Monday 30 December 2013

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

I haven't posted a book review recently, as I've been watching and writing quite a bit about theatre, not to mention the endless distraction of preparing for a family Christmas! This doesn't mean I haven't read anything, though; a teetering tower of books has accumulated, ready to review during this lovely interlude when the mad pre-Christmas dash is over, but a return to work in January seems deceptively far away.

I'm beginning with The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing because, of all my recent reads, this is the one that made a lasting impression. I don't know about you, but the announcement of Lessing's death last November jolted me into the realisation I have no opinion about her writing, for the simple reason I haven't read any of it. Simon at Savidge Reads felt much the same and launched a #DorisinDecember initiative. My book club settled on The Grass Is Singing, mainly because at only 206 pages long, it appeared the least daunting of her works.

The Grass is Singing, set in 1940s Southern Rhodesia, is Lessing's first novel and it may be short, but it sure knows how to pack a punch. The story opens with an announcement in the newspaper of a death on a remote farm; Mary Turner has been murdered by her 'native' houseboy Moses.

The Turners, Mary in particular, are widely regarded as misfits by neighbours like Charlie Slatter, first to arrive on the murder scene. For years they've shunned social engagements and struggled to make a profit from their crops, living like the 'poor white' Afrikaners who are despised almost as much as natives by the British colonial community. It's only the viewpoint of newcomer Tony Marston, that brings a sense of the establishment being more intent on closing down a potentially scandalous situation, than on seeing that justice is done.

Having given us the circumstances of the murder, Lessing then reaches back in time to tell the story leading up to it. This is Mary's story, beginning with her unhappy childhood in a remote South African dorp, an ugly cluster of buildings at the centre of a farming community hundreds of miles wide. Lessing's descriptions of Mary's surroundings evoke feelings of powerful oppression, such as the horrors a local store holds for a child:
It is always a low single-storeyed building divided into segments like a strip of chocolate, with grocery, butchery and bottle-store under one corrugated iron roof. It has a high dark wooden counter, and behind the counter shelves hold anything from distemper mixture to toothbrushes all mixed together. There are a couple of racks holding cheap cotton dresses in brilliant colours, and perhaps a stack of shoe-boxes, or a glass case for cosmetics or sweets. There is the unmistakable smell, a smell compounded of varnish, dried blood from the killing yards behind, dried hides, dried fruit and strong yellow soap.
This is no idyllic, all-purpose hub reminiscent of Ike Godsey's General Merchandise in The Waltons, but a hateful backdrop to Mary's poor and miserable childhood, with a drunken father and mother who 'literally pined to death'. But Mary does find happiness when she takes an office job in town and lives an unfettered, single life in a boarding house. Then, past the age of thirty, she overhears a friend's unkind remark which makes her feel she must marry:
Then she met Dick Turner. It might have been anybody. Or rather, it would have been the first man she met who treated her as if she were wonderful and unique.
Dick is a poor indebted farmer in need of a wife:
He began to like her, because it was essential for him to love somebody; he had not realised how very lonely he had been. 
There's a sense of foreboding as we journey into the emotional heart of this novel, knowing the outcome as we do. Dick's farmhouse is so basic there aren't any ceilings and the corrugated iron roof makes it unbearably hot. Again, Lessing's description brings home the overwhelming claustrophobia of heat in such a vast land 
...she went out to look at the sky. There were no clouds at all. It was a low dome of sonorous blue with an undertone of sultry sulphur colour because of the smoke that filled the air. The pale sandy soil in front of the house dazzled up waves of light and out of it curved the gleaming stems of the poinsettia bushes, bursting into irregular slashes of crimson.
Dick is a decent man with a visceral bond to his land. He treats his workers fairly by the standards of the day, but devotes any surplus cash to ill-fated money-making schemes, rather than installing the ceilings which would make Mary's life bearable. 

One of the many tragedies in this book is that Mary and Dick could have made a great team; their skills are complementary if only they'd managed to work together, rather than strip-by-strip tearing each other apart. Mary begins enthusiastically enough, making soft-furnishings and keeping chickens, but soon rebuffs the Slatters' attempts to socialise and treats her native workers with chilling savagery. The cycle of crop failures, the heat and noise of the cicadas and the grinding poverty all combine to wear her down:
Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously in the lives of the film stars.
Her life changes again with the arrival of Moses, the latest in her long line of houseboys and one who has a strange hold on her:
...although he was never disrespectful, he forced her now to treat him as a human being; it was impossible for her to thrust him out of her mind like something unclean as she had done with all the others in the past.

Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 but her family moved to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when she was five years old. The autobiographical nature of her writing has often been discussed, especially the way she draws on childhood experiences and her social and political concerns. Although she was first married and divorced at a young age, it's still remarkable that she wrote this forensic dissection of the disintegration of a marriage at the tender age of twenty-five. Lessing moved to London in 1949 to pursue her writing career and The Grass is Singing was published in 1950.

As well as an examination of loneliness, this book is a stark portrayal of racial tensions and the harrowing inequality at the heart of 1940s Southern Rhodesia, a society where those with black skin were regarded as lower than cattle. The Grass is Singing is a compact yet complex novel, combining intense individual scrutiny with bleak social comment, about a way of life which may now be largely reviled but was widely accepted the time.

Not always the easiest of reads, this book is so searingly written that it's spilling over with quotable paragraphs. It also has the rare ability to make you care about the fate of superficially unsympathetic characters. The Grass is Singing left me reeling, full of admiration for the power of Doris Lessing's writing and looking forward to a lively discussion with my book club.

Sunday 8 December 2013

The Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic

Mention The Little Mermaid in my family and we immediately think of the Disney video still lurking in a cupboard somewhere, the one watched so often when my daughters were little that the case is broken and the tape stretched thin. But Bristol Old Vic's latest family-friendly Christmas show reaches further back to the Hans Christian Andersen original - the one I read as a child - to bring a fresh new interpretation of this much-loved fairy tale to the stage.

Bristol Old Vic has a strong tradition of creating spell-binding theatre based on children's classics such as Peter Pan and Swallows and Amazons, and this year's production is no exception. The Little Mermaid lives under the sea with her father and sisters, using her beautiful voice to do 'songing' by order of the villainous Sea Witch. She's full of curiosity and dreams of visiting the surface and meeting the 'who-mans' who live there, but this will only be allowed for one brief day on her seventeenth birthday. When that day finally arrives, she sets off in great excitement, little realising that it will lead her into sacrificing her most prized possession and change the course of her life forever.

This show resonates with inventive fishiness, particularly in the first half, as our heroine bides her time in her shell garden and alarms her father with her desire to break away from the constraints of underwater life. The Little Mermaid swims with the support of the rest of the cast, who transport her above their heads and use clever movement of fins and tails to introduce a sense of restlessness in an ever-shifting sea. Katie Moore is convincing in the title role and there are strong performances too from Beverly Rudd as the Sea Witch and Tristan Sturrock as the father who is never able to express his true emotions while watching his youngest daughter grow away from him. The dialogue, which sparkles with wit, is also on occasion tinged with sadness and regret as the versatile ensemble switches effortlessly between roles; tackling narration, song, musical instruments, physicality and audience participation all with great flair.

Jon Bausor's set has a structural beauty and simplicity with the sculptural shape of the waves far above transforming into the surface of the sea as the Little Mermaid swims towards it. The atmospheric lighting, particularly in the storm which greets her as she first sets eyes on the Prince, emphasizes the differences between the two worlds and the original songs composed by Shlomo and DJ Walde, although at first in danger of being too saccharine for my teenage daughter, grow stronger as the story unfolds.

The version of The Little Mermaid on my dusty old video tape is aimed fairly and squarely at young children but, in many ways, Bristol Old Vic's tale with its themes of setting out in the world, transformation and finally finding your own voice, is equally well suited to teenagers. Although the idea of living happily-ever-after seems anachronistic in these days of striving for gender equality, realisation dawns that the Prince has as much to lose as the Little Mermaid if he doesn't find his true love and get married by a pre-ordained deadline. Bristol Old Vic's magical retelling of The Little Mermaid, encompassing all the wonder of daring to dream no matter what the sacrifice, is at its heart a warm and uplifting adventure and one which should enchant audiences of all ages this Christmas.

You can watch The Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic until 18th January 2014. All photos reproduced here and my tickets are courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

Thursday 28 November 2013

The Bard in my Bucket - One Year On

You can't find the meaning and rhythm in Shakespeare's prose by seeing it written down; those words need reading aloud or better still to be performed on a stage. So, a year ago, I decided that Item Number One on my bucket list was to watch all of Shakespeare's plays - preferably live. To be honest, it is the only item on my bucket list so far - not sure I'm getting the hang of this mortality thing. But then, as items go, it's quite a biggie; a list within a list, you could say.

Looking back to a year ago, I'd seen a mere 12 of his canon of 38 plays - although many more than once. How have I fared (I hear you ask) since making the conscious decision to try and see them all?

In February, there was The Winter's Tale at the RSC, seen as an understudy run, which was fun.  It was also my first theatrical review for clairethinking and an epiphany in terms of realising how much I enjoy writing about, as well as watching, theatre.

Next came A Midsummer Night's Dream at Bristol Old Vic in March, with some inspirational puppetry from Handspring and a truly remarkable Bottom. This didn't really count as I'd seen it already many moons ago as a school play, but I felt as though I was beginning to hit my reviewing stride a little here.

Third up was Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Tobacco Factory in May. I wasn't at all familiar with this early play of Shakespeare's and found it utterly charming and beautifully played. It goes without saying that Lollio stole the show...

Then I snuck in Hamlet at the RSC with Jonathan Slinger. This production came in for a fair bit of (mainly justified) stick, but Slinger rose above it, giving a nuanced and spirited portrayal of the Danish prince. Again, this doesn't officially count as I've seen Hamlet before and, for some forgotten reason, didn't quite manage to review it.

And finally for 2013 came King Lear at the Theatre Royal Bath in August. David Haig's Lear was transformed into an east end gangster in Lucy Bailey's envisioning of 1960s London. We sat in the front row, had an eyeful of blood and gore and loved it.

Until then it was going pretty well, but with nothing ticked off between September and now, I'm losing momentum. Here's the still somewhat daunting list to go at in 2014:
  • Henry VI Part I
  • Henry VI Part II
  • Henry VI Part III
  • Richard III
  • Titus Andronicus 
  • The Taming of the Shrew 
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • King John 
  • The Merchant of Venice 
  • Henry IV Part I
  • Henry IV Part II
  • Henry V
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 
  • Troilus and Cressida 
  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Othello
  • Macbeth
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Coriolanus
  • Pericles 
  • Cymbeline
  • Henry VIII
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen

Full of early resolutions for the New Year, I've booked to see Donmar Warehouse and NT Live's Coriolanus in January, beamed by satellite to the lovely Little Theatre Cinema in Bath. Mark Gatiss, Tom Hiddleston and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (from Borgen) - what's not to like?

Only twenty-two more to go. Bring it on...

Pictures courtesy of the RSC, Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory, Theatre Royal Bath and Donmar Warehouse.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death at the Rondo Theatre

I haven't yet read Mr Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallacebut I'm guessing it might not be the most straightforward of books to adapt. If the renamed play Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death is anything to go by, the novel is a multi-faceted blurring of truth and fantasy, exploring the raw edges where magic ceases to be a sleight of hand and becomes something darker and more mysterious.

So, Shane Morgan certainly didn't give himself the easiest task in transferring this story to the stage, and it's to his credit he retained the approval and involvement of its author. This is actually a rather unusual and engaging tale, but not always an easy one to explain - hence the heavy reliance on narration from the start. On its own, this might not be a problem, but when combined with an onslaught of microphoned voices, initially the overall effect is one of confusion. The main characters are yet to be established and there are too many focal points all at once; the actors to the side, the assertive narration of private detective Carson and Henry centre-stage performing his tricks in barefoot isolation.

The story really begins to kick in when the initial narration fades and we reach its emotional heart; the relationship between Henry and his sister Hannah, brilliantly played by Dan Gaisford and Madelaine Ryan.They don't adopt the vocals of children and yet from their expressions and demeanor we realise we're being allowed into their childhood. We are able to witness their sibling bonds of complicity, their withholding and sharing of secrets.

Although once wealthy, the children's father lost his livelihood in the 1930s crash and he now works as a hotel porter, widowed and drowning his sorrows in gin. The children are often left to make their own entertainment; Hannah with a dog she calls Joan Crawford and Henry in the company of the shadowy magician he knows as Mr Sebastian, who occupies Room 702. Mr Sebastian gives Henry a new pack of cards to practice magic with, but as their relationship develops it becomes clear that this enigmatic stranger has some very big demands to make in return. For Henry, it seems the price of becoming a successful magician may ultimately prove more than he can bear.

This play explores themes of love and identity, perception and reality; what may be gained in pursuit of success, but also what is lost along the way. In between the action and exposition lurk some touchingly poignant moments and, in the interval, my daughter and I were abuzz with excitement as to what had just happened and how the story might end.

Overall, there is much to commend this production by Roughhouse Theatre; the circus-themed set is striking and fully explored by the actors and there's excellent use of physicality and puppetry with some enchanting set-pieces. The company switches roles well between characters with good use of props and their reading from scripts emphasizes Henry's isolation in an increasingly sinister world. Music adds atmosphere throughout and, on balance, although overused, the microphones prove to be effective.

Towards the end, the adaptation loses its way a little again, with too many threads of alternative realities to draw together and a few inevitably remaining undone. Although the ending itself is satisfyingly circular, some simplification of the introduction and conclusion would provide a clearer framework for what is otherwise an enthralling and thought-provoking play.

Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death is at the Rondo Theatre from 13th-16th November 2013.

Photographs courtesy of Matt Collins at Crush Images and Roughhouse Theatre. We watched this play at the Rondo on 15th November, courtesy of Roughhouse Theatre.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace

Continuing my theme of writing about the 2013 Man Booker shortlist after judging has taken place, I read Harvest by Jim Crace recently. It's been parked on my desk for a while, waiting to be reviewed.

Harvest is set in a small, rural community, ostensibly in the years of the English enclosures, although there's a feeling of timelessness that means it could equally well be taking place in our dystopian future. The barley has just been gathered in, usually a time of rejoicing for the villagers, who all have their part to play in the harvest and its ensuing rituals of celebration. But this year, beginning with the arrival of three strangers in the nearby woodland, a series of unsettling events takes place. Over the course of the next seven days, the very fabric which has bound this isolated community together begins to unravel.

The narrator of this story is Walter Thirsk, also an outsider, who came to the village some years ago as the manservant of the present landowner, Master Kent. Slowly he's settled in, marrying a local lass and setting up home, but with his different looks and ways, he's still considered a newcomer. Now his wife has died, he considers leaving with 'Mr Quill', an educated visitor who's come to map the land. Walter befriends him, helping him to prepare his inks and vellum, only to find when trouble arrives it's easy for suspicion to fall, not just on Mr Quill, but also on Walter himself.

This is a beautifully written allegory of what happens when a community finds itself under threat from external forces, be they the arrival of strangers or technological advances, which mean its deeply traditional way of life is no longer sustainable.
This year the first warm rains were late. The field was slow to blush with green, and what early shoots dared show themselves were shy and flimsy. We watched the barley with anxiety, first fearing drought and then, once our plants reached knee-height, praying that the sky would spare us gales. 
That is our custom. 
There's a hypnotic beat to Crace's writing, a spare usage of words and pleasing measurement of tone which draws the reader in. For the first half of the book, I was engrossed; Walter is an engaging narrator and the events as they unfold are true-to-life, intriguing and often brutal.

I didn't review this novel immediately, because I puzzled over why it lost its hold on me in the final chapters. The prose is as measured as before and the characters for the most part fully formed. Without giving the plot away, I found myself increasingly worried by the lack of any overt spirituality in a community so imbued with ritual. I also struggled to understand the actions of two of the characters once reunited, and thought the events surrounding such a central character as Mr Quill were not adequately explained.

Jim Crace has announced Harvest is to be his last novel and on The Review Show, John Mullan said he didn't think it was his best. On the strength of this, I would happily turn to one of his earlier works to immerse myself in his delicious prose. Of Harvest, I would say there's a great deal to admire in this book and I'd recommend reading it, but ultimately, for me at least, it lacks a satisfying conclusion.

Have you read this novel? What did you think of the ending?

Images courtesy of Picador Books and The Independent.
Harvest by Jim Crace is published by Picador.

Saturday 2 November 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

We all know the outcome of the 2013 Man Booker judging by now, who the winner was and, more pertinent to this post, who it wasn't. It only takes a glance back at winning books over the years to realise just how arbitrary the whole process can be, with previous judges often reflecting how they made the 'wrong' choice, now they can see which of their shortlist has matured into (that most elusive of genres) a classic. Many prominent authors have been passed over for the ultimate prize altogether (think Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis), while others have won it for a lesser novel (Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin) simply to make up for having missed out with a greater one (A Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace).

It's an achievement even to make it to the longlist, of course, never mind the shortlist. But, doubtless this is of little comfort to all the other shortlisted authors this year, as they switch from having their novels scrutinised before the award ceremony on every review show going, to being frozen out of the spotlight as the winner Eleanor Catton is feted for only her second book The Luminaries. So, in defiance of the unwritten embargo on discussing any of the novels that didn't win after the event, I'm going to review the one I've just finished reading; Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.

This is a novel of ambitious scope, beginning with Nao, a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl, writing from her table in a French maid cafe in Tokyo. She writes to make a connection with her reader, which could be you or me but turns out to be Ruth, a writer who finds Nao's diary inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shoreline near her remote home in British Columbia. Ruth speculates with her husband Oliver that it could have been washed up there as a result of Japan's earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and the more she reads, the more concerned she becomes for Nao's well-being. She scours the internet for names and references, trying to find a tangible reality for Nao, her programmer father Haruki, who lost his job in California and was forced to move his family back to Japan, and Jiko, her ancient Zen Buddhist great-grandmother. What Ruth uncovers and experiences as she comes close to finishing the diary, leads her to question not only her sanity, but also her own fundamental perceptions of existence.

Ozeki is dealing with some big philosophical themes here, using both Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics to examine the nature of time itself and the ways in which we are all inter-connected. She questions the relationship between the writer and the reader; linking Nao and Ruth brings together two very different women and their cultures. Initially, I found Nao's voice to be the more compelling one - she writes in the first person as an angst-ridden teenager who finds herself an outsider in her own country, suffers the most brutal bullying at school and copes with a loss of status as well as her father's suicidal tendencies. Yet, she is also an amusing and charismatic narrator who can laugh at her own predicament and finds solace in her great-grandmother Jiko's beliefs.

Initially, Ruth seems something of a cipher - there as an instrument to comment on and clarify Nao's diary, supplemented by the chunks of information supplied by her super-knowledgeable husband. Slowly, though, her story begins to grow; there are nuances lurking below the surface of her marriage, a sense of being trapped in her own existence as a writer who has no words. Over the course of this novel, Ruth develops her own narrative, both in response to her immediate environment and through reading Nao's revelations.

I devoured this story for its sweeping breadth, combined with the very up close and personal examination of the interwoven lives of these two very different women. Having said that, though, it isn't without its flaws; ever since Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower in Dallas all those years ago, I've had a dislike of any form of resolution achieved through dream sequences. As a plot device, it's nearly always a cop out, even though it's perhaps a little more acceptable in this book because of the feeling that reality is already being stretched taut.

A Tale for the Time Being is generally very well-written, but, because Ozeki is bringing so many strands together, it does occasionally feel a little lacking in fluency. Overall though, this is a major achievement by Ozeki; a book of multiple facets I simply didn't want to end. At the moment, I can't think the other novels on the Man Booker shortlist are more thought-provoking and absorbing than this one, but I really should tackle The Luminaries and judge for myself.

A Tale for the Time Being is published in paperback in the UK by Canongate Books. More information about the book and its author is available here

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Last year, after decades of liking Patti Smith's music in a semi-detached kind of way, I got to see her performing live at the Forum in Bath. And that's when something her die-hard fans have known since those early pre-punk breakthrough days finally dawned on me; here is a woman who's the real deal - artist, poet, musician and legend.

She goes her own way, does Patti; during the first chorus of her iconic 'Because the Night...' she spat out a huge gobbet of saliva where the word 'night' should have been (check it out on YouTube here and you'll see what I mean). She talked of Rimbaud but also gave us a meanderingly entertaining story about a mix up between a lasagna and a steak-and-ale pie in the Lamb and Flag pub just outside Bath. Germany were playing Italy in the European Cup semi-final that evening, so she talked a bit about football as well. And her music was sublime, most especially for me her rendition of Gloria, which I only realised later was one of her poems set to music. Here's a woman in her sixties at ease in her own skin, looking as though she's lived a lot because, in fact, she has.

I didn't have any money on me that night because I was a steward, so it took me a while afterwards to buy her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids. I'd heard the odd snippet on Radio 4 when it was Book of the Week, but all I could remember was that Allen Ginsberg once tried to pick her up in a cafe because he mistook her for a pretty young boy. It was only after she'd performed at the Bronte Parsonage and autographed some books there, that I got my mitts on a signed copy which I then accidentally defaced with my pen. Ah well, my own personal markings on a Patti Smith classic, you could say.

In Just Kids, Patti tells the story of her relationship with the artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe whom she met in New York City in the late 1960s. He was a 'hippie shepherd boy' with tousled curls and strands of beaded necklaces, she was socially awkward with a head full of nineteenth century literature. Robert rescued Patti from a date gone wrong and they became inseparable, virtually penniless but pooling their belongings and moving once they could almost afford it to the artistic hub in central Manhattan that was the Chelsea Hotel. There they were surrounded by other writers, musicians and artists, living in the aura of Dylan Thomas, Frida Kahlo, Bob Dylan and many, many others who'd passed through its doors.

Later Allen Ginsberg became her good friend and teacher and asked her how she would describe how they met
'I would say you fed me when I was hungry', I told him. And he did. 
They rubbed shoulders with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground and before long were moving into the orbit of Max's Kansas City where Andy Warhol and his posse from the Factory liked to hang out. Their romantic relationship may have dwindled as Robert explored his sexuality and Patti found other lovers, but they were never able to break the feeling each had of finding their soul-mate
We promised that we'd never leave one another again until we both knew we were ready to stand on our own and this vow, through everything we were yet to go through, we kept.
Patti was Robert's muse and they were always happier together than apart, visiting their favourite haunts in Coney Island and pushing the boundaries of their art. Patti eventually married and moved out of New York and Robert settled down with the art dealer Sam Wagstaff, but their friendship endured the miles until the spectre of AIDS arrived to claim their generation.

This is a tender homage to Robert Mapplethorpe and the bond he and Patti Smith shared from the moment they first met. Patti writes with sensitivity and deceptive simplicity, explaining Robert's talent and beauty without sparing his flaws and her reservations about the extreme nature of some of his work. She chooses her words with the care of a poet, recreating the buzz of the drug-fueled explosion of creativity and self-destruction happening around her, as she moved from writing poetry to acting and performing as a musician. But above all, she describes Robert's decline with an almost unbearable poignancy and regret for the years which should have been.

Just Kids captures two lives, one bond and a heady world which simply isn't there any more. It's an original voice from a unique artist and whether you enjoy Patti Smith's music or not, or whether like me you are late to the party, this hauntingly personal memoir will enthrall, delight and ultimately move you.

Monday 14 October 2013

Merivel by Rose Tremain

I love Rose Tremain's writing, particularly her absorbing 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel Restoration. So when my book club chose the long-awaited sequel Merivel A Man of his Time which follows the further adventures of Restoration's engaging central character, I couldn't wait to read what happens to him next.

In Restoration, Merivel finds favour as a physician in the court of King Charles II. He's richly rewarded but there are strings attached, requiring him to enter into a marriage of convenience with the King's mistress. In return he receives Bidnold, a Norfolk country estate, but his tenure is cut short when he earns the King's displeasure by inadvertently falling in love with his own wife. Forced to flee, he finds shelter with his old medical-student friend John Pearce, a Quaker who lives and works in the community of New Bedlam. Merivel helps out in the asylum but runs into more trouble by becoming involved with Katharine, one of his patients. Both are expelled and they travel to her mother's house in plague-ridden London, where Katharine dies in childbirth. Merivel and his daughter survive the Great Fire and his heroic actions during the catastrophe restore him to the King's favour and ultimately to his Norfolk estate.

In Merivel, we have moved on some fifteen years to 1683; a more world-weary Charles remains on the throne and our protagonist is still residing at Bidnold with his beloved daughter Margaret. But he's restless and when Margaret is invited on a visit to Cornwall, he decides to travel to the court of King Louis XIV in Versailles. He obtains a letter of introduction and sets out on his journey, but finds Versailles overcrowded and overwhelming; with little opportunity to glimpse Louis, he instead meets the seductive Madame de Flamanville who invites him to stay with her in Paris. Once there, Merivel quickly succumbs to her charms, but finds trouble catching up with him once again when her soldier husband returns home unexpectedly. Fleeing back to England accompanied by a bear he's rescued, he arrives at Bidnold to find his daughter is dangerously ill...

It's a bit like stepping into a bath where the water's exactly to your liking, when you begin a much-loved novel's sequel and find the main character's voice, albeit altered with age, is essentially intact. All you need is to lie back and let the delightful warmth lap round you and that's exactly what I did as Merivel's genial tones reflected on past adventures at the opening of this book. Sadly though, my delight was to be short-lived; whereas the narrative in Restoration is zestfully driven, as Merivel progresses, the novel, much like the character himself, starts to feel a little bit directionless and despondent. Many of the plot-lines fizzle out in melancholy; Merivel travels to Versailles for no particular reason before giving up and repairing to the house of Madame de Flamanville. Back at Bidnold, he neglects the bear he took such trouble to rescue and you wonder at the point of him having brought the creature there in the first place. He journeys across the continent to be reunited with his lover, only to embroil himself in a random orgy with an unattractively wide-girthed matron. Then he starts on a thesis about animals' souls, which just as quickly is abandoned.

All this may be an accurate reflection of what could happen in the depression and search for purpose of a man's twilight years; furthermore Restoration itself is also a series of false starts. However, Merivel doesn't appear to have acquired any particular wisdom with the passage of time; often he seems set on repeating his own foolishness.

There are still some affecting episodes in Merivel's picaresque series of misadventures; his treatment of his former lover Violet is courageous and touching, as is his affection for his manservant Will and expertise at the King's bedside. Fubbs, the King's latest mistress is well drawn and Merivel's more spirited buffoonery continues to provide amusement. Tremain succeeds in bringing Merivel's voice back to life, but this sequel is not nearly as enthralling as Restoration. 

Published by Vintage in paperback. 

Monday 7 October 2013

Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic

A spotlight. A chair. A bucket. A cloth.

This is all that greets you on stage at the beginning of Bristol Old Vic's new production of  Great Expectations. Immediately, I was reassured - you can't help but feel nervous when one of your favourite Dickens' novels, indeed one of your favourite novels full stop, is adapted for the theatre, even when the adaptor and director is as assured as Neil Bartlett.

But I needn't have worried, because from the opening scene it's obvious Bartlett has a very clear vision of what he wants to achieve; a pared-back staging with storytelling to the fore. Pip (Tom Canton) walks on and describes his early childhood using Dickens' evocative opening lines about the origins of his name. He visits the graves of his parents and the 'five little stone lozenges' that mark his dead brothers and first meets, of course, the terrifying escaped convict Magwitch (Timothy Walker).

Pip's is a harsh and solitary existence, brought up by an older sister who resents the drudgery of looking after him, as well as her kindly but downtrodden blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). He's beaten with the dreaded 'tickler' and harangued for not being grateful enough that Mrs Joe (Lindsay Dukes) took him in. But Pip's life is transformed when his presence is requested at the house of the wealthy but reclusive Miss Havisham (Adjoa Andoh) and her chilling niece Estella (Laura Rees) and then once more when he's visited by Mr Jaggers (Tim Potter again), a solicitor who informs him of an anonymous benefactor who wishes to remove him to London to be schooled as a gentleman of' 'great expectations'.

Tom Canton is a charismatic and convincing Pip at all ages, adopting a younger, uneducated voice for the boy and switching effortlessly to the tones of a gentleman as he narrates his own story. Canton is very tall and the decision not to introduce a young actor for the childhood scenes was an inspired one; the sight of gangly young Pip folding himself into the smallest chair or being admonished by an adult forced to look up to him adds to the comedic moments. The whole ensemble cast is excellent, often acting as a chorus creeping upon Pip from backstage, wheeling tables around as a sideline and switching roles in his narration. Miltos Yerolemou (whose Bottom I'll never forget) provides many of the Dickensian comedy moments as Mr Pumblechook and Sarah Pocket. But the performance of the night must go to Adjoa Andoh as Miss Havisham, utterly breathtaking in her voicing and movements which didn't appear entirely human - in fact my husband and I spent the interval debating whether she was more arachnid or crab.

Michael Vale's austere staging means there's a greater focus on sound and lighting to dramatise Pip's story and prevent it from appearing too makeshift. Timothy X Atack's sound is crystal clear and elemental; hammer on metal, watery marshes, naked flames consuming flesh. The striking of matches reminded me of Bartlett's own 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and of David Lynch's film Wild at Heart. Microphones, although occasionally distracting, are used to magnify sounds and add an anachronistic edge. And lighting switches moods and defines room sizes, closing off or illuminating the murky depths of the stage and dramatically highlighting Miss Havisham's dreadful demise.

With a book as long as Great Expectations some of the story has to be glossed over or omitted and a few of the elements, such as the development of Estella's relationship with Bentley Drummle or Pip's reluctance to keep in touch with Joe, seem rushed. They might be difficult to understand, in the second half in particular, without prior knowledge of the novel and older children (the recommended age is 11+) or anyone not familiar with (or having forgotten) the subtleties of the plot would be well advised to read a synopsis before seeing this production.

Ultimately though, this is a reader's adaptation, storytelling at its finest and true to the original text. It captures exactly the spirit of Pip's desolation, the mystery of his change in fortune, his need for forgiveness and to forgive himself. Bartlett reflects in the programme notes that this is Dickens' most darkly autobiographical novel and, despite the many moments of comedy, this production has a more authentic emotional heart than any version I've seen.

Great Expectations is at Bristol old Vic until 2nd November 2013. Pictures and my tickets to see Great Expectations are courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We loved Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my book group and wanted to read more of her work. When we discovered Americanah isn't available in paperback until next February, we plumped instead for her acclaimed debut novel Purple Hibiscus.

This is the story of Kambili, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy family who, thanks to her father's business enterprises, appears to have everything she could want. But, from the outset, the reader has the unsettling feeling that something is amiss; although materially well blessed, the lives of Kambili and her brother Jaja are dominated by their overzealous father. Outwardly Papa is charming, generous and principled in running his factories and the only newspaper in Nigeria to stand up to government tyranny, but at home he imposes his own strict brand of Catholicism, allowing Kambili no space to think for herself in her days dominated by his schedules. To be anything less than top of her class at school is unacceptable and she works hard to fulfil her father's wishes, accepting his disproportionate punishment when she inadvertently lapses into sin.

Kambili and Jaja communicate through a secret language, an empathy of looks; their Mama too chooses to speak few words for fear they might be the wrong ones. But Kambili is growing up and beginning to notice she's not like other teenagers, particularly her loud and opinionated cousins. And when a military coup prolongs the visit she and Jaja are making to their Aunty Ifeoma, a university lecturer threatened by her own struggle against corruption, they really begin to find their voices.  Meeting local priest Father Amadi introduces them to a gentler, more forgiving version of their faith but Papa is unwilling to loosen his grip and for Kambili, Jaja and Mama the struggle is ultimately a brutal one.

Kambili narrates her own story and, so intensely real is Adichie's closely observed writing, she immediately draws you in. Mama caresses her cornrows
she liked to do that, to trace the way strands of hair from different parts of my scalp meshed and held together...I could smell the chalky deodorant under her arms. Her brown face, flawless but for the recent jagged scar on her forehead, was expressionless.
while Papa offers her a sip of his tea
Have a love sip he would say...Then I would hold the cup with both hands and raise it to my lips. One sip. The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue...But it didn't matter because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa's love into me
The details of Kambili's world are vividly authentic, from the tastes and textures of the fufu and onugbu soup she eats for lunch to the exotic colours of the hibiscus and allamanda flowers. The smallest of shifts, such as Papa unexpectedly switching from English to Igbo, can signal a threatening change of mood, another sin to be corrected. You find yourself coming to care deeply for Kambili's well-being but Adichie is equally skilled in her portrayal of Papa, a black man following a white Jesus. She shows him not as an unthinking monster, rather a man capable of great goodness who, in the name of religion and saving their souls from eternal damnation, abuses his wife and children and all but cuts his ties with his own father and sister. Kambili's growing feelings for Father Amadi are also explored with great sensitivity, although I was a little less certain about his response.

Adichie's love of her homeland shines through every page, as too does her awareness of its many shortcomings. She writes of places she knows intimately and it shows; the university town of Nsukka where Aunty Ifeoma and the cousins live in their cramped and shabby flat is where Adichie herself grew up. Her hero is the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and she incorporates the title of his book Things Fall Apart into this novel's opening line. Purple Hibiscus has a linear structure, simpler than Half of a Yellow Sun, retaining Kambili as its sole narrator throughout. Yet it's still an astonishingly confident and accomplished debut and one which makes me even more impatient for my book group to read Americanah.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Sweet Charity

Oh dear, I've been let loose in the book section of my local charity shop again. Given the current teetering state of my reading pile I should've exercised more restraint, but I justified my purchases because they're all in a good cause. I did put a few books back, in fact, so I was really being quite restrained, after all. What's more, I've been hankering after some of the titles here for a while...

First up is Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story of the brutal conditions in Stalin's Siberian labour camps, which Solzhenitsyn experienced first hand. I read a review on Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings blog here and am especially pleased to see my Penguin version is by her preferred translator Ralph Parker.
By contrast my next book is The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe, a comic coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s. I read Coe's The Rain Before it Falls when he visited Bath Literature Festival a few years ago and wasn't totally convinced. One of my fellow stewards told me The Rotters Club was way better, so I'm giving him a second chance.

Then I chose What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn purely because it was recommended by my daughter's English teacher (it's possible she was actually recommending it for my 15 year old daughter now I think about it). Mrs Cunningham I'm holding you responsible...

And finally, lacking a little Mantel in my life while waiting for the final instalment of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I found a near pristine copy of A Place of Greater Safety a story of the French Revolution. At 872 pages it definitely falls into the long novel category, but I always find Hilary Mantel immensely readable.

So there we have it - four completely different worlds to explore for a total outlay of £6! Now all I need to do is read (and review) these previously-loved treasures...

Saturday 28 September 2013

Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Those of us around in 1989 will never forget the news images of a single white-shirted man standing in front of a column of tanks in Tienanmen Square. The Chinese equivalent of the Arab Spring was being rubbed out by the authorities and we held our collective breath, terrified we might be about to witness the crushing of this solitary figure by an overwhelming force. Rather than retreating from danger, he jumped into the tank's path as it tried to weave around him and scaled its sides to talk to the soldier within. We looked at him with renewed wonder. Who was this astonishing protester confronting the might of the Chinese army single-handed? What was motivating him and what could he be carrying in those two plastic shopping bags?

That now-iconic picture is the starting point for Lucy Kirkwood's epic new play Chimerica, a fictional account of what happens when American photo journalist Joe Schofield (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), who captured the event on film at the time, becomes obsessed in the present day with finding the answers to the enigma that is Tank Man. He enlists the support of fellow journalist Mel (Sean Gilder) and their editor Frank (Trevor Cooper) and flies to meet his Chinese contact and friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). Along the way he becomes involved with Tess (Claudie Blakley), an English market analyst profiling the Chinese consumer for her credit card client. As Joe's investigation progresses the action switches seamlessly between China and America, between the present day and the events of June 1989. In the same way that Michael Frayn's Copenhagen explains the principles of quantum mechanics in simple terms to the scientifically challenged, Chimerica weaves the economic and political relationship between the two superpowers effortlessly into its narrative, so the dynamics are clear without it ever feeling preachy.

Chimerica is much more than an examination of Chinese and American interdependence though: at its core is a man's obsession and its impact in terms of human relationships. What begins as a work assignment with colleagues morphs into a lonely compulsion which Joe pursues despite the costs - to his nascent romance with Tess, his professional relationship with Mel and ultimately to the life and well-being of Zhang Lin, an English teacher with his own demons which are gradually uncovered during the course of the play.

Lucy Kirkwood took six years to write Chimerica and her crafting is evident throughout. She explores the interdependence between China and America; the nature of money and power in both countries, the way it corrupts and the way it suppresses. In an era when we are learning much from whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Chimerica  demonstrates how this type of suppression is a two way street - there are no squeaky clean good guys here. Every character has their flaws and their own story which has changed them by the end of the evening and this is emphasised by superb acting from the cast. As well as the main protagonists, Andrew Leung deserves special mention playing both the young Zhang Lin and Benny. Apart from the first few moments, when I had difficulty tuning into some of the diction and speed, the dialogue is witty and sparkling, the action fast paced and incredibly slick.

Above all, this is quite simply sensational theatre, co-produced by Headlong, who are at the peak of their form at the moment, and the Almeida. Es Devlin's revolving set is breathtakingly clever - you can get a taster of its innovative design here as you see it under construction. The maelstrom of projection and lighting is exhilarating, the pace never slackens and the music is atmospheric. How much of this was envisaged by Lucy Kirkwood and how much created by director Lyndsey Turner and her team is something that intrigues me because I'd love to find out more about their collaborative process. But ultimately it's the story that gets you. There are many twists and turns along the way and, whether you witnessed the images in 1989 or not, Tank Man and the contents of those two plastic shopping bags will send shivers down your spine.

Chimerica is a Headlong and Almeida Theatre co-production which opened at the Almeida Theatre on 20th May 2013 and then at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1 on 6th August 2013. Our seats were in the middle of the Royal Circle which gave us a good view. Chimerica is running for a limited season until 19th October 2013.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

A long novel demands commitment from its readers, a promise you'll stay the distance whatever the ups and downs along the way. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell may be four-books-in-one, but at over 800 pages of densely written prose, it clearly falls into the lengthy category. It was gathering dust on my bedside pile, passed over for slimmer, less demanding volumes, until I pounced on it as the perfect tome for a two week getaway last month.

Each book in the quartet is named after one of the main protagonists; Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Set in Alexandria in the years leading up to the Second World War, it opens with a vividly drawn description of a heady and hedonistic city teeming with different nationalities. Durrell, writing as an insider and resident of Alexandria at this time, breathes life into the details of every quarter, street and alleyway he describes.

Justine has the shape of a love story as the narrator, only later identified as L.G.Darnley, is drawn into her world of glamour, deceit and despair. We find out little about his background, only that he's come to Alexandria as a writer, quickly becoming involved with the timorous sometime-dancer Melissa. The beautiful and seductive Justine is way out of his league, already married to wealthy Coptic businessman Nessim, but when did that ever stop a man from embarking on a doomed-to-disaster love affair? At first the story is fragmented as Darnley, writing from a distant island some time after the event, seeks to make sense of what has happened and to find a form for his novel.

There are huge drifts of description and I must admit I struggled at times to get to grips with the narrative. If I hadn't been on holiday, with time to concentrate while sipping a glass of prosecco on my sun lounger, I might have been tempted to give up. There just seemed to be an excess of words to deal with, many of them too obscure unless you have a dictionary handy. Nevertheless it was the writing which finally got hold of me towards the close of Justine, both the poetry of Durrell's language and the feeling of being absorbed into a richly textured, multi-faceted place and time far away from modern European sensibilities. A place contrasting opulence and extreme poverty, chastity and complete deprivation; a boiling mass of emotion rather than intellect where philosophical arguments are nevertheless coolly examined and dissected.

The second book weaves a layer of gossamer over the first, covering some of its gaps by means of an 'interlinear' provided by Balthazar, a doctor, interpreter of the Cabal and confidante of Justine's. Here we learn all is not what it seems, that many of the protagonists have previously unsuspected motives for their actions and there's much more at the heart of this hugely-scoped quartet than a simple love story. Mountolive, the only book written in the third person, reinforces this and throws light on yet more characters from the perspective of the British ambassador. It's only in Clea, the final instalment, that the story moves on as Darnley is drawn back into the lives of those he left behind in an Alexandria now ravaged by war, to find how much they too have changed.

The four books, although all written from different perspectives and initially published separately between 1957-60, have many recurring themes and motifs in common. I can't imagine reading any one in isolation, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts, the reworking of events becoming the stuff of life itself. I was still reading Clea after I got back from holiday, but by that time there was no problem in getting to the end because I was hooked. The fate of many of the characters has stayed with me and it's one of those novels that - despite its length - you want to reread immediately to see what clues you missed first time round. As commitments go book-wise, The Alexandria Quartet is a big one, but like all the best relationships its impact is long-lasting, profound and deeply rewarding.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

Last weekend my family and I made our annual pilgrimage to one of our favourite places, the idyllic Cornish town of Fowey, a location beloved of the du Maurier clan who still own a house on the riverbank at Bodinnick.

A view of Fowey with the du Maurier house Ferryside on the left

Which reminded me I was seriously tardy with my review of Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn, an accomplished biographer who lives near me in Bath.

Jane has a particular interest in families and their influence on the lives and works of her subjects
families are the soil out of which character grows and there is no richer compost than the relationship of sisters
Previously she's examined the sibling bond between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and here she focuses on the writer Daphne du Maurier and her less well known sisters Angela and Jeanne.

(l to r) Angela, Jeanne, their mother Muriel and Daphne

Even before the eldest sister Angela was born, the du Mauriers were celebrities in Edwardian society; their father Gerald was renowned as the actor who made the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan his own. J.M.Barrie was a family friend and the girls were taken every year to see the play performed at Wyndhams's theatre.

Gerald as Captain Hook
Throughout their childhood the sisters would re-enact the play in their nursery, the words and ideas becoming engraved deep into their psyches. Daphne was always Peter; Angela was more than happy to play Wendy, while Jeanne filled in with whatever part Daphne assigned her.
As in the nursery, so in the life of a family which created its own language and childhood nicknames. Daphne (known as Bing) took the leading role as her father's favourite, the one who had the looks, the talent and eventually the husband, children, money and fame as well. She lived increasingly in the world of an imagination more vivid to her than real life, often developing crushes on people as she perceived them rather than as they really were, using them as 'pegs' on which to hang the characters in her writing.

Angela (Piffy), considered plain from a birth in a family that valued beauty, lacked belief that she could really achieve anything of her own and fell easily in and out of love, firstly with men and then more often with women. She tried singing and acting before turning to writing and had several books published, but never emulated Daphne's success, leading her to entitle her biography 'It's Only The Sister'.

Angela's biography
But, at a time when Daphne was being faced with the unwelcome realities of life as an army Major's wife, Angela's world opened up as she became involved with a group of liberated women in Hampstead, including the actress Marda Vanne and writer Dodie Smith. Jane's writing gives us a fascinating insight into the life which could be lived by women outside the conventions of marriage and domesticity in the 1930s, if, of course, they had the means to support themselves. Once her father died, the grip of his Victorian values was loosened and Angela had a series of relationships with women frequently much older than herself.

Jeanne (l) with Daphne
Jeanne (Bird), the youngest, was favourite of her mother Muriel, a pretty child who became a painter, trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and increasingly involved in the artistic life of Cornwall. Of the three sisters, Jeanne's voice is mostly absent because, in writing this book, Jane was denied access to her letters by Jeanne's lifelong partner the poet Noel Welch. Like their mother Muriel, she often doesn't seem to have a presence of her own but is glimpsed in the writings and reactions of others.

One of Jeanne's paintings

This biography is richly illustrated with photographs from the du Maurier family album which track their lives as they grow with the century through the opulence of the twenties to the deprivations of war and beyond. As Jane explains in her preface, she doesn't seek to write a full biography of each sister, rather to consider them side by side as they lived in life. But this is a difficult balance to achieve and inevitably Daphne emerges as the fascinating but flawed leading character in this book. She often appears unlikable and cold in her relationships, yet is generous to a fault with her wealth in supporting family and friends, has written more than her siblings and had so much more written about her.

Daphne and her children at Menabilly

And, although the whole family fell in love with Fowey and lived there for many years, it was Daphne alone who became obsessed with nearby Menabilly, the run-down country house which provided inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca, her bestselling novel which became a chilling Hitchcock film.

It's fascinating to examine Daphne's character and work not only in the context of her two sisters but also her parents and the wider du Maurier clan. Although Jane does succeed in bringing Angela and to some extent Jeanne to life, it's through the prism of Daphne that this engaging, highly readable and thoroughly researched biography is at its most successful.

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Getty Images and the BBC

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Guest Blog:The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Take Two)

I've been considering inviting a guest on my blog for a while and when Livvy came back from London having seen 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' for the second time this year, I wanted to know why she found it so compelling. She is my daughter, by the way, and a drama student, you can find her on twitter @livvy_leigh. So here (drum roll) are her thoughts...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Theatre in its Prime
Having won seven Olivier Awards, reams of four and five-star reviews and countless other accolades, Simon Stephens’ and Marianne Elliott’s staggering stage translation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Apollo certainly lives up to and beyond the hype. In what is a very true adaptation of Haddon’s novel, the audience are introduced to the complex, comic and at times very difficult world of Christopher Boone (Luke Treadaway/Johnny Gibbon), a 15-year old boy with ‘behavioural problems’ consistent with Asperger’s syndrome. Detached from the ‘confusing’ people around him, Christopher enjoys maths, outer space and being on his own. His world revolves around logic and reasoning, and he is unable to understand jokes or metaphors. In what is a hugely enjoyable production in terms of both its creative staging and first-rate acting, the protagonist attempts to uncover the mystery of the murder of his neighbour’s dog, inadvertently embarking on a journey which in turn reveals a number of truths a lot closer to home.

The joy of this play is that we gain an insight into Christopher’s very private world; his eccentricities and the workings of his astonishing mind. Stephens overcomes the difficulties presented by the fact that the story is told entirely by Christopher using the character of Siobhan (Niamh Cusack), his teacher, as the main narrator of a book he is writing for a school project. This divorce of story-telling from the action is instrumental in creating moments of both comedy and immense tension – particularly when Christopher discovers a box of hidden letters in his father’s bedroom. This device allows Treadaway to inhabit the protagonist with an incredible and perfect intensity, as well as creating fantastically comic moments delivered by peripheral characters.

The physicality of the entire performance is awe-inspiring. Choreographed by Frantic Assembly, the ensemble performs incredibly fast-paced and demanding routines, most memorably when Christopher has to tackle a bustling Paddington and the tube. Here he is spun, held vertically as he walks across the sidewall and flipped several times by busy and expressionless London commuters. The movement devised is a perfect visual allegory for the intrusive and overwhelming sensory environment Christopher finds himself in, not only as someone on the autistic spectrum but as a young boy in an alien location too. Back home in Swindon, the most physical contact Christopher can tolerate is meeting his palm with his father’s, so the contrast in physicality between these two locations really does reinforce the assault on his senses that he suffers in London. Life is horribly messy, Christopher discovers, and the portrayal of the capital city exemplifies this.

Then there’s the set. Organised like a magnificent grid complete with co-ordinates, Bunny Christie’s design is a delightful manifestation of Christopher’s ordered and mathematical world. Props emerge from the floor and several cupboards are disguised in the walls of the set, contributing to a very exciting and intense routine in which Christopher builds a mammoth train-track near the end of the first act. Settings are created through the simple use of lighting and wooden boxes (as well as members of the ensemble!), and projections appear on the walls which make the performance very immersive. At one point the dimensions of the set even change - the stage’s back wall surging forwards - and this really effectively displays how unstable the world is for Christopher.

There’s no weak link in any of the cast’s performances – each role is acted with a faultless and entirely believable intensity. Sean Gleeson and Holly Aird’s performances as struggling parents Ed and Judy are fantastic and very true – they are not saint-like; they are flawed and at points just as confused about everything as Christopher. Judy’s desperation really is heart-wrenching, although her monologues are extremely lengthy. Tilly Tremayne’s comic timing as the elderly and benevolent Mrs Alexander is spot-on, especially when she informs Christopher of his mother’s affair with Mr Shears. And then there’s Luke Treadaway. It’s rare to come away from a play unable to imagine what an actor is like outside of the role they are in, but Treadaway is so entirely convincing from his unique intonation of speech and repetition of prime numbers to his constant fiddling of his hoodie-strings that he really does achieve this. He times comic moments perfectly, especially when Christopher inadvertently mimics those around him. His manic assembling of the train-tracks and the ‘episode’ which follows are remarkably powerful and breathtaking to watch. You don’t need me to tell you this, but his performance is one entirely deserving of its Olivier award.

Not to be overlooked is Johnny Gibbon’s outstanding performance as the alternate lead. He too is utterly convincing as the 15 year-old Christopher and tackles the role, which is hugely physically and emotionally demanding, like a seasoned professional despite it being his west-end debut and is thoroughly deserving of high acclaim for his performance.

This adaptation of Haddon’s break-through book is a triumph and one which should appeal to everyone – because really this play isn’t just about a boy on the autistic spectrum. Stephens’ writing and Elliott’s direction emphasise that it’s about anyone who has experienced difference and difficulty; our individual eccentricities and how we overcome the problems that life, confusing at the best of times, presents us with.

PS. Listen to Siobhan and stay after the curtain-call!

The original Olivier award-winning west-end cast have less than a week of performances left.  150 £12 tickets are available on the day from 10 am at the box office and with a full house almost every night this is your best chance of seeing them before they finish. The new run commences on 2nd September with Mike Noble leading the promising new cast.

Pictures taken from by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and Johnny Gibbon