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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

Equus


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?