Book Review: Night Windows by Jonathan Smith

Having read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, his captivating tale of love and loss in the Lamorna artistic community, early this year, I was keen to explore more of his novels.

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Night Windows by Jonathan Smith

Not that I need to assemble another Billy bookshelf to accommodate his back catalogue. Noted primarily for his two works of non-fiction, including the much acclaimed Learning Games, his book based on his experiences as a teacher, Smith’s six novels are harder to find than a sensible Michael Gove idea. I even had to break my Amazon boycott to buy Night Windows, Smith’s 2005 novel.

Google may bury Smith somewhere past a footballer, actor, a psychologist and a games programmer, but as an English teacher at top boys’ public school Tonbridge he’s played a part in the careers of the likes of Vikram Seth and Downton Abbeys very own Dan Stevens (who is returning the favour by starring in the big screen adaptation of his former teacher’s brilliant Summer in February later this year).

Night Windows brings two of Smith’s experiences together; teaching and identity theft of which Smith was a victim for several years. He explains on the dust jacket that this inspired him to write this novel about a high-flying head whose world (almost) comes crashing down around his ears after he’s arrested and accused of some rather unsavoury crimes. He then sets out on a mission, with the reader looking over his shoulder, to prove his innocence.

If Jonathan Smith is the Robin Williams of Kent, his hero in Night Windows, Patrick Balfour is a more polished version, fewer motivational Walt Whitman poems, more stirring speeches about Churchill. Balfour is the head of a top public school (a thinly veiled, location-wise anyway, City of London Freeman’s). He’s also a bit of a media personality and all-round charmer (if this is ever made into a film or TV series then Nigel Havers would be a shoe-in for the role).

Night Windows is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Stuffed full of clues, Smith, and his fictional criminal mastermind, lay a trail of literary breadcrumbs, encouraging us to head off in one direction only to discover it’s a dead end, forcing us to back out of our mental cul-de-sac and begin again.

Cleverly Smith never allows us to be 100% certain of Balfour’s innocence and our doubts as to who the real Patrick Balfour is are mirrored by the character himself. Balfour may not be literature’s most sympathetic character, but he is a real literary treat in that he felt human rather than a mirage of adjectives and silted dialogue. His very humanness makes him a divisive character; my flatmate, who read the book before me, described him as “not a very likeable man”, but I thought he was just a man of a certain age at the top of his career equipped with all the confidence (arrogance?) and sense of entitlement that those two things carries. Sure, he’s flawed, but he at least knows he is.

The novel, didn’t, as I feared, disappear through a massive plot hole as it cantered towards the end. The finale is satisfyingly realistic even if the last couple of chapters with all their big reveals and drama felt a little frantic.

Along there the way there were a few obvious absences. How did a man with as many enemies as Balfour have, with a big a media presence, manage to keep the secret of his arrest to himself bar those he chose to tell? If the media discovered and thought news-worthy his affair, surely his arrest would all over the front pages, of the Evening Standard at least.  And I found it odd that everyone Balfour confined in believed he was innocent unquestioningly, even those who had claims to dislike and disbelief him.

But, like human beings and fictional characters, books are always so much more likeable if they’re not completely perfect.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Me, on the sofa, with an Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime

I have a propensity to be a bit fussy (some might say snobby) about books. But for all my tuttings at bad writing and groaning at sloppy, cliched plots, Agatha Christie – who is many things but Charles Dickens she ain’t – remains my most-read author. I’ve devoured her novels since I was on the fringes of adolescence having outgrown (and out-read my local library’s supply of) Sweet Valley High and I continue to turn to her now, especially when I’m in need of a literary comfort blanket.

For despite dealing in the murky world of murder, there’s something wonderfully comforting about Agatha Christie’s novels. She was a soothing companion when I was bedridden with chicken pox/measles/mumps in childhood and, more recently, got me through a couple of weeks of concussion when my bruised brain could deal with little else.

She remains the perfect reading palette cleanser, the ideal antidote to a tired mind. When I’m all-read out I turn to the easy prose and perfectly-plotted writings of Ms Christie to jolt me back into my habit.I can’t remember my first Christie, but I was hooked from the beginning and it didn’t take me long to exhaust the local library’s stock of her novels too. Not that I have ever been averse to reading Christie novels once or even twice – I can rarely remember “whodunnit”, which I’m not sure says more about Christie or me. Miss Marple, not your average teen idol, was always my favourite Christie hero, but I lapped up most of her other Marple-free novels except, perversely, Herclue Poiret (the fussy Belgium detective who featured in almost half of her novels) who I deemed ‘boring’ for reasons my adult self can’t remember. David Suchet – and the impeccable art deco staging of the TV dramas – has since converted me.

I’m not a natural fan of crime writing. I am, even within the relatively safe pages of a novel, a sensitive soul. A detailed description of a sagged cuticle is enough to have be squirming. I snivel at the slightest injustice and physically flinch at any violence. Christie’s books are littered with victims of poisoning, fatal blows on the head from fireplace ornaments and grisly stabbings, but the sang-froid of her writing and stiff-upper lip-ness of her characters create a reassuring barrier between the reader and the emotive reality of these horrible crime. It also helps that there are very few likable people in a Christie novel. I’m rarely sad to see any of them bopped on the head or poisoned by a fruit cake.I have dabbled in the bloody waters of other crime writers. I flirted with Ruth Rendell and her Inspector Wexford for a bit; endured an Ian Rankin because I felt like I should and I have hazy recollections of picking up a P.D. James, but I never felt that compelling pull into the story with them as I did with Agatha Christie. I am, I confess, yet to try M.C Beaton’s Agatha Raison books which I can’t decide I’ll love or find unbearably twee.

When forced to dissect my love for Christie (or rather her books, she doesn’t seem like much of a giggle) I find that there are as many reasons not to like her novels. The prose is efficient but unlovely; the characters, neigh, the ambiance of the books is cold and brisk. We’re dealing with murder, but not emotions – there are few, if any, histrionics in Christie’s novels. In one of her novels, I can’t remember which, the mother of a murdered boy says, and I paraphrase, “Well, he was a very naughty little boy, so I suppose he had it coming”. The plot often offers more than it delivers. The build up is so brilliant and compelling that when the murderer is revealed it often manages to be both mundane and overly complicated. She is twee and old-fashioned (which, at its worse, translate as racist and sexist – I’m frequently taken aback by how much Christie appears to dislike women).

But I don’t read Christie for exquisite prose or her take of feminism. Nor am I have much interested in the murder sides of things. I read her books for her swift, brilliant plotting, the cosy yet toxic world of a time (thankfully in my opinion) long gone and her tangled web of deceit and lies that allows me to play detective from the top deck of the bus or my bed. I love the puzzle of the crime even if I rarely guess right – for a while I thought I’d hit on the perfect formula, assuming that it was the least likely character who was the chief suspect, but more often than not Christie was one step ahead of me.

There continues to be a huge appetite for Agatha Christie books and their small screen adaptations. Waterstones and Hatchards have whole bookcases devoted to her novels including new editions with fancy retro covers. There’s a new (and final) series of Poiret with David Suchet reprising his career-defining role as the moustach-ioed Belgium detective that’s set to air later this year (or possibly the beginning of next). And ITV3 would have to sell a lot more ads for cruises if it wasn’t for the back-catalogue of television adaptations. While over in Dartmouth it’s estimated that 100,000 visitors walk through the doors of Christie’s former home Greenway every year since it opened in 2009 (I was amongst the thousands in 2010). So it looks like the Queen of Crime will continue to rule for quite some time.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Port, The National Theatre

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Kate O’Flynn as Racheal Keats and Mike Noble as Billy Keats in Simon Stephens’ Port

Simon Stephens, whose adaptation of Mark Haddon’s Swindon-set The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime was a recent National Theatre hit (it transferred to the West End last month), paints a far bleaker picture of small town life in his latest National fixture, Port. In this, his 2002 play, the Stockport-born-and-bred Stephens puts his hometown in the spotlight and it doesn’t shine brightly.

Port is a grim tale of shattered dreams and dreary, dead-end existences in a town where few dare to imagine life beyond the mundane. All, that is, except Racheal Keats (a transfixing Kate O’Flynn) who not only sees beyond the town’s borders, but even ventures – briefly – over them.

Port feels like a play of two halves. The first act opens in 1988 with a 11-year-old Racheal, her six-year-old brother Billy (Mike Noble) and weary mum settling down to spend the night in the family Ford Estate after being locked out of their home by their drunk father. Skip forward 18-months and we’re in hospital, waiting, along with Racheal and Billy for the never-seen granddad to die and so the first half continues at a frantic pace – Christine Keats leaves, Billy starts robbing Boots and Racheal steals from and verbally abuses her grandmother in what is the play’s most shocking scene.

The first act is tinged with bleak humour and a non-sentimental sadness. There is, you feel, still hope. But the first scene post-interval quickly batters away such optimism. It opens with Racheal in a hotel room on Millenium Eve with a husband we haven’t met before (played by the same actor who played her violent father – unsubtle casting at its theatrical best), thus setting the scene for a play that falls into a pit of despair and hopelessness, taking the audience with it. With its Pinteresque pauses and sharp turns, the second act changes down so many gears that there are times when it stalls. The scene with Racheal and ex-boyfriend Danny (a gentle, unambitious bloke who we first meet in the first half) in a pub garden is protracted and unsatisfying. Racheal urging (begging?) her first love to leave his wife and child should be a poignant moment of regret and lost dreams, but gets rather lost in cliche. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end, but there’s a sense that Stephens, like the characters’ lives, has backed into a corner and despite frantic revving he can’t find a way out and rather parks the plot instead.

The cast are all faultless, but special plaudits have been reserved, quite rightly, for the fantastic Kate O’Flynn who moves seamlessly from an enthusiastic 11-year-old to a down, but not out, 24-year-old,

I was reading a book recently (Jonathan Smith’s Night Window if you’re interested) that tells the story of a man whose identity is stolen. Amongst the clues his perpetrator leaves him is an encyclopedic entry for a 17th century Posture Master called Joseph Clark who could contort himself into a staggering array of shapes, from pot-bellied to a hunch-back. O’Flynn never physically changes shape – bar losing the odd bit of clothing in every on-stage ‘costume change’ (Kate never leaves the stage) – but she feels like a different actor, while still recognisably the Racheal Keats we met at the beginning of Act 1. Stephens managing to realistically maintain a consistent voice over 13 years must also be applauded as must Marianne Elliott for her unfussy, fluid direction that captures the atmosphere, if not the whole story, of the bleakness of a certain kind of ravaged town.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Judas Kiss, Duke of York Theatre, London

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Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde (foreground) and Freddie Fox as Lord Alfred Douglas in The Judas Kiss

When David Hare’s The Judas Kiss was first staged in 1998 with Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde and Richard Eyre in the director’s chair, the play was, despite all those big names, critically panned.

Fourteen years later Neil Armfield bravely resurrected the play for The Hampstead Theatre and the reaction could not have been more different. With Rupert Everett stepping into Oscar Wilde’s fur coat – which fits his broad shoulders perfectly – and under Armfield’s direction, Hare’s play about two pivotal moments in the Irish playwright and poet’s life was given the kiss of life. It was so embraced by critics and audiences alike that it made the “you’ve-made-it-leap” to the West End. Now in its final few weeks, The Judas Kiss has proved many things, not least that there’s far more to Rupert Everett than a being the amusing scourge of Hollywood.

Naturally The Judas Kiss, while poignant, is funny, although Hare avoids the temptation of having a script littered with non-sequitur Wilde-ion bon mots. His script is heavy on words and low of actions, just as Oscar would have it (“As you know I have always disdained unnecessary motion,” he remarks in Act II when refusing to answer the door).

The play opens at the Cadogan Hotel where we are immediately introduced to the charms of the chambermaid and servant Arthur who are more concerned with warming rather than making Wilde’s bed. Nakedness is a recurring theme; in the second half it is one actor’s entire role as Bosie’s Italian fisherman conquest to parade around the stage starkers for much of the duration. He is Oscar worthy in the part.

But back to the Cadogan where Arthur and the chambermaid are now fully clothed and Wilde is guzzling white wine while his friends argue about his future. Wilde has just been tried and found guilty of homosexual acts and will shortly be arrested. He must choose to flee (as his one time lover, who has now taken on the thankless role of sensible friend, Robbie Ross played brilliantly by Cal MacAninch, urges) or to stay and face jail. Wilde’s achilles heel (or, indeed Judas) Lord Alfred Douglas insists he stays; his reasons aren’t entirely, if at all, romantic.

Freddie Fox is a frantic Bosie who captures Lord Doulgas’s shallowness and charm with a dose of self-saving menace. There’s little to like about Bosie, but Fox bedazzles us, along with Wilde, with fine words and a floppy blonde fringe. He almost hypnotised me into believing he’s doing the right thing as he finally flounces out of Wilde’s life with a nasty sting at the end of the second act.

The second half moves forward two years where Wilde, fresh out of Reading gaol, sits in a chair in a squalid hotel room in Naples reeling off his pearls of wisdom and eyeing up the aforementioned Italian (Tom Colley). But his new found freedom is tainted when the lover who he risked everything for betrays him for the sake of his inheritance, claiming that he was, and never had been,“an invert”, dismissing his and Wilde’s relationship in one wretched denouement. Wilde is left to lament the nature of betrayal, arguing to an empty stage that if the Bible were more realistic then Jesus would have been sold down the river not by Judas, a man he barely knew, but by his bezzie, John.

It’s easy to see Oscar Wilde as we see him now, through modern eyes. Hare’s play might not be telling us anything new about this man whose legend is as famous as his works, but whose public brilliance hid much personal pain.

by Suzanne Elliott