Theatre Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

Farce and slapstick are divisive types of comedy; they will either leave you crying with laughter or cringing with shame. The line between appalling and appealing is small with this kind of comedy and it takes an excellent script, dynamic acting and tight direction to make all elements fall (often literally) into place and pull off this deceptively difficult genre.

The aptly named Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong has largely succeeded in bringing all those elements together to create an evening that has had audiences metaphorically rolling in the aisles since it debuted at the Old Red Lion in Islington before making its first  West End appearance in 2013. After travelling to Edinburgh, it’s back at London’s Duchess Theatre until early next year.

The play that goes wrong is  am-dram group the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s attempt to put on a 1920s whodunit, The Murder at Haversham Manor. The Play That Goes Wrong wrings out all the elements of hammed-up amateur-dramatic productions, camp period murder mysteries and the archness of the theatre with a great deal of clever silliness.

Despite not being an enormous slapstick fan,  The Play That Goes Wrong still had me chuckling. This is not subtle theatre, it’s frantic to the point of mania at times and you are assaulted with slapstick (much of the humour revolves around the set falling down). Much has been made of its comparison to  Michael Frayn‘s Noises Off, his genius play following the backstage woes of a touring theatre company. The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t as sophisticated as Frayn’s  classic, although it’s not without intelligence and a dollop of farcical meta – my favourite parts were when the actors were acting at not-acting, when you caught a glimpse of the character behind the character.

It’s a well honed piece of theatre made all the more impressive by its backstory. Three of the cast members (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) also wrote the script and this a passion project with plenty of heart and humour.

The Play That Goes Wrong is booking until Feb 2015 at the Duchess Theatre. For tickets and more information for The Play That Goes Wrong and other London theatre visit www.officialtheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Seminar follows that well worn dramatical set piece that takes a group of unlikeable people and puts them in a situation that will push buttons to the point that hard truths will emerge and, bingo! Drama!

In this case, the situation is a weekly writing seminar led by a once successful novelist turned  legendary editor, Leonard (Roger Allam). The group meet once a week at Kate’s (rent controlled) Upper West Side apartment. Kate is a rich, white girl with a bitter and ultra-sensitive streak that Leonard identifies and picks at with a brutality that leaves her stunned and the rest of the group cowering.

Leonard is one of those aggressively male, charismatic old school American writers (Jack Kerouac gets referenced more than once, so take your cue from that). He’s bullish to the point of being a bully, but, hey, the ladies love him. He rips the soul of out of the stories his students have written, but while they may be peeved, they’re still desperate for his approval.

Finishing the mismatched quintet is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough) who is a privileged young man. We know this because of his socks (bright pink then baby blue) paired with deck shoes and his off-stage uncle, who rubs shoulders with the great and not so good. He opens the show with a brilliantly stupid monologue, but then rather fizzles away, subdued by Leonard. Hembrough’s face during Leonard’s take down of his ‘whorish’ work would have been heartbreaking if he wasn’t wearing bright pink socks. Joining them is Izzy (Rebecca Grant), a hyper sensualised woman whose motivations are unclear other than that she loves sex and the male gaze. Happy to both look and touch her is Bryan Dick’s grungey Martin who could be the nice guy of the group if he wasn’t such an insensitive drip.

Of course, these five near-strangers rub each other up the wrong way (although actually many of the problems arise from them rubbing each up the right way), igniting a smouldering cauldron of egos, sexual tension, envy, bitterness until it boils over.

Still in its preview stage, there was a little stiffness to the production that will no doubt ease into itself as the actors inhabit their roles and the script’s sticky parts come unstuck. Not the performances weren’t very good in what must be a tricky play to get the tone of right. Kate is very White Company, all cashmere cardies and Sauvignon Blanc. She could be one of those irritating stage women that playwrights seem to love – shrill, humourless, super sensitive who stomps about on plush carpets brandishing a wine glass like a weapon. Full credit then to Charity Wakefield who brings a natural vulnerability to what could be an abrasive role and makes Kate, and her cashmere wardrobe, relatable.

I’m a Roger Allam fan, he is the production’s big draw and he was an engaging Leonard, although I think he needed a bit more force behind him. He wasn’t quite ferocious enough, the cracks in Leonard’s character were a bit too transparent from the beginning.

Written by Pulitzer Prize nominee, Theresa Rebeck, Seminar is witty and wry with some sound observations on writing  and writers and overall, it’s an astute study of the jealousies, the slog, the tedium of being a human as well as a writer.

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

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Rosie Effect: Don Tillman No. 2 by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

Several months after their marriage and the completion of The Rosie Project, we once again meet Don Tillman and his now wife, Rosie Jarman. The couple have re-located from Melbourne to New York where Don is a professor in genetics at Columbia University while Rosie juggles her PhD and her medical studies at the same institution.

Since meeting Rosie, ultra-rational Don has become accustomed to a slightly more disordered life than the one he was used to prior to The Wife Project, abandoning the Standardised Meal System and successfully – for the most part – adapting to sharing living space with another person. But Rosie throws a huge spanner into the last straps of his spreadsheet-dominated life when she announces she’s pregnant. The ensuing Baby Project initially has rather less success than his previous scheme, but with the help of his seven friends he may once again overcome his genetic hardwiring to triumph in a human relationship.

Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project was one of the most delightful books I’ve read, and its sequel, while maybe not quite as focussed, is still a wonderfully joyful read. Simsion has created a fictional superstar in Gregory Peck look-a-like Don and, even if the plot is a little contrived, Simsion – like Don –  constantly surprises. He’s a fantastic comic writer with a lively brain and neat style; just when it looks like we’re wandering down the weary road of rom-com cliche, Simsion unleashes a perfectly timed comic shift. The plot may be a little thin, but it’s padded out by some fantastically funny set pieces as the very loveable Don once again lands himself in accidental scrape after scrape.

Joining Don on his new project is old mate Gene, over from Australia after the collapse of his marriage; Dave, a bloke Don met watching baseball in a bar and George, an ageing British rock who form part of Don’s small friendship group. And it’s testament to Simsion’s talent as a writer that he can make even that old ‘ageing British rock star’ stereotype feel fresh.

The only aspect that doesn’t feel quite realised is Rosie herself. In The Rosie Project, she was a little blurry, but as we were seeing her through Don’s less than emotionally focused eyes, I presumed that this was deliberate. But once again, she’s a faint outline who does little except moan. Her motivation for leaving Don, even including some clever childhood psychology and a genetic argument, never quite rung true. It was only towards the end that we saw hints of The World’s Most Perfect Woman’s own far from average rationale giving us a glimpse at the couple’s compatibility than had been missing.

But while her name might be in the title, The Rosie Effect is Don’s story and the Don Tillman effect is once again enchanting.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Rosie Effect is published by Michael Joseph and available in hardback and Kindle from 25th September 2014.

Foyles

Waterstones

Theatre Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Aldwych Theatre

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and John Ramm as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photographer Keith Pattison.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and John Ramm as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photographer Keith Pattison.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning duo Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies spun the well-trodden story of Henry VIII’s reign round so it became his righthand man, Thomas Cromwell’s tale.

Adapted for the stage, these hefty tomes have been, like many of Cromwell’s enemies, nimbly, if ruthlessly, cut down to size. Wolf Hall begins with Henry’s mumblings of discontentment with his first wife – the widow of his elder brother Arthur – Catherine of Aragon. By this time he’s captivated with the intoxicating Anne Boleyn. Cromwell with his quick brain and desire for progress (particularly religious), steps up before the King at just the right – or wrong for those who ended up on the scaffold – time. Together they change the course of English history for ever and Cromwell’s infamy is secured.

One of the joys of Wolf Hall (and again in Bring Up The Bodies) is that Mantel takes a story we presume to know so well, seizing it back from the history books and injecting it with soul and humanity. The period in history that Wolf Hall covers is as much a tale about paperwork and theological discussion as it is about love and reform. Mantel gives this tale an emotional heart by creating a Cromwell that was sympathetic, even likeable. It was essential then that the stage Thomas Cromwell was as engaging as the one of the page, and Ben Miles is a hugely captivating and convincing Cromwell. Despite all his learning, Latin and new found role as the King’s BFF, there remains traces of the accent of a butcher’s son and an unrefined ease about him, constantly cracking jokes, some of them dangerously inappropriate (“I’m surprised he can find the”’ he says to Mary Boleyn when she tells him of Anne allowing Henry to touch her breasts).

Cromwell’s female family members are as much victims of Mike Poulton’s adaptation as the sweating disease. We meet his wife Lizzie only briefly, his daughters only alluded to after their death. Jeremy Herrin’s pacey direction has little time for emotion with so much history to pack in. While the novel was so fluid that there were time you didn’t know where you’d drifted to, the play is a series of staccato pieces. While much of the heart that Mantel put into her novel is lost, what Poulton and the actors do very well (notably Paul Jesson as an excellent Cardinal Wolsey) is extract the humour from Mantel’s novels. A woman on the bus on the way home thought it was a “a bit too Blackadder-ish which is rather overstretching just how funny it was, but certainly proves the point that this was no po-face Tudor history lesson.

Wolf Hall was good, but Bring Up the Bodies is better. Paperwork dispensed with, the action begins. Cromwell by this point is secure, even pompous in his exalted position. His self-assurance is dented by Henry’s jousting accident that permanently injures the King and sends a jolt through England’s court. Legend has it that Henry died for several minutes, enough to give the problem of succession momentum.

BUTB is better paced, less frantic than Wolf Hall. Plus there’s less talk of monasteries and more beheading. Nathaniel Parker is an excellent, more considered Henry, less lascivious than recent TV Harry 8s (hello Jonathan Rhys Myers). He’s also less ginger and not as cartoonly fat, although he’s still an oaf: stupid, self-obsessed, totally unwilling to take responsibility for anything, even killing his own wife. Parker’s less rambunctious performance only further exposes Henry’s gruesomeness as he reminds us he was a man as well as a tyrannical king.

Theatre can be gut-wrenchingly emotional, even life-changing, and sometimes it’s just brilliant storytelling. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are just that, engrossing theatre with impressive, compelling performances that pull you into brilliant story. And props too to the live orchestra who added menacing drama and tension without being intrusive.

by Suzanne Elliott

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies run until 4 October at the Aldwych Theatre. For for information and tickets visit www.aldwychtheatre.com.

Book Review: Dear Lupin…Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin is a collection of letters from former Sunday Times racing correspondent Roger Mortimer to his son, Charlie – who is not so much wayward as completely a drift in the sea of life for most of the correspondence.

The letters begin during Charlie’s truncated time at Eton, when Roger took to addressing his son as ‘Lupin’ after The Diary of A Nobody’s Mr Pooter’s equally flighty son. Roger, we learn, is never one to let an opportunity of wordplay go especially if it means having a little dig at one’s family.

Roger has a wonderfully endearing, old-fashioned narrative voice that can make finding a dead rat in the garden entertaining and amusing. He has, as he points out several times to his son, a great sense of the absurd and finds the humour in the smallest domestic detail, even if he’s not looking for it.

Dear Lupin reads like P.G Wodehouse with a hefty dose of Evelyn Waugh melancholia. The collection is hugely nostalgic, in all its gritty glory and includes some toe-curling Enid Blyton-style off-colour remarks (Roger Mortimer has as much time for political correctness as he does for the woman from the Inland Revenue who is continually pestering him).

Much of the humour in the book comes from Roger’s stream of consciousness, his juxtaposition of news that slips between fatal pile ups on the motorway, his wife’s current cantankerousness barometer reading, sage advice to his son (“in other words, try and have a good time without making a fool or a shit of yourself”) and spot on observations (“except for the first fortnight at preparatory school a honeymoon is for most people the least happy experience of their life”).

As funny as this collection is (and it’s very, very funny for the most part) there is something rather sad underneath the tales of Hot Hand Henry (his daughter Louise’s much disapproved of husband) and the un-housetrained dog. There’s an edge of darkness that hovers around both Roger’s letters and the snippets of Charlie’s life we hear in his father’s replies. Rather than diminishing the book, it serves to make this less a wot-ho rah-rah tale of upper middles out Bertie Wooster-ing Bertie Wooster and more a tale of one man’s bafflement at life.

Roger’s comfortable, if eccentric life, is at odds with the bleaker moments of his past. He spent five years as a prisoner of war after being captured in Dunkirk in 1940. His only mentions of these years are off-the-cuff remarks and tales of his fellow POW-pals, several of whom he still sees on a regular basis. For someone who endured such horrors, no wonder a pile up on the A3 is as trifling as a cold snap.

Plus, even more than the artery of sadness and the blistering humour, it’s the warmth and tenderness that spills from the pages of Roger’s succinct letters. Charlie can’t have been an easy son to love with his restlessness, boisterous and a drink and drug problem serious enough to land him in hospital for two months and, later, a rehab clinic.  But Roger, despite his penned-ticking offs, remains incredibly patient with his son and never abandons him to the vagaries of life without his emotional – and occasionally – financial help. And, of course, plenty of snortingly-funny anecdotes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire. Pic: Johan Persson

Blanche DuBois is a dramatic character vivid enough to have walked off the pages of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire and take on a life of her own. She’s become a by-world for the archetypical southern belle who doesn’t chime as clearly as she once did.

The role requires filling some big feather-adorned high-heel slippers, from Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production to Vivien Leigh in the Olivier directed UK debut and, of course, the film. Since July, Gillian Anderson has more than filled these shoes, winning rapturous praise from the critics and audience for her performance in Benedict Andrew’s Young Vic reprisal.

Finally able to get hold of one of the golden tickets after the run extended into mid-September my expectations were high, so the first 15-minutes were a little deflating as the production spluttered to life ; some of the southern drawls seemed wonky, their words muffled in the revolving stage, the actors, now in their final week seemed a little distance.

But after this bumpy start, the production sparked into life and heated up like a New Orleans afternoon in July, revealing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in all its glory. She really is phenomenal as Blanche, a woman so easy to play as a caricature. For Streetcar to be successful, you have to, if not like her, then sympathise and empathise with this self-obsessed woman, and Anderson instils her with an unaffected fragility, and even uncovers a certain amount of common sense behind her ramblings.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the tale of Blanche DuBois whose life has unravelled to a point where her only sanctuary is with her sister Stella Kowalski,  and her husband Stanley in their two-room apartment in New Orleans. Blanche’s presence in the tiny flat with a volatile couple who love and hate with a passion, lights the fuse paper of her ultimate end.

What could be a very static play, set only in two rooms, pulsates with life in this production. Anderson’s Blanche is never still, twitchy and restless, floating her hands like a geisha performing a dance.  Blanche’s Japanese-influenced dressing gown is perhaps another link that, Blanche’s heightened femininity, like a geisha’s, is an act and her livelihood. Blanches oxygen is the male gaze, a gaze so intense she is ultimately destroyed by it. It’s fitting that at one point she is dressed as a Jim Beam soaked Barbie doll.

Benedict Andrews moves the story from 1947 to the modern day, stripping the play of any southern whimsy. The set is Ikea minimal, the costumes, bar the odd eighties style prom dress, sleek designer dresses and high heels (highlighting the influence the play had on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; when Gillian Anderson first walked on, I thought Cate Blanchett was understudying for the evening).

But the production is still southern in its soul. Anderson, when she hits her stride is mesmerising, the poetry of Williams southern dialogue lilting and lyrical in her delivery. Even in a stark white cube in a theatre in Waterloo you can imagine the sweat trickling down your back, the stickiness of your legs on a plastic chair.

Andrews’ dispenses with the jazz for an electrifying rock and dance soundtrack, including PJ Harvey’s scuzzy ‘To Bring My Love’ and Cat Powers’ haunting cover of ‘Troubled Waters’ (“You must be one of the devil’s daughters they look at me with scorn”) and it hugely affecting and powerful.

While Anderson is the standout star, she’s not alone in her galaxy. Ben Foster as the brutally masculine Stanley Kolwolski gives a performance as powerful as his biceps. Vanessa Kirby’s imbues Stella with a steely confidence, and Corey Johnson is quietly captivating as the hapless, sweaty Mitch, Blanche’s would-be saviour.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: My Perfect Mind, Young Vic

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge in My Perfect Mind

Paul Hunter and
Edward Petherbridge in My Perfect Mind

Written by and starring Edward Petherbridge, My Perfect Mind is an endearing 90-minute one act play based on the classical actor’s experience of not playing King Lear.

This two-hander is a poignant, playful, funny, slightly bonkers play where Petherbridge finally gets to play an (abridged) version of theatre’s most tyrannical king – although in a rather more an unorthodox manner than Shakespeare first intended.

Joining Petherbridge on stage is Paul Hunter, who plays “all the other parts” which include, amongst many wonderful characters, Petherbridges’ stroke-ravished, hair-net wearing mother and a ‘German’ brain doctor with a very dodgy accent (“borderline offense” is an old-going joke in the play, riffing off Noël Coward’s comment on “stage foreign”).

Originally performed at the Edinburgh Festival, My Perfect Mind has that slightly wonky, ultra-realism that’s simultaneously hyper-theatrical. And that’s all part of this play’s charm and wit.  Petherbridge, who played Guildenstern in the debut of Tom Stoppard’s classic at the National Theatre in 1967, sends himself up as an old school luvvie, all ‘darling’ and Laurence Olivier anecdotes. And despite its flirtations with the surreal, there’s a tender, warm heart to the play that also deals with the sharper edge of life (and near-death).

After many years treading the boards, including an ill-fated stint in a musical called The Fantasticks (alongside Paul Hunter), Petherbridge is offered the part of King Lear in a New Zealand production and flies to Wellington for the role of a lifetime. But the day after his first rehearsal, he suffers two strokes in quick succession, leaving him struggling to walk and barely able to move his fingers on his right hand, but miraculously able to respite all his lines from King Lear .

Petherbridge’s story of not playing Lear is woven between flashbacks to his childhood, moments backstage with Olivier dispensing words of actory wisdom, all wrapped around a deliberately half-baked idea of him playing an actor suffering from KLS (King Lear Syndrome – cue the brain doctor with the dodgy accent). It’s all beautifully patched together by the actors and Kathryn Hughes’ (who has played King Lear in her time) assured direction which keeps the play from rambly off up its own too-pleased with itself backside. There are lots of acting in-jokes, a great deal of exposing the world behind the theatrical green curtain, and an interesting look into the actor’s psyche and motivation. But just when it looks like it’s getting bogged down in its clever-cleverness, slipping into being “sloppy and pretentious”, which, as Petherbridge notes on two occasions, are often the same thing, it snaps back with a comic flourish.

My Perfect Mind is an exploration of the memory, of the power of art, creativity and a (muted) celebration of survival – and it’s a lovely 90 minutes of theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott

For more information and tickets, visit www.youngvic.org.

 

 

 

Theatre Review: My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel) and Lewis Reeves (Eric) in My Night With Reg, the Donmar Warehouse

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel) and Lewis Reeves (Eric) in My Night With Reg, the Donmar Warehouse

Nearing the end of its run at the Donmar Warehouse, Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg is firecracker of a production directed by Robert Hastie that’s has more than proved its worth on its 20th anniversary revival.

Despite its 80s/early 90s setting and the advances in both HIV treatment and gay rights (although lets not get carried away, things still have a long way to go) , My Night With Reg feels fresh and punchy, its emotional pull as strong as it would have been when it  debuted in 1994. It’s a play that deals with difficult themes, but it’s not a difficult play to watch.

My friend said My Night With Reg reminded her of Abigail’s Party as, like noisy old Abigail, Reg is conspicuous by his absence and it’s all set within one living room. My Night With Reg also has that mix of comedy and lightly-played darkness and deep sadness. The first ‘half’ (the play runs as a continuous for 1 hour 45 mins with the three segments moving fluidly into each other) of the play begins at Guy’s (Jonathan Broadbent) flat warming. It’s 1984 and characters’ lives are largely careless and frivolous. The first (early) guest is John (Downton Abbey’s Julian Ovenden) the louche, handsome object of Guy’s decade-long unrequited love. Inadvertently joining the party is handsome young Brummie Eric (Lewis Reeves), there painting Guy’s conservatory. New to London, he’s the confident, savvy voice of a future generation.

Guy is heart-breaking figure. Universally liked, desperate to please, he’s continually overlooked and overshadowed by his funnier, ruder friends. His most successful relationship is with a sex line worker called Brad whose USP is to bark like a dog. Meanwhile Guy’s puppy-dog eyes at John remain unreciprocated. Bursting in on the awkward party of three is Dan (one half of the ministerial duo ‘The Inbetweeners’ in The Thick Of It,  Geoffrey Streatfeild) who is fantastically camp and inappropriate, his toasts to ‘sodomy’ and ‘gross indecency’ summing up a life of fun and frivolity that is about to screech to a half.

The play deals with time beautifully, there’s a barely a pause before we’re back in Guy’s flat, Dan now sombre, the group swelled by Bernie (a wonderful Richard Cant whose fantastic study of a boring man creates a hugely watchable character) and his boyfriend Benny (Matt Bardock), a cocky bus driver, cue bus innuendos). But their number is also depleted; this is Reg’s wake and his won’t be the last we see.

My Night With Reg isn’t just about death, it’s about growing old, friendships and love. You’re as likely to be crying with laughter as you are with grief. And it’s not just the dead you’re crying for, it’s the loneliness of those they leave behind. Sadly, Kevin Elyot didn’t get to live to see his play revived on its 20th anniversary as he died in June this year, but his play will surely live on, not least in your head long after you’ve seen it.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe published by Blue Door

It’s sometime in the future (although we’re not told when). England is very hot, so hot that rather than running out to frazzle themselves in the heat, these newly sun-savvy Brits opt to stay in air-conditioned rooms (an unimaginable future). Lots of bad things  (war, floods, bonkers weather) have happened, although we’re never told exactly what and why. The Isle of Wight, has – for reasons that are never made clear  – become an outpost for hooded hooligans, making it less a 1950s idyll, more a Hackney in the 90s.

Living amongst these hard-nosed yoofs is Beth, a school teacher with a secret. Her husband, Vic, was a soldier in one of those wars we’re never told about and was shot in the head. His post traumatic stress was treated with a new technology – the Machine – that was meant to wipe bad memories and replace them with nicer ones. But something went wrong, and early adopters (among them Vic) had all of their memories wiped, including those innate in us. Vic is, when we first meet him, an empty shell, who can’t remember how to be human and has spent the good part of five years in a care home. But Beth is determined to get her husband back (physically and mentally), the only problem is that the Machine, the only way of restoring Vic’s memories to him, has been banned. Can a black-market model be the answer to all her problems?

Of course, not. This is a dark tale with very little (any?) chinks of light. Written without quotation marks, the narrative is a continual, relentless barrage of bleakness. This would be OK if I felt we were getting somewhere with this tale set in our near future (which, sadly, still includes Tesco). But the story was a little stodgy and the lack of a backstory left me feeling like I was fumbling about in the dark for narrative purchase. Why was the world in such disarray? The ozone layer is mentioned once, something happened in Iran – which presumably isn’t the fault of the ozone layer, but who knows – there were floods, there may be more and London has a huge, ugly flood defence running the length of the Thames and spoiling the view from the South Bank, tsk. Why is Beth living on this island of reprobates? Why is it an island of reprobates?

All these niggles are kind of besides the point, as the real subject of  James Smythe’s tale is the age-old story of technology taking on a life of its own (think Frankenstein’s monster with an iCloud account). But The Machine only really cranks up towards the end when the boundaries between reality, truth and memory become blurred in a tense and surprising finale (the ending is great in its in muddiness, it genuinely took me my surprise and shook me out of my nonchalant detachment from the story).

I liked Smythe’s vision of the future that was believable, if frustratingly sketchily drawn, and there was hints of a great story that would occasionally spark to life only to become stuck like the spinning beach ball of doom. But I do love to be tripped up by a novel, as I was with the ending to this sci-fi tale, so the sometimes hard slog through The Machine’s internal workings had a rewarding pay off.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review:  Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

This year’s literary hit, the much celebrated Love, Nina is a book worth all its plaudits. It’s a wonderfully heart-warming book with a rapier-sharp wit that cuts through any smugness, a potential hazard in a book where it’s normal for Alan Bennett to pop round for tea and people sprout ancient Egyptian when discussing a dog hanging out by the bins.

The Nina of the title moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent, NW1 from Leicestershire in 1982 to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears. Their mother, Mary-Kay (MK) Wilmers was deputy editor of the London Review of Books; their father director Stephen Frears (the couple were divorced and Frears has only a cameo in Love, Nina). Alan Bennett (AB) lived across the road and would often pop round for dubious sounding 80s suppers. Inspired by her booky surroundings, Nina goes on to study for an English A Level while minding S&W and later enrols at Thames Poly, but she’s still a regular visitor at 55 (she even ends up moving back into the nanny quarters, even when she’s no longer the nanny).

Love, Nina is a sharp and witty book of letters that she wrote to her Leicester-living, London-hating sister Vic. They are full of wonderfully witty observations detailing the everyday domestic dramas of her adopted family. Written like a script in progress, the letters often contain snippets of the day’s conversations at 55. The Frears/Wilmers family (+ Bennett) are a bright, liberal bunch and their supper chat reflects this – not that they discuss Goethe over dinner (it’s more likely to be the humming fridge), but there’s a captivating and charming intelligence even in their most banal chat.

This is a delightful book that shimmers with humour and warmth, showing a microcosm of brainy north London in a breezy series of incidents on Gloucester Crescent, a place where it’s routine to borrow saws from Jonathan Miller, and Shirley ‘Lace’ Conran annoys the neighbours with her dodgy burglar alarm. This is a world where the f-bomb is dropped over dinner as casually as discussing the right way to cook new potatoes (do not mash). Nina is an engaging writer and her ear for dialogue enables her to pick out the humour from the smallest of events (mislaying Jonathan Miller’s saw, AB fixing the fridge).

Love, Nina  makes you wish that you sitting around MK’s kitchen (MK sounds terrifying, but brilliant) eating badly cooked tarragon chicken, discussing the strange sexual preferences of Nina’s fellow students with AB (not with him, to him) while also inspiring you to re-read Chaucer (despite Nina finding it as frustrating as I did when I read it for my A Level).

A truly joyous book, read it and weep (with laughter).

by Suzanne Elliott