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.


Theatre review: Teddy Ferrara, Donmar Warehouse

A largely engrossing production becomes a little tangled in its issue led web 

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse

Based on the true story of Tyler Clementi, a student who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their room, Christopher Shinn’s University Campus drama makes its British debut at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Teddy (played brilliantly by Ryan McParland) of Shinn’s play is an outsider in many ways. He’s awkward, odd and gay – a freshman struggling to establish himself against a world resistant to difference. He hangs around on the periphery of things, instantly forgettable to everyone, even those who are well meaning like Luke Newberry’s Gabe, the charming head of the queer students’ group. Bullied and ignored, Teddy never gets to graduate.

Teddy’s suicide is the catalyst for dialogue between the University President and representatives from the college’s minority groups in a bid to improve conditions and attitudes for homosexuals, trans-gender and disabled students. These conversations are the play’s backbone – a tennis match worth of self-interested ideas batted back and forth – played out alongside Gabe’s bid for student president and his relationship with his jealous boyfriend Drew and his unlikely friendship with jock,Tim (Nathan Wiley).

Dominic Cooke’s production is terrifically acted, and the first half at least is a powerful piece of drama that hits a xylophone’s worth of excellent points. Shinn asks us to examine are own prejudices and the need for us to be honest about them, something represented in Gabe, who, as the play’s ‘good guy’, is possibly the post blinkered of anyone – he certainly has two of the most horrid and flippant lines that make the audience vocally gasp.

But while the writing and acting are pin-sharp, the narrative arch is a little flabby. Shinn tries to tackle too much – Teddy Ferrara throws lots of issues up into the air and the pieces never really fit together as they fall to earth in the second half.

The production does produce some great acting. Matthew Marsh is outstanding as the insincere university president and senate member in waiting. Luke Newberry (currently playing bumbling young policeman in From Darkness) as Gabe is compelling as a self-righteous student whose struggling with relationships, friendships and his own ambitions. Ryan McParland and his snotty nose strikes such a vulnerable figure as Teddy that he’s difficult to watch (especially with that snotty nose).

Teddy Ferrara is a an uncomfortable watch, too uncomfortable for some as the empty seats after the interval revealed. The woman behind me who left, commented to her friend that while the play was “interesting” it’s “not our world” which I would say is the very reason to stay. Theatre is as much a portal into other world as it is a reflected of our own. This reaction rather reinforces Shinn’s and this production’s point that the mainstream is reluctant to raise the issues of those they cast aside.

Teddy Ferrara magnifies society’s defects. It’s hard hitting and bleak yet curiously unemotional. There are some funny moments (many courtesy of some excellent comic timing of Marsh) but Shinn’s script is taunt with politics. But it’s a gripping, insightful piece of theatre. See it – and stay.

Teddy Ferrera | Donmar Warehouse | Until 5 December 2015

Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbons production for the Young Vic is a healthy measure of comedy, darkness and inventiveness


Romola Garai as Isabella in Measure for Measure

Earlier this summer, I saw the Globe’s Measure for Measurea frolicking, lighthearted period production that negotiated Shakespeare’s problem play with frivolous fun.

Joe Hill-Gibbons Young Vic production, meanwhile, tears up the parchment and thrusts the play’s darker, murkier themes in our faces. The play opens with the characters crawling out from under a pile of inflatable dolls, complete with comedy appendages that are both crude and funny. They get thrown around and kicked about, but hang around the stage for the duration, a constant visual gag and a reminder of Vienna’s (and probably our own) grubbiness. They should have had their own curtain call.

Like the Globe’s, this production manages to be lots of fun, but Hill-Gibbons keeps the murky world of political corruption and sexual power and abuse at the heart of this black comedy. Shakespeare’s bawdier bits are helpfully illustrated with well know gestures, verbal stresses and visual – comically graphic – graphics. At just under two hours, the text has been slashed by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen along with some of the characters (Mistress Overdone is undone – I didn’t miss her). This makes it a far neater story and Isabella’s virginity, and the men (Angelo and the Duke) desperately grabbing at it, is given a keener edge. Romola Garai plays Isabella at full pelt. She’s VERY angry, there is none of the meek novice nun about her and there is no faux happy ending for Garai’s Isabella, it’s made clear she still pays a price for freeing her brother. 

Music plays a central role, although forget about any lutes. There constant hum of haunting music which crescendos at key points adds suspense even if at times it seemed intrusive. And the fact that Mariana – the woman Duke-stand-in Angelo stood-up after her dowry, along with her brother, was lost at sea – is an Alanis Morissette fans seems important, if rather an oddly dated reference.

We see some of the action through a video feed as the characters move ‘backstage’ to an industrial concrete space that doubles as a prison. Sometimes we see the characters on stage and on the screen, the jittery camera work adding a layer of menace and claustrophobia.

All this clever staging does at times threaten to upstage the actors, and, occasionally it does (I was completely distracted during Duke Vincentio’s  speech as he prepared to return from his undercover friar mission because of the kaleidoscope of inflatable dolls’s bits and bobs behind him) but mostly the actors win. Zoning Varla plays the Duke with real gravitas until the end when he returns and seems to unravel under the strain of his odd decisions – he’s along way from Dominic Rowan’s loveable, jovial leader. Paul Ready’s Angelo is a nervy civil servant, creepy and officious while John Mackay as Pompey had a suitable sly menace to him beneath his comedy posturing. And, Garai, Garai is great although I would have enjoyed a little more light and shade in her furious Isabella.

Inventive and sexually charged, this production still had Shakespeare at its core and is as bold and absorbing as his works, done at their best, should be. 

Measure for Measure | Young Vic | Until 14 November

Theatre review: Medea, Almeida

A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

I missed the National Theatre’s powerhouse production of Medea with Helen McCroy in the title role last year when a broken foot curbed my theatre outings temporarily. I am still disappointed I didn’t see it, it sounded everything a Greek tragedy should be, one that punches you in the stomach and leaves you gasping.

The Almeida’s production, as part of their Greek season is, in contrast, rather underpowered. On paper this is theatre gold with author Rachel Cusk on script duties and the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold in the director’s chair, but it’s almost too clever for its own good. All brain and little heart.

Set in modern times, Cusk has, unsurprisingly, re-written Medea as a feminist text and added in a dollop of her brand of suburban nastiness. The chorus is now a group of bitchy yummy mummies, all babyccinos and sniping. They’re good actually, you’ll recognise these characters immediately and even the dancing with baby dolls was witty and tight enough to not to make me – who is very sensitive to theatrical affectation – cringe.

In this reboot, Medea is a successful writer, her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) a less successful actor. He’s left his wife and moved in with a young, rich model with an indoor swimming pool, leaving Medea with the children. Jason is a weasley spineless twonk – again he’s very recognisable. Medea is obviously a handful, but he is unwilling or unable, to accept his part in the devastation he’s caused. “I fell in love with someone else, that’s all,” he says at one point. Unlike the Euripides’s original, he’s not doing this for the greater good and, at least, doesn’t propose picking up Medea as his mistress once things settle down.

Jason’s downfall is guaranteed the minute Medea makes a pact with the lovely Richard Cant, who plays a Hollywood producer – a modern stand in for the childless King of Athens in the original – struggling to write the book that he has promised to his publishers by the end of the month. Medea says she will write it for him on the condition he gets a script she has written made. The show will go on to be a smash hit and weave the story of Jason’s – and ultimately Medea’s – disgrace. Art imitates life as life starts imitating art.

Gender plays a huge role in this re-write. In Cusk’s (very good) hands it’s a feminist play, although the balance does tip precariously towards gender sniping. There’s a lot of ‘that’s the problem with you women’ and ‘all men have a wandering eye’ etc. Cusk’s absolutely hit the nail on the feminist head with the father of the unnamed mistress who comes to Medea to tell her to back off. His misogyny was horribly recognisable, berating Medea for not being young or beautiful enough and, worse, daring not to care. Not that women come off unscathed – Cusk would never allow that – they are complicit in the trappings of their gender, accepting of their fate as objects of the male gaze, happy, as Medea says, in their “soft bed of compromise”.

Cusk and Goold’s Medea may dig deep into gender politics and attempt to dissect what it is to be a wife and a mother, but ultimately this play is a blood bath. It’s about revenge and one woman’s determination to destroy the man who has betrayed her. Kate Fleetwood as Medea puts in a fine performance, her eyes a blaze with rage for the full 90 minutes, her impressive cheekbones seemingly sharpening with every angry exchange with her ex-husband.

Echoes of the play’s Greekness remain in the costumes that combined jeans with flowing Grecian things. This sartorial mash-up did kind of work, although I disliked the final chorus’s black/white, masculine/feminine costume that seemed curiously half-baked. The production, generally, went a little wayward towards the end, the final 15 minutes rather lost me. We had been transported from the urban modern surroundings we had been in to somewhere else, but I must have missed where – there were mountains. Cusk and Goold duck out of Medea actually killing her children; she does it metaphorically in a scene where the chorus recites the final tragedy. We learn the boys took their own lives (or maybe that’s what everyone is meant to think as in the original? – told you it was confusing). 

Despite the tragic ending, I was rather unmoved – this production may have given me a great deal to think about, but little to care about.

Medea | Almeida Theatre, N1 | Until 14 November 2015

Theatre Review: Three Days in the Country, the Lyttelton, National Theatre

Patrick Marber’s retelling of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is witty and elegant, full of gags and Russian angst

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin ©Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin © Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country is Patrick Marber’s reboot of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the action condensed into three days and this National Theatre production cut to two hours 15 minutes  versus the Russian playwright’s bum-numbing four.

Set in a grand country estate, the home of rich landowner Arkady (John Light), in the mid 19th century, Three Days in the Country has all the ingredients for a pre-revolutionary Russian tale of heartbreak and woe.  Class division? Check. Unrequited love? By the bucket load. A big house in the country, a weapon and an interloper whose thrown a spanner into the works? Da, da, da.

A languid air hangs over the stage, created here by Neil Austin’s lighting and Mark Thompson’s painted backdrop and spacious set, but behind this seemingly tranquil facade lie deep passions, betrayals and unhappiness. What, you thought a piece of Russian literature was going to be lighthearted and frivolous?

The outsider who is the catalyst for trouble is Belyaev, the handsome young tutor to Kolya, the son of Arkady and his restless wife Natalya (Amanda Drew). His arrival puts the household in a tizz and causes a fatal rift between Natalya and her 17-year-old ward, Vera (a brilliant stage debut by Lily Sacofsky) as they both fall in love with this enigmatic young man.

Also court in Cupid’s crossfire is an old family friend, Rakitin (John Simm), who has nursed a deep love for Natalya for 20 long years. Simm is excellent in the role giving a wonderfully composed performance that captures Rakitin’s bitterness, pain and desperation with real feeling.  

Despite the rather bleak path the story weaves (although compared to Chekhov this is Neighbours) there is a light touch to Marber’s witty script and the modern cadence to the dialogue gives Turgenev’s tale a fresh edge and a big dollop of humour. Mark Gatiss as the hopeless doctor, Shpigelsky, turns in a particularly fine comic performance that produces the funniest scene of the play, collapsing with backache during a bluff  proposal of marriage to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta who was Gatiss’s comedy equal in a scene that threatened to steal the show. A less arthritic audience might have been rolling in the aisles.

Beautifully acted with great subtlety and space, Three Days in the Country is a lovely production that’s nicely paced and understated with just enough heart and soul.

Three Days in the Country | Lyttelton Theatre | Until October 21 2015

Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Book review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster is one of those extraordinary ordinary novels that is riveting in its everyday-ness

Nora Webster, the 10th novel from Irish master of words, Colm Tóibín, is loosely based on his own mother’s experience of grief. This novel is personal enough for to Tóibín to have struggled for 10 years to write it, so close was it to his own family’s experience.

Set in Tóibín’s hometown of Enniscorthy, Wexford County at the end of the 1960s, the brewing Troubles provide a TV level hum of discontent to an otherwise millpond life. The eponymous hero, Nora Webster, has, when we first meet her, recently been left widowed at the age of 44 with four children, two almost grown up girls and two young teenage boys. Told chronologically, the novel is the story – or as much of a story as Tóibín will ever tell – of her grief, from the raw early days to three years later, when her pain lies lighter in her heart and Maurice, her late husband, becomes a less frequent presence on the page.

Maurice’s death takes place off the page just before we meet Nora – who is, in those early days, having to contend with a constant parade of well-intentioned visitors who are lining up to offer condolences and dish out orders. From that point, we follow Nora as she sells the family’s seaside house, goes back to work, dyes her hair to the shock of the small town, goes on holiday to Spain where she sleeps in a boiler room to get away from her aunt’s snoring, and paints her back room.

There are many moments of quiet awakening, most notably in her discovery of music, something Maurice never took an interest in. Nora joins a choir and the rather pompous Gramophone Society, through which she discovers Bach and Dvořák. She even buys a record player and begins making trips to Dublin to buy records as the music lifts her out of numbness and gently nudges her into her new life post-Maurice.

Tóibín’s novel is a wonderful study in a woman’s struggle with grief and her self-discovery. Maurice’s absence is felt through her loneliness and a sense of free falling, the feeling of being trapped without the anchor of a partner by her side.

Nora Webster is written in Tóibín’s characteristically plain prose that’s stripped of any creative writing flourishes. Broken down, at times it reads like a list, or a functionary weekend diary entry, but its very plainness beautifully captures the mundane everyday of grief and the daily grind of life. This, after struggling to make ends meet after Maurice’s death. “After much argument, she had finally been granted a second pension, and both pensions had been increased in the previous year’s budget. She had not been aware at first that the extra money had been backdated by six months and she was surprised to get cheques in the post for what she thought were large sums of money.”

As ever, there’s poetry in Tóibín’s bleak prose that serves to highlight the streak of sadness that runs through Nora’s life as she wades through her grief, watching her children struggle to overcome their sorrow while finding her own way through the darkness. I was particularly touched by stuttering Donal who finds solace in photography and whose loneliness Nora is powerless to prevent.

Nora herself is a extremely private person with a steeliness that lays buried until she’s forced to defend herself or her family. She is a divisive person we come to understand, some of the characters are drawn to her while others – her sisters included – find her prickly, uncooperative, rude and, to her family she often is. The book is told from her perspective, and, while it’s never stated, they are, in their familial closeness, clearly the target of her grief fuelled anger.

But there is a warmth too to this novel that seeps through the spacious prose that pulls you into the minutia of Nora’s small life with the force that only a truly great novel can.