Book Review Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love was written in a flurry of creativity during Bernadine Bishop’s cancer remission and its aggressive return. The novel is Bishop’s fourth, although her first in fifty years, published in 2013 when she was 73.

Unexpected Lessons in Love is an odd little novel that’s stylistically gentle yet full of dramatic plot turns. The tone of this novel about one family and their small Venn diagram of friends and acquaintances, is rather old fashioned, the rhythm so smooth as to be almost soporific. But this soothing tempo is at odds with many of the events of the book that take in cancer, a mentally ill mother, an abandoned child, heartbreak, grief and even a rather strange and slightly half hearted kidnapping. Bishop lets these events gently unfold with such calmness that I often found the stillness immensely irritating.

At the heart of the story is Cecilia Banks, a retired psychotherapist in remission from cancer and now reliant on a colostomy – or stoma. She is married to Tim, a benign presence who loves tennis and his computer. Cecilia’s life is further disrupted when her son Ian discovers he is a father to a three-month-old baby, the product of a fling with a beautiful but schizophrenic woman who called herself Leda. It’s bad timing all round as Ian is busy falling in love with an old friend Marina and, as a foreign correspondent, he’s often abroad. Fortunately Cecilia willing takes on the baby (called Cephas, a name that tripped up every sentence it was in, a point Bishop later acknowledges) with few complaints. Completing Cecilia’s close circle is Helen, a woman Cecilia meets at cancer treatment. The two become fast friends, in fact seemingly each others only friends. In addition to this close knit crew, there are also a few other characters that drift into the story, all loosely linked by a thread that leads back to a nun called Sister Diana.

Bishop, who in her hiatus as a writer trained as a psychotherapist, is unflinching in her portrayal of humans at their everyday worse. When Cecilia, a good, little complaining woman notices the glint in her husband Tim’s eyes when he’s around the beautiful Leda, she notes he is happy and dislikes it: “it struck her as ironic that she could honestly say she loved Tim, and yet she hated the look of happiness on his face”. Later she ponders: “it is possessiveness, thought Cecilia sadly, that prevents us from wanting those we love to be happy in their own way”.

Stylishly, Unexpected Lessons in Love Bishop is endearing and it’s rare for a writer to capture the inner workings of the human brain so honestly and accurately. Bishop writes fluidly and truthfully, the novel oscillating between the characters’ inner monologues, their thoughts seamlessly drifting into the narrative – even the cat and baby Cephas’s personal motivations are expressed.

But despite Bishop’s skill as a writer, I didn’t fall for Unexpected Lessons in Love, it was like an Aga saga turned up to too high, its realism blunted by too much drama. I found the tone too languid, the dramatic events so incongruous – it was at once too ordinary and too extraordinary for it to hit the right note with me. The characters were also rather irritating, not unlikable, just rather flimsy and, well, boring. Plus Cecilia’s son, Ian, might be the most annoying man committed to paper, and in a world were Christian Grey exists, that’s saying something.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Lippy, Young Vic

Lippy at the Young Vic

Lippy at the Young Vic

Sometimes the disparity between the critics’ reviews of a production and the audiences’ verdict is so vast that I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a critical filter that mere mortals can’t pass through that reverses the way the pros and the rest of us think.

Dead Centre’s Lippy was critically acclaimed when it showed at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and the Young Vic’s marketing materials are adorned with quotes from gushing critics proclaiming it “extraordinary” and a play that “pushes at the limits of theatre” (in hindsight this may not have been meant as a compliment). But as the rather bemused audience shuffled out of the Maria Theatre the evening I saw it, the woman in front of me summed up Lippy better than any theatre critic, loudly proclaiming that it was “the biggest load of crap I’ve ever seen”, before accosting a steward demanding her money back “under the trade descriptions act”.

Lippy starts off strongly with a well played Q&A session for a play we never see. Lippy‘s main writer creator Bush Moukaezel plays a – presumably – more unprofessional and vapid version of himself who is interviewing one of the actors (played with impressive conviction all things considered by David Heap). The Interviewer is more interested in the actor’s off-stage lip reading skills than the play and during prompts the actor to reveal that he helped the police in the investigation into the deaths an elderly aunt and her three middle aged nieces when he was called upon to interpret the words of two of the women captured on CCTV on their final shopping expedition to Dublin. Moukarzel – as the Interviewer and it transpire as a writer – isn’t interested in this morsel of a story. And from this point, neither was I.

The Q&A session ends and the stage lights dim as thumping music pounds through the speaker while shadowy figures emerge from behind the thin curtain. This is the best moment in the production, genuinely terrifying and sinister, with real menace and unease. But then things go sub-Beckett as reality goes to the bar (later there’s a randomly thrown in reference to the demise of the interval, a decent theatre in-joke in another play, but why this one?). The music, the treacle like movement of the characters, the lack of focus create an anxious atmosphere that is irritating rather than evocative. In amongst all this muddle, the fates of these women became increasingly irrelevant.

There is an interesting story in here somewhere, the psychological study of why four women seemingly chose to starve themselves to death. And there’s certainly a valid point being made about us never being able to fully understand the world around us – trying to makes sense of it is like a lip reader trying to interpret the mumblings of a mad person. But all the interesting stuff is buried under several layers of pretension – even the actors don’t look particularly invested.

And there were so many unanswered questions; I don’t want to be spooned fed a story or its message, but there’s got to be a strong script and well developed characters to pull off surrealism, and there was something too cold and knowing about Lippy that prevents it pulling off the feat it sets itself. So extraordinary it might be, but not quite in the way the critics meant it.

by Suzanne Elliott

Lippy | Young Vic | Until 14 March 2015 | Tickets

Theatre Review: Joy, Etcetera Theatre, Camden

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jone

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jones

Velvet Trumpet, a South London based theatre company who revel in the dark recesses of humour in everyday life, brought Joy to North London with this production of three bleakly funny monologues.

Written by Thomas Jones (who also doubles as a river cop in this production) and Nikolai Ribnikov each story in Joy is connected only by the deep seam of joylessness that runs through the three men’s stories.

The first monologue, Toast, is how a recently divorced man, now living with his brother, finds comfort in an unlikely place. Breaking down the fourth wall is Michael (Jon Cottrell) who vents at the audience about his frustrations and his flirtations with the mysterious kitchen companion he meets at one of his brother’s party (his reenactment helped out by a handily placed member of the audience).

Next up is Roger (Thomas Jones) in Thames Cop. He’s giving an entirely inappropriate lesson to a bunch of primary kids about life in the Marine Police Unit. His talk is laced with bitterness and resentment, and as he draws to a close we discover why a mix-up on a party boat got him relegated to giving talks to schools rather than fishing tourists out of the Thames. Equally as unfulfilled is Phil (a particularly angry Simon Grujich) in “All Change, All Change” a tube driver whose ramblings over the loudspeaker go beyond “please mind the gap” into a much blacker hole. But is anyone listening?

Well, I certainly was. Joy is a quirky hour-long production that’s bitingly funny and as dark as the tunnels tube driver Phil inhabits. Unable to connect with the world, these men are sad, lonely , socially disenfranchised and awash with self pity. Despite their sad situations, none of them are terribly sympathetic; they are victims of their own self-importance as much as their circumstances. But it’s fun laughing at them.

Joy is not joyful, but it is very funny, the monologues given greater intensity in the small stark space of the Etcetera Theatre. It cuts pretty close to the bone at times and takes us into darker places than the many laughs the pieces get would suggest. It reminded me of early Ian McEwan novels featuring plenty of sexual inadequacy, loneliness with a dose of sordidness and desperation. Joy may not feature any incest that was a feature of McEwan’s 70s work, but Toast and Thames Cop both take sexual turns that Ian would have been proud of. Quirky, dark and a little bit twisted, Joy maybe not be joyful, but it’s a lot of fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Joy | Velvet Trumpet | More information




Theatre Review: The Nether, Duke of York’s and How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Pictures Manuel Harlan.

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

The future never looks good in the arts. You rarely read a book, see a play, watch a TV programme about the world 30 years from now and see people contentedly and comfortably living in a world overflowing with food, water and oil.

By coincidence, I spent the first week of February watching two playwrights’ visions of the miserable future that awaits us. First up was Zinnie Harris‘ new play at the Royal Court, How To Hold Your Breath followed by The Nether, a play that started life at the Sloane Square theatre before transferring to the Duke of York’s last month.

How To Hold Your Breath is the cautionary tale of how a one night stand can lead to the economic collapse of the European Union. Dana, played by the captivating Maxime Peake, meets a handsome man in a bar only for her blissful post-coital bubble to burst as he tells her he’s a Demon called Jarron (played with sinister charm by Michael Shaeffer) and he absolutely insists on paying her €45 for her services. Oof. Rightly pissed off, Dana tells the Demon to shove his money up his eurozone, a decision that proves rather unwise as the Demon’s wrath brings down the Western world as we know it.

As catastrophe reigns, Dana and her pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) attempt to find their way from Berlin (where the play is set) to Alexandria where Dana has been invited for an interview for a research post. Their journey continues in the same slightly surreal tone, a kind of apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland where a librarian keeps popping up with ‘how to… ’books for all eventualities  like Carroll’s White Rabbit with a library card.

There’s an awful lot going on in Harris’ issue heavy play and as a result it feels unrelentingly bleak with seemingly little purpose. Luckily we have Maxine Peake in the lead, an actor capable of conveying a 100 emotions with a flick of an eye. The performances are the cornerstone of Vicky Featherstone’s production, elevating it  above its muddleness. Peake is is well supported by a talented cast all of them digging deep and extracting some emotion from the play’s curious coldness.

The Nether is a more coercive play despite tackling some very big issues. Set in 2050, the Nether is an virtual world where people create other identities and fantasy lives, although the moral codes of the real world remain, in theory.

Within the Nether, a man named Sims (an imposing Stanley Townsend) has created the Hideaway, a faux Victorian house of which he, as Papa, is head. There is nothing upstanding about this chocolate box world Sims has created, it’s purpose is to allow people to use the children of the house as they please. But, as this is the virtual world, these children aren’t who they appear, they too are adults, opting for these roles and seemingly complicit in their abuse.Isabella Pappas as Sims’ favourite Iris, gives a wonderful performance and the part being played by a child adds to the moral murkiness.

The Nether, Duke of York's

David Calder and Stanley Townsend in The Nether, Duke of York’s

Jennifer Haley’s clever script is ambiguous in its moral message and like the detective (played with stern intensity by Amanda Hale) in charge of the investigation into this murky world, we’re never sure if what goes on in The Hideaway is a crime if all involved are, in the real world, consenting adults.

As much as this is a futuristic moral maze, The Nether is first and foremost a detective play with plenty of surprises in the taut script that twists and turns with dexterity, building the intensity. Director, Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin stretches the suspense tight for a gripping 1 hour 20 minute play that will leave you buzzing with questions.

The Nether doesn’t however look much like your average detective story; it’s super sleek and Es Devlin’s set design and Luke Halls’ video design are fabulous, mixing technological polish with imaginative aesthetics much like Haley’s play itself.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Nether, Duke of York’s until April 25th 2015


How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court until March 21st 2015



Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I’m late to the Meg Wolitzer party, although it’s rather less of a party and more of the after-dinner mess, all wine-stained lips and drunken tear-streaked cheeks.

But increasingly her name cropped up on my radar that challenged my pre-conception that her novels were too domestic, too insular for my tastes. I had fallen into the very trap that Wolitzer tackles in The Wife, the idea that books written by women writers are narrower – ‘female’ – in scope than male authors whose narrative we accept as the norm.

The Wife is far larger than its domestic setting and says so about the world we live in with such composure and understanding. It’s the story of one wife’s domestic unhappiness through which Wolitzer tells the larger picture of living in a world that’s narrated by men, both in literature and in the real world.

Joe Castleman is a “man that owns the world”, Joan, his rock, his carer, in short, his wife. He’s a successful white man of a certain class and age who is at ease with the world because it’s entirely run his way. We met him and Joan en-route to Finland where he’s heading to collect the Helsinki Prize (a Lidl Nobel Prize). It’s on this transatlantic flight that Joan decides to leave her husband who has set the rhythm of her life for too long.

Joan takes us back through their life together, beginning in the 1950s when women were still tied to the kitchen sink, a baby on one hip and their husband’s dinner in the oven. Women may have broken free of the kitchen, but depressingly many of the points that Joan Castleman refers to are still relevant today, the “men who own the world” still set the agenda and how we – male and female – view it. We’re characters in the fiction that has been created where the male view is the norm. The Wife challenges the idea that the male story has to be the universal one, that fiction written by women can’t be big and far reaching.

But as much as The Wife resonates with unfailing truths, it’s a story not a manifesto and it’s a damn good one. Joe is so real with his flabby middle aged spread, smugness and wandering hands. The world is his for the taking and he’s grabbing it with two fat greedy hands. Written in the first person, Joan is no sweetheart, she’s hard-nosed, caustic and seemingly humourless (although, to be fair, she doesn’t seem to have much to laugh at) and she’s not afraid to steal another man’s husband. Her controlled, unemotional voice doesn’t hint at a love of the sisterhood. But her intelligence and tolerance evokes your understanding, if not your sympathy.

Wolitzer writing is a constant joy, it’s rich and fluid, capturing dialogue and human failings with a hypnotic ease. She hits just the right tone, blunting the sharpness with wit and an emotional heart. This is one tear-stained party I’m definitely going back to.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

The Wasp is a smart two-hander in which Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script explores the impact of childhood experiences on our adult lives in a dark, if sometimes camply absurd, thriller with an ending that is as swift and sharp as a sting.

Despite the gulf in their social backgrounds and upbringings, Carla (Myanna Buring) and Heather (Sinead Matthews) were best friends until year eight when things went a little Lord Of The Flies. Twenty years later, we meet them in a cafe where a heavily pregnant Carla is chain smoking while Heather, all lattes and pashmina, stutteringly explains why she wanted to see her former friend again despite the cruelty she inflicted on her.

Their meeting is nervy and heavy with secrets, we all know that Heather hasn’t simply arranged to meet Carla to talk about her marriage woes with her husband Simon or her fertility problems. As they drain the last of their tea and Carla stubs out her final cigarette, the story takes a sharp twist and with a swift set change, we’re in Heather’s magazines-on-coffee-tables-“shoes-off” house where things are about to get even darker.

Even in the confines of Heather’s middle-class sitting room, the play continues to wring out increasing bleak secrets. What specific incident has scarred Heather so deeply that she’s consumed by it twenty years later? And how far is this “Guardian-reading, left-leaning” woman prepared to go to help heal her wounds?

Lloyd Malcolm’s script occasionally loses focus and there are a few moments when the characters have to dig themselves out of a plot u-turn, but when it’s en pointe, The Wasp is absorbing and laced with enough black humour to cancel out its more absurd moments.

Myanna Buring is brilliant as Carla – during a scene when she finds herself in a situation stickier than a cobweb, she’s devastating in her fear and vulnerability. Sinead Matthews has a harder time with Heather; she’s a jittery, not quite fully formed character and Matthews never quite got the character’s rhythm right, losing some of the vital humour in her agitated delivery (this was a preview performance). But the ending helps to make sense of Heather a little and completely underpins the story with an assurance that erases any niggles.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre until 7 March

Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bel – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she enters the steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stair’s features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

Old fashioned and quirky with sentences that beat to a strange rhythm, you’re not even half way through the first chapter of The Heat of the Day before you realise why the once lorded Elizabeth Bowen has fallen out of favour with modern readers.

Bowen’s seventh novel is set largely against the scarred, smoky backdrop of a Blitz battered London in the autumn of 1940. The plot is languid and almost of little consequence, a hook to hang Bowen’s idiosyncratic but often lyrical prose. The slight story centres around Stella Rodney who is informed by a strange little man named Harrison that she first meets at her Cousin Francis’ funeral that her partner, the louche Robert Kelway, is a traitorous spy.

Running in tandem (or rather languishing in the shadows) to the Stella-Harrison-Robert triangle, is Louie a strange, almost-childlike woman who is floundering in a world where she is completely alone, her parents having being killed in an air raid and her husband, Tom, away fighting. In a bid to combat her loneliness, she has frequent one night stands with strangers – the novel opens with her attempting to seduce an irritated Harrison at an outdoor concert in Regent’s Park.

Harrison has got his (wonky) eyes on Stella and is willing to break all sorts of wartime rules to use the information he has on Robert to get Stella into bed. He never comes out and says so directly because no one comes out and says anything directly in The Heat of the Day. Stella, who is an archetypal 1940s siren, all lipstick and vagueness, spends most of the novel mulling this dilemma over, does she bow to Harrison’s demands or place Robert in danger by alerting him that his cover has been blown? Stella does an awful lot of thinking and most of it seems to require a great deal of standing around in rooms, studying the rugs (there’s several lengthy passages describing the room the character is currently standing in).

Bowen’s prose is as pitch-black as wartime London and the atmosphere she creates through her meandering, fractured, almost stagey dialogue and descriptions of this period is hugely evocative and quite different to anything I’ve read about living through the Blitz ravaged city. The Blitz is used as a backdrop in many books, but rarely as evocatively and as honestly as in Bowen’s novel. You can sense the darkness, the shadowy unknowingness, the fear that gave rise to love – or perhaps just a desperation to be wanted. Strangers say goodnight to each other so if they should die they would have left a tiny imprint. I loved Bowen’s description of the gang-like feel of Londoners left behind and also their loneliness in amongst all the ‘we’re in this together’ doctrine. We’re often lead to believe that dicing with death was wonderfully fun, but writers often leave out the loneliness and solitude, the nagging tiredness and the constant tension.

The Heat of the Day is a dense, claustrophobic book that’s frustrating and wonderful in equal measures, full of staccato syntax and odd asides – it’s like Graham Greene re-written by Virginia Woolf. For all Bowen’s commitment to conquering up an ambiance, her writing is also very witty and positively Wodehousian at times, particularly during Robert’s – and on one occasion, Stella’s – trips to his childhood home Holme Dene where we meet his comically awful mother and sister (the brilliantly named Ernestine).

To spit out a cliché – something Bowen would never do – this is a book you will either love or hate. Bowen makes you work hard and the reward is an enticing, enchanting read – if you like it. If you don’t, it’s a meandering, incomprehensible, self-indulgent slog.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Based on Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book of the same title, David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre feels both epic yet intimate, a play on a large scale that studies small human pettiness that can dominate – and decimate – our lives.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is set in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi that exists, perilously and illegally, on land owned by the airport. Boo’s book and Hare’s play record the daily life of the residents on this marshy makeshift town that the city’s poor have made home. Day-to-day life is a struggle, many live hand-to-mouth from money made by rifling through the mountains of litter from the airport, reclaiming treasured plastics and metals for recycling. These ‘pickers’, as they are known, sell on their finds to a ‘sorter’ who in turn profits from selling on this trash.

The struggle to survive in this vast shanty town doesn’t overwhelm life’s petty dramas. Amongst the residents of Annawadi are the Husains, a Muslim family marooned between Hindus and Christians, their presence tolerated until they start flaunting their comparative wealth. The family can afford a ‘new’ kitchen thanks to Abdul (Shane Zaza), the eldest son and a star sorter, an expert at extracting the jewels from the rubbish piles in the bags the pickers bring him. He’s a peaceful, quiet boy, constantly despairing at his swearing, gobby mother Zehrunisa (an engaging Meera Syal). She is constantly squabbling with their neighbour Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), an aggrieved and disagreeable cripple with a sideline in selling in her body. Their rows escalates when the Husains begin building work on their hut and soon pieces of rubble in Fatima’s rice kicks off a series of devastating events.

The production is a fantastic ensemble piece that pits strong characters against each other without tipping over into hysteria. Rufus Norris’s smooth direction ensures the production is even more moving in its evenhandedness, although he doesn’t shield away from the harsher realities; it’s barbaric at times and Shakespearean in its tragedies (and eye injuries). Behind The Beautiful Forevers shines a light on human nature and shows that we’re not always at our best when we’re at our lowest ebb despite what art can claim. It shows that when the world is against you, we often lash out at our neighbours (both physical and metaphorical). As a judge passing a verdict on the Husain’s points out, the poor are squabbling amongst themselves when they should be fighting the authorities.

The cast are all outstanding in what is very much an ensemble piece. As standouts, Thusitha Jayasundera is brilliant as Fatima, thoroughly convincing as a sly, nasty woman while not losing sight of her vulnerability. Meera Syal also elicits our sympathies as the cocky Zehrunisa who is cruelly cut down to size by her neighbours.

While the production deals with heavy themes, there is no agenda to Norris’ production; this is a touching, powerful drama that tells a story both big and small.

by Suzanne Elliott

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre until April 13th 2015

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s novels for years, snottily turning my nose up at her books after skim reading the first chapter of Human Crochet for a review for my university newspaper and deeming it ‘daft’. My savage undergraduate review didn’t stop her from becoming one of the UK’s most enduring and loved writers and, despite my first impressions, her novels have continued to buzz around the periphery of my reading list. In a bid to bat away the hum – and perhaps reinforce my opinion – I picked up a copy of her first Jackson Brodie novel Case Histories in a charity shop.

I love a good detective yarn and Atkinson’s lyrical, clever, witty prose completely seduced me. Life After Life, is Atkinson’s ninth novel and the third of her’s I’ve read (not counting that Human Crochet chapter). It leaves present day detective work for a different England that begins – again and again – in 1911.

Ursula has the ability to live her life over again, trying out different paths for size (she is always born on the same day and into the same family). She is first born on a snowy day in February 1911, the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, only to die minutes later, strangled by the umbilical cord. But life is not over for Ursula yet – she gets plenty of other chances, each time tweaking her life in an attempt to avoid the heartache, loss and suffering that each life brings. Some of her lives lead her back along the same path despite taking a different fork (she returns repeating to the same spot in Blitz battered London) and inevitably she learns that she can’t control history – or can she? Ursula survives into adulthood after a few more false starts, but cold, hungry and surrounded by misery in war torn Britain (and, in one life, Germany) her purpose in life becomes apparent. Can Ursula change the course of history and save her loved ones and millions of others?

Life After Life is a journey through a period of time in England’s history that shaped today, from those Arcadian times we’re encouraged to believe in before a bullet in Sarajevo put an end to easy Edwardian days, and would later lay huge swatches of urban Britain and Europe to waste.

Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula Todd is brooding and bright, the novel littered with literary quotes from Milton, Keats, Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. Ursula is less a character than a time-travelling vessel, but in all her guises she’s  unpretentious and lively, sparkling with intelligence and – having learnt the hard way – in her later lives, sassy and ballsy. The cast of characters may not be hugely original, but they are an entertaining bunch, especially Ursula’s aunt Izzie, a glamorous rebel who particularly comes to life when set against Ursula’s stuffy Edwardian mother, Sylvie.

Life After Life is ambitious without being punishing, a family saga with a metaphysical element that is less about the abstract and more about the humane. It’s about those small decisions and tiny moments in time (those Sliding Doors moments) that can change everything (or nothing as Ursula discovers).

This novel is imaginative and far reaching and Atkinson’s easy prose gripping, there is poetry even in her gruesome descriptions of the bomb sites (“he came apart like a Christmas cracker” she writes of one unfortunate victim). Life After Life is desperately sad at times, but it’s also witty and heartwarming and brimming with energy and inventiveness. ‘Daft’ it most certainly isn’t.

by Suzanne Elliott