Pottery Throwdown

Farewell to The Great Pottery Throwdown for another series. While millions wax lyrical about The Great British Bake Off and are angsting about its move to Channel 4, I’m much more excited about its younger BBC2 cousin The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Despite having no particular interest in pottery and absolutely no desire to get my hands dirty myself, I bloody love this show. Presented by the joyful Sara Cox, and judged by pottery giants (or so I’ve learned) Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, The Great Pottery Throwdown is the televisual equivalent of putting on your comfiest PJs and curling up to spend an hour reading a Persephone book under a fluffy blanket.

Each week, the contestants are tasked with one mammoth make (anything from an entire dinner service to a, err, toilet) that takes days, as well as two surprise tasks: a spot-test (where they are judged on skills including sponge decorating or sculpting the torso of a finely toned man), and an against-the-clock quick-fire task with a special judge (Johnny Vegas turned up one week with his one-minute teapots, which was a delight).

You know the formula, you’ve seen it in a load of similar shows (sewing, painting, baking, cooking…). And it’s easy to see why it’s so popular - with a bubbly host, passionate judges, and contestants we come to care about, it’s a gentle escape from the tedium of everyday life. We watch people who are, to all intents and purposes, just like us, but doing impressive things that we dream we might be able to do with a bit of effort (there is nothing stopping any of us from throwing a pot, if only we’d get off our sofas and attend a pottery class) but we can relax safe in the knowledge we know it’s unlikely to happen.

But the reason I watch The Great Pottery Showdown over any of its sibling shows (full disclaimer - I find Bake Off extremely dull: I know I’m in the minority but I find watching cakes bake as dull as watching paint dry) is the personalities. I love Sara Cox. I love her Radio 2 ‘80s show, I love it when she fills in for Chris Evans on the breakfast show… she’s fab. So I watched the first series of The Great Pottery Showdown simply because of Sara. And I watched it all in one go one day when I was off work ill - it was perfect, and compelling, and I was devastated when it ended. I genuinely felt like I was left with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, despite the essentially gentle nature of the show.

It’s a drama in itself. Will the pots crack in the kiln? Will Keith cry? How many times will Ryan mention his granny? Will Coit ever get anything into the drying room on time? Who will go at the end of the episode? The tension!

And I disagreed with the judges. (I’m assuming you’ve seen the final, if not, look away as I’m mentioning the winner in a moment). While I had Ryan pegged as the winner from the first episode, I also had Clover and Richard down to leave in early weeks. I had Nam down as a finalist (and I think he would have been, if he hadn’t ballsed up his Russian dolls), and Freya deserved to go through as well. But what do I know? I’m a humble viewer. Not a master potter like Kate and Keith.

So long live The Great Pottery Throwdown. Please return for a second, third, fourth and more series. Please put Sara Cox in front of our TV cameras all the time - the world needs more joy and she delivers it in spades. And I’m glad that the right potter won last week.