Book review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

An enthralling, sometimes heart-wrenching novel this companion read to Life After Life is another Atkinson gem

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I don’t know about God, but I was certainly in ruins at the end of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel as her deceptively light tone took a dive to the dark side as sudden and as catastrophic as a Halifax bomber hit during the Battle of Berlin.

God in Ruins is a companion piece, not a sequel, to Atkinson’s compelling time and death defying Life After Life. While Life After Life was the story of Ursula, A God In Ruins is her brother Teddy’s, the golden light of the Todd family, his mother, Sylvie’s, favourite.

We meet the Todd family once again at Fox Corner, the blissfully Edwardian Home Counties pile, untouched by the ravishes of the blooming century. Teddy is destined for a life in the bank, following in the gentlemanly (bankers were still gentlemen then) footsteps of his kindly, distant father, Hugh. Ted tries to duck and dive his fate, travelling through France one glorious summer, picking olives and discovering cream-soaked dishes that his memory savours through war rations and nursing homes.

He is saved from a life at the bank by the outbreak of war when he signs up immediately to the RAF, a life in the skies, now matter how dangerous, being less deathly than a lifetime in the bank.

Not only does he leave behind his family, but his childhood sweetheart and next-door neighbour Nancy, a super brainy maths type who spends the war at Bletchley Park – and we know this because everyone knows, she’s not terribly discrete about it.

Unlike Life After Life, we’re on a single time trajectory, there are no second chances here. We follow Teddy on his raids over Europe that Atkinson brings so vividly to life that we could be there in the gunner’s seat; the camaraderie of Ted’s unit and the always-on-the brink-of-death tension, the mortally wounded Lancaster bombers spinning down into a fiery unknown, the ditches in the North Sea that they fear will be their watery grave – it’s all terrifying realised.

Ted seemingly outwits all the odds and grows to be an old man. He marries Nancy and they have a  daughter ,Viola, who turns out spoiled, unimaginative, angry and ungrateful, a dud in the brilliant Todd clan. Her children, Sun and Moon (known as Bertie, obv) grow up dented by her aggression while granddad Ted helps them navigate the choppy waters of life like a life jacket of reason and kindness.

Ted is lovely company, an intelligent man with a quiet kindness who, like so many of his generation, hides a chamber of horrors inside his placid shell. Atkinson never shields away from awful things and I enjoy how her writing skips along with glee, only to trip you up with a sentence like this one about a Jewish friend of Ursula’s: “There was a suggestion that Hannie was still alive when she was shovelled into the ovens at Auschwitz.”

Atkinson’s writing is so often about the art of fiction itself and her novels drip with references to literary masters of the past that she weaves expertly into the dialogue with no pretension. Her writing is always a joy, the descriptions of Ted’s bombing raid are tense and alive with movement without being chocked by adjectives. A God In Ruins is as refreshing as a dip in the North Sea yet, at times, heartbreaking and is as beautiful a book as Atkinson has ever written.

  

Theatre review: Teddy Ferrara, Donmar Warehouse

A largely engrossing production becomes a little tangled in its issue led web 

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse

Based on the true story of Tyler Clementi, a student who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their room, Christopher Shinn’s University Campus drama makes its British debut at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Teddy (played brilliantly by Ryan McParland) of Shinn’s play is an outsider in many ways. He’s awkward, odd and gay – a freshman struggling to establish himself against a world resistant to difference. He hangs around on the periphery of things, instantly forgettable to everyone, even those who are well meaning like Luke Newberry’s Gabe, the charming head of the queer students’ group. Bullied and ignored, Teddy never gets to graduate.

Teddy’s suicide is the catalyst for dialogue between the University President and representatives from the college’s minority groups in a bid to improve conditions and attitudes for homosexuals, trans-gender and disabled students. These conversations are the play’s backbone – a tennis match worth of self-interested ideas batted back and forth – played out alongside Gabe’s bid for student president and his relationship with his jealous boyfriend Drew and his unlikely friendship with jock,Tim (Nathan Wiley).

Dominic Cooke’s production is terrifically acted, and the first half at least is a powerful piece of drama that hits a xylophone’s worth of excellent points. Shinn asks us to examine are own prejudices and the need for us to be honest about them, something represented in Gabe, who, as the play’s ‘good guy’, is possibly the post blinkered of anyone – he certainly has two of the most horrid and flippant lines that make the audience vocally gasp.

But while the writing and acting are pin-sharp, the narrative arch is a little flabby. Shinn tries to tackle too much – Teddy Ferrara throws lots of issues up into the air and the pieces never really fit together as they fall to earth in the second half.

The production does produce some great acting. Matthew Marsh is outstanding as the insincere university president and senate member in waiting. Luke Newberry (currently playing bumbling young policeman in From Darkness) as Gabe is compelling as a self-righteous student whose struggling with relationships, friendships and his own ambitions. Ryan McParland and his snotty nose strikes such a vulnerable figure as Teddy that he’s difficult to watch (especially with that snotty nose).

Teddy Ferrara is a an uncomfortable watch, too uncomfortable for some as the empty seats after the interval revealed. The woman behind me who left, commented to her friend that while the play was “interesting” it’s “not our world” which I would say is the very reason to stay. Theatre is as much a portal into other world as it is a reflected of our own. This reaction rather reinforces Shinn’s and this production’s point that the mainstream is reluctant to raise the issues of those they cast aside.

Teddy Ferrara magnifies society’s defects. It’s hard hitting and bleak yet curiously unemotional. There are some funny moments (many courtesy of some excellent comic timing of Marsh) but Shinn’s script is taunt with politics. But it’s a gripping, insightful piece of theatre. See it – and stay.

Teddy Ferrera | Donmar Warehouse | Until 5 December 2015

Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbons production for the Young Vic is a healthy measure of comedy, darkness and inventiveness

Romola_Garai_in_Measure_for_Measure_at_the_Young_Vic._Photo_by_Keith_Pattison

Romola Garai as Isabella in Measure for Measure

Earlier this summer, I saw the Globe’s Measure for Measurea frolicking, lighthearted period production that negotiated Shakespeare’s problem play with frivolous fun.

Joe Hill-Gibbons Young Vic production, meanwhile, tears up the parchment and thrusts the play’s darker, murkier themes in our faces. The play opens with the characters crawling out from under a pile of inflatable dolls, complete with comedy appendages that are both crude and funny. They get thrown around and kicked about, but hang around the stage for the duration, a constant visual gag and a reminder of Vienna’s (and probably our own) grubbiness. They should have had their own curtain call.

Like the Globe’s, this production manages to be lots of fun, but Hill-Gibbons keeps the murky world of political corruption and sexual power and abuse at the heart of this black comedy. Shakespeare’s bawdier bits are helpfully illustrated with well know gestures, verbal stresses and visual – comically graphic – graphics. At just under two hours, the text has been slashed by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen along with some of the characters (Mistress Overdone is undone – I didn’t miss her). This makes it a far neater story and Isabella’s virginity, and the men (Angelo and the Duke) desperately grabbing at it, is given a keener edge. Romola Garai plays Isabella at full pelt. She’s VERY angry, there is none of the meek novice nun about her and there is no faux happy ending for Garai’s Isabella, it’s made clear she still pays a price for freeing her brother. 

Music plays a central role, although forget about any lutes. There constant hum of haunting music which crescendos at key points adds suspense even if at times it seemed intrusive. And the fact that Mariana – the woman Duke-stand-in Angelo stood-up after her dowry, along with her brother, was lost at sea – is an Alanis Morissette fans seems important, if rather an oddly dated reference.

We see some of the action through a video feed as the characters move ‘backstage’ to an industrial concrete space that doubles as a prison. Sometimes we see the characters on stage and on the screen, the jittery camera work adding a layer of menace and claustrophobia.

All this clever staging does at times threaten to upstage the actors, and, occasionally it does (I was completely distracted during Duke Vincentio’s  speech as he prepared to return from his undercover friar mission because of the kaleidoscope of inflatable dolls’s bits and bobs behind him) but mostly the actors win. Zoning Varla plays the Duke with real gravitas until the end when he returns and seems to unravel under the strain of his odd decisions – he’s along way from Dominic Rowan’s loveable, jovial leader. Paul Ready’s Angelo is a nervy civil servant, creepy and officious while John Mackay as Pompey had a suitable sly menace to him beneath his comedy posturing. And, Garai, Garai is great although I would have enjoyed a little more light and shade in her furious Isabella.

Inventive and sexually charged, this production still had Shakespeare at its core and is as bold and absorbing as his works, done at their best, should be. 

Measure for Measure | Young Vic | Until 14 November