Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.

It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.

I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.

The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.

Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.

Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.

Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.

The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

David Mitchell’s latest Booker Prize longlisted nominated novel has been dubbed a metaphysical thriller, a genre-bending tale that spans oceans and eras, a book that makes Cloud Atlas look like a kitchen sink drama.

The Bone Clocks is like several different novels by several different authors of several different genres all rolled into one big fat tale that is simultaneously one woman’s ordinary story of guilt and family, a tale of a feud between other worlds and an apocalyptic future in our own.

For the bulk of it, I loved The Bone Clocks. The tale starts in Gravesend, Kent in 1984 where 17-year-old Holly Skyes is slamming her front door after a row with her mother, storming off to boyfriend Vincent Costelloe’s (who makes a later, brilliantly cast cameo). So far, so normal. But Holly has been hearing voices all her life and was visited by the mysterious and beautiful Immaculée Constantin until she was taken to a certain Dr Marinus who silenced the chatter and banish the interloper.

While on the run Holly is party to a deadly fight between people from two other universes (the memory of which is wiped by the ‘goodies’) who we later come to know as Horologists and Anchorites (led by Miss Constantin), the background oddness that bubbles under the surface in the first four chapters, revealing itself in the novel’s fifth section.

Holly’s flight from the family home is cut short after she’s tracked down by Ed Brubeck, a boy in her class (who pops up a couple of chapters later where he’s a war reporter, dodging bombs and angry American soldiers in the Middle East), who tells Holly her little brother Jacko has gone missing, a mystery that the novel spins around.

In true Mitchell style, there are six sections, all narrated, or focused on, different individuals whose lives are intertwined with each others. There’s Holly, and later Ed, and between we hear from Hugo Lamb, a pompous, possibly psychopathic Cambridge student (uncannily like the title character in Sebastian FaulksEngleby that I haven’t long finished) and a great section narrated by the Martin Amis-like author Crispin Hershey, who is all hard intellectual edges and a softish heart.

With each chapter there’s a shift in tone and pace before we settle down to the latest installment in this globe trotting tale that has Holly and Jacko’s mysterious disappearance at its core.

But the fifth section is more than just a change of gear, it’s like getting into a Ford Fiesta and finding yourself on the moon as we land in another story where Mitchell Does Fantasy. We are introduced to the metaphysical element early on – the fight that Holly witnesses – and there’s an dollop – some large, some small – in each intervening chapter. But in this section the fantasy button goes OFF as those Horologists and Anchorites who have been buzzing about in the background take centre stage for a showdown that will destroy one side for good. It’s completely daft, deliberately so I assume, I mean “The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass?” It probably should be fun, but I felt as if you’re wading through a muddled outtake from the Harry Potter cast having a spat.

We’re back in grim reality in the final section as Mitchell Does Cormac McCarthy. Holly is now in Ireland, it’s 2043 and the world is scorched and depleted, the idea of 24/7 electricity has become mythical. Holly lives on a windswept peninsula, with her granddaughter and adopted grandson struggling against the increasingly medieval conditions. Mitchell’s vision of a near future without fuel, electricity or democracy is as unpleasantly realistic as the preceding chapter was fantastical – and far more fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Here Lies Love, National Theatre

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, it’s that she loved shoes.

There are no mention of shoes in Here Lies Love (the inscription Imelda once said she wanted on her gravestone), but the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim penned musical about Imelda’s colourful life will certainly have you metaphorically donning your dancing shoes.

Here Lies Love is a frenetic, energetic slice of pure fun (and a little history). It follows Imelda from her humble-ish roots in the small town of Tacloban where her family were well to do enough to keep a servant, Estrella Cumpas (an endearing Gia Macuja Atchison), but not rich enough to pay her. Imelda dreamt big from the beginning and after winning (in this version, according to Wikipedia she actually came second) the local beauty contest and being dumped by first love Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) for being too tall, she heads off to Manila where she catches the eye of budding politician Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista).

Based on a concept album written by Talking Heads‘ David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love is full of sassy charm and feels genuinely different. What it might lack in West End polish, it makes up for in enthusiasm and (largely) properly good songs. There are a couple of the usual musical meh numbers, but if you don’t come away singing title track ‘Here Lies Love’ you have a harder heart that Imelda at her most ruthless.Even I, who is allergic to forced clap-a-longs and queasy about over zealous theatrics, found myself bopping along (safely in my seat).

The set is a nightclub, complete with rotating platforms, inspired by Imelda famously converting one of her New York houses into a disco (OF COURSE) and Alex Timbers’s pacey direction immerses the audience into the camp frivolity. I was sitting, but down in the stalls the audience find themselves on the dancefloor and it was an awful lot of fun watching  British theatre goers shuffle self-consciously from my position on the balcony.The staging also features video projections and newsreel footage of the time – there’s a LOT going on.

Here Lies Love may be fabulous fun, but it has also has heart. Natalie Mandoza plays Imelda Marcos with force, but also reveals the First Lady’s tender side with some rousing ballads and the lyrics convey the human story behind the ruthless politician.

But above all, Here Lies Love is an energetic and exciting production and a dose of disco tonic.

Here Lies Love is at the National Theatre until 8 January 2015. For tickets and more information, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Rivals, Arcola Theatre

Iain  Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

As Jane Austen showed, Regency Bath with its petty snobberies and bored, gouty bourgeoise was ripe for satirical picking. Richard Sheridan takes Austen’s gentle satire and cranks it up to 11, poking fun at the newly wealthy middle classes and minor aristocrats in The Rivals, a play brimming with playfulness of language and cocky bravado. The Arcola Theatre’s revival of it is every bit as fun as it should be, brightening up a filthy afternoon in Dalston (no easy feat).

Upper class Lydia Languish’s (Jenny Rainsford) head is full of romantic novels and longs to suffer for love like the heroines in the books she borrows from the circulating library (“vile places indeed!”). Happily for Lydia she  falls in love with a man she believes to be an impoverished officer, who goes by the hugely unromantic name of Ensign Beverley, who she is plotting to elope with.

Of course her posh relations, of which she only seems to have one, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (yes, her of using words in the wrong context fame) really won’t stand for her niece gallivanting off with a lowly red coat. In reality, Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) actually has nothing to worry about as Beverley is actually the far richer – and much more plausibly named – Jack Absolute – who is having an absolute ball teasing his beloved with his great ruse (remember, these are the days before Pointless).

Jack’s wheeze hits a major stumbling block when his rather severe father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost), informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him. Furious, Jack quarrels with his father before learning that he’s fated to be married to none other than… yes, Lydia Languish. Well I never!

But how will he get round the slippery problem of Lydia loving his poorer alter ego? And there’s also the problem of another real life rival, the rather boarish Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who is determined to see off this upstart Beverley. Cue plenty of farcical mix-ups that encompass their small society including the romantically jealous Faulkland and his exasperated fiancee Julia, impoverished Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and several servants including Lucy who stirs the misunderstandings up to a roiling boil.

The story is delightfully and brilliantly daft, Sheridan’s genuinely funny script sends up 18th century society like a Jane Austen after a bottle of Port. As sparkling witty as Sheridan’s script is though, this play needs fine comic actors to pull it off, any hint of self-consciousness would render The Rivals toe-curling embarrassing to watch. The cast in Selina Cadell’s production tackle the story with bravado, pulling out the humour with some brilliantly judged campness and arch-knowingness. Gemma Jones (Spooks’ evil Connie) has fun with a pink-haired Mrs Malaprop and Jenny Rainsford is dramatically pouty mouthed as the spoilt Lydia. Justine Mitchell impresses as Julia who must convince her silly fiancé that she does love him with many flowery speeches. Iain Batchelor is an exuberant Jack Absolute brimming with cheeky charm and a convincing cockiness. You want to cheer when all’s well that ends well. Which of course it is.

The Rivals is on until 15th November at the Arcola Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott 

Book Review: Us by David Nicholls

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

I’ve always stayed clear of David Nicholls’ novels out of sheer prejudice, not letting actual plot facts get in the way of his reputation for bouncy, implausible romantic storylines. I dismissed One Day as schmaltzy and unrealistic without even reading a synopsis. And having seen the film of Starter for Ten, I believed my quota for warmly funny, quirky stories about happiness against the odds had been fulfilled.

But Us sounded harder nosed, it had after all been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and we all know that novels don’t get a whiff of a Big Prize without a dose of misery to elevate it to Proper Literature status.

Us is very far from Thomas Hardy-bleak, but it’s a novel that combines humour with life’s harder moments, a half smile with teary eyes. Us is Douglas Petersen’s story of his relationship with Connie that at the beginning of the novel is on very shaky ground after she announces her intention to leave him after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage. Can a pre-planned family Grand Tour of Europe persuade Connie not to throw in the martial towel? It’s unlikely, but Douglas isn’t about to let the woman he adores slip from his life. So off we pop to the continent as we follow the Petersens on their often chaotic, but hugely entertaining journey across Europe’s great cities.

Douglas is a proper – not a trendy – geek, a biochemist with a real zeal for fly-fires. Connie is – of course, we are in Nicholls’ land –  the complete opposite, a free-wheeling artist who is late for flights and leaves the dishes until the morning. I came to realise quite quickly that Nicholls has no interest in challenging stereotypes. All the characters behave true to form from the anally-retentive scientist to the boho-artist, while Connie and Douglas’s teenage son, Albie, is moody, messy and often malicious (to his father anyway). This adherence to stereotype isn’t as annoying or as formulaic as it sounds because the story that Nicholls conjures up around this cast of cliches is heartwarming, engaging and occasionally embarrassing-yourself-on-the-bus funny.

Petersen doesn’t get it all his own way. Nicholls has given his one-personal narration enough rope to hang himself at times (see the ‘the glitter wars’ chapter ).  Like all the best storytellers Nicholls allows Douglas to develop without telling the reader what he’s like and as such, you’re never quite sure whose side you are on. Connie can be smug and self-obsessed. Her dismissal of science as boring and her frustration at Douglas’ struggle with culture (he does try) smack of an art school try-hard and for all her bohemian ways she seems rather priggish and unopen to ideas outside of her arty box. But, god, Douglas must  be a hard man to live with, despite his good intentions, his moodiness and self-righteousness emanate from the pages. In short, these are all too human characters and you feel their trials keenly.

Like Douglas Petersen, Nicholls isn’t a showy writer, but his style is far from pedestrian. It’s a brilliantly structured novel that flips between the present and the past, giving the reader enough clues to the outcome of both in the oscillating chapters to keep us eager for more details and givs the narrative a crucial structural reality.

I loved Us, it could be frustrating, it could be a little bit cutesy and slightly too ‘nice’ (the ending feels right in the context of the novel, but the outside world wouldn’t be so kind ) but it’s an ultimately joyful, funny exploration of a successfully, unsuccessful family.

Us by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

If theatre – or anything for that matter – can be semi-immersive then Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV is just that. The Donmar Warehouse has been converted into a prison (not too much of a push considering its institutional architecture) for the duration of Lloyd’s all-female production and there’s some very theatrical security on show. You start the evening over the cobbled street at the grandly named Covent Garden Member’s Club (more grudgey than Groucho), before being frog-marched (in a fashion) to the Donmar, where you’re shown to your seats not by smiling ushers, but fierce looking prison guards.  

As fun as this was, I’m not sure this over-enthusiastic scene-setting really added anything to Lloyd’s excellent production of Henry IV besides further highlighting how much the director has ripped up the Shakespeare rule book. In this all-female production, Shakespeare’s tale of kings has been condensed into one play that’s being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison.  We are never told why these female prisoners chose to put on one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays, but it’s not hard to see why a tale of bullying, ‘gangs’, violence and redemption may resonate with those accustomed to sleeping ‘in filthy hovels, stretched out on uncomfortable cots’.

This is more Henry IV Part 1 with the end of Part 2 tagged on. I enjoyed this edited highlights approach; while much is lost in the furious trimming, Lloyd’s production benefits by bringing the cracking key scenes into sharp relief – although Hal’s swift journey from boisterous barfly to worthy warrior and noble king was perhaps a little jarring.

The all-female cast are fantastic, everyone of them convincing as a Shakespeare character while never allowing their contemporary prisoner roles to be forgotten. Clare Dunn as an athletic, cocky Prince Hal was a great foil to the majestic Harriet Walter as the stern, guilt-wracked Henry IV, but it was Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff, a character I usually can’t stand, that I loved. Falstaff is, in the productions I’ve seen, played as a fat, jokey piss-take punch bag, which of course he is. But he’s also a horrid man – cowardly, lying, stealing, nasty, self-obsessed, his disregard for ‘honour’ essentially a reluctance to do anything that won’t further his own fortunes. McGuire brought out Falstaff’s nasty side, highlighting his pomposity rather than his good-time bravado. Maybe because Falstaff is the kind of man who is particularly repellent to women (witness his barbs to poor Mistress Quickly) that meant McGuire and Lloyd weren’t afraid to make him more than the play’s joker.

I usually find myself nodding in agreement when at the end of Part 2 Prince Hal (now Henry V) rejects Falstaff with a “I know ye not, old man”. But this time McGuire’s performance and her reaction to this betrayal as a female prisoner as well as a sack-swilling slob, sobbing while the guards tie her wrists with plastic wire, was genuinely moving.

There were the occasional well-positioned slips into the present day that increased the impact of the production, reminding us that we weren’t watching a straightforward play about  a monarch fighting for his kingdom and heir. Hearing Shakespeare’s posturing, masculine dialogue in the mouths of women with *gasp* regional accents stripped away the stuffiness that can strangle a Shakespeare production and their delivery and the staging served to accentuat how contemporary Shakespeare’s language can sound. When McGuire’s prison alter ego slips from character during the scene where Falstaff is hurling insults at Mistress Quickly and throws in a few choice words of her own, the distinction was barely noticeable.

Single gender Shakespeare productions, especially those set in the modern day , always run the risk of seemingly contrived, but Lloyd’s production brought out the emotional heart of the play while losing nothing of its original intensity.

For tickets and more information visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.

Theatre Review: Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre, Paris opened in 1903 with an aim to scare the living daylights out of an unsuspecting audience. Parisians lapped up the fake-blood gore-fest and the theatre was a huge success until World War II when the rise of more sophisticated celluloid horror forced the theatre to shut its blood-stained doors for the last time in 1967.

The Grand Guignol is another production from the Theatre Royal Plymouth stable with the company’s director Simon Stokes at the helm for its reprisal at the Southwark Playhouse. Set in 1903 it’s a comedy-horror lite (on horror that is, there are plenty of laughs) and tells the behind the scenes story where the lines between the dramatic and reality become very blurred.The Grand Guignol is the story of what went on off-stage, or rather playwright Carl Grose’s version whose script cleverly weaves the scenes from the original plays with his own camp imagings and the result is a brilliantly crafted, perfectly pitched piece of faux-horror.

André de Lorde, the Grand Guignol’s ‘Prince of Terror’ played by the likeable Jonathan Broadbent has been ordered by the theatre’s director, Max Maurey to crank up the gore and horror, demanding more fainters and theatre flee-ers. One of the first members of the audience to pass out from fright is psychiatrist Dr Alfred Binet (a convincingly nervy Matthew Pearson) who becomes fascinated by de Lorde’s compulsion to terrorise and persuades the playwright to be interviewed. In exchange for his confessions, de Lorde makes Binet spill his own childhood terrors and these regular conversations unleash de Lorde’s demon, both creatively and psychologically. As a consequence his plays, brought to life by the theatre’s leading actors, Maxa (‘the world’s most assassinated woman’) and Paulais – respectively played with absolute relish by Emily Raymond and Robert Portal - have theatre goers queuing round the block.

But the terror isn’t confined to the stage, prowling the streets outside the theatre is the Monster of Montmartre and things backstage are about to get a lot more realistic than even prop-maestro, stage manager Ratineau (Paul Chequer) could conjure up.

Grose’s Grand Guignol  is a gag-heavy, deliciously camp slice of kitsch horror that will have you giggly rather than gagging. There are some fantastic one-liners (including plenty of  jokes at theatre critics’ expense, which on press night went down very well) and wonderfully hammy acting that make it a Halloween treat.

For tickets and more information click here

by Suzanne Elliott 

With thanks to Official Theatre London.

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I was introduced to Patrick Hamilton’s books by Julie Burchill who included Hamilton’s Hangover Square in a 10 Books That Should Be Classics list describing it as “as the most beautiful book ever written”. And Burchill got it spot on this time; Hangover Square really was beautiful in a gutter-looking-at-the-stars sort of way with its atmosphere of dark smoky pubs and damp bedrooms.

Like Graham Greene in his more domestic novels and George Orwell’s non-political works, Hamilton’s world is one of grimy backstreet pubs, boarding houses, gas metres and stewed tea. And despite the mundanity, it’s a thrilling world to inhabit, but one that too few people do, as, despite some heavy weight literary names (Doris Lessing wrote the forward to my copy) hailing him as an underrated 20th century novelist, Hamilton remains largely forgotten by the greater 21st century reading world.

World War II has accidentally been looming large in my literary life at the moment, having recently read Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man In The High Castle by and Robert Harris‘ not-very-thrilling thriller Enigma. But while these books deal with space-travelling Nazis and Bletchley spies, The Slaves of Solitude focuses of the dull minutia of war.  The World War II in The Slaves of Solitude is not a war of bombs and bravery, of dancing all night with American soldiers (there is an American soldier, but he’s more drunk than dazzling). This is the forgotten war of dark staircases, cold bedrooms, powdered eggs and chill winds where evil isn’t the Nazis but the bullying bore at your table. Hamilton brings the war to life as a snarky thief, a ‘petty pilferer’ who takes everyday comforts away from you with a nasty smirk.

It’s 1943 and thirty-nine-year-old Enid Roach has fled the Blitz in London for the safe dullness of Thames Lockdon, a fictional town in South-East England thought to be based on Henley-on-Thames . She’s resident at the misleadingly named Rosamund Tea Rooms, now a repressive and stifling boarding house where Enid endures meal times with an elderly bullying bore, Mr Thwaites, brilliantly realised by Hamilton in some of the books funniest passages (although through the giggles your sympathies are with poor Enid). Enid’s life is given a little spark when she meets the whisky loving American, Lieutenant Pike, who pours gin and lemon down her throat in the local pub and half-proposes marriage to her on a park bench. Enid is underwhelmed by his attentions, but is perplexed when a friend – a German woman no less – Vicki Kugelmann starts inching towards him, seemingly attempting some kind of romantic standoff. And, after moving into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, Vicki becomes even more Single White Female, Enid is forced into an unpleasantness that’s more personally violent to her than her London days in the Blitz.

Enid was a joy to spend time with thanks to Hamilton’s deft hand at turning the mundane into an engrossing and witty read. Hamilton’s ear for dialogue and knack of colouring the bland with a brightness that transcends the small lives of his characters earned him fans in his lifetime and it’s surely time for a Stoner-style resurrection for his back catalogue.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Electra, Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Featuring enough wailing, gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands to make King Lear look like a sitcom, it takes a skilled hand to translate and reenact the melodrama of Sophocles’ Electra – the ancient playwright’s tale of the Princess of Argos who was sent into the pit of despair by the death of her father by her mother – to suit modern audience’s less histrionic tastes without losing the drama of the original.  

And hands don’t get much more skilled that Frank McGuinness especially when his translated script is brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson. Scott Thomas owns the stage – or rather the Round – from the minute she opens the doors of her mother and stepfather’s mansion – or as Electra calls it in her hyperbolic way, her prison – bounding down the stairs to the sandy space that she prowls like an injured lioness for the next one hour 40 minutes.

Besides the sand and those big doors, there are few props, just a bare tree trunk and the rather odd addition of a standing tap. If there’s one thing this production missteps on, it’s the inability to make up its mind as to which era we’re in; superficially it’s ancient Greece, but then there’s denim dresses and running water. There’s also more than a touch of modernity in McGuinness’s script, which is sprightly and often humorous, or at least Scott Thomas finds the wit in the contemporary rhythm of her delivery.

But despite the odd guffaw, this is serious stuff. Scott Thomas’ Electra distress is evident in her physicality; painfully thin, twitchy, dusty with that sand, bent double with grief, hatred and anger. Perhaps at times, her performance tips over into the overdramatic, her tears of anguish on hearing of the supposed death of her brother was to my ears more grating than great and their reunion bordering on the affected.  But then, Electra, the play and the woman, were never meant to be subtle.

I liked Scott Thomas best when she was spitting venom, much of it aimed at her poor mother who threatens to put her in an asylum if she doesn’t stop her ravings. There’s a great stand off between her and her hated mother, played with cool poise by  Diana Quick.

I was caught up in Scott Thomas’ performance, perhaps less so by the story and, as good as the supporting cast is – and some, including Quick and Peter Wight as Orestes’ (played by the physically imposing Jack Lowdon last seen, by me at least, in the Almedia’s Ghosts) gruff servant are very good – this was her show. Even the score by PJ Harvey but muted, its haunting strains seeping quietly through and underpinning, but never overwhelming, Electra’s distress.

For tickets and more information, visit www.oldvic.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

Best known as a film, East Is East was originally a play, written by Ayub Khan-Din. Debuting in 1996 (the film followed three years later) the play was based on Khan-Din’s childhood as one of 10 children growing up in Salford with a white mother and a Pakistani father.

I remember the film very fondly,  but it’s been a while since I watched it and in my mind it’s a comedy, its warmth and humour blunting the harder realities of growing up in a mixed raced family in 1971, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech ringing in the ears’ of immigrant communities.

The play, or at least this Sam Yates’ directed reprisal for Trafalgar Studios, brings out the darkness far more vividly than the film, and the humour, while still there, is blacker than the Khan family’s coal shed where the youngest, damaged, child Sanjit (a standout performance from Michael Karim) is often hiding.

The play deals with identity, family, religion and, perhaps less obviously, masculinity. George Khan, the family’s patriarch, was Indian when he left the subcontinent, but is now a proud Pakistani, obsessed with the news bulletins reporting the Bangladesh Liberation War.  George grows frustrated and furious that his seven children aren’t growing up as the good Muslim Pakistanis he wants them to be. He is estranged from his eldest son, Nasir, who shamed him by running away from home after being threatened with an arranged marriage and becoming a hairdresser. Khan is aggressively masculine, prone to violent outbursts against his wife and sons and dictating to them how they should live their lives with no thought for personal liberty. Ayub Khan Din is a menacing George, while Jane Horrocks may look bird like, but her Ella Khan is a tough northern cookie, the Kashmir inbetween her warring husband and children.

East Is East is an enjoyable, snappy family drama with some great lines and interesting themes. The young cast are enthusiastic and Horrocks gives a great understated performance as a mum trying to hold her chaotic family together. But I felt this production was missing a core. The thrust comes from George secretly arranging for his two sons to be married to two Pakistani women, the climax of his efforts ending in slightly-slapstick – rather haphazardly-directed, but worthy of a giggle – set piece, but this narrative isn’t enough to keep up the momentum.

East Is East also feels dated, not because of its early 1970s setting, but because of its nineties inception. The world was a light and frivolous place in the mid to late 90s, pre 9/11 and post the first Gulf War, when everything  – even, as Amit Shah’s quiet, considered Abdul discovers on his first trip down the pub, racism – was played for laughs.

Even with the nods to Enoch Powell’s racist stirrings, most of the tension in East Is East comes from within the family fighting against their culture. British minorities are hugely underrepresented on stage, their stories so rarely told. It would be great to see a similar piece written about a family like the Khans today. Post 9/11 the world has become a sterner place and British Muslim communities have been hit hard by the fallout of prejudice. I wonder whether Tariq (the Khan’s self-styled James Dean, all leather jacket and late nights played with a strut by Ashley Kumar) in 2014 would be quite so quick to dismiss his religion and culture now that it comes under so much attack. Would he be more protective, willing to identify?

But, despite not quite hitting the mark and throwing up more questions than it answers, East Is East is a thought-provoking play, offering up a slice of time in British history with a wry smile that hides a heavy heart,

by Suzanne Elliott

East Is East at the Trafalgar Studios runs until 3 January 2015. For tickets and more information on London theatre, visit Trafalgar Studios.