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.