Wednesday, 29 January 2020

'Romantics Anonymous'

Just delightful. Everyone said it would be and, for once, everyone was right. Directed by Emma Rice of Wise Children, Romantics Anonymous is a sweet, charming and joyous story that will really warm your heart. 

Angelique (Carly Bawden) is a gifted chocolatier who is crippled by shyness, yet finds an outlet for her chocolates thanks to the kind Monsieur Mercier (Gareth Snook) who lets her hide behind him. But once he dies, her life is thrown into disarray and she needs to pull herself together. This leads her to The Chocolate Factory, where she meets the socially awkward Jean-Rene (Marc Antolin) and, slowly but surely, the chocolatey wheels of love start turning. 

The mannerisms of an awkward new romance are perfectly executed, and there are lots of delightful moments here: Jean-Renet's staff peeking through his office blinds, Angelique being followed by a car, the mumbler at the self-help meeting, and many more. All of these small touches are what shapes the body of Romantics Anonymous to be the excellent show that it is. 

Originally created in 2017 by Emma Rice while she was still at Shakespeare's Globe, Romantics Anonymous has rightly taken on a life of its own to become a much-loved show by theatre-goers all over the UK. After its Bristol run, the performance is heading to America, where it will doubtless by embraced by theatre fans there, too. 

An Emma Rice production is always a good thing, and there's really nothing to dislike about Romantics Anonymous. Infectious songs well sung; a pretty French set; excellent performances; and plenty of laughs along the way. This is a hot-water bottle production - it's feelgood, comforting and just what you need on a cold, drizzly, winter evening. I left with the songs ringing through my head for the rest of the night. 

Romantics Anonymous is performed at the Bristol Old Vic until February 1. Click here for more information and to book tickets. Although the show is travelling to the US from March, if you happen to be over there. 

Monday, 27 January 2020

'The Unstoppable Letty Pegg'

I've been banging on for about a decade now about my enthusiasm for novels about the suffrage campaign and, more specifically, novels aimed at younger readers about the suffrage campaign. In recent years, what with the centenary in 2018 of some women getting the vote, there has been an outpouring of such books and I have been delighted to see this. Not least because a fair few of them have been more adventurous than the standard narrative of: working-class girl bumps into upper-class lady who educates her in the ways of suffrage, introduces her to Emmeline Pankhurst, there's a force feeding scene and a chaste romance with somebody's brother. 

But this new novel by Iszi Lawrence is one of the most imaginative, inventive suffrage books I've read to date, and the first to tackle the - true- story of the women who learned jiu jitsu so that they could defend themselves from the police and others who tried to do them harm in their campaign. 

The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (published on 6 February 2020) has the unusual premise of a suffragette who is married to a policeman, while bringing up a pre-teen daughter who, of course, gets caught up in the fight for the vote. But this is very much Letty's story. 

While following her mum to a suffragette march one day (which becomes the infamous Black Friday), Letty witnesses the appalling police brutality and sexual assaults rained down upon these women (sadly based on fact), and she ends up meeting the small but mighty Edith Garrud (a real woman) who runs a dojo in Soho where she teaches jiu jitsu to women to help them stay safe. And this is the central point around which Letty's story centres. Although there are also sub-plots concerning a mixed-race friend, a misogynist teacher, family secrets and a disapproving grandmother. 

The fact that Iszi is herself a jiu jitsu practitioner (is that the right word?) only lends credibility to the descriptions of the fights and moves as Letty comes to them, and Iszi's experiences really shine through. The reader can totally visualise the scenes, even if - like me - you don't know the first thing about jiu jitsu. 

It's fantastic to see a different aspect of the struggle for women's suffrage being highlighted, and in a novel that does not glamourise the militant suffragettes, who many historians have issue with. Indeed, in The Unstoppable Letty Pegg, at times Iszi seems to urge caution in the reader against only seeing the purple, white and green of the Pankhursts' campaign and she instead points out some of the other groups who peacefully lobbied for the vote. And for this alone I salute Iszi. The historical details and accuracy here are also fantastic, and don't lean back on tired old myths like some books I've read. 

Now, the next suffrage novel I want to read is one set pre-1903 that makes no reference to suffragettes, Pankhursts, prisons or force-feeding, and instead focuses on the peaceful sheroes who had been at this for decades beforehand. It'll be a hard sell into a publisher but, my word, those stories are there to be told and they will make a damn fine read.

In the meantime, grab yourself a copy of 
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (it is aimed at readers aged 9-13, though there's nothing to stop older people in, say, their 40s enjoying it, ahem) and buy one for the youngsters in your life. And not just the girls. These are stories boys need to know as well. Thanks, Iszi. 

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Kneehigh's Ubu!

Terrible photos by me - sorry about that.
Ooh, the splendid Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in Bristol. And, as you’d expect, they are doing the unexpected. Although a Bristol Old Vic production, Kneehigh's Ubu! is being staged a mile or so away at the Marble Factory on Avon Street, which is more usually a nightclub and live music venue. As such, there is no official seating and the audience is free to wander around the auditorium, keep their phones in their hands, and sing along as loudly as their hearts desire. This is not your standard theatre show. 

Billed as an improvised promenade musical, Kneeigh’s Ubu! is a reinterpretation of the Alfred Jarry farce from the 1890s that stuck two fingers up to the government and incites a revolution in its audience. What could be more Kneehigh? Carl Grose has taken over the script and shares directing duties with Mike Shepherd, who also stars as a delicious Mrs Ubu.

Undisguisedly, Kneehigh's Ubu! is a poke at the atrocities rained down upon society when a narcissistic, unkind and selfish individual pushes their way to power (unelected) and then systematically undoes all the good that has been built up by some of their predecessors. Nobody is going to win any points for spotting that one. Especially given it is literally shown to us via a dance where the cast hold up masks of faces including Adolf Hitler, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

If only Johnson, Trump and co would see Kneehigh’s Ubu!, though. Not that they would recognise themselves in it immediately, but it might start to chip away at the back of their minds about the damage they are doing to the people they claim to represent. The anger and hostility and gleeful incitement to riot among the audience in response to these despots was palpable. 

Image from Bristol Old Vic website

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is an interactive celebration of humanity, though. Billed as a singalong performance, while nobody is going to make you singalong, they will also wonder why you came if you don’t. There is plenty of audience participation - including, delightfully, a mini Olympic Games. There is even a war: one that is started with a whistle and where both sides are given an equal number of weapons, just like in real life. More than anything, there are songs - loads and loads of songs. You will know them all. You will want to sing along with them all. And the lyrics are handily provided on the big screens for when you forget some of the words. Because even though the world is going to hell in a handcart, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can. 

There is an impressive cast behind Kneehigh’s Ubu! Mike Sherpherd I have already mentioned, and his counterpart - the repulsive King Ubu himself - is played with utter glee by Katy Owen, who Kneehigh fans will instantly recognise. Dom Coyote is a standout performer, as both President Nick Dallas and a very talented singer with house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats (and here also, a hefty head nod to Nandi Bhebhe, whose singing and dancing is simply extraordinary: a real joy to watch and listen to).

We are guided through the evening by Jeremy Wardle (played by Niall Ashdown) who does a sterling job at keeping the cast in check, bringing the audience in and reminding us what the absolute hell is going on. Oh, and of course he sings. Everyone sings.

It’s fun seeing Bristol Old Vic take productions outside the conventional theatre space, and the old stone walls and industrial metalwork of the Marble Factory lends itself well to a production such as Kneehigh’s Ubu!. (Just be warned, there is no tap water at the bar and bottled water is an eye-watering £3 (!) so bring your own water bottle with you so you neither get fleeced for water nor contribute to single use plastic pollution.) 

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is performed at the Marble Factory until January 25 but, be warned, several dates are already sold out. So click here for more information and to book your tickets. After Bristol, it continues to Salford and Leeds.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

'One Woman's Year' - Stella Martin Currey

At the start of a new year, it seems particularly pertinent to be writing about this curious collection of calendar-themed entries, recently published by Persephone Books

One Woman's Year is part-memoir, part-how-to, part recipe book, beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Malcolm Ford. Arranged into 12 monthly chapters, each begins with a musing for several pages from Stella Martin Currey on something topical that would happen in her life at this time. Maybe, in summer, it is the peculiarities of having a foreign exchange schoolboy come to visit. Maybe, in December, it is a piece about the joy to be found in the dressing-up box. 

The whole book, which was originally published in 1953 and has undercurrents of living in the tail end of rationing and war-time bomb devastation (most notably during a day trip to London when bombsites are everywhere), is very much of a type. Stella is a middle-class, married woman with wholesome children, and they all live in the countryside. Their activities number visiting a Norman keep or taking the children to see Shakespeare. Pastimes include going for picnics and deciding which mushrooms are the edible ones. 

Yet while One Woman's Year is clearly a calendar for a very particular type of privileged woman, there are some fascinating little curios in here. A short essay describing buying a large chest at auction and struggling to get it up the stairs, only for it to get wedged tight on a corner, can only be read with the word "Pivot!" echoing on refrain in the back of your head. The suggestion of taking the children to visit an automatic telephone exchange as a day out is extraordinary on so many levels: that such a place was still functioning in the 1950s, that this place of work permitted people in to have a poke around and, most significantly, how tempting Stella makes it sound that I actually feel envious that I now cannot go to see one myself. 

I often pass a small road in central Bristol called Telephone Avenue where, as you would expect, the city's exchange was one housed, and always look down the road with curiosity at the grand building hidden on it. This is Armada House, which I have had the pleasure of being in, and it is more like a National Trust property than a once-functional place of business. NB: Armada House was not the original telephone exchange but next door to it, although it was later bought by British Telecom. It was also the location of the first non-operator call in the UK, which was made by the Queen in 1958.

Sticking with the Bristol theme for a moment, Stella herself interests me because she was a woman who built Bristol: the title of a series of books I have written celebrating, to date, 500 unfairly forgotten important women from Bristol's past. Stella (1907-1994) was initially a journalist at the Bristol Times & Mirror until 1932 and her debut novel Paperchase End (1934) is a fictionalised take on her time on the newspaper. I have yet to read this book as it is hard to locate a copy but I would love to track one down. PS: In her later years on the Bristol Times & Mirror, Stella became the paper's zoo correspondent. She wrote about, among other things, Betty the bag-snatching chimpanzee. Imagine!

One Woman's Year is an extraordinary book. I have never come across anything quite like it and doubt I will again. It's a fascinating glimpse into the real life of an everyday housewife and mother who is living - comfortably - in the years after World War Two. She is a good sort, caring for her children, cooking them wholesome dishes, and making education interesting to their young minds. The illustrations are wonderful, too, and really bring the book to life. It's well worth seeking out a copy.