Theatre Review: Other Desert Cities, The Old Vic

Peter Egan and Sinéad Cusack as Lyman and Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities

Family dramas with mismatched parents and offspring locked in a room together for a festive occasion, jabbing accusatory figures at each other, has been playwright fodder for the past few decades. As the world opened up to us, playwrights seemed to shrink inwardly, aiming to make sense of the wider world within our own small ones.

I have mixed feelings about theatrical family dramas. Done right, they simmer with resonance and captivate with a power that a play with bigger boundaries can’t. But they can often misfire, descending into shouty cliches where middle class characters stomp about in bare feet on plush rugs, desperately slurping glasses of wine while pacing up and down.

The synopsis of Other Desert Cities reads like one of those; privileged kids? Check. Successful parents? A Dark Secret? Tick, yes, oh yes. Add in booze (whiskey, not wine) and barefeet (one set) and we looked like we might be in for an evening of disparate shouting.

But West Wing writer Jon Robin Baitz is better than that. His ingredients may be mundane, but the result is Michelin starred. Other Desert Cities is set in Palm Springs in 2002 as America is still shaking from the 9/11 attacks and is now at war with Iraq. As the bombs drop on Baghdad, there’s another war about to erupt in the spacious living room of Polly (Sinéad Cusack) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan), two former Hollywood actors turned Republican politicians who dine with the Regans and pine for the days of an old ‘merica. They are scared inside their desert oasis and their fear is making them mean. But their lives are more complicated than their days of tennis and country club lunches imply and the arrival of their two grown up children, their damaged writer daughter Brooke and sex addicted son Trip along with Polly’s hippy, alcoholic sister, for Christmas unlocks their vulnerability.

Baitz’s script is sparky and original, the intensity broken up with astutely funny lines; the play bristles with anger, resentment and exasperation. The acting is all superb, especially Paul Egan who lies low for the first half, only for his character to unleash his grief and heartbreak so movingly in the second half. Cusack plays her ice cold republican matriarch with a caustic wit with relish, while Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves’ shouty girlfriend in Parenthood, tones her adolescent angst down for this role and strikes a convincing note as a desperate, sad woman searching for the truth at what ever cost. Clare Higgins and Daniel Lapaine as Silda Grauman and Trip Wyeth give this ensemble piece extra humanity and humour.

Other Desert Cities is a very American play, but, like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill  it’s also a very human one, so its themes transcend the Atlantic. It’s very American-ness also helps to  dampen down the class element which can often hinder a middle class family drama like this; rich kids whining can be eye-rollingly dull.

Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, Other Desert Cities is, unlike the city it’s set in, anything but dry and bland. It’ll grip you by the throat from the beginning and take you by surprise right up until the end.

by Suzanne Elliott

Until 24 May, for more information and tickets www.oldvictheatre.com.

 

 

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Despite the best efforts of the authors and publishers to put me off reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by lumbering it with a title so unbearably twee and self-consciously wacky, the pull of a book that people talked about as if it were a member of their own family (they either love or hate it) trumped both the title and the revolting soft-focus cover.

And I’m glad I overcame my prejudice. You could pick enough holes in this novel to dig a tunnel from Portsmouth to Guernsey, but it’s so utterly charming and touching that it’s best to step over them and instead wallow in the novel’s joys.

TGLAPPPS (bleugh) is that most tricksy of formats, an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters during 1946. Juliet Ashton is a single woman in her early 30s with a column in The Spectator that’s become a successful first book (think a Blitz Bridget Jones) living amongst the rubble and the post-war gloom of London. Out of the blue she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey who bought a second hand book on Charles Lamb that had once belonged to her and is now writing to Juliet to ask for help digging out more of Lamb’s back catalogue.

The unlikely pair bond over a shared love of reading and their correspondence deepens. Juliet is soon enlisting Dawsey and his friends in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for help with an article for The Times she is writing on the value of reading. Juliet is soon tripping over to Guernsey where she meets a cast of characters straight out of the encyclopaedia of country bumpkins, but with enough emotional padding to avoid Vicar of Dibley caricatures.

TGLAPPPS is about many things; the German occupation of the Channel Islands, the kindness and the brutality of humans, friendship, love and loyalty. But above all it’s about the love of reading. The novel imbues with the characters’ passion for books – not always positive – but always very heartfelt. I mentally airpunched when Juliet dumped her fiancee after he attempted to throw away all her books to make way for his shooting trophies. Juliet is also dismissed as a fire warden after running into the burning Inner Temple Hall Library in a bid to save the books. This is a woman I’d happy have a sherry with.

TGLAPPPS is, as that title suggests, a little twee, but it’s also  permeated with a darkness, the emotional and physical effects of the war casting a shadow over the chirpy voices in the letters.

Shaffer and Barrows don’t quite master the art of the epistolary format. Juliet, who starts off in such fine voice, rather vanishes towards the end and there wasn’t enough distinction in the characters’ voices at times. Americans Shaffer and Barrows don’t quite get the subtleties of British dialects, although they handled Juliet’s Mitfordian voice with an ease that would have given them an A+ in Downton Abbey studies.

The cast of characters and the ending teeter on the edge of self-parody, but there’s a charm and enough bite to the story to make The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a delightfully heartwarming read that’s far better than that clunky title implies.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, The Duke of York Theatre

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Wot oh, pip-pip and all that. An evening with Jeeves and Wooster isn’t going to be Ibsen, although the Norwegian playwright does get a name check in Perfect Nonsense, the West End adaptation of P.G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. What you do get instead of chin-stroking meaning-of-life musings is an evening of theatrical frivolity with lots of high jinks, jolly japes, some super-charged acting and plenty of hearty chuckles.

Stephen Mangan (Wooster) and Matthew Macfadyen (Jeeves) are nearing the end of their six month (six month!) West End run and only have a few weeks left before they hand the cow-shaped creamer (more on that later) over to Robert Webb and Mark Heap on 7 April.

Their enthusiasm, or at least their enthusiasm for pretending to be enthusiastic, hasn’t dipped which is no mean feat as this is a whirlwind of a production. The Goodale Brother’s script nimbly works in many of Wodehouse’s cunningly complex tongue-twisting dialogue while Sean Foley’s direction sets a relentless pace; the script requires as much verbal gymnastics as the physical demands involve bodily acrobatics.

Like Wodehouse’s novels, all the best farces and blondes (I can say that, I am – *ahem* – one) Perfect Nonsense is far cleverer than its silliness implies with a lot of gentle poking fun at the expense of theatre, exposing the absurdity and artifice of stage. The conceit is that Jeeves is performing a one-man-show dramatising his recent high-jinks with a cow-shaped creamer that takes him from a Chelsea antique’s dealer to Totleigh Towers, the home of the bombastic Sir Watkyn Bassett.

Perfect Nonsense opens on a bare stage where Wooster is enthusiastically breaking down the fourth wall and filling the audience in on the story behind his theatrical debut.  Bertie’s attempt to re-tell his adventures single-handedly soon runs into trouble, but, as ever, Jeeves has solved the problem before Bertie even knows he had one, gamely agreeing to play several of the characters himself and roping in Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia’s butler Seppings (Mark Hatfield) to act the rest, a role that means impersonating everyone from an imposing dictator to Bertie’s even more imposing aunt.

There are plenty of Wodehouse’s fine words in the Goodale Brothers’ adaption to ensure a buoyant script, but the actors are still required to walk a fine line between a play that could be toe-curlingly daft or wonderfully silly. Fortunately, Mangan, Macfadyen and Hadfield all inhabit their many roles on the right side of the farce fence. Matthew Macfadyen, an actor I have previously found as a charming as a wet sock was never going to win me over as that pompous old stick Jeeves. But he revealed the great actor I never realised he was with his fantastic performances as ‘Jeeves’. The part when he’s simultaneously both Sir Watkyn Bassett and his niece Stiffy Byng is as fine a piece of comic acting as I’ve seen this side of the Old Vic’s 2011 Noises Off.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is a deftly daft, big brained comedy that will leave you feeling pretty tickety boo, old chap.

For tickets and more information on Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York visit www.jeevesandwoostertheplay.com

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: An Experiment In Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

While I wait impatiently for the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I decided to make a start on her back catalogue. Her French Revolution tome, Place Of Greater Safety, waits enticingly by my bed, but before I embark on that adventure, I decided to start with one of her slighter books, her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love set closer to home and one of Zadie Smith’s choices in her fiction seminar at Columbia University.

Mantel is a master writer, who tackles huge subjects in a quiet and thoughtful way. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies she told small, human truths within a big story. In An Experiment In Love she gently tells big, social issues in a small story.

Set in the 1960s and early 70s, An Experiment In Love is the story of Carmel McBain’s childhood and teenage years. It oscillates between the working class Lancashire town she grew up in and the maze-like streets of London’s Bloomsbury where she finds herself aged 18, studying law at the University of London, living in a hall of residence with a bunch of home counties ‘Sophys’ and two of her school ‘friends’, the self-assured Julia, and Karina, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who are in even more reduced circumstances than Carmel’s parents.

An Experiment In Love may not be a flag-waving political novel, but feminism and class are evident themes throughout the book. In the late 60s women were finally being educated to degree level en masse, and working class girls like Carmel began to break the class and gender barrier. But Carmel’s generation were struggling with their identities as intelligent, educated women. Carmel looks on, peering up from her law books, baffled as these clever girls playing housewife to their various ‘Rogers’ (Carmel’s name for the identikit boyfriends of these similarly non-distinguishable ‘middle class ‘Sophys’), ironing their shirts and dreaming of marriage and babies. These women aren’t leading the march for female equality, despite benefiting from feminism (something that still rings all too true these days).

It’s not all playing house. The lives of these girls, bar Carmel, who struggles to feed herself on her student grant, and Karina, whose stoicism hides a cruelty that even Carmel doesn’t see coming, are untouched by the vagaries of life before they came to university. The early days of adulthood bring with it tragedy and adversity.

This coming-of-age tale also touches on Carmel’s relationship with food, although she herself stresses that this is not a novel about anorexia, but about appetite. Even before she leaves her strict Catholic school and the confines of her mother and her cold house with its outside loo, Carmel needs cultural and political nourishment.

There are unmistakable whispers of Jeanette Winterson, both in the working class northern town and the tough angry mother, as well as in the dreamlike quality of her writing. Mantel may not veer into magic realism, but there’s an bewitching quality to her works. There are also shades of Anne Enright, another writer who is able to elevate the everyday to poetic truths.

Mantel’s characters remind me of ink-soled ghosts that tread lightly over the pages but leave an indelible mark on the story and the imagination. They are laid before us lightly, revealing themselves through Mantel’s words that don’t force feed a very different picture of the character than the one that is laid before the readers’ eyes.

An Experiment In Love may not have the gravitas and epic sweep of her two Booker Prize winning novels, but it’s an exquisite, perfectly drawn tale of women on the brink of a revolution that they don’t know they’re living through.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

The Innocent by Francesca Segal

The Innocent by Francesca Segal

The Innocents, Francesca Sega’s Costa Book Award winning debut novel is an absorbing, deceptively thoughtful and considered modern re-working of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence.

Shamefully, I’ve never read The Age Of Innocence, Wharton’s tale of scandal among the 19th century New York upper classes, so I came to The Innocents with no expectations. Segal has moved the Upper West Side to North London’s leafy suburbs and the large, liberal, yet morally rigid family-focused Jewish community that spills from the epicentre of London’s NW11.

Setting The Innocents in a tight-knit community with a strict moral code enables Segal to translate the storyline to modern times without it looking like a square 21st century peg in a stuffy 19th century round hole. Segal handles the transitions of era, country and changing values largely with aplomb and dexterity. There are a few times when the original story doesn’t quite fit the modern mould, but Wharton’s story of what it means to love (mostly) seamlessly slots into Segal’s newly realised narrative. As one character – an Eastend hipster no less – points out, maybe our inbuilt human code of right and wrong has nothing to do with culture or century; being kind isn’t the same thing as being conservative and conventional.

The story spins around Adam Newhouse, a strapping 6ft 2″ seemingly faultless Jewish boy with a flat in Primrose Hill and a beautiful fiancee, his childhood sweetheart Rachel. Everyone is super-dopey happy at the beginning of the novel, so naturally we need a villain to shake them out of this revelry.

Enter stage left; Rachel’s cousin Ellie who just happens to be a long-limbed model with a notorious past. Adam, despite himself, soon becomes infatuated by this glamorous creature, who – ta-da! – reads Dickens and loves her grandmother. Fortunately she has a dead mother and an absent father to take the edge off her perfection and allow her some misery points. (I think Ellie’s beauty, a hangover from The Age Of Innocence’s heroine Ellen Olenska, was a distraction, it made Adam’s longing for her look more like a teenage boy’s lust for a Loaded centrefold than a genuine, gut-wrenching love. Still people do risk a great deal for beauty).

Not only is Ellie super hot and always in sexily, disheveled, revealing clothes, she is way more fun than snooze-fest Rachel, whose interests extend as far as gossip magazines and making brownies for her man. Rachel, like many of the characters in the novel is both a stereotype and all too real; she’s insipid and vapid and completely disinterested in anything outside of her tiny, secure world. Only at the end, after going over a few of life’s speed bumps, does she become a little more tolerable.

From their testy first meeting, Ellie and Adam are poised on the precipice of a kingsize bed, but their story isn’t so simple, Segal is always one step ahead.

The Innocents may read like a straight-forward love triangle saga on, er, paper, but like Ellie, it’s far deeper and cleverer than I first gave it credit for. There’s layers of truth and astute observations among the everyday chatter of the Jewish matriarchs and the cheerful banter at feast day dinner tables. I live within a bagels throw of Adam and Rachel and their close-knit community, but I know little about it. Segal drew this world very evocatively and drew me into a community that knows great tragedy as well as great love. Despite the claustrophobia that crept up on me at the thought of being surrounded by people who could almost read my mind, the loyalty and the warmth and the protectiveness that emanated from the pages made me feel part of the family.

There were times when The Innocents was, like the average family, infuriating, and it did outstay its welcome by a few pages, but The Innocents is a stylish and elegant in its study of human nature and love.

by Suzanne Elliott