Theatre Review: 1984, The Playhouse Theatre

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‘Two minutes of hate’: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

London in the sunshine is a glorious place to be, especially down by the river where, looking out across the water, surrounded by the buzz of beer-fuelled Londoners, the world looks pretty much perfect.

And what a better thing to do on an early summer evening when the world looks so lovely than to sit in the near darkness watching a dystopian tale so powerful that I felt like I’d spent the night on a rack in Room 101.

The world in this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 may contrast sharply with London on a warm night, but in these days of Julian Assange and Ed Snowdon, government cover ups, politicians whipping up hate against minority groups and surveillance cameras on every corner, Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare novel, first published in 1949, seems more relevant than ever.

Orwell’s novel has been distilled down to its brutal bones for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre at the end of last month from the hit factory that is the Almeida. Watching this intense, claustrophobic play in the confined space of the N1 based theatre would been punishing. For once I was glad of my Upper Circle seat.

The conceit of this production is to use the appendix in the original novel as a springboard to bookend Winston’s tale with a narrative that’s set somewhere around 2050 where the book has become a historical text. The play opens with people in some kind of book club  (book clubs, like cockroaches will probably survive an atomic attack) discussing this ‘diary’; Winston’s story, its providence, relevance, reliability and impact debated widely. Having those characters then playing characters in Winston’s story further rams home the mirror image that Orwell was holding up to us in his novel: there is no past or future.

This Almeida Theatre, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse production makes full use of every theatrical component – the set and the staging are as vital as the tremendous acting in telling this story.  For a large part of the one hour 41 minute play the set resembles a church hall or school library; officious but perfunctory, there is nothing futuristic about it. When Winston and Julia are in the hands of the Party, the set is stripped bare and bathed in white light. Throughout the play, the theatre is plunged into pitch darkness, rocked by booming noises and illuminated with strobes.

But it’s not all crash, bang, wallop, the acting is top notch too. Mark Arends is a wonderfully juddery Winston, wide eyed with fear. Hara Yannas gives a lovely controlled performance as Julia, a character who could to be seen as cold and robotic.

Nineteen Eighty Four is a book I know and love; I’ve read it several times, but it’s a story that still has the power to surprise and shock, especially when it’s adapted with such force as it is here. That final scene was proper hand-over-the-face stuff; I had controlled my mind in a way the Party would have been impressed with to forget just how nasty things get in Room 101 (clue: more fake blood).

This is a truly affecting – and entertaining – play; I don’t think I’ve ever been so rattled by a piece of theatre.

1984 is back at the London Playhouse until 29 October 2016.

Get 64% off ticket prices here.

This review is from the 2014 production at the Playhouse Theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

 

Theatre review: Half of Me, Lyric Theatre

Generation Arts. "Half Of Me".

Generation Arts. “Half Of Me”.

Generation Arts isn’t just a worthy cause. The pre-drama school established in 2012 by Ali Godfrey not only gives disadvantaged young people access to acting training, but also highlights real talent that may otherwise get lost in the increasingly privileged world of theatre.

Half of Me is a collaboration between Tamasha Theatre Company, the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University and Generation Arts. With a grant from the Wellcome Trust, this is a play with a science background.

It’s a very modern play about Areia, a teenager born through ART (assisted reproductive technology) struggling with her identity after she discovers the man she calls dad isn’t genetically related to her.

For a treatment as common and as assimilated into our culture as IVF and other ART treatments are , they are rarely discussed beyond conception. This play gives a voice to young people born through this method and explores the ethical dilemmas posed by those involved.

Half of Me also shines a light on the diversity of the modern family. The notion of mum and dad and 2.4 children is so Brexit;  the characters in this play are loved and cared for by parents who explode the myth that the nuclear family is the only family.

If this all sounds terribly worthy, it’s not. Half of Me is warm, funny and engaging. Satinder Chohan’s poetic script, peppered with rhyming couplets, and the fluid, inclusive staging of Generation Art’s founder and director, Ali Godfrey, keep the tension taunt and the action moving so it’s the people, not the science, we’re involved with.

Areia’s journey, both literal and metaphorical, is chartered under the audience’s watchful eyes and the ‘chorus’ – every member of the cast is on stage at all times – lending the production a punchy, Greek theatrical feel (Areia’s family come to Greece for ART treatment; Areia is obsessed with Greek art).

The cast are all engaging, but it’s Erica Kouassi as feisty, independent Areia who grabs your attention. Her Areia is ballsy, but fragile, determined but compassionate. She’s one to watch. 

Half of Me is a play with a big heart and a lot to say which it does with tremendous heart, compassion and fun. 

Generation Arts

@GenerationArts

 

Theatre review: Fury at Soho Theatre

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Fury at the Soho Theatre

 

Light on plot, but full of passion and – well – fury, Soho Theatre’s modern retelling of Medea throws a cold eye over class and misogyny in today’s London

Sam is a 25-year-old single mum living in a council flat in increasingly gentrified Peckham. Her ex, Rob, hovers on the sidelines of her life, benevolent but busy with his new, pregnant, wife.

Sam’s meets her neighbour, Tom, a student swept in on the wave of gentrification one fateful day when she bangs on his door to ask him to turn his music down. There are barely two years between the two of them, but there’s a lifetime of experience. Sam scrapes by on benefits and a cleaning job she struggles to hold down, Tom is studying for an MA he can barely remember.

The friction that their two dramatically different lives creates sparks a spiral of events that leads to Sams sense of reality fracturing and an increasingly unstable grip on her family and mind.

Fury is a modern re-telling of Medea, and, like Medea, Sam is not cut from the likeable female mould, nor is she one of the saintly poor that writers through the generations have portrayed. She is hugely flawed: she sleeps with her friends boyfriends, hits her children, backchats to employees. But she is in a very modern trap, just about surviving in a city bloated with wealth, she is forced into a life where she has neither money nor choice, where society demands her to be perfect in exchange for what little help and sympathy they allow themselves to give to a single mother who doesn’t seem grateful for the miserable lot life has given her.

Fury is more than a Greek re-boot; Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script examines class in modern Britain where the poor, stuck on welfare, rub shoulders with the All Sainted-ed shoulders of the middle classes that are increasingly encroaching on Londons traditional working class areas – and homes.

The staging is punchy and Hannah Hauer-King’s director fluid, the chorus circling the stage telling Sam’s story through words and song. The cast are all superb, Sarah Ridgeway as Sam carries her character’s weights with such intensity she looks done in at the curtain call. Alex Austin as Tom straddles the line between creepy and caring so well you never really know what you think of him even when his part in Sam’s downfall is laid out so starkly.

Fury does rather creak under the weight of its own issues that somewhat derails the narrative. Eclair-Powell’s message heavy writing is powerful, but the light plot didn’t quite capture Sam’s life with quite as much authority as the weighty subject matter demanded. But Fury remains a punchy, fiery, necessary and entertaining production with an impressive cast at its heart.

Fury | Soho Theatre | Until Saturday 30 July 

Book review: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

An upstanding British spy has a past murkier than the North Sea in John le Carré’s cool, poised classic

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Despite being a fan of TV espionage (I will watch anything with handsome spies sitting in smoky rooms, from ludicrous, bonkers Spooks to ludicrous, serious London Spy) my enjoyment of dramatised spy stories has never translated into books. Graham Greene’s murky world of post-war espionage in The Quiet American and his wonderfully comic novel Our Man in Havana are the closest I’ve come to the genre on the page.

And where else should I start investigating spy novels than with the master of the genre, John le Carré whose appeal has been given another boost with the recent super slick, beautifully peopled, totally ridiculous BBC production of The Night Manager. I enjoyed The Night Manager as much as I laughed at it, so I was keen to explore his written word and see how it compared to this campy, tense adaptation.

His 1986 novel A Perfect Spy is a dense doorstopper that follows the charming, mysterious Marcus Pym – a husband, father, respected member of The Firm, and the “greatest con I knew” according to his boss, Jack Brotherhood.

In the past and present, Marcus spins lies, creates personas to such an extent that even he no longer knows who he is. We begin at the end, just after the death of his estranged father an event that has tipped him over into an abyss that he’s been teetering on the edge of his whole life. His dad, Rick Pym (based on le Carré’s own father) was a crook, an old school cockney criminal who will charm your life savings from you and you’ll be glad he did.

The Pym we meet at the beginning is a seemingly upstanding English gent, his sometime landlady of the bed and breakfast retreat in an unnamed British coastal town is charmed by her ‘Mr Canterbury’. But unbeknown to her, Marcus is sitting locked in his attic room, spilling out his secrets and his past on paper, nurturing a burn box that holds information that could blow the USA and the UK apart. The race is on to find him, from his boss at M16 Jack Brotherhood, his wife Mary to his Czech agent Axel. Who will find Pym first?

As we follow the search, we move across time and the continent as we re-visit Marcus’ difficult boyhood to unravel his present. He sees his mother carted off to a mental institution, her stand-in, Libbie’s, twisted body after she jumps to her death. It is, as a great spy book should be, full of intrigue and suspense, but what I found most thrilling was le Carré’s writing. His style took me by surprise. I hadn’t accounted for the spymaster being such a beautiful writer, I always assumed his bestsellers were brash and plot driven, but his words are frequently lovely, even delicate despite his prose being as dense as the air in a room of chain-smoking spies. There is no easy chronological order to A Perfect Spy, his structure is fluid as we move between past and present with little fanfare.

I expected a heavy hand to write this most macho of genres, but the human relationships le Carré weaves are far bigger page turners than discovering which side of the iron curtain the protagonists are on. I didn’t always find A Perfect Spy an easy read, it was at times dense enough to be impenetrable, it’s aloof and unemotional and the female characters are willow-o-wisps, falling into either 1950s cookie cutter wives or sexy PAs who seduce their bosses with their minxy ways.

But while I may not be about to defect to the world of spies in fiction, I’ve definitely been caught in its web of intrigue.

 

Theatre review: Taming of the Shrew, Arts Theatre

A lively production of one of Shakespeare’s more hard-to-swallow comedies throws light on gender identity 

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Gender swap Shakespeare isn’t new, after all the man himself blurred male and female in many of his plays. A mix-up over gender plays a pivotal role in many of his comedies, providing plenty of laughs and handy plot diversions along the way.

This year is, of course, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The huge cultural and patriotic industry that revolves around the man from Stratford has been in whirlwind mode. There’s even been a first folio found on a Scottish island just in time for the knees-up. But Shakespeare the playwright is, of course, far more than than plastic skull key rings and quotable magnets. His words, his imagination, the scope, beauty, depth and madness of his plays are what draws us to his works so long after his death. And one of the beauties of his plays is that they allow plenty of room for interpretation and give performers an opportunity to push the boundaries.

Taming of the Shrew is particularly ripe to be viewed from a different perspective, to have a spotlight thrown on its presentation of gender roles, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own. It may be 400 years since the Bard succumbed to his own muddy death, but plenty of gender stereotypes that he portrays linger into this century.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden is part of a month long festival investigating the changing relations between minority groups and the theatre, with a focus on gender, race and disability. This production sees the main characters switch sex, in a world where the women hold the power and the men are ‘advantageously wed’. It’s a clever conceit performed with wit and enthusiasm, the central message changing the focus and making you think, but not distracting from the fun of it. This is challenging theatre, but one with a smile on its face. The production team further blur the lines as the male Katharina and Bianca are dressed almost as parodies of femininity, both of them wearing corsets, restricted by their gender expectations.

The Taming of the Shrew is not an easy play to like, but in this production the comedy is smoother, the message easier and more on point, Katharina fawning speech to the patriarchy (“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”) highlighting how different “too little payment for so great a debt” sounds when it’s a man saying it about their wife.

This production tears up the rulebook and adds an edge and an energy to a problematic play. If you’re looking for a different Shakespeare to the one the tourist industry shows us, this is it.

The Taming of the Shrew | Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street | Until 1 May 2016   

 

 

Theatre Review: The Master Build, Old Vic

Ralph Fiennes shines in this uneven, uneasy Ibsen

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Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel in the Old Vic’s The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes, once so synonymous with villains and buttoned up English men, has more recently revealed his talent for comedy behind that clipped delivery. In his latest release, The Bigger Splash, he plays a mischievous, cavorting old soak with such heart, wit and merriment that it’s impossible not to love him, even though, if Harry Hawkes isn’t quite Voldemort or Amon Goeth, he’s pretty morally bankrupt. And then there was that scene stealing role as Monsieur Gustave in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel where he was a comedy revelation as the eccentric, charming concierge.

In the Old Vic’s Master Builder, he blends his talent for note perfect wit with his long acknowledged skill for delving deep into the psyche of a flawed man. Ibsen’s late play was first performed in 1893 to muted reviews and has been adapted for this production by the unstoppable David Hare. The play starts of deceptively lightly. The first third (this is a play of three halves) is funny, almost breezy. Fiennes as Halvard Solness the master builder, practically glides around the stage, seeming a man with few concerns, joshing with his junior Ragnar Brovik and flirting with his secretary Kaja Fosli (played by Charlie Cameron, inexplicably doing a baby voice).

But this is Ibsen, a man so brooding he makes Voldemort look like a laugh. Naturally, things get progressively darker as we move towards The Final Tragedy, and ending that is so red lit that it looked like a visual interpretation of my viciously underlined GCSE copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Solness is the master builder in a Norwegian town, having built his way up – literally – from nothing. But his successful career has been founded on tragedy and his life and marriage unravel further as he seemingly sinks further into madness and paranoia. The arrival of Hilde Wangel, a rosey cheek paragon of Norwegian innocence who Solness first met 10 years before, when she was just 13,  is seemingly the portal he needs to set escap; a free spirit who will help him “build castles in the sky”. But Norwegian’s finest playwright has other ideas.

If you like Ibsen (I do), you’ll love this. It’s full of foreboding, both past, present and future that smothers the original lightheartedness with full on tragedy. This production is largely very good, mostly down to Fiennes’ tremendous skill as an actor. He’s a joy to watch, effortlessly embodying the complex inner world of the flawed Halvard Solness, the titular master builder whose imminent fall from power and grace is the plot on which the play spins.

There were a few wrong notes. The two interviews may allow time for Rob Howell’s stunningly impressive set to be changed, but they do break up the continuity of the play. The interval always breaks the spell of theatre, especially in a production where the tone shifts so dramatically between each break.

While Fiennes is magnificent, he’s brilliance rather overshadows the rest of the cast. Linda Emond as his wife Aline Solness is graceful and poised, embodying a grief so heavy you can practically see her dragging it around the stage. Martin Hutson does all he needs to do as Ragnar Brovik, who is less a character more a moral compass point, but while Sarah Snook’s takes on the twee Hilde with enthusiasm, she looks self-conscious next to Fiennes effortless study of a man with a fear of literal and metaphoric falling.

Ibsen perhaps tries to ask too many questions in The Master Builder and doesn’t give the actors the tools to answer them, but this is still an arresting production with a bright star at its centre.

The Master Build | Old Vic | Until 19 March 2016

Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

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

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre review: The Homecoming, Trafalger Studios

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

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John Simm in Trafalger Studio’s The Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Homecoming | Trafalgar Studios | Until 13 February 2016

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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

Editorial Producer - Suzanne Elliott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testament of Youth is published by Virago Classic