Theatre Review: Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Review: Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and more information click here

by Suzanne Elliott 

With thanks to Official Theatre London.

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Electra, Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, The Old Vic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

East Is East, Trafalgar Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

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

Theatre Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

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

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

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

Foyles

Waterstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Suzanne Elliott