Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s lyrical tale of an imagined John Lennon trip to the West Coast of Ireland hits all the right notes.

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

In 1967, in a bid to escape Beatlemania and find his own shangri-la, John Lennon bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Dorinish Island – nickednamed Beatle Island – is one of hundreds (legend says 365, but there’s a little Irish story-telling in that myth) of islands overlooking Clew Bay that are actually hills flooded by the raging Atlantic that have formed an archipelago of uninhabited, weather beaten sanctuaries for birds – and the occasional Beatle.

Lennon only visited his island once, but in Kevin Barry’s wonderfully imaginative tale, the Beatle slipped in a second visit in 1978. This was a time in Lennon’s life when he was deep in dough and diapers, forsaking creativity for domestic bliss. But the former Beatle’s happiness was costly him artistically. In Barry’s story, his visit to this wind-battered, bird-shat on part of the world was an attempt to unlock his past and unleash his musical demons once again.

Lennon doesn’t find a great deal of musical inspiration on his journey, but he does meet Cornelius O’Grady and a dog called Brian Wilson. Cornelius’ unlikely relationship with Lennon – he becomes his chauffeur, his fixer, his enabler – forms the centrepiece of the novel. There are some wonderful moments between the two of them, my favourite, which I read three times in a row, was John trying to get Cornelius to unravel the meaning behind Kate Bush’s ‘wiley moor’ in Wuthering Heights as he crudely mimics her vocals.

The novel’s plot is thin – Lennon’s quest to get to the island is really a springboard to life’s greater issues – death, love, the past, family. Barry’s Lennon is haunted by his childhood and his absent father and dead mother. Despite his success and present happiness, he still feels the gaping hole of the abandoned child.

Barry captures Lennon’s acerbic wit, his brooding bitterness and eye for the absurd. You can hear his Liverpudlian drawl in the lyrical beat of Barry’s dialogue. The novel has elements of magical realism, at times it’s a trippy stream of consciousness, like a literary I Am The Walrus. In one chapter about half way through the novel, Barry breaks through the novel’s fourth wall and writes about why he choose to tell this story, detailing the research he carried out to follow in Lennon’s footsteps. It should be jarring, but it only fuels the story and adds another interesting stylistic element to a novel not afraid to stray off the narrative path.

Beatlebone is a warm, funny, charming novel that’s thick with insight and humour. Barry captures voices and dialogue with a poet’s ear, from Lennon’s old-fashioned Scouse to the music of Cornelius’ ramblings. You can taste the salty tang of the Atlantic and feel Lennon’s tension as he hunts desperately for his piece of privacy followed by the press, doused with whiskey and side-tracked by primal scream advocates (of the therapy, not Bobby Gillespie’s bunch).

Beatlebone is a joy, an exhilarating, fantastical, witty tale fused by Barry’s wild literary imagination and intoxicating lyrical language. 

Theatre review: The Homecoming, Trafalger Studios

Harold Pinter’s dark 1965 play The Homecoming gets the Jamie Lloyd treatment

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John Simm in Trafalger Studio’s The Homecoming

Pinter’s mid 60s play, The Homecoming, isn’t an easy watch, and the Trafalgar Studios’s production directed by Jamie Lloyd, tightens the tension screws even further to produce a play that’s claustrophobic, dark and, obviously, funny.

The Homecoming is about an ill-fated family reunion in north London, rife with ghosts, bitterness and violence. Teddy, the eldest of three sons – is the family’s ‘success’ story, visiting for a few days on a break from his university job in the States with his beautiful wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan). Of course, the perfect life Teddy hopes to dazzle his suburban family with isn’t quite what it seems, and his smokescreen pretty much turns to dust before he’s even unpacked his toothbrush.

His father, Max, is an old school Londoner, played with real malice by Ron Cook. He over sees the family like a cut-prize gangster, all simmering anger and seething violence. Keith Allen plays his brother Sam, who lives with them, as an ‘obvious’ homosexual. Pinter’s portrait of Sam is far more subtle – not least because in 1965 homosexuality was still illegal – but the part is given an obvious otherness by Allen and he largely pulls it off without straying into limp-wristed territory .

Lloyd has once again ensembled a cracking cast. Of the three brothers – Teddy (played by Gary Kemp, has a reviewer described his performance as ‘gold’, yet?), John Macmillan as the youngest child, Joey, it’s John Simm’s Lenny who dominates. Simm is in fine menacing form, prowling the stage like a wounded bouncer. Simm is a very still actor, in fact this production generally was noticeable for its lack of hysteria – with dialogue this punchy no one should be hand-acting. The movement that Lloyd does incorporate is restrained, the actors moving around the stage like synchronised robots or geriatric former-dancers.

The Homecoming is a brutal play, it’s menacing and uncomfortable and Soutra Gilmour’s staging adds to the intensity. Set within a framed cube, the actors are caught in aspic, accentuating the claustrophobia of the play – they are like figures in a particularly vicious chess game – while the floor mirroring a blood-smeared butcher’s shop.

The Homecoming is also about a very particular point in history, a time when the Second World War was still casting its long shadow over the generation it ensnared, when kids still played on bomb sites, when people’s sexuality was the business of the law, when working class men were expected to be macho and women compliant. Historically we look back at 1965 as a time when London was swinging, but in some parts of town the only swinging some people were doing, were punches. Counter culture had yet to break through, despite the rumblings of change, not least due to playwrights like Pinter.

I found The Homecoming a difficult play to like, it’s just so nasty and the whole sordid ending with Ruth had me actually squirming in my seat – although that’s testimony to Chan’s cool acting that had me so invested in this difficult character. Does she have a voice, can she use her sexuality as a means to end? I’m not so sure, she seems like such a victim. But as ever, Pinter allows plenty of space for us to fill with our own interpretations, so let’s hope in someone’s else’s head she’s a winner, just as Lloyd and Trafalgar Studios are once again.

The Homecoming | Trafalgar Studios | Until 13 February 2016

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This huge literary hit may not be pretty, but it’s one hell of a page turner

Editorial Producer - Suzanne Elliott

The Girl on the Train was the book smash of 2015. A stonking success for former journalist Paula Hawkins and the publishing industry. Dubbed  the “British Gone Girl”(yawn), Hawkins’s debut was the latest amnesia thriller, riding the page-gripping wave of Before I Go To Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing.

Always a bit slow to the hype party, it took me until the end of the year to read it, managing to avoid spoilers and hyperbole until the bitter end of 2015.

The titular girl on the train is actually a thirty-something women called Rachel Watson. Don’t expect to like her. She’s a woman soaked in gin, wine and self pity. She travels on the 8.04 to Euston every day to a job she was sacked from to avoid having to tell her flatmate, her only friend who she doesn’t really like, that she’s unemployed. Her lodgings in a far flung London suburb has been her home since her divorce from her ex husband, Tom, who Rachel pines for with a force that borders on the obsessive.

Rachel clings onto her old life and still hovers on the cusp it. On her fruitless daily train journeys to London, Rachel passes the house she lived in with Tom and where he still lives with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter. Rachel has also become a little mentally over invested in the couple who live a few doors down from her former address, cultivating a narrative for them despite never having met them. After a particularly drunken evening, Rachel finds herself on the other side of the train tracks, embroiled in the lives of the people she’s been watching silently for months, in a tale of lies, madness and murder.

There is nothing pretty about The Girl on the Train. Hawkins’s prose is as lumpy as Rachel’s badly fitting polyester suits (I don’t know that she wears badly fitting polyester suits, but you can almost hear the scratching from the pages). The characters are messy, the narrative repetitive (the constant to-ing and fro-ing on the train gets tedious) and it’s written in an odd journal-style from the point of view of Rachel, Anna and the missing Megan that is half-heartedly confessional but, so as to give nothing away too soon, unconvincingly opaque.

But the novel’s power lies in its ability to suck you in. I read it in two days and, while not terribly invested in it, admired how Hawkins’s plot weaves itself to its conclusion convincingly and unhysterically. There are, of course, niggles in the story – no thriller is without its plot tripwires – largely the over reliance on Rachel’s mangled booze memory. Much of the plot relies on her not remembering this one particular evening on which the whole book spins rather too conveniently (there’s a small thread where Hawkins attempts to cover her tracks using Google and Science).

There were interesting elements in among the hectic plot, I thought Hawkins highlighted the precariousness of our lives well – the novel is in many ways a story about how easily our lives can crumble –  the hard slog of being a single woman in her 30s and the difficulty of every really knowing anyone (I would like to have had at least a tidbit on how Rachel and Tom met). Hawkins also captured the quiet mundanity of commuting with few words. In those moments when she evoked the stale sweat, the simmering frustration and sighs, I was the girl (woman) on the train.   

Read it, enjoy it, don’t expect it to change your life (unless you’re Paula Hawkins or her editor).

Book review: Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 by Vera Brittain

A stunning, vital, often gruelling memoir that retains its stiff upper lip while punching you in the stomach

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Kit Harington as Roland and Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in the 2014 film adaptation of Testament of Youth

 

Reading a first hand account of the war that was meant to end all wars just as the UK steps into another conflict made Vera Brittain’s fascinating, terrifying, heartbreaking memoir even more poignant.

Written 13 years after the end of what became the First World War, Testament of Youth records not only the huge loss of life that affected Brittain and Britain (and her allies), but captures the lives that were left shattered – by grief, by injury, by despair and shell-shock – in cool-headed yet determined prose.

Brittain’s story begins in the almost pastorally perfect, peaceful Edwardian era. Even as a teenager, Vera is not content to stay contentedly within the very narrow boundaries set out for middle-class women in the early 20th century. As a woman in pre-War Britain, Brittain was expected to keep house and keep quiet, but Vera never intended to do either. From the beginning she is a fearsome force – resolute, self-possessed, tenacious – her fierce intelligence drives her to Oxford, overcoming the many hurdles thrown in the way of women at the time.

Vera has a close relationship with her kind, musical older brother, Edward who sees her as an equal in a way women were rarely viewed by the opposite sex. Men aren’t hugely romantically interesting to Vera, she sees her future in literature not love, but despite having her head in a book, she falls in love with a friend of Edward’s, Roland, a serious, poetic young man cut from that almost cliched, chivalrous, romantic  Edwardian cloth. Their romance is intellectual rather than lusty, only revving up a gear, much to Vera’s distaste, after Roland is sent to the Front. She is not a woman for whom an engagement ring is a replacement for a matrimonial lobotomy.

Her first enrolment at Oxford doesn’t last long after the outbreak of War. With Roland and Edward – along with their friends who Vera becomes increasingly connected to, Geoffrey and Vincent – away doing their bit for King and Country, Vera becomes dissatisfied with a staid academic life and longs for a practical role in this new world. She signs up as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse. Her training takes her first to London, but after the first of a steady stream of tragedies, she asks to be transferred abroad, into the heart of the blood, mud and danger, and is sent to Malta and then France.

The fact that the First World War and it’s revenge-driven rubbish peace process were a monumental fuck up that had catastrophic and far reaching results, both personally and worldly, is news to no one, but Vera’s great skill is building the suspense in her stiff yet ornate prose, so that we’re standing in her sensible nursing shoes, experiencing a little of her seemingly endless punches to the stomach. I cried several times reading this book, yet Brittain was never trying to manipulate my emotions; her writing is level-headed, free of histrionics or wallowing. The sheer, startling facts are enough to have you bawling on the bus. Sure, there are bitter laments, Vera is angry, not just at all she’s lost, but how the War – started by and badly managed by an older generation –  left her generation shattered, their youth – along with their brothers, lovers, friends and husbands –  snatched away from them.

Brittain’s book teaches us so much more about war than history text books. The sheer wastefulness of it somehow feels even bigger told from someone who saw the fallout of the trenches without being in them (she rather plays it down, but the injuries Vera stoically treats are staggering). Her personal assaults are more harrowing than many a history book because they’re so personal and so all too easy to imagine.

Vera’s voice may grate on some, her tone is a little Downton’s Lady Mary side-eyeing Edith. She is unapologetically snobbish about her upbringing in conservative, uptight Buxton, although I relished her put-downs of small town life with guilty glee. Her prose is old-fashioned, but I found that her reserved, borderline priggishness only heightened the catastrophe that befalls her and her contemporaries.

This is not an easy read – I put it down a couple of times to read other, less painful, books. But it’s a hugely affecting memoir about a lost people who fought and lived through a War that for them never ended. Perhaps their on-going trauma is best summed up in this sentence Brittain wrote in 1933, recalling the dreaded telegram death knock: “Even now, I cannot work comfortably in a room from which it is possible to hear the front-door bell”.

This book should probably be handed to every MP faced with a war vote.

Testament of Youth is published by Virago Classic

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s second novel sees her sketching out ideas she’ll revisit again, but with less compelling results

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Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (published by Black Swan)

What was meant to be my year of non-fiction also became my year of Kate Atkinson. During 2015 I rediscovered Atkinson after a nasty brush with her second novel, Human Croquet as a student. This year I was finally sucked into her magical realistic world via Jackson Brodie’s brooding presence in her more grounded Case Histories series.

I had read all of Atkinson’s work, including her latest (and, in my opinion, best), God In Ruins, by the fag end of 2015, only Human Croquet remained, the novel that had derailed me from Atkinson’s books 17 years ago.

Human Croquet was Atkinson’s second novel, following the success of her Costa Book Award winning debut Behind The Scenes as the Museum. She’s since published a further seven novels and this 1997 book has been repackaged by Black Swan in light of Atkinson’s more recent literary success (Life After Life won her a Bailey’s Prize nod and a South Bank Sky Arts award) .

It’s interesting reading an author’s work backwards, you can see the outlines of more recent books in the earlier works, see their craft in action, the sketches that will one day become their masterpiece. This is particularly apparent in Human Croquet where Atkinson examines themes she later revisits in Life After Life, and to a lesser time-traveller extent – God In Ruins.

I gave Human Croquet a through bashing in my university paper, but I don’t think I actually read past the first page. Already overburdened with modernist poetry and Virginia Woolf’s novels, the opaque opening page was too dense a word forest for me to venture into the story beyond it.

Human Croquet is the story of Isobel Fairfax, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in ‘Arden’, a damp ridden mock-Tudor house on the site of the ruined Fairfax Manor on a street of trees that was once a dense forest.

Isobel’s family are fairytale-like gruesome. Her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was small, closely followed by her father who at least had the decency to return albeit with an uninspiring New Zealand wife, Debbie. Her Aunt Vinny is a chain-smoking ugly sister while her brother Charles has dubious parentage and an unfortunate face.

Isobel discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she can slip between time when she briefly finds herself in what will become Hawthorne Close, a man running past her with house plans shouting “soon there are going to be houses. everywhere you look, there will be houses, young lady”.

The novel swings trippingly between the past and the present, Atkinson erasing some of the events for another scenario, although sometimes with the same results. As I’ve discovered during my Atkinson book binge, her novels are deceptive, she writes with a lightness, littered with literary references, puns and (sometimes annoying) asides, but the subjects she explores are the stuff of Martina Cole thrillers- murder, incest, child and domestic abuse, rape. Human Croquet is a rich stew of nasty ingredients wrapped up in a magical world and sparkling language.

Human Croquet isn’t Atkinson’s best work, at times it’s sluggish and, yet, jarringly, manically busy with characters and alternative realities that aren’t as tightly drawn as Ursula’s in Life After Life. The weaving in and out of other characters’ lives and the dropping into time pockets distracted from the far more compelling backstory of Isobel’s family and, if 2015’s taught me anything, it’s that Kate Atkinson is at her best when she’s writing about humans and our  funny ways that are every bit as baffling as time.

Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre

A newly-realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian romance is invigorating and irresistible

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Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, devised by the Company from the novel by Charlotte Bronte

 

Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel can’t be an easy beast to tame for the stage. You have to grapple with the fact that everyone knows at least the outline of Jane Eyre (mad woman, attic, THAT wedding scene, fire) and, while the novel is so multi layered, so stuffed with action, it’s Jane’s internal monologues that are the book’s backbone. How do you bring a freshness to such a well-known tale while capturing Jane’s outward fierceness and inner delicacy?

Like this it would seem. This co-produced National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic adaptation of Jane Eyre has managed to harness the author’s – and the protagonist’s – energy and power and bring a fresh, original angle to this well-loved story that doesn’t diminish the source material.

The production was originally devised by the company without a script; improvised by the cast and then tamed by dramaturg Mike Akers. This fluidity and lack of constraint, wonderfully directed by Sally Cookson, really shines through in this production and lends it so much of its magic.

Akers, Cookson, a fearlessly talented and committed cast and a beautiful score by Benji Bower capture Brontë’s magic and Jane’s restless spirit – no narrative net or awkward theatrics ensnare Madeleine Worrall’s Jane as we follow her from a squawking baby to a contented mother. The whole production seems to spin around Jane’s musings near the beginning of her time at Thornfield: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

I loved the restlessness of this Jane Eyre, the small company, multitasking in several roles, are rarely off stage (in Worrall’s case, never). Jane Eyre is a force of nature, brave and self-possessed, her self-awareness so complete that she’s beyond shocking with the truth. Worrall excelled in the part, giving Jane that fierce determination and vulnerability that Rochester and the reader fall in love with. Her inner monologues are spoken aloud by members of the cast like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, but they’re never overcooked, they feel part of the script not a convenient way around it.

Felix Hayes’ Rochester is every bit the striking, booming, self-righteous Brontë hero, perfectly walking the line between boorish posho and sensitive, repentant new (Victorian) man. Despite the worst proposal this side of Colin Firth’s Darcy, oh, and the small matter of his wife in the attic, we are rooting for these two to get together. There is humour too, some of it provided by Brontë’s own witty hand, some by Laura Elphinstone as Rochester’s hyper excitable ward Adele and a great deal by Craig Edwards’ brilliant comic turn as the hero’s dog Pilot. (On paper this role must have sounded like the stuff of an actor’s ‘back-end-of-a-pantomime-horse’ worst nightmare, but Edwards’ plays it so well, that it’s human equivalent of the scene-steeling goose in War Horse).

The set is integral to the play, a deceptively simple design of raised wooded boards and ladders that is as believable as a grand mansion on fire as it is a TB-ridden school. Wrapping all this up in a delightful aural package is composer Bower’s score that fuses jazz, soul and folk in original arrangements to beautiful effect. Melanie Marshall is both the ghostly form of poor Bertha in the attic and a captivating singer, crystallising Jane’s thoughts in song, her voice as clear and startling as a frosty Yorkshire morning.

You may think you know Jane Eyre, but this production is so full of surprises and such a stunning piece of theatre, that you’d do well to take a another trip to Brontë country.

Jane Eyre | Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre | Until 10 January 2016

Theatre Review: Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

A witty, engaging grease-paint smeared story of Georgian modern theatre that fizzes along with gusto

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Joseph Millson, Dervla Kirwan and Simon Russell Beale in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Transferring from the Hampstead Theatre to its rightful home – the Theatre Royal Haymarket plays a starring role – Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a rollicking zing of a play.

There are some pretty big theatre names in this production about a big theatre name. You may not actually know his name, but the titular Mr Foote is a man credited with changing the stage landscape, his influence still resounding in theatrical practice today.

Simon Russell Beale plays Samuel Foote in this Richard Eyre-directed production of Ian Kelly’s play. When we first meet Foote (after a quick posthumous trip to meet his long lost right leg), he’s at an elocution lesson, a budding actor on a mission to rid himself of his broad West Country accent to train his vowels for a life treading the broads (after his life changing incident, his Truro cadence mysteriously reappears).

In the first half, we follow Foote on his journey to being one of the biggest names in 18th century theatre, through the face-powder smeared dressing rooms, the bitching, the post-show highs and the rivalry with fellow thesp, David Garrick (Joseph Millson). He’s having a whale of a time – as are the audience, or me at least – mingling with Benjamin Franklin (nicely played by Colin Stinton) and getting the unseen 1700s crowd roaring in the aisles with his cross-dressing comedy routines (a shout out for the costumes, they’re wonderful in there petticoated abundance). But Foote’s fun comes to an abrupt end at the half way curtain when an unfortunate bet involving a spot of horse riding ends with Foote a leg down. 

Dr John Hunter, played exuberantly by Forbes Masson, saves Mr Foote’s life – and his leg, the play begins with Mrs Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale) and Frank Barber (Micah Balfour) attempting to steal it back from the doc’s basement. But Foote is never quite the same again, his eccentricity slipping more and more into bad judgement and self-sabotage. The second half is less frantic, more moving and bittersweet, Foote’s love of the spotlight illuminating his less palatable quirks and landing him on the wrong side of a powerful socialite. 

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a richly comic play that fizzes along with intelligence, wit and charm. Occasionally it gets a little tangled in its own cleverness, but for the most part, the story is gripping and hugely entertaining. SRB is, as usual, an impressive acting powerhouse as Foote – mischievous, camp, haughty and endearing, he wraps his tongue around Kelly’s sometimes odd prose rhythm with an assurance that only someone so at ease with theatrical linguistics as Russell Beale could.

Simon Russell Beale may dazzle, but the rest of cast don’t wilt in his bright light. Dervla Kirwan as his acting partner Peg Woffington gives a lovely understated performance that has wit and charm, and later, sadness. Bleasdale as the Mistress Quickly-alike Chudleigh injects the part with zeal, while Balfour offers a nice sobering presence among all the dramatics. Playwright Ian Kelly (Hermione Granger’s father no less) makes an imposing appearance as George III (before the madness set in, in fact he’s often the sanest person on stage).

Kelly’s play owes something to the bawdiness and calamity-strewn themes of restoration comedy, but there’s also touches of Shakespeare. There is a good dose of theatrical in-jokes, a recurring seam involving the Georgian revival of Shakespeare and the birth of the Stratford-upon-Avon plastic skull cash-in is funnier than that sentence sounds. But Mr Foote’s Other Leg goes deeper than clever-clever English-grad pleasing moments, it’s touching, funny, warm and richly entertaining. Not to mention a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone with an interest in theatre.

Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until January 23rd 2016

Theatre Review: The Miniaturists 54 10th Birthday, Arcola Theatre

Mini plays with big ideas, The Miniaturists 54’s Birthday Bash celebrated the written word with imagination 

Checkout by Poppy Corbett, Photographer credit - Claudia Marinaro.jpg

Checkout by Poppy Corbett. Photograph by Claudia Marinaro

Great things come in small packages so they say, and, as with the haiku, the short story and sonnets, creating constraints in art can encourage creativity where too much space can stifle it. It makes sense, then, that plays as long as scenes allow the writing to shine unencumbered by conventional narrator arcs or structure.

The short form play is something new to me, but not to The Miniaturists 54 who have been bringing the best in condensed script writing to the stage for the past decade. The Miniaturists 54 celebrated their 10th anniversary at Dalston’s theatrical gem The Arcola with five original short-form plays from burgeoning young writers and some older(er) hands – established playwright Owen McCafferty wrote the fourth of the evening’s pieces, Damage.

Curated by writers Declan Feenan and Will Bourdilon, the Miniaturists focus on the writer who are also heavily involved with the production of their script, including choosing the director. That’s not to say the acting is sidelined, many of the performances on this 10th anniversary show were every bit as committed and punchy as they would be in a longer production.

The plays are linked by a theme of life, death, renewal and displacement. The evening began with Twins by James Fritz, which saw an elder woman (Phyllis McMahon) reminiscing about her life as she flicks through a photograph album. We learn at the beginning that the woman lost her twin just before she was born, a name-less ghost that haunts her through her life that is counted down in scientific terms by her shadow (Simona Bitmate).

This is followed by If We Got some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You, an Irish-set two-hander where two young men, having stolen £500 from a step-dad, hide out on the roof of his house, precariously close to the edge of both the ledge and the truth of their feelings for each other. The first half closes with the wonderfully imaginative Checkout where St Peter’s Gate is reconsidered as a supermarket. If you’re lucky you get a ‘bag for life’ that takes you back down to earth and a second chance. It was a funny, quirky piece that closed out the first half in style.

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O'Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O’Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

The aforementioned Damage is another two-hander, this time an elderly couple played by Karl Johnson and Sue Porrett, squabble and row seemingly harmlessly, until the end brings a rawer, darker feel.

It’s a shame then that the evening rather stumbles with the baggy Kampala that takes the vast theme of Uganda’s independence and the rise and fall of Idi Amin and attempts to condense it into three short scenes seen through the eyes of a group of students. The set-up felt unfocused and confusing despite some committed performances.

This final piece, while ambitious, proved that short form play writing is an art form in itself and not every subject is ripe for its condensed structure. These series of one-offs seem to work best when they’re not telling a story so much as an idea, revelling in the joy of the written word and the creativity a 20-minute slot unleashes. 

The Miniaturists

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Theatre Royal, Bath

An on-fire performance of Simon Stephens’ adaptation of this absorbing, bittersweet and alluring story

Joshua Jenkins and Stuart Laing in The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

Joshua Jenkins and Stuart Laing in The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

The short run time of productions, money and the sheer wealth of theatre on offer, mean that I rarely see plays twice. Even different productions of classics have me thinking twice – do I need to see Henry V again? (maybe this time the English loose?). But Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s wonderful book, would stand up to countless viewings. I saw it for the first time at the poor crumbling Apollo a couple of years ago, before the show literally brought the roof down and again recently, this time with the touring company at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

The show dazzled as much the second time around. We all know Christopher Boone’s story, or we think we do. The tale of the 15-year-old’s mission to find out who killed Wellington, his next door neighbour Mrs Shears’, dog, has broken free of the confines of the page and taken on a cultural life of its own like Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. We know Curious Incident is funny and that Christopher is charming, but his innocence tricks you into thinking that this is a fluffy tale of a young boy playing detective. But both times I’ve seen the production I have been taken aback by the sadness that seeps through it, the heartbreak of a family’s struggle to hold themselves together in a world that doesn’t like difference and where individuality is drowned out by the conventional.

That said it is still very funny, the juxtaposition of Christopher’s childlike voice with his super maths brain, his occasional pomposity and his sharp tongue throw-up some belly laugh comic moments. There is also some lovely interaction between Christopher and another neighbour the Swindon Town-supporting, trainer wearing Mrs Alexander whose west country accent, Steve Jobs style sneaks and affection for Christopher was visual amusing and emotionally touching.

Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher like he was born for the role, totally convincing despite being 12 years older than the character. It’s a demanding part and one that has to strike a balance between comedic, empathetic and sympathetic without being twee and patronising, but Jenkins managed the acting tightrope with no wobbles. He was supported by terrific cast. I particularly liked Siobhan played by Geraldine Alexander as Christopher’s kindly teacher and the production’s narrator. I also enjoyed Roberta Kerr as Mrs Alexander.

But challenging all the actors for our attentions is the fantastic set that as much a part of the storytelling as the script and the acting. Bunny Christie’s design is a visual aid to the inner workings of Christopher’s mathematically rich mind that is so smoothly integrated into the story that you also almost don’t notice its cleverness.

Curious Incident is joyous, funny, touching dramatic and gripping first, second – and, I’m willing to bet, even third – time around.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | Touring until 21 November 2015

Gielgud Theatre, London | Until forever possibly 

Book review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

An enthralling, sometimes heart-wrenching novel this companion read to Life After Life is another Atkinson gem

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I don’t know about God, but I was certainly in ruins at the end of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel as her deceptively light tone took a dive to the dark side as sudden and as catastrophic as a Halifax bomber hit during the Battle of Berlin.

God in Ruins is a companion piece, not a sequel, to Atkinson’s compelling time and death defying Life After Life. While Life After Life was the story of Ursula, A God In Ruins is her brother Teddy’s, the golden light of the Todd family, his mother, Sylvie’s, favourite.

We meet the Todd family once again at Fox Corner, the blissfully Edwardian Home Counties pile, untouched by the ravishes of the blooming century. Teddy is destined for a life in the bank, following in the gentlemanly (bankers were still gentlemen then) footsteps of his kindly, distant father, Hugh. Ted tries to duck and dive his fate, travelling through France one glorious summer, picking olives and discovering cream-soaked dishes that his memory savours through war rations and nursing homes.

He is saved from a life at the bank by the outbreak of war when he signs up immediately to the RAF, a life in the skies, now matter how dangerous, being less deathly than a lifetime in the bank.

Not only does he leave behind his family, but his childhood sweetheart and next-door neighbour Nancy, a super brainy maths type who spends the war at Bletchley Park – and we know this because everyone knows, she’s not terribly discrete about it.

Unlike Life After Life, we’re on a single time trajectory, there are no second chances here. We follow Teddy on his raids over Europe that Atkinson brings so vividly to life that we could be there in the gunner’s seat; the camaraderie of Ted’s unit and the always-on-the brink-of-death tension, the mortally wounded Lancaster bombers spinning down into a fiery unknown, the ditches in the North Sea that they fear will be their watery grave – it’s all terrifying realised.

Ted seemingly outwits all the odds and grows to be an old man. He marries Nancy and they have a  daughter ,Viola, who turns out spoiled, unimaginative, angry and ungrateful, a dud in the brilliant Todd clan. Her children, Sun and Moon (known as Bertie, obv) grow up dented by her aggression while granddad Ted helps them navigate the choppy waters of life like a life jacket of reason and kindness.

Ted is lovely company, an intelligent man with a quiet kindness who, like so many of his generation, hides a chamber of horrors inside his placid shell. Atkinson never shields away from awful things and I enjoy how her writing skips along with glee, only to trip you up with a sentence like this one about a Jewish friend of Ursula’s: “There was a suggestion that Hannie was still alive when she was shovelled into the ovens at Auschwitz.”

Atkinson’s writing is so often about the art of fiction itself and her novels drip with references to literary masters of the past that she weaves expertly into the dialogue with no pretension. Her writing is always a joy, the descriptions of Ted’s bombing raid are tense and alive with movement without being chocked by adjectives. A God In Ruins is as refreshing as a dip in the North Sea yet, at times, heartbreaking and is as beautiful a book as Atkinson has ever written.