Book Review: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her…’

Penelope Mortimer was as celebrated as her husband John, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame in the 1960s, but has drifted out of fashion and with it print. But now her most successful and critically acclaimed novel, The Pumpkin Eater, has been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Pumpkin Eater is a short, sharp, quirky little book that has a wonderfully barbed dreaminess to it. Published in 1962, this novel is rich in language, an evocative tale of a Mrs Armitage (we never know her first name) who suffers a breakdown in the linen department of Harrods ground down by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. She is a woman saddled with the constraints of her gender and time.

Twice divorced, when we meet her she is about to marry again. She already has a brood of children – we’re never told how many, in deed Mrs Armitage seems to have lost track of her offspring and seems baffled by their presence.

When she first meets her third-husband-to-be Jake, Mrs Armitage is still married to her second husband and living in a barn. Attracted by the bohemianism poverty, Jake, who is then a struggling writer, falls in love her and she him and, leaving three of the kids in boarding school at the insistence of her father, they marry. Jake becomes an increasingly successful screenwriter and Mrs Armitage moves from poverty to a life of confusing leisure where she’s weighed down by the grinding invisibility of being a wife and a mother.

The novel is an singular description of a woman suffering from depression,  burdened by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. There is languid air hangs that hangs over Mrs Armitage, moving through her life as it were treacle, bemused at the presence of all these children and confused by her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. She doesn’t know any other way than the life she is leading – as many women didn’t in the days before the sexual revolution. She was born to breed and dust and not concern herself with her husband’s affairs – in every sense.

The Pumpkin Eater is a loosely autobiographical story. Penelope Mortimer was a woman very much of her time, at the tail end of the 1950s when women were still confined to the domestic world. Mortimer also married several times and had six children. The world The Pumpkin Eater inhabits flirts with Nancy Mitford’s descriptions of a boho world where no one gives a damn about morals, but this is a far more serious, unusual book . I was often reminded of Penelope Gilliatt in the sparse, dialogue-heavy narrative that had an almost filmic quality to it. Mortimer actually succeeded Gilliatt as film critic of The Observer, a fact I gleaned from this great article by Rachel Cooke in the same paper.

The Pumpkin Eater is a darkly funny, wry look at one woman’s world that is so small it’s crushing her, but that isn’t consumed by its own earnestness. Mortimer deserves to be back in print – maybe it won’t be long before she’s back in fashion too.

by Suzanne Elliott

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Savill Garden, Windsor

A Midsummer Night's Dream' at The Savill Garden

A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Savill Garden

A jug of Pimms and the waft of char-grilled sausages aside, I can’t think of many things that sum up an English summer more than Shakespeare performed outside in a royal park in the plush Surrey countryside on a warm evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fantastical plot featuring fairies, star-crossed lovers, potions and an ass’s head, lends itself to an outdoor immersive production in a setting as delightful as the Savill Garden in the Windsor Great Park, where not even the booming jets from near-by Heathrow could spoil the bucolic mood.

Watch Your Head’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s comedy literally covers a lot of ground – some new some a little more well-trodden – as we follow Bottom, Puck and Oberon through the gardens, moving further into the woods with each scene.

The Savill Garden is an impressive stage and the production is vivacious and hugely fun. The cast, many of who play dual roles (on and off-stage), are largely impressive. Joss Wyre is an engaging Puck capturing the merriment of the evening with her mischievousness not to mention some pretty fantastic acrobatics. She’s as light on her feet as a fairy as she leads us through the gardens that become increasingly magical as dusk descends. Olly Lavery as Bottom is also having a great time, with a performance that draws out the comedy of the weaver’s pomposity.

The costumes, by Shabnam Spiers, are sumptuous and reflect the pastoral setting – from Oberon’s cloak adorned with peacock feathers to the Athenians’ Lysander and Demetrius 1930’s Wimbledon inspired boaters-and-blazers outfits.

The production is as enchanting as the spells cast by the fairies and a wonderful way to spend a summer’s evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream  | The Savill Garden | Until 19 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

The Seagull, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

THE SEAGULL by Chekhov

The Seagull by Chekhov, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson

Chekhov seemed like an odd choice for one of London’s more laidback theatres. Surely Russian theatrical gloom on a soft June evening was too awkward a pairing for a theatre where the pre-play picnic is often as important as the production itself?

But, of course, The Seagull is the perfect play to stage outdoors, what with Act I revolving around the performance of an outdoor play. That’s far too deliciously meta for any theatre to dismiss. And it wasn’t just the handy opener that makes Matthew Dunster’s The Seagull work so well on the moonlit stage. This new version written by Torben Betts sheds much of the gloominess that can haunt Chekhov – he described The Seagull as a comedy, although when you write endings like he did, then being labelled bleak is kind of your own fault. Betts version brings out Chekhov’s latent humour and is sharply funny and wittily acted, even irrelevant at times, the jaunty translation injecting the 21st century into the dialogue without losing any of Chekhov’s gravitas.

The Seagull is set over three days – the second and third are two years apart – at Irina Arkadin’s house in the countryside. Everyone is rigid and cruel with boredom, and ground down with love sickness. We learn quickly that all the characters are in love with the wrong person and/or desperate  for success (or screwed up by it). Black-clad Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life” – an engaging Lisa Diveney) seeks vodka to numb her feelings for Konstantin Trepliov who in turn is infatuated with his neighbour Nina Zarechnaya. Even the older, married, houseguests are moping about their failed relationships and dreams. All of them want to be successful and to be in love, and in Chekhov’s world, that ain’t going to work. In short – the stage is littered with broken hearts and dreams.

The play The Seagull opens with is written by Konstantin (Matthew Tennyson) who is out to impress two women in his life, his neighbour and budding actress Nina (Sabrina Bartlett) and his mother, Arkadina a fading theatre star. Set in the garden of Arkadina’s country home, she rudely heckles her son’s work and steals the show by taking the stage to quote Gertrude in Hamlet. Konstantin is desperate to become someone and step out of the shadow that his mother and her bohemian, intellectual friends cast over him. Arkadina’s critical slaying of his play is exacerbated by her relationship with the handsome, self-obsessed novelist Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson)  who he despises. By Act III – two years later – things haven’t improved for any of the characters, in fact, they’ve got a whole heap worse.

But at least the setting at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is cheery in its loveliness. Even by the hand nature gives the stage, Jon Bausor’s set was hugely impressive. This was a living, breathing stage that was at first laid with grass and later parquet flooring, the lake (which is referenced many times in Chekhov’s script) is real enough for two of the characters to take a skinny dip in. The stage is reflected by a large mirror above it, so the actors appear in double. The change of perspective is quite dramatic, even if I’m not entirely sure what it was meant to add (other than a whole host of symbolism, obvs).   

I wasn’t convinced by the booming taped monologues which seemed a little incongruous, as did the thunderous sound effect that resounded every time Nina said “seagull”. Chekhov is laden with so much symbolism we don’t need any more aural nudges.

But these are minor quibbles in what is an engaging, well executed and impressively acted production. I particularly enjoyed Janie Dee’s exuberant Arkadina that was shot through with a physical humour while also expressing her heartbreak and insecurity.

An unexpected summer, if not summery, hit.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Seagull | Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre | Until 11 July 2015

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant is the tale of a country in a fitful peace, Britons and Saxons living side-by-side in a tense standoff held together by a forgetfulness fog spread over the isle by a dragon, Querig.

The amnesia the dragon breaths lingers over the island and renders its inhabitants incapable of remembering all but the thinnest of memories from their past.

I know how they feel, as reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel put me into a mind numbing stupor where I found myself re-reading paragraph after paragraph in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice have a sudden urge to find their son, who left the village several years before. They only have haziest of memories of him and they’re not entirely sure where he is, but they’re also miffed that their neighbours won’t allow them a candle so it seems like a good time to trek across Britain with absolutely no survival skills. Set in a pre-Saxon ruled Britain, this was a time before the island became split into three, a harsh and divided land with no Ubers, so their journey is a difficult one. It’s a Britain of myth and legend, a place where Arthur had recently galloped and where you find ogres dead in ditches, dragons snoozing in pits and pesky little pixies pulling you into the river.

Along the way Beatrice and Axl meet one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain – without the Green Knight – now an old man who travels the land with his trusty horse Horace (Gringolet has long since gone to horse heaven). Beatrice (whose husband calls constantly – and annoyingly – ‘princess’) and Axl also pick up a young Saxon along the way after saving him from his village when his people turned on him. His presence attracts the attention of Wistain, a warrior Saxon who is rather blade-happy and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. His quest is to find and kill the dragon Querig. Standing in his way is Sir Gawain who knows the importance of keeping the buried giant breathing.

You certainly can’t accuse Ishiguro of getting stuck in a writing rut. He’s done period romance (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go) and even dabbled in the detective genre with When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant seems to be his stab at fantasy, a kind of sub-Tolkien work that reads like an assignment for a creative writing course. Is it a parable? A comment of modern life? Or simply a rather half-hearted fantasy?

Ishiguro is a writer whose skills lies in his minimalist prose that is vivid in its sparseness and it’s a style that I’ve found engaging in the two novels of his I’ve read (Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans). But the tone of The Buried Giant is as flat as the Fens and directionless as I would be in those pre-GPS days.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Dirty Special Thing, Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martins, King’s Cross

The cast of Dirty Special Things, a Generation Arts production

The cast of Dirty Special Things, a Generation Arts production

Theatre-goers know that a great play can alter your worldview, but it’s rarely as genuinely life-changing as the Future Stage Company, a scheme run by Generation Arts, a project committed to transforming young, disadvantaged people through theatre.

The project takes young adults aged 19+ who are classed as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and offers them high quality acting and theatre-making training. It’s a much needed project in an industry that is overwhelming, and seemingly increasingly, white and privileged (both on and off stage).

Dirty Special Thing is the culmination of nine months of the cast – Future Stage Company members – being put through their acting paces. It had a four night run at the impressive Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martin’s very own stage.

Dirty Special Thing proves that Generation Arts is far more than just a worthy experiment. There is genuine talent on display in this ensemble piece, an original production that follows the interlinking lives of everyday Londoners. At the heart of the piece –  like a human Charing Cross – is a young taxi driver, on the cusp of passing the Knowledge and gaining his Green badge. There are several set pieces, following individuals from different walks of life as their lives criss-cross – and eventually collide (quite literally).

There was a great deal to recognise in the characters – the lost kid in care inspired to study by a great teacher, a self-obsessed City boy, a frazzled carer – and while the stories Dirty Special Thing told didn’t wander too far from stereotypes, all the parts were well-grounded in reality and reflected this town in ways theatre rarely does.

And while the story itself might not be radical, this is important theatre and it’s good to see progression especially at a time of savage arts cuts. Many of the cast have gained places at acclaimed drama schools and universities, a path that I’m sure many of them were never sure they’d be in a position to follow and I won’t be surprised to see some of these faces again in the not too distance future.

Get involved or learn more about Generation Arts and the Future Stage Company

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Product, Arcola Theatre and Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

Bharti Patel and Ragevan Vasan in Hurling Rubble at the Sun at Park Theatre

In the run up to the 10th anniversary of the London July 7th bombings, it’s inevitable that the day’s catastrophic events will be commemorated and analysed in art as well as in the media.

The events of that day are obviously part of a wider picture, one that begins many years before the planes flew into the World Trade Centre on 9 September 2001 and one that grew even wider following Britain and America’s invasion of Iraq.

As these things have a habit of doing, I saw two plays in one week that were loose comments on the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, threaded together by the West’s struggle to understand and respond to these attacks.

Mark Ravenhill’s Product is a blistering, gaspingly funny pitch perfect satire on Hollywood’s cultural and racial attitudes. His monologue sees an agent, Leah, desperately pitching a toe-curlingly awful script to a disinterested A-list actress we never see. The script, ‘Mohammed and Me’ is the story of Amy, a 9/11 widow who falls in love with a Muslim man on a flight and a chance taxi-encounter. The script, told through Amy’s eyes, is culturally and religiously insensitive and wincingly crude with a plot so ludicrous it makes Lord of the Rings look like a documentary.

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Product staring Olivia Poulett, Photo: Richard Davenport

Leah is played beautifully by the impressive Olivia Poulet who manages to capture a woman on the brink while never letting go of Leah’s obnoxiousness and self-belief. Her job isn’t an easy one in a theatre as small as the Arcola where she is eye-ball to eye-ball with a front row that is alternatively amused, stunned or fast asleep (it was a matinee).

I thought Poulet’s performance combined with Ravenhill’s scorching script was a fine duo and while its original message has been somewhat diluted over the last 14 years – Hollywood hasn’t been quite as insensitive as Ravenhill predicted – there’s still enough bite in it to be a gleeful 50 minutes of theatre.

Over in N4 at the lovely Park Theatre, Avaes Mohammad’s two plays Hurling Rubble at the Sun and Hurling Rubble at the Moon are playing in tandem. They work individually, although by all accounts they are better seen consecutively. Time restrictions meant I only saw Hurling Rubble at the Sun, Mohammad’s fact-based fictional account of suicide bomber Taufeeq ‘T’ Sultan, a character loosely based on Hasib Hussain, the man who blew up the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

The play hinges on the central performance, and Ragevan Vasan who plays the Blackburn-born bomber is excellent and elevates what is a rather confused story to a gripping drama. Mohammad’s script is asking some big questions – what drives a person to commit mass murder for a cause – that he never really answers. T is neither devout nor worried about local social injustice, so it’s a big leap for us to believe he’s a man ready to blow himself and others up on behalf of children in Iraq. But maybe his muddled motives are the point, perhaps he’s simply a disenfranchised young man from Lancashire who sees terrorism as an outlet to express himself rather than say, a creative writing course.

Hurling  Rubble at the Sun is a 60 minute play carved into three distinct acts. It opens with ’T’ cooking explosives, rapping away to a tune on the stereo. He flirts with his girlfriend on the phone and hums to himself as he packs his day’s work in his backpack. Next we’re in the Sultans’ house where T is late for dinner and his Amma is furious. But it’s not about dinner, is it, as we’re reminded several times. Despite some fine acting from Vasan and Bharti Patel as his mother, this act is flabby and rambling. We’re led to assume Vasan’s father is violent towards his wife, that the mosque her father built is vandalised on a daily basis. And we go round in circles, Mohammad’s script chasing its tail until it gives up finding an answer and instead reverts to Amma feeding T with her own hands as she did when he was a boy.

The final scene, however, ramps up the tension and is heart-racingly arresting, helped by a pared down direction from Rob Dixon. T is now on the bus where he finds himself sitting next to a call-a-spade-a-spade old-school Londoner, brilliantly played by Nicola Duffett who brings a Cockney humour and pathos to the scene that helps ground the play in the human cost of T’s decision. The ending brought tears to my eyes, not a reaction I thought I would have had 15 minutes earlier when Amma was shoving curry into T’s mouth like a mother sparrow.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Hurling Rubble at the Sun, not least the performances that nicely paper over the cracks in the writing. That’s not to say that Avaes Mohammad’s script doesn’t have something to say and it’s a brave piece of writing by the playwright who is virtually a lone northern Muslim voice in an arena crowded by white southerns. Who’s to say Mohammad isn’t going to be as powerful a voice in British theatre as Mark Ravenhill one day?

Hurling Rubble at the Sun | Park Theatre, N4 | Until 6 June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott