Tuesday, 3 December 2019

'How to Save the World for Free' - Natalie Fee

If you're undecided about what to buy the eco-warrior in your life for Christmas, then this just might be the answer. Natalie Fee, the Bristol-based campaigner who set up City to Sea to reduce plastic pollutants (among her other achievements), has written a book full of everyday switches you can make to reduce your Earth-shattering footprint in everything you do.

This is a nice-looking product as well, and one would presume it is plastic-free! With it's uncoated hardboard cover and saddle-stitch binding, there's not a hint of glue or bleach about this book. But you would expect nothing less from Natalie. Especially given the fact she de-plastics your life from bedroom to gym throughout this tome.

Written in an accessible, chatty tone, Natalie isn't overly preachy but uses lots of recent research to back up her points (slightly annoyingly, none of the endnotes lead you anywhere as you have to log on to a website to access the citations used, which is a bit of a faff, but it's a minor grumble). 

A lot of the ideas in here you will already be familiar with or already doing (such as switching to plastic free packaging, ditching the car for shorter journeys, turning off taps, refilling your water bottle etc), but there are still plenty of suggestions you may not have considered. For instance, I had never really thought about the environmental impact of all these potentially carcinogenic WiFi signals clogging up the environment, and how often do we really remember to turn off absolutely all our electrical things (except the fridge, obviously) at the wall at night? I'm sure I'm guilty of a lot of the little things highlighted in this book but have been given a lot of pointers to make sure I do things better in the future. 

It's unlikely that anyone will do every single thing suggested in this eye-catching book, but even if you only adopt a handful of them, or mention a few of them to your friends, then you will already be making a big positive change for the planet. 

Published by Laurence King, you can find out more or order direct from the publisher here with free postage. After all, you wouldn't possibly consider ordering unethically from Amaz*n... would you?!

Sunday, 1 December 2019

'Expiation' - Elizabeth Von Arnim

Oh, how delicious Expiation is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Elizabeth Von Arnim's unlikely shero Milly Bott manages to tuck into second and third helpings without needing to go anywhere near a hot plate. 

In its prime, Persephone Books, that wonderful publisher of long-lost women's fiction, issued years and years of book after book of fantastically readable, unputdownable literature by writers you often had not previously heard of but would go on to seek out in every second-hand bookshop you passed. There followed a few years of slightly tougher tomes, but I'm delighted to say that in the past year or two, almost every single Persephone Book I've read has been a treat. None more so than this delight from Elizabeth Von Arnim. 

Elizabeth Von Arnim isn't a writer I had come across before, although she has written around 20 books (of which Expiation was the one of the few not still in print) and experienced a colourful romantic life that clearly influenced her writing. 

Because in this novel, our protagonist Milly Bott is introduced to us on the day she buries her husband, Ernest, who has been killed suddenly in a road accident. But (and this isn't giving anything away because the reader finds this out in the first few pages), wealthy Ernest has written her out of his will on account of finding out that for ten years she has been having an affair with an academic named Arthur. 

Surrounding Milly's disinheritance is the wider Bott family - who see themselves as the leading lights in the fictional London suburb of Titford. The small-minded Botts are terrified that the neighbours and servants will gossip and that they will lose their social standing. They are aghast at what to do about Milly, who has been left penniless and homeless, so that they are simultaneously least inconvenienced by her and least tainted by her sins.

In this claustrophobic but sprawling social satire, we follow closely behind Milly's shoulder in the few days following Ernest's funeral. We see her escape the Botts, reunite with her long-long sister and meet again with Arthur... and through it all we quickly see we are following the one, calm, steady influence in the book, the one who remains un-rocked by the constant disturbance that is whipped up in her wake. 

The Bott brothers and their wives are hideous people, painted as caricatures who deserve everything that they bring on themselves. The outsiders (solicitors, siblings, boarding house keepers) are painted as ridiculous, pseudo-Dickensian tropes who are fresh from the boards of your local pantomime. And all the while, grieving Milly quietly goes along trying to do the right thing and atone for her indiscretion - as the novel's title suggests. 

To my mind, the absolute star of Expiation is the very elderly Bott matriarch who, encased under shawls in her bed, sees her sons and daughters-in-law for what they really are, and has the authority to send them all away when she's had enough. Bravo, Mrs Bott. 

Expiation is a thoroughly enjoyable study into the social mores of the late 1920s. It's a delightful look at the small-minded Brits who live in fear of the servants finding out who they really are (the detailed description of Mabel Bott's terror of her preposterously named butler, Mr Butler, is an absolute hoot). It's the sort of novel that hooks you in from the very first page and keeps you turning until, 362 pages later, you have breathlessly reached the end and barely paused to think. 

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Women’s Weird. Strange Stories by Women

Published on October 31 (maybe to coincide with the spooky events of Halloween, maybe to coincide with the unfolding horror story of Brexit, who knows?), this magical collection of 13 strange short stories by women is the perfect tonic for today's trying times. 

Weird stories are a late Victorian sub-genre of the supernatural type, addressing the era's fascination with the unknown: ghosts, fortune telling, the alien, the unseen. Factors that were also explored in the popular entertainments of the time including spirit photography, fairies and so on.

Published by Bath-based Handheld Press and edited by Melissa Edmundson, the baker's dozen of stories in Women's Weird all date from 1890 to 1940, and include authors as diverse as Edith Nesbit (better known for writing The Railway Children than the 1910 ghost story The Shadow), Edith Wharton (famed for her novels and plays about the aristocracy, less well known as the writer of 1919's Kerfol, about a cruel husband and some ghostly dogs), and modernist writer May Sinclair whose 1922 short story Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched is a truly ghastly tale of a doomed love story that promises to never, ever end. Sheer hell.

That Edmundson has focused only on women writers is important because, as she explains in her introduction, "women have long been associated with having special power and intuitive connections with the natural and supernatural worlds". And to contemporary readers, who are attuned to jump-laden horror films and gore-infused cinema experiences, there is something extra chilling about this return to the written word. The writers of these 13 historic stories turn to topics that are just as familiar to us today (including domestic abuse, grief and gender inequalities - the latter of which is well illustrated by the fact so many of these stories adopt a male protagonist), but they write with clarity, crispness of tone and an understanding that in a spooky short story there is absolutely no room for any unnecessary words that a novel may get away with.

If I had to pick a favourite from this collection, I would opt for 1947's The Haunted Saucepan by self-professed ghost-hunter Margery Lawrence, which - if any excuse was needed needed - provides the reader with the perfect ammunition to never attempt to cook anything ever again. 

Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Second Book of Persephone Short Stories

Short stories seem to be very Marmite - some people love them, some hate them. Me? I’m growing to love them in recent months. I used to struggle with short stories because by the time I’d got to grips with the characters and their story, it was done and dusted and then I needed to start all over again with an entirely new set of people and places… In this age of increasingly short attention spans, ironically the short story is hard to accommodate. But lately, short stories have found their place in my life. 

I’ve had a copy of The Second Book of Persephone Short Stories for several months and have been taking it away with me when travelling. It turns out short stories are the perfect reading material when away and your attention span is limited by new surroundings, keeping an eye on travel connections and staying in hotel rooms where, let’s face it, everything is unfamiliar anyway. The very thing I claimed not to like about short stories.

Except with Persephone’s short stories, by and large they are not unfamiliar, because the authors are mostly a handpicked selection of 30 of this independent publisher’s favourite women writers, many of whom I already know from their other works. So it’s lovely and familiar. Hurray.

So we have two short stories from the wonderful Dorothy Whipple to delight us and there is nothing more delightful than a Dorothy Whipple - that most underrated and ascerbic of observers. In ‘After Tea’, a stay-at-home adult remonstrates against her awful parents to satisfying effect, and in ‘Sunday Morning’ we meet a husband struggling to control his new wife’s enthusiasm for spending. But of course, neither story is as simple as it seems on the surface. That is the magic of a Whipple.

War inevitably has a strong focus in many of the stories, and the writers come from a range of nationalities. The four pages of ‘Safety Zone’ by Dorothy van Doren are so heartbreaking I read them twice, showing up the fear and insecurity caused by the pointless persecution of another simply for their faith. While ‘The Prisoner’ by Elizabeth Berridge again shows the humanity between the British and the Germans as individuals during the awful conflict.

And while most stories of course favour a female protagonist, the ones that spotlight a man are also very curious. Especially ‘Monsieur Rose’ by Irene Nemirovsky, about a self-centered bore who hides his valuables and relocates his home to avoid the Blitz, breaks the heart of the one girl who cares for him because he is too selfish to share his life, but who suddenly experiences a moment of lightness in the darkest place possible.

My method of choosing which story to read was as simple as flicking through and picking a page at random, then reading whichever story started closest to where I’d opened the book. It seemed as good a method as any. I recently revisited my 2012 review of the first Persephone Book of Short Stories and was reminded what a cracking collection is in there, too, which makes me think it’s worth taking the first volume out with me on my next travels. Both volumes are filled with a mixture of tales but the one thing they all have in common is the unifying strength of the women within them.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

Last Christmas, when Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris announced they had a production of Pride & Prejudice coming up in the autumn schedule, I was starting to glaze over before he said, “No, hang on… it’s something else.” And my word, Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) really is something else. 

While the bare bones of Jane Austen’s famous 1813 story of love and social climbing is still there, it’s merely the scaffolding that holds together this joyous, hilarious and heart-bursting all-female production written by the very talented Isobel McArthur (who also plays Mrs Bennett and Mr Darcy). 

Soundtracked by karaoke renditions of pop gems (everything from Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello to I Think I Love You by Voice of the Beehive, with a wonderfully appropriate rendition of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain in the middle), and decorated with glitter balls, disco lights, laundry baskets and a Vienetta, I truly can’t think of one thing to fault Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) on. Not one. And I love to criticise things.

There is so much attention to detail here. The six female cast members each take on a range of characters from Austen’s classic story, and the ease with which they slip between chartacters is seamless. They are supported in their endeavours by an armchair adequately playing the useless Mr Bennett and a life-size plastic horse on wheels. Amazing. 

I especially enjoyed Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s double performance as the buffoon Mr Bingley and his scheming sister Caroline, who becomes so monstrous that she’s an absolute joy to watch. While Christina Gordon is exemplary as both mild-mannered Jane Bennett and the gargoyle-ish Lady (in red) Catherine de Bourgh: mother of Mr Darcy and, of course, Chris de Burgh. 

Meghan Tyler is clearly having a hoot as wild-eyed Elizabeth Bennett, singing and stomping her way through unwanted proposals, while poor sister Mary (Tori Burgess) gets the sharp end of the stick as the overlooked and underrated one. And don’t forget Felixe Forde, who shines as the contemptuous Mr Wickham, intent on ruining the reputation of young girls everywhere until Mr Darcy puts him in his place. 

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is so, so, so much fun. Honestly, please go to see it. I have seen so many Pride & Prejudice productions (and read the book) over the years - including the faithful BBC adaptation with Colin Firth, the Bridget Jones films with Colin Firth and the always joyous Austentatious improv shows (without Colin Firth), but Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) puts a brand new spin on the story, whirls it into the 21st Century and I can’t wait to see it again. 

Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 28 September. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Malory Towers

After the unprecedented success of the wonderful Wise Children, director Emma Rice’s theatre company of the same name was always going to have a tricky task with its follow up production, Malory Towers.

For the summer, the temporarily converted Passenger Shed by Bristol Temple Meads is home to this new production, while other shows continue at the King Street theatre as usual. Complete with a pop-up bookshop run by the delightful Storysmith, a fully stocked bar in the makeshift lobby and the erection of raked seating in the centre, the Passenger Shed is a truly versatile space. If a rather hot one… the recent heatwave has turned the venue into a massive oven, so you’d be advised to take a fan with you and a big bottle of water.

Enid Blyton’s much-loved school series Malory Towers is set in an all-girls boarding school in Cornwall, just after the end of the Second World War. Our plucky heroines are all dressed in boaters, blazers and tunics (in this heat!) as they board the train from Paddington, ready to embark on their new school adventure and all the hi-jinks that will entail. Stepping out of the pages of the books, our heroes are hot-headed Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle), sensible Sally (Francesca Mills in one of the stand-out performances in the show), class clown Alicia (Renee Lamb), nervous Mary Lou (Rose Shalloo), musical Irene (Mirabelle Gremaud), horse-mad Bill (Vinnie Heaven) and spoilt brat Gwendoline (Rebecca Collingwood).

The plot of Malory Towers, which is advised for ages eight and upwards, is the simple one of a new class of schoolgirls arriving at boarding school, struggling with bullying and cliques, and putting on a ramshackle end-of-term production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (presumably a dig from Rice at her former employers at the Globe Theatre). The anti-bullying/just-be-kind message feels rather rammed home, and the easy forgiveness the girls show to cruel Gwendoline is extraordinary - given just how wicked and nasty she has been. While the extremely diverse choice of the seven cast members (given the production is set in a 1940s English boarding school) is very self-aware and would have worked better if the production had been moved to a more contemporary period: there was no reason to keep this version of Malory Towers as a post-war production other than nostalgia.

The seven young performers make up the entire cast, although the ever-wonderful Sheila Hancock voices their teacher Mrs Grayling (seen only in animation) and Kneehigh Theatre Company’s Mike Shepherd is the voice of the train announcer. However, the absence of any adults as either teachers or parents in a school setting is very noticeable. The occasional animated shadow of Mrs Grayling (as delightful as it is to hear Hancock) feels awkward, a bit like the heard-but-not-seen ineffectual figure of Nanny in Muppet Babies  - the headmistress displays no sense of rule or control over her students, never telling them off when they misbehave, never instructing them in a classroom, and never coming into their dormitory to tell them to just shut up and go to sleep! Having had an all-girls boarding school education myself, I recall the fear of knowing an adult was always just around the corner, waiting to march in and tell us off.

However, as always with an Emma Rice production, the music is exquisite throughout. And with the talented Ian Ross (who Kneeigh audiences will know and love well) as Director of Music, the score is in good hands. 

I wanted to enjoy Malory Towers a little more than I did, especially based on the many strengths of Wise Children and Rice’s well-deserved reputation. But it felt like a show with too many unsubtle messages to deliver and not enough space to explore anything in any depth. That said, it was of course lots of fun, with a strong cast, excellent music and you certainly won’t leave the Passenger Shed feeling like you made the wrong choice to attend. Wise Children was always going to be a tough act to follow, and it will be very interesting to see where Rice takes Wise Children for its third production. 

Malory Towers is performed at the Passenger Shed, the summer home of Bristol Old Vic this year, until 18 August. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Dead Dog in a Suitcase

What the hell is the world coming to?

Good news, everyone. Kneehigh theatre company is back at Bristol Old Vic with a revival of its hit 2014 show Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs). Anarchic, angry and apocalyptic, this re-telling of John Gay's 1728 satire The Beggar's Opera is a blistering assault on the senses. And a right royal kick up the bum. 

What the hell is the world coming to?

After contract killer Macheath (a firey Dominic Marsh) shoots Mayor Goodman (arf, the only good man in the script) and his dog dead, we quickly find out he is acting on the orders of trumped-up millionaire tycoon Les Peachum (Martin Hyder) and his conniving wife (Rina Fatnia: quite possibly my favourite cast member in this production). But, oh, it gets much more complicated than that. Macheath is married to Peachum's daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), the police chief's daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd) is pregnant with his child and he's finding it harder and harder to evade arrest. 

What the hell is the world coming to?

Written by Kneehigh stalwart Carl Grose, Dead Dog is a lot of fun but it also has a lot of messages to tell us. Although a Kneehigh production often feels like the circus has come to town, there are always messages a-plenty. John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera to lampoon the class divide, the injustices of society and political corruption of his day. Alas, such is the state of the world that Carl Grose could have got away with doing very little to update the production for a 2019 audience. So these societal injustices and hypocrisies are exactly what he shows in Dead Dog... in all their grotesque forms. 

Composer Charles Hazelwood's music is, of course, bang on, and Kneehigh regular Patrycja Kujawska's performance is an absolute highlight in her role as the widowed Mrs Goodman: her '80s-esque electro-pop solo is spine-tingling, and her fevered violin performance at the climax is exquisite. The final scene with smoke, ticker tape, papers blowing into the auditorium and whirling, deafening, all-encompassing angry music reminded me of the KLF's anarchic performance at the BRITS in 1992 - where they stood in kilts and fired machine guns into the audience to a soundtrack of Extreme Noise Terror. And that's certainly not a bad thing.

There are a lot of things going for Dead Dog and you'd be advised to snap up a ticket and soak it all up for yourself. And if you're put off by the title, don't be. No dogs were harmed in the making of this show.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase is performed at Bristol Old Vic until July 13. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Friday, 31 May 2019

'Milton Place' - Elisabeth de Waal

My beagle with the book
Regular readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Persephone Books. I was first introduced to them in about 2005 and have been a committed admirer of their work ever since, because there is something reassuring and informative about well-written historical novels. They are comforting guides to the relatively recent past, they help to inform us about who we are and where we came from and, more often than not, they fill in gaps in our social history. 

While I've spent the past few years researching more than 500 old dead women (as I affectionately call them) who have been unfairly left out of most other history books for my The Women Who Built Bristol series, there are many times I've been reminded of plot details from different Persephone books: a reminder that these are not just stories, they are also based on lived realities. 

One of the most recent Persephone titles is Milton Place by Austrian writer Elisabeth de Waal, whose previous book The Exiles Return was reissued by Persephone in 2013 (my review is on that link). It seems astonishing that the two books were written by the same woman, as I found them so wildly contrasting and certainly enjoyed Milton Place much, much more. Both books are concerned with the idea of the alien: the newcomer, the outsider, the interloper, the misplaced person. Both books are about their protagonists dealing with the horrific fallout of war. But The Exiles Return was a tough read and not one I particularly enjoyed. 

So I was surprised to love Milton Place so much. It is a book that you look forward to picking up again in the evening, you root for the characters and at times I found myself skimming paragraphs ahead anxious about what I feared might happen and just unable to wait another minute or two to see if I was right. It is astonishing that Milton Place was never published in Elisabeth's lifetime and that it has only seen the light of publication now thanks to her son passing the manuscript to Persephone. It would make a wonderful film. 

We follow Austrian Anita who has endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis during the war. Desperate for escape, in the early 1950s she follows up an old flame of her dead mother's and invites herself to stay at Milton Place, a fading country house in the UK, where she becomes good friends with Mr Barlow, who had adored her mother decades before. Throw in Mr Barlow's two unpleasant adult daughters, his naive grandson Tony and the problem of what to do with a decaying grand mansion, and you have all the makings of a brilliant country house novel. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that Milton Place is as close as you can get to reading a Dorothy Whipple (sigh, Dorothy Whipple) without actually reading a Dorothy Whipple itself. 

Put simply, please read Milton Place. It is a joy of a book and you will be captivated from the first page. After all, this is a novel that opens with one of the protagonists receiving an unexpected letter from a stranger... which is a very hopeful start and it only gets better from there.

PS: You can buy the book direct from Persephone by clicking here. Given there are fears that Persephone may not be able to continue post-Brexit (you can read more about this on their website), it is so important to support this wonderful women's publisher while we still have the opportunity. 

Thursday, 30 May 2019

'In The Willows'

Kenneth Graham's much-loved children's story The Wind In The Willows gets the Hamilton treatment in this brand new, sparky production by Metta Theatre: In The Willows. Currently on show at Bristol Old Vic, this is a really fun, really engaging new musical aimed at the whole family. 

Loosely based on the original Kenneth Graham story, socially awkward Mole (Victoria Boyce) is new at The Willows comprehensive school and is taken under the wing/paw of streetwise Rattie (Zara MacIntosh) in kindly Badger's class (Clive Rowe). But there's a disruptive influence from attention-seeking, rule-bending Toad (Harry Jardine) - who now rides a motorbike rather than a motorcar, poop poop - and a sinister presence from the break-dancing weasel gang, led by Chief Weasel (Bradley Charles). There are references to the book via the River Bank club, the rough WildWood Estate and the Weasels overtaking Toad Hall, but the most charming nod to the original book (where Toad is rescued from prison in the guise of a washerwoman) is when Toad is rescued from a juvenile detention centre via a washing machine repairer!

In The Willows is a lot of fun and puts across its messages in a very approachable manner. We are reminded of right vs wrong and of loyalty to our friends, but it is not rammed down our throats. We are told to look out for our friends and be welcoming to all, but it is not overdone. And the inclusion of a sign language interpreter, as well as the frequent inclusion of signing done by the cast as part of their natural speech, is a great way of showing how easy it is to make theatre naturally inclusive. 

PS: An extra special shout out to the delightfully camp Duck (Seann Miley Moore from The X Factor), who is an absolute pleasure to watch. 

In The Willows is performed at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 1 June. Click here for more information and to book tickets. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

We Are Feminist

With an introduction by the wonderful Helen Pankhurst (granddaughter of Sylvia, great-granddaughter of Emmeline), We Are Feminist: An Infographic History of the Women's Rights Movement instantly has the credentials to get itself off to a flying start. 

This bold, bright and colourful hardback by artist Rebecca Strickson is a new way of looking at the history of the feminist movement, using infographics, illustrations and box-outs to ping information at the reader. The illustrations obviously really stand out as the USP with this book, and are a fresh way of presenting some information that many readers may already be familiar with. 

There are timelines, mini biographies and portraits, and the book covers the main US and UK feminists, as well as a few from in between. So it is of course giving a broad picture of this enormous movement, and naturally there is a leaning towards the suffrage campaign. 

But for a different way of looking at the history of feminism, and for seeing some of the characters literally brought to life on the page, We Are Feminist is a welcome addition to anyone's bookshelf. This would also be a good book to add to school and college libraries, as an accessible, easy-to-understand introduction to women's studies. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


There were times while watching Equus at the Bristol Old Vic that I felt the audience ought to quietly creep out of the auditorium and leave the actors to it, so heightened was the sexual chemistry on stage.

In this new production of the classic 1973 play by Peter Shaffer and directed here by Ned Bennett, the English Touring Theatre has reinvigorated this fictional account of the true story of a boy who blinded six horses. A psychological thriller where we know who committed the crime but not why he did it, Equus rips open our psyches and exposes human conditions from loneliness, desire, repression and mental illness.

Largely set in a psychiatric hospital, we meet psychiatrist Martin Dysart (in a mind-blowing performance by Zubin Varla) who is persuaded by a magistrate (Ruth Lass) to add to his overloaded case list with a troubled 17-year-old boy who has just been spared a prison sentence despite intentionally blinding six horses in one night. That boy is Alan Strang, who is portrayed in an astonishing performance from relative newcomer Ethan Kai.

Alan’s obsessive devotion to horses, especially Nugget, is of course the central crux of Equus. But this is really a metaphor for Shaffer to explore the human condition. The human relationships surrounding Alan are wreaked with unhappiness (his parents have a sterile marriage, Dysart has a loveless relationship with his unseen wife, Alan is unable to consummate his attraction to Jill). The handling of power is constantly being distorted - who actually has the control over anyone else? The repression of sexuality seeps out of the stage and is famously shown through the bondage-esque eroticism of riding a horse while naked and fetishising the bit in the horse’s mouth. A lot.

Despite being monologue heavy, the script is gripping and tantalising. We know what has happened but we want to know why it happened. And via Alan’s uptight father (Robert Finch), hyper religious mother Syreeta Kumar) and friend Jill (Norah Lopez Holden) we start to find out more about what led Alan to do what he did.

The simple set is continually reinvented with minimal fuss to transport us to a beach, a stable yard, a hospital bedroom and even a porno cinema. Choreographer Shelley Maxwell leads the cast through a beautifully balletic performance, that is perhaps best illustrated by the simple scene of Alan having a nightmare in his hospital bed - accompanied by strobe lights, a spinning bed and two nurses folding Alan into extraordinary shapes. It’s beautiful to watch, which feels awful given the pain it is intended to portray.

Ultimately, Equus leaves us questioning how one human can possibly understand another and what exactly it might mean to be mentally unbalanced.

Equus is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 20 April 2019, click here for more information and to book tickets. After this, it continues its tour around the UK. Click here for more information.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Smallest Things by Nick Duerden

In The Smallest Things, journalist Nick Duerden shares a beautifully curated series of vignettes into the lives and workings of his Italian grandparents and their attitudes to life. Although obviously a personal memoir into his own family, Nick's writing invites the reader to consider their own family relationships while they read and, more importantly, to remember the things that are worth celebrating. 

The Smallest Things is a celebration of the finer details. Such as the intricacies involved in persuading two elderly, set-in-their-ways people that a day trip in the car with their new granddaughter-in-law would be a nice thing to do. Or the careful handling of a long-held family secret and the reminder that paternity has less to do with who biologically fathered a child and more to do with who loved and raised that child. 

Each chapter is its own self-contained story. Carefully and sparsely written, no words wasted. And each chapter is bookended by a tip from Nick's Italian grandmother - the art of boiling spaghetti for hours on end, or airing a bed each day and the way it must be done if it is to be done correctly. This all creates a very inviting welcome package into the Duerden household and the secrets they keep. 

The Smallest Things is a lovely book of tiny dramas, and a good reminder to value the little things our families do... and to ask the questions we have before it is too late. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

Princess & The Hustler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 January 2019

Wise Children

Photo: Steve Tanner

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

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

Photo: Steve Tanner

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

'Ikigai' - Beating Blue Monday

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 January 2019

'Live Happy' - Beating Blue Monday

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

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

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

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