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

Theatre Review: Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter theatre

John Dagleish as Ray Davis and George Maguire as Dave Davis in Sunny Afternoon. Credit: Kevin Cummins.

John Dagleish as Ray Davis and George Maguire as Dave Davis in Sunny Afternoon. Credit: Kevin Cummins.

Sunny Afternoon is a trip down dead end street, the story of The Kinks told through the band’s songs penned by frontman Ray Davies and playwright Joe Penhall. As one of Britain’s greatest songwriters, Davis’s lyrical narratives lend themselves nicely to a stage musical about the life of the band both on and off the stage and his (and brother Dave’s) melodies are natural crowd pleasers.

The Kinks were misfits in the 1960s, scruffy Cockneys with none of The Beatles’ pretty boy good looks or the Rolling Stones’ stylish swagger. From the beginning there was much internal squabbling, with Ray’s brother lead guitarist Dave (whose band The Kinks originally was) a constant spiky presence. The prickly, cross-dressing Dave Davies is played with gusto by George Maguire has recently, and deservedly, been nominated for a What’sOnStage award for Best Supporting Actor in a musical. He’s a Scrappy Do-like character, always gagging for fight or a party – brawling with drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and swinging from the chandeliers in sequins the next.

Sunny Afternoon follows the band from their inception in the Davis’s north London (pre-organic sourdough times) living room to an ill-fated American tour and their first Number 1. There’s class warfare, pitting the talented Muswell Hill hillbillies against Oxbridge types in double breasted suits, and many internal fall-outs (bassist Pete QuaifeNed Derrington – eventually quits the band in frustration). And there are the songs, many gloriously melodic songs, from the hard guitar riff of ‘You Really Got Me’ to the sublime ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

But the production stays the right side of positive, in fact you could argue it rather white washes some of the darker bits (Ray’s depression, his divorce from his childhood sweetheart who we meet in this production, played by Lillie Flynn). The story ends triumphantly with England winning the 1966 World Cup, resulting in a finale that is a real highlight, an infectious proper on-yer-feet celebration that encapsulates the swinging and a nation riding on the high of a World Cup win (or our rose-tinted ideal of what 1966 was like).

Sunny Afternoon premiered at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, where it was a sell-out smash. West End transfers can be dodgy things; a play that worked in an intimate space outside a W1 postcode can feel swamped in a bigger venue. And Sunny Afternoon feels a little lost at the Harold Pinter despite the great songs, triumphant set pieces and the response from a thrilled audience.

But it would be impossible not to have fun at Sunny Afternoon; any production soundtracked by The Kinks is going to be toe-tappingly fun and as good as the performances are, it’s the songs for me that were the real stars.

by Suzanne Elliott

Harold Pinter theatre, London. Booking to May 2015. Tickets: 0844 871 7622; sunnyafternoonthemusical.com

Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.

It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.

I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.

The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.

Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.

Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.

Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.

The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

David Mitchell’s latest Booker Prize longlisted nominated novel has been dubbed a metaphysical thriller, a genre-bending tale that spans oceans and eras, a book that makes Cloud Atlas look like a kitchen sink drama.

The Bone Clocks is like several different novels by several different authors of several different genres all rolled into one big fat tale that is simultaneously one woman’s ordinary story of guilt and family, a tale of a feud between other worlds and an apocalyptic future in our own.

For the bulk of it, I loved The Bone Clocks. The tale starts in Gravesend, Kent in 1984 where 17-year-old Holly Skyes is slamming her front door after a row with her mother, storming off to boyfriend Vincent Costelloe’s (who makes a later, brilliantly cast cameo). So far, so normal. But Holly has been hearing voices all her life and was visited by the mysterious and beautiful Immaculée Constantin until she was taken to a certain Dr Marinus who silenced the chatter and banish the interloper.

While on the run Holly is party to a deadly fight between people from two other universes (the memory of which is wiped by the ‘goodies’) who we later come to know as Horologists and Anchorites (led by Miss Constantin), the background oddness that bubbles under the surface in the first four chapters, revealing itself in the novel’s fifth section.

Holly’s flight from the family home is cut short after she’s tracked down by Ed Brubeck, a boy in her class (who pops up a couple of chapters later where he’s a war reporter, dodging bombs and angry American soldiers in the Middle East), who tells Holly her little brother Jacko has gone missing, a mystery that the novel spins around.

In true Mitchell style, there are six sections, all narrated, or focused on, different individuals whose lives are intertwined with each others. There’s Holly, and later Ed, and between we hear from Hugo Lamb, a pompous, possibly psychopathic Cambridge student (uncannily like the title character in Sebastian FaulksEngleby that I haven’t long finished) and a great section narrated by the Martin Amis-like author Crispin Hershey, who is all hard intellectual edges and a softish heart.

With each chapter there’s a shift in tone and pace before we settle down to the latest installment in this globe trotting tale that has Holly and Jacko’s mysterious disappearance at its core.

But the fifth section is more than just a change of gear, it’s like getting into a Ford Fiesta and finding yourself on the moon as we land in another story where Mitchell Does Fantasy. We are introduced to the metaphysical element early on – the fight that Holly witnesses – and there’s an dollop – some large, some small – in each intervening chapter. But in this section the fantasy button goes OFF as those Horologists and Anchorites who have been buzzing about in the background take centre stage for a showdown that will destroy one side for good. It’s completely daft, deliberately so I assume, I mean “The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass?” It probably should be fun, but I felt as if you’re wading through a muddled outtake from the Harry Potter cast having a spat.

We’re back in grim reality in the final section as Mitchell Does Cormac McCarthy. Holly is now in Ireland, it’s 2043 and the world is scorched and depleted, the idea of 24/7 electricity has become mythical. Holly lives on a windswept peninsula, with her granddaughter and adopted grandson struggling against the increasingly medieval conditions. Mitchell’s vision of a near future without fuel, electricity or democracy is as unpleasantly realistic as the preceding chapter was fantastical – and far more fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Here Lies Love, National Theatre

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, it’s that she loved shoes.

There are no mention of shoes in Here Lies Love (the inscription Imelda once said she wanted on her gravestone), but the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim penned musical about Imelda’s colourful life will certainly have you metaphorically donning your dancing shoes.

Here Lies Love is a frenetic, energetic slice of pure fun (and a little history). It follows Imelda from her humble-ish roots in the small town of Tacloban where her family were well to do enough to keep a servant, Estrella Cumpas (an endearing Gia Macuja Atchison), but not rich enough to pay her. Imelda dreamt big from the beginning and after winning (in this version, according to Wikipedia she actually came second) the local beauty contest and being dumped by first love Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) for being too tall, she heads off to Manila where she catches the eye of budding politician Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista).

Based on a concept album written by Talking Heads‘ David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love is full of sassy charm and feels genuinely different. What it might lack in West End polish, it makes up for in enthusiasm and (largely) properly good songs. There are a couple of the usual musical meh numbers, but if you don’t come away singing title track ‘Here Lies Love’ you have a harder heart that Imelda at her most ruthless.Even I, who is allergic to forced clap-a-longs and queasy about over zealous theatrics, found myself bopping along (safely in my seat).

The set is a nightclub, complete with rotating platforms, inspired by Imelda famously converting one of her New York houses into a disco (OF COURSE) and Alex Timbers’s pacey direction immerses the audience into the camp frivolity. I was sitting, but down in the stalls the audience find themselves on the dancefloor and it was an awful lot of fun watching  British theatre goers shuffle self-consciously from my position on the balcony.The staging also features video projections and newsreel footage of the time – there’s a LOT going on.

Here Lies Love may be fabulous fun, but it has also has heart. Natalie Mandoza plays Imelda Marcos with force, but also reveals the First Lady’s tender side with some rousing ballads and the lyrics convey the human story behind the ruthless politician.

But above all, Here Lies Love is an energetic and exciting production and a dose of disco tonic.

Here Lies Love is at the National Theatre until 8 January 2015. For tickets and more information, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Rivals, Arcola Theatre

Iain  Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

As Jane Austen showed, Regency Bath with its petty snobberies and bored, gouty bourgeoise was ripe for satirical picking. Richard Sheridan takes Austen’s gentle satire and cranks it up to 11, poking fun at the newly wealthy middle classes and minor aristocrats in The Rivals, a play brimming with playfulness of language and cocky bravado. The Arcola Theatre’s revival of it is every bit as fun as it should be, brightening up a filthy afternoon in Dalston (no easy feat).

Upper class Lydia Languish’s (Jenny Rainsford) head is full of romantic novels and longs to suffer for love like the heroines in the books she borrows from the circulating library (“vile places indeed!”). Happily for Lydia she  falls in love with a man she believes to be an impoverished officer, who goes by the hugely unromantic name of Ensign Beverley, who she is plotting to elope with.

Of course her posh relations, of which she only seems to have one, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (yes, her of using words in the wrong context fame) really won’t stand for her niece gallivanting off with a lowly red coat. In reality, Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) actually has nothing to worry about as Beverley is actually the far richer – and much more plausibly named – Jack Absolute – who is having an absolute ball teasing his beloved with his great ruse (remember, these are the days before Pointless).

Jack’s wheeze hits a major stumbling block when his rather severe father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost), informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him. Furious, Jack quarrels with his father before learning that he’s fated to be married to none other than… yes, Lydia Languish. Well I never!

But how will he get round the slippery problem of Lydia loving his poorer alter ego? And there’s also the problem of another real life rival, the rather boarish Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who is determined to see off this upstart Beverley. Cue plenty of farcical mix-ups that encompass their small society including the romantically jealous Faulkland and his exasperated fiancee Julia, impoverished Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and several servants including Lucy who stirs the misunderstandings up to a roiling boil.

The story is delightfully and brilliantly daft, Sheridan’s genuinely funny script sends up 18th century society like a Jane Austen after a bottle of Port. As sparkling witty as Sheridan’s script is though, this play needs fine comic actors to pull it off, any hint of self-consciousness would render The Rivals toe-curling embarrassing to watch. The cast in Selina Cadell’s production tackle the story with bravado, pulling out the humour with some brilliantly judged campness and arch-knowingness. Gemma Jones (Spooks’ evil Connie) has fun with a pink-haired Mrs Malaprop and Jenny Rainsford is dramatically pouty mouthed as the spoilt Lydia. Justine Mitchell impresses as Julia who must convince her silly fiancé that she does love him with many flowery speeches. Iain Batchelor is an exuberant Jack Absolute brimming with cheeky charm and a convincing cockiness. You want to cheer when all’s well that ends well. Which of course it is.

The Rivals is on until 15th November at the Arcola Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott 

Book Review: Us by David Nicholls

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

I’ve always stayed clear of David Nicholls’ novels out of sheer prejudice, not letting actual plot facts get in the way of his reputation for bouncy, implausible romantic storylines. I dismissed One Day as schmaltzy and unrealistic without even reading a synopsis. And having seen the film of Starter for Ten, I believed my quota for warmly funny, quirky stories about happiness against the odds had been fulfilled.

But Us sounded harder nosed, it had after all been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and we all know that novels don’t get a whiff of a Big Prize without a dose of misery to elevate it to Proper Literature status.

Us is very far from Thomas Hardy-bleak, but it’s a novel that combines humour with life’s harder moments, a half smile with teary eyes. Us is Douglas Petersen’s story of his relationship with Connie that at the beginning of the novel is on very shaky ground after she announces her intention to leave him after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage. Can a pre-planned family Grand Tour of Europe persuade Connie not to throw in the martial towel? It’s unlikely, but Douglas isn’t about to let the woman he adores slip from his life. So off we pop to the continent as we follow the Petersens on their often chaotic, but hugely entertaining journey across Europe’s great cities.

Douglas is a proper – not a trendy – geek, a biochemist with a real zeal for fly-fires. Connie is – of course, we are in Nicholls’ land –  the complete opposite, a free-wheeling artist who is late for flights and leaves the dishes until the morning. I came to realise quite quickly that Nicholls has no interest in challenging stereotypes. All the characters behave true to form from the anally-retentive scientist to the boho-artist, while Connie and Douglas’s teenage son, Albie, is moody, messy and often malicious (to his father anyway). This adherence to stereotype isn’t as annoying or as formulaic as it sounds because the story that Nicholls conjures up around this cast of cliches is heartwarming, engaging and occasionally embarrassing-yourself-on-the-bus funny.

Petersen doesn’t get it all his own way. Nicholls has given his one-personal narration enough rope to hang himself at times (see the ‘the glitter wars’ chapter ).  Like all the best storytellers Nicholls allows Douglas to develop without telling the reader what he’s like and as such, you’re never quite sure whose side you are on. Connie can be smug and self-obsessed. Her dismissal of science as boring and her frustration at Douglas’ struggle with culture (he does try) smack of an art school try-hard and for all her bohemian ways she seems rather priggish and unopen to ideas outside of her arty box. But, god, Douglas must  be a hard man to live with, despite his good intentions, his moodiness and self-righteousness emanate from the pages. In short, these are all too human characters and you feel their trials keenly.

Like Douglas Petersen, Nicholls isn’t a showy writer, but his style is far from pedestrian. It’s a brilliantly structured novel that flips between the present and the past, giving the reader enough clues to the outcome of both in the oscillating chapters to keep us eager for more details and givs the narrative a crucial structural reality.

I loved Us, it could be frustrating, it could be a little bit cutesy and slightly too ‘nice’ (the ending feels right in the context of the novel, but the outside world wouldn’t be so kind ) but it’s an ultimately joyful, funny exploration of a successfully, unsuccessful family.

Us by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

by Suzanne Elliott