Monday 30 June 2014

Theatre Review: Private Peaceful at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

An unknown soldier of the First World War finds his voice as Private Thomas Peaceful in this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, which has been revived by Poonamallee Productions for the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities.
Tommo, played by William Troughton, brings us face to face with the extreme youth of many of those who fought in the trenches. He’s an underage recruit who only volunteered so he could stay with his older brother Charlie, expecting to have to do his bit but never to stand before a court martial on charges of cowardice. Now he’s counting down the hours of a last night, determined to stay awake and live every minute, before the firing squad awaits in the morning.
This is a production of great light and shade and its changes of pace are well judged. With a minimal set of an iron-framed bed and a few props, Troughton switches seamlessly between the bleakness of Tommo’s present and the innocence of his childhood in a Devon village. Adopting the poise of a young boy, he simultaneously breathes life into the characters of the adults who order Tommo’s world and the family and friends he holds closest. “I used to love mud,” he says, as he wistfully recalls playing in the river with Charlie and Molly, the girl he adores.
But the insidious tentacles of war must reach even as far as Tommo’s rural childhood and after the interval the mood darkens. Time on his watch ticks down and reminiscences turn to the indignities of army training and the brutality of life in water-logged trenches full of rats and lice. Troughton’s performance is totally captivating as he single-handedly recreates not only Tommo but also his universe.
The upended bed becomes the wire fence Tommo has been ordered to defend against the Hun and he finds that repeating Oranges and Lemons, the song of his childhood, is not enough to save his skin or his sanity. Howard Hudson’s lighting and Jason Barnes’s sound, both slick in the first half, become instrumental in recreating the terrifying atmosphere, as fear of imminent death is dragged out over days of incessant bombardment and compounded by the pervasive assault of gas. Only at the end is the sound in danger, perhaps intentionally, of becoming too overwhelming.
Simon Reade’s adaptation is well suited to the intimate round of the Tobacco Factory and is generally faithful to events in the novel, although the latter stages are open to some reinterpretation. What is undoubtedly retained is the poignancy of Morpurgo’s writing, revealing the callousness of a war where a mentally scarred soldier, unable to obey an order which equates to suicide, might instead be shot by his compatriots in the cold, hard light of day. Private Thomas Peaceful, in Troughton’s moving portrayal, is the most courageous of cowards who serves as a stark reminder of the unknown sacrifice of millions.
Runs until 12th July 2014 | Photo Farrows Creative
Booking details are here

My #Bookadayuk Challenge Week 4

Here's my final instalment of tweets for The Borough Press's #Bookadayuk challenge - and a final reminder of what it was all about

Day 23

Day 24

Day 25

Day 26

Day 27

Day 28

Day 29

Day 30

So there you have it! Huge thanks to The Borough Press - it's been a blast! So very interesting to see the books other people have been tweeting about and, as usual, I've found many, many more along the way that I now want to read.

But wait, it's not over, because the baton has been passed to Doubleday Books who have a whole new challenge for July...

Sunday 29 June 2014

Today's post is brought to you by the letter...

Simon over at Stuck in a Book came up with an interesting meme where we say our favourite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with a particular, randomly assigned letter. His was M and he came up with some great suggestions, so I volunteered to join in as long as he didn't give me an X or Z! Well, I avoided those but came out instead with the letter U which, I have to say, has proved quite challenging for some categories. I did suggest to Simon there might be a little bit of cheating involved...

Favourite Book...
A surprisingly easy start, seeing how much I love Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher-Stowe

My battered (but much loved) edition features fantastic, original illustrations by Jenny Nystrom-Stoopendaal

Favourite Author...
Hmm, a trickier one until I switched to first names and remembered Umberto Eco - my favourite being this

Have to say I did struggle a bit with Foucault's Pendulum though...

Favourite Song...
This classic popped into my head when thinking about songs and stopped me from coming up with anything else

Favourite Film...
I know the original French film is 'Intouchables', but translated into English it begins with a 'U' (I did say there'd be some cheating involved!). A really lovely, bittersweet comedy...

Favourite Object...
This may well be the biggest cheat of all but I love this UTTERLY adorable butterfly my younger daughter drew at nursery when she was four

What was I to do? I'm not exactly in love with my umbrella!

This has been a great idea and fun to think around, so thank you for coming up with it, Simon! I'm off to have a look at other people's letters now..

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Book Review: A Parallel Life by Bonnie Greer

I've been an admirer of Bonnie Greer since seeing her on BBC2's Newsnight Review many years ago. Back then I had no idea who she was, but she came from somewhere else and she resonated.

That somewhere else is the South Side of Chicago and now Greer has written the first volume of her memoir, A Parallel Life, we get to find out about her early days there. Her parents migrated to the city, escaping the oppression of working class black people in the Southern states of America, but as it turned out
'Up North' became a statement that said things were no different on the South side of Chicago and in Harlem than they were in Mississippi. It was just bigger and dirtier, more crowded and colder.
Having served on the Normandy Beaches, Greer's Daddy worked in a can factory by night and repaired TV sets by day to support his growing family, while her Mamma went to bed at two in the morning and rose again three hours later to keep them clean and fed. The eldest of seven children, those days had Greer harnessed to chores and baby-minding and falling asleep listening to gangs initiating girls in the passageway outside. A child of books and writing and the imagination, she watched and learnt and decided early on this wasn't the life she wanted for herself.

What Greer did want was already in her head; the parallel life of her title, a sensual refuge of synaesthesia, where words are rooted in music - images, colours and sounds. Her chapters often begin with songs, from the Chicago blues and Dinah Washington to Laura Nyro, The Beatles and Bowie, setting the scene for the times she's living through. The Kennedys and Martin Luther King are assassinated, students riot and Vietnam looms large. This is no linear, chronological memoir but one without dialogue which circles its subject, glancing a blow before dancing away again like a literary world champion prize-fighter. Momentous events are overlaid with personal truths and soaked with cultural references, until A Parallel Life becomes Greer's own eloquent song and the chapters her verses.

Greer's Mama fears for her daughter's safety and straps her down once puberty begins, because a black woman's body is a commodity not her own. Yet, despite the fear of being attacked on the way to a school still in the throes of racial integration, there are good times too; her parents go out of their way to provide typically abundant American Christmases with presents, turkey and all the trimmings. There's no shortage of humour, such as when a young Greer, raised a Catholic, confided to her priest
 I wanted to be an altar boy, then a priest and finally Pope.
Like others her age and colour, Greer saw too many of those she knew and loved die violent deaths at a young age. She rebels against the 'proper' world her Mamma is envisaging of marriage, kids and domesticity and embraces ideas and activism instead, taking whatever jobs she can, from topless dancer to bank cashier to pay for her University tuition. She has a series of relationships before eventually finding her family in the company of drag queens, many of whom she later nurses through their dying days of AIDS.

If at first Greer's references to so many relatives can be a little confusing, eventually it's the details which really hook you in, from why she stops straightening her hair to her difficult but nonetheless loving relationship with her parents. All those words she holds inside herself, absorbed from her Daddy's Encyclopedia Brittanicas, his Reader's Digest novels, Patti Smith's Rimbaud, her own love of James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow, whose style in Herzog she describes as
...that kind of writing all the way to the end of a sentence, fighting against its ending, too, but pushing through to the end and beyond. 
Studying with David Mamet, Greer writes her first play which premieres in the depths of a harsh Chicago winter and closes soon afterwards. She's approaching thirty; the age over which, as she'd chanted as a student, you can't be trusted. Feeling she isn't going to achieve anything in Chicago, she finally moves away to embark on the next chapter of her story.

A Parallel Life is a moving and riveting read, a remarkable contemplation of the roots of this writer and commentator in our midst, now so familiar to viewers of BBC current affairs programmes. From the DNA which illuminates her more distant heritage to her family's life in Chicago, Greer challenges you to rethink your own perceptions. She writes with such honesty and insight about who she is and the events which have shaped her, that you finish this volume of her memoir already eagerly anticipating the next.

A Parallel Life is published in the UK by Arcadia Books on 30th June 2014. Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.

Photos courtesy of Amazon and The Independent.

Sunday 22 June 2014

My #Bookadayuk Challenge - week 3

Week 3 of the #Bookadayuk Challenge is now complete! I have to say I found one or two of them quite tricky to fulfil this week. I wonder whether anyone else was the same and how many of us are still going strong?

Day 16
Day 17
Day 18
Day 19
Day 20

I didn't think my photography really did this cover justice - blaming the limitations of my phone.
Day 21

I don't opt for a light summer read on holiday - there's time to get your head round something more challenging
Day 22

Monday 16 June 2014

My #Bookadayuk Challenge - week 2

Another week completed in the #Bookadayuk challenge! Here's what I chose in Week 2 (my intention is to eventually write a bit more about each one, rather than just copying down tweets!).

Day 9

Day 10

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Sunday 15 June 2014

Book Review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

A Song For Issy Bradley is a rare book, one with such emotional honesty that you feel it must have been ripped straight from the heart of its author and transplanted onto the page.

The Bradleys could be any other ordinary family living in the north-west of England - but they're not. They're Mormons and Ian, husband of Claire and father of the four Bradley children, is a Bishop so dedicated to his flock that he misses his son Jacob's seventh birthday party. Claire is preoccupied with preparations for the day and the older two children each have their own worries; seventeen-year-old Zippy thinks she's in love and son Alma would rather be playing football. Nobody notices little Issy, spiralling into the clutches of an illness that's far beyond the reach of a hurried dose of Calpol.

The death of a child can never be an easy subject to read or write about, but in Carys Bray's hands it becomes a sensitive and profound exploration of bereavement, unfolding from the perspective of each member of the Bradley family as they struggle to come to terms with guilt and loss. Claire begins to question the very basis of her faith which was never as strong as her husband's, while Ian sees death as a temporary parting until the family can be reunited in the Celestial Kingdom. Zippy and Alma are already questioning a world where men are expected to go on a mission to convert non-believers and women to marry and have children. But it is young Jacob, steeped in the power of miracles both great and small, who often touches the heart most of all:
Dad said he would understand it better when he was older. But Jacob understood something right then. If he wanted Issy back, he was going to have to make it happen himself.
From the very first page, it's clear that A Song For Issy Bradley is a novel which will force you to face some of your deepest fears and, in doing so, move you to tears. It's enhanced by an elegantly detailed sense of place, as when Claire walks along the beach near her home:
The track is sandier now, damp and sticky, gritty, like cake mix. It's stamped with a network of prints. There are wide tide-marks from cockling vehicles and thinner tracks from bicycles. There are footprints, paw prints and birds' prints, some tiny, others surprisingly large, pronged like windmill blades. As she continues, the texture of the sand changes; it is speckled with a mosaic of broken shell pieces which draw her towards the sea like a trail of breadcrumbs. 
What I wasn't expecting is that just as your tears are in danger of becoming a river, there's laughter to stem the flow. The Bradley family are contemporary, believable and so real that you begin to inhabit their characters. You feel Alma's frustration as he's expected to clean the chapel toilets on a Saturday afternoon rather than go to football training and touch Zippy's horror when a photograph of herself in her Mum's wedding dress ends up on Facebook. Most of all, you wish you could reach out and give Jacob a big hug, while at the same time suppressing a smile as his attempts at the miraculous go awry.

In this, her debut novel, Carys Bray writes about the Mormon church with an eye for the everyday and a fascinating insider's knowledge, having been born, brought up and married in the faith. If, like Ian, you accept its beliefs without question, there's clearly comfort in this certainty, but there's also no allowance for a doubt like Claire's nor for a way of mourning which deviates from the prescribed path. You can sense the restriction in adhering to doctrines at such variance with secular society, especially for teenagers like Alma and Zippy, who just want to fit in with their friends.

Carys and her husband lost one of their own children as the result of an inherited metabolic disease, a tragedy which brings a searing truthfulness to her writing. Yet, although she and her family have now left the Mormon church, her often forensic depiction of its members and routines still retains a great deal of sympathy.

From its cover to its final page, A Song For Issy Bradley is a beautifully balanced and delicately expressed novel both inside and out. Through tears and laughter, there is great courage in this miraculous book and it is this which, despite the depths of one family's devastation, makes it such an ultimately warm and uplifting read.

A Song For Issy Bradley is published in the U.K on 19th June 2014, many thanks to Hutchinson for my advance copy. 

If you'd like to find out more about how this book's lovely cover was created then click here.

Sunday 8 June 2014

The #Bookaday Challenge

The Borough Press's June #Bookaday Challenge on Twitter is a lovely thing, isn't it?

I thought it might be interesting to keep a weekly blog record, so here are my days 1 - 8

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3
Day 4 (A bit of a cop out)
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I'm sneaking in a last minute review, ahead of this evening's announcement of the winner of The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel is one of the shortlisted six, and if I don't write about it now, I'm afraid my opinion might be forever coloured by knowing the outcome.

The Lowland is the story of two Indian brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, born in Calcutta in the 1960s. Close in age and 'similar enough in build to draw from a single pile of clothes', they're often mistaken for each other, conditioned to answer to either name. But their personalities are different; Subhash, born first, is placid and obedient, while Udayan is more daring.

Communist ideas are spreading civil unrest throughout the country and beyond, and, as they grow into adulthood, Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalites. They practice an ideology prepared to resort to violence in support of the peasant sharecroppers of West Bengal and, despite Udayan's attempts to get his brother to join him, Subhash cannot approve and decides to pursue his studies in America. Udayan begs him not to
'You're the other side of me, Subhash. It's without you that I'm nothing. Don't go.'
But despite this, it's Udayan who's first to leave, travelling outside the city. As Subhash departs for Rhode Island and a university campus where he's the only foreigner, their parents are left alone in their house in the district of Tollygunge, building an extension for a family that seems increasingly remote.

The first part of The Lowland sets out the prevailing political situation and, although it also introduces the two brothers, it seems quite slow to build. Once Subhash moves to America, his experiences as a stranger in a foreign land, building his first tentative relationships, are more engaging. And when Udayan's actions draw Subhash back to his parents' home in Calcutta, the impact of events really begins to take hold.

The overall effect is to catch you unawares; the narrative encircles you as it's told from multiple perspectives, layering its insights over the decades, until it has you in its grasp. Lahiri examines both the immigrant experience and the sensation of returning to a homeland which has moved on. She meditates on the ties of family, on love and loss, ideology and the pursuit of your own course regardless of the needs of others.

The beautifully descriptive and measured prose returns time and again to the lowland behind the Mitra's home in Tollygunge. Sometimes this land contains two separate ponds, choking with water hyacinth, but during the monsoon season it floods, so they merge and overflow. It is a childhood playground, a life-changing hiding place and a site for remembrance which might simply cease to be.

By the time I'd finished reading, although never quite shaking off a certain sense of detachment, I loved this book. Does its evocative ending make up for its slow beginning? I'm not sure, but we'll soon find out whether the judges of the Baileys Prize think it does.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury. Thanks to The Book Club (@_bookclub) for my prize-winning copy. 

Monday 2 June 2014

Theatre Review: An August Bank Holiday Lark at The Everyman, Cheltenham

The verses of Philip Larkin's poem MCMXIV, from which Deborah McAndrew's new play takes its title, talk of 'sun on moustached archaic faces' and 'place-names all hazed over with flowering grasses'. This sense of a more innocent, bygone era is reflected in the opening of An August Bank Holiday Lark as, in the summer of 1914, the villagers of a rural community in East Lancashire prepare for the celebration of Wakes week.

This is a time when farmers and mill workers can rest from their year-round toil, the highlight being the annual Rushbearing festival, when a decorated cart is pulled through the streets accompanied by Morris dancers. The forces of war may already be mobilising around Europe, but they are as yet a distant rumble for these villagers. In this long established community, families like the Farrars and the Armitages have rubbed along side by side for generations; not without their hardships, as working conditions at the nearby mill have all too often taken their toll.

The first half of this play, presented by Northern Broadsides in partnership with the New Vic Theatre, is suffused with humour, bringing us a glimpse of life as it was. As their parents squabble over escaped hens, young Frank Armitage (Darren Kuppan) and Mary Farrar (Emily Butterfield) carry on their courting in secret, afraid that Mary's father John (Barrie Rutter) will disapprove. John is Squire of the local Morris men, a group so imbued with tradition that he counsels the younger generation against the introduction of any fancy new dance steps. Despite this, as the village men don their clogs, practices are often riotous and hilarious opportunities for teasing and flirtation. Women, not yet given the vote and under no circumstances allowed to join in the dancing, still have a role in sewing costumes and playing the accompanying music. It's infectiously rousing and, as the Rushcart is constructed before our eyes and paraded by men with hats adorned with fresh flowers and ribbons, the audience is soon clapping and cheering along with the imaginary crowds.

But we know too well that this rural community is set to be torn asunder. Many of the young men sign up enthusiastically with their local recruiting officer, keen to see more of the world in a war which will be over by Christmas. After the interval, the tone becomes darker; although there's still a wedding to enjoy it's cut short as the men who've completed their training are sent to fight in Gallipoli. And with the date of the next Rushcart festival approaching, the villagers who remain behind plan to hold it in honour of their absent men, only to find themselves in a world where such celebrations no longer have any place.

An August Bank Holiday Lark is a significant piece of new writing by Deborah McAndrew, who has collaborated previously with Northern Broadsides and teaches at Staffordshire University. It was originally performed in the round at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the theatre of my childhood where I still recall first seeing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The force that is Barrie Rutter (the man who cast Lenny Henry as Othello) not only commissioned and directs the play but also takes the role of John Farrar with great distinction and draws some excellent performances from his capable cast. Lauryn Redding in particular is notable as the often comic mill worker Susie Hughes.

The play's set and costumes are reminiscent of War Horse, with Joey replaced by a Rushcart; a marvel of construction built and dismantled again for every performance. Adapted for the proscenium arch, on a few occasions it does feel as though the cast has too far to run on and off stage. Then, in the wedding breakfast scene, the table is mysteriously set right at the back, so that even those of us in the stalls are unable to see clearly what's going on (my theory is that the cast have eaten all of the much admired wedding cake and are having to cover this up).

An August Bank Holiday Lark is by turns a funny, sad, wise and ultimately moving commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It embodies the transition in Larkin's poem, to a world where those flowering grasses are 'shadowing Domesday lines under wheat's restless silence' and there is 'never such innocence again'. This play deserves to be seen and pondered over by as wide an audience as possible, lest we should ever dare to forget.

Photos courtesy of Northern Broadsides. An August Bank Holiday Lark continues on tour until 14th June 2014, details here.