Theatre review: The Happy Theory, The Yard Theatre, E9

Big on heart and soul, Happy Theory is the latest thoughtful and funny production from the brilliant Generation Arts. 

Generation Arts. "The Happy Hour".

Those final weeks of school, as you lay down your pen on your final exam are, thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. It can feel as if you have the world at your feet, inundated with endless possibilities. But the weight of what you’re leaving behind can feel dizzyingly daunting. And not everyone is lucky enough for the end of their education to be the beginning of something bigger and better. 

The Happy Theory follows a group of school leavers as they head out into the world – some heading to Oxford, others to Bath, a couple are couple travelling (including inspiring teacher Denise) and then there are those who can’t find a way out of their current lives.

In between revising their algebra and adverbs (rather ingeniously used by nasty head of year Mr Brennan – Robert O’Reilly, who also does a stunning turn as Kim Kardashian) the teenagers discuss happiness. What is it they ask? Some say branded trainers, big houses, Lotus cars – ‘nice things’ insists orphaned Frank (Ike Nwachukwu). Swotty Elle (she’s the one off to Oxford) retorts: what about billionaire Phones4U boss John Caudwell? His money couldn’t prevent his son’s agoraphobic? Happiness, Elle – and her and her allies – say, comes from within.

We don’t get a definitive answer to the happy theory, but we do see friendships falter, only for the unspoken bond to draw them together again; relationships fail, futures set free. 

Happy Theory is in some ways life imitating art. Generation Arts offers quality, free acting and theatre-making training for young people in the margins. The young people performing tonight are also on the brink of something, something that they may not have had the opportunity to seize without the excellent job the project does.

Happy Theory is a heartwarming, pacey piece of theatre, with performances that range from good to excellent. And the fantastic work of Generation Arts imbues this production with a sense of purpose and heart that we don’t always see at the core of theatre.

For more information on Generation Arts, see here.

 

 

 

Theatre review: The Chemsex Monologues, King’s Head Theatre, N1

Patrick Cash’s tale explores the chemical highs and emotional lows of chill-outs.

The Chemsex Monologues at the King's Head Theatre

The Chemsex Monologues at the King’s Head Theatre.

The Chemsex Monologues weaves the stories of four characters who separately narrate their individual experiences in drug-fuelled chill-outs – post-club parties – the strands of their lives loosely threading them together.

Patrick Cash’s tale of a part of post-gay club culture introduced me to a whole new world (and lexicon). G for those that don’t know (me) is, what 90s kids like me knew as GHB, and GBL, drugs that give users a euphoric high on a knife-edge; the dosage to reach that high is dangerously close to the level at which users can overdose. 

The story is dark, funny and unflinching, but there is never any moralising over the characters’ occasionally ill-advised actions. There is a bleak under current to each monologue, but no one is cast in a tut-tutting light.

The characters are – crucially – engaging and all four actors bring a emotional weight to their roles, not easy when there is no one on stage to spark off.

Matthew Hodson as sexual health worker Daniel is a joy, a red wine sipping oddity among G-ed up party goers. His goodness is endearing and never patronising – his character could tip over into a camp parody with the joke firmly on him and his Freddie Mercury-loving enthusiasm, but it’s only ever sincere, warm and funny – and we’re laughing with him, not at him.

But Daniel’s story comes towards the end. First we meet our narrator (Kane Surry), on the night he meets a pretty boy – Nameless – on an all-night bender during a weekend back in London from his base in Paris. He is introduced not only to Nameless, but to G and chemsex before they drift apart 24-hours later under the halcyon lights in Vauxhall.

Nameless – played with frenetic energy that combines innocence with a toughness – by Denholm Spurr – is up next. He relives the day he met Saint Sebastian, a celebrated porn star, rollerskating down Old Compton Street wearing nothing but hot pants and angel wings. They meet again at Hustlaball before heading back to Old Mother Meph’s where events turn from euphoric to chaotic, fun to nearly fatal.

We’re back at Old Mother Meth’s again with Fag Hag Cath. A young and newly single mother who is looking forward to spending Valentine’s Day with her best friend, Steve. But the scene back at Old Mother Meth’s has a nasty edge that Steve looks likely to step over into a darker place.

The Chemsex Monologues is a sensitive portrayal of a world where heavy drugs and delicate minds collide in frank, witty, sometimes heartbreaking ways, each story brought to life by Cash’s sharp script and performances that dig deep into their characters.

The Chemsex Monologues | King’s Head Theatre, N1 | Until 9 April 2017

Theatre review: Don Quixote in Algiers, White Bear Theatre

Forget Don Quixote’s chivalrous adventures, this Don Quixote is a dramatic account of author’s Miguel de Cervantes’ time in jail after he was captured as an enemy soldier.

dsc_0059-edit

Rachel Summers as Zohra and Alvaro Flores as Miguel (c) Kwaku Kyei

 

Miguel de Cervantes, the man behind one of the greatest novels of all time, spent five years as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire at a time when southern Europe and northern Africa were intwined in war and bound in shared recent history.

Don Quixote was captured in Algeria during the Battle of Lepanto in 1575 by Barbary pirates and was finally ‘freed’ in 1580 after he was ransomed by Trinitarian friars.

It was during those years languishing in an Algerian prison cell that Cervantes had the germ of Don Quixote de la Mancha that he would write on his return to Spain in the early 17th century.

Don Quixote in Algiers loosely collates these events and ties them together with a big thread of fiction and a dash of religious and cultural tension, every bit as relevant today as it was in the latter days of the 16th century. The play is set in Algeria which was, in 1578, a regency of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish base for fighting the Spanish in the western Mediterranean, and a fuse point for Islamic-Christian fighting.

Spanish captive Miguel (Álvaro Flores) is an intense, brooding figure, scribbling madly on paper that is quickly discarded. His Trinitarian friar is a local merchant called Si Ali who pays Miguel’s ransom so he can help him translate records into Spanish – a ruse for his real use, to act as his spy in the shadowy city.

Kwaku Kyei.jpg

Fanos Xenofos as the merchant Si Ali and Rachel Summers as his wife Carmen. (c) Kwaku Kyei 

Miguel’s presence soon intoxicates Si Ali’s daughter Zohra (Rachel Summers), who is as much a prisoner as Miguel, unable to leave the house except on rare trips where she must  be accompanied by a guardian. If she cannot escape her fate, she is destined to marry one of the dull men her father considers a suitable match.

Zohra’s imagination is sparked not just by the mysterious Miguel, but by her step-mother Carmen (Polly Nayler), a Spaniard captured by the Turks and sold to Si Ali. Her tales of growing up in a convent inspire Zohra to become a nun, although she has no interest in converting to Christianity, she simply wants time to read away from would-be suitors.

Will Miguel be her knight in tattered prison clothes as they plot to escape to Spain on a hole-riddled boat to Europe?

The atmosphere is as dense and claustrophobic as a prison cell thanks to designer Natalie Jackson’s clever set and Dinah Mullen’s constant, doom-laden soundtrack that gets under your skin.

Dermot Murphy’s script is a tangled web of intrigue where reality is as blurred as identity – and trust is as much a fugitive as Miguel. The production starts off strongly, aided by some great acting and clever direction, becomes rather bloated towards the end, where the narrative is derailed by heavy handed symbolism and overwrought dramatic devices.

But on the whole, the Condor Theatre Company punches above its weight within the small confines of the White Bear Theatre. Fanos Xenofós is a stand out as an exceptional Si Ali – composed, considered, his performance is grounded and warm – which perhaps the disparate ending of this production could have done more with.

 Don Quixote in Algiers | White Bear Theatre, SE11 | Until 4 March 2017

Theatre review: Pub brawl Shakespeare: Hamlet, Pack and Carriage

Buzzy, original and slightly anarchic, this is Shakespeare Camden style 

15027582_670797073082219_11801673705347850_n

The play’s the thing – Fox and Chips’ Hamlet at Camden’s Pack and Carriage until 13 December 2016

I’ve always thought Hamlet would be very at home in a pub, holding forth over a pint of craft beer, getting rowdier and more self obsessed with every sip. So it’s apt to stage Hamlet in a sticky floored pub in Camden as a semi-immersive production.

Fox and Chips pub brawl Shakespeare is a fun, energetic, fresh production of Shakespeare’s Danish-set tragedy. The conceit is that Polonius is the bar manager and his pub the venue for evil Claudius and traitorous Gertrude’s wedding reception. While the audience never really move on from playing the audience, despite pre-performance banter, the setting helps to break down barriers that seems to spring up when people are presented with Shakespeare. And I’d always rather watch a production from a sofa with a pint of real ale (they do chips too, so what’s not to like?)

This production has a 1970s theme; the costumes are all flares and big collars and a poster of Bay City Rollers (at least I think it was Bay City Rollers) adorns the walls. This is never explained, but it highlights the dramatic soap opera elements of Hamlet. Anything that helps bring Shakespeare down from its lofty reputation to the very human level Will is speaking to is always welcome.

Fox and Chips’ production is engaging and well paced. The big speeches are delivered with a contemporary rhythm and without unnecessary fanfare or wink-wink knowingness that can dog productions. Imran Momen’s Hamlet cuts the right kind of teenage angst with that dash of cruelty; stropping, mean, inconsistence, he’s a man who loves you in the early stages and dumps you when you start falling for him – basically every guy you’ve ever met online dating.

Chris Kyriacou’s Claudius is a standout performance, and he’s well supported by Victoria Otter as Gertrude – not an easy role to play in my mind; I’ve never really figured out where my sympathies lie with her.

The production could maybe benefit from toning down the frantic physicality. There is often a temptation with Shakespeare to take the short cut to explaining the plot through gestures rather than letting the words – which let’s face is, are usually pretty good – tell the story leading to an over reliance on the physical.

But this is a small criticism of what is a brave, sparky, deconstructed and original performance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

Plus, the ale is very good. H would approve.

Hamlet | Pack and Carriage, NW1 | Until 13 December 2016

Five Reasons To See Dreamgirls

The wait is finally over as Broadway smash Dreamgirls brings its glitz and glamour to London’s West End 35 years after this story of a 60s girl group first wowed New York audiences.  Here are five reasons why you need to get your ticket today.

amber-riley-as-effie-white-liisi-lafontaine-as-deena-jones-ibinabo-jack-as-lorrell-robinson-in-dreamgirls-credit-greg-williams-jpg

  1. Amber Riley

Glee fans will already be familiar with Amber’s knockout voice and those who never heard her as sweet-natured Mercedes Jones are in for a spine-tingling treat. Amber plays Effie White in the show, the lead singer in The Dreamettes alongside her best friends Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, who soon discover that the path to fame is as strewn with heartbreak as it is dreams. For a sneaky listen to Amber’s power to set hearts racing and tears flowing, check out this preview of her singing ‘I Am Changing’.

2. The Songs

From heart-wrenching big ballads to Motown-style stompers, the Dreamgirls musical numbers will have you dancing in the aisles, sobbing into your popcorn – and humming them for days. Audience favourites includes ‘I Am Changing’, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and ‘Listen’ – originally made famous by Beyoncé in the 2009 film and now a part of the stage production.

 3. The Costumes

The spangly frocks, the wigs, the sparkly shoes – Dreamgirls is almost as famous for its fabulous costumes as it is for its killer tunes. And the costume changes are as frequent as a Diana Ross tantrum – the 2009 US touring production of Dreamgirls had over 460 costumes and 205 wigs. The London production’s wardrobe has been designed by renowned, Tony Award winning costume designer Gregg Barnes.

4. The Story

It’s not all singing and dancing, Dreamgirls is an engrossing and emotional story. The plot follows the fortunes – and failures – of Chicago-based trio The Dreamettes – Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson and Effie White after they are discovered by ambitious agent Curtis Taylor, Jr. The girls’ career takes off under Taylor, but at a cost as it’s not long before he’s controlling their every move. Under the stress of success, cracks begin to show in the group as the beautiful Deena emerges as the star of the group over the gifted Effie. 

5. Be Part Of History

Dreamgirls first hit Broadway in 1981 directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. The show won six Tony Awards and has toured the United States and the world. The show finally arrives in London in a highly anticipated new production directed and choreographed by the hugely successful, Tony and Olivier award-winning Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Something Rotten!). One of the reasons why the show took so long to arrive in the West End was because producers couldn’t find the perfect Effie – until they discovered Amber. And who wouldn’t want to miss out on perfection?

Dreamgirls | Savoy Theatre | Booking from 23 November 2016 | Click Here For Tickets

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

416AgjxYMuL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

 

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.

26845691

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. 

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

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s second novel sees her sketching out ideas she’ll revisit again, but with less compelling results

81A+gRfaMPL

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (published by Black Swan)

What was meant to be my year of non-fiction also became my year of Kate Atkinson. During 2015 I rediscovered Atkinson after a nasty brush with her second novel, Human Croquet as a student. This year I was finally sucked into her magical realistic world via Jackson Brodie’s brooding presence in her more grounded Case Histories series.

I had read all of Atkinson’s work, including her latest (and, in my opinion, best), God In Ruins, by the fag end of 2015, only Human Croquet remained, the novel that had derailed me from Atkinson’s books 17 years ago.

Human Croquet was Atkinson’s second novel, following the success of her Costa Book Award winning debut Behind The Scenes as the Museum. She’s since published a further seven novels and this 1997 book has been repackaged by Black Swan in light of Atkinson’s more recent literary success (Life After Life won her a Bailey’s Prize nod and a South Bank Sky Arts award) .

It’s interesting reading an author’s work backwards, you can see the outlines of more recent books in the earlier works, see their craft in action, the sketches that will one day become their masterpiece. This is particularly apparent in Human Croquet where Atkinson examines themes she later revisits in Life After Life, and to a lesser time-traveller extent – God In Ruins.

I gave Human Croquet a through bashing in my university paper, but I don’t think I actually read past the first page. Already overburdened with modernist poetry and Virginia Woolf’s novels, the opaque opening page was too dense a word forest for me to venture into the story beyond it.

Human Croquet is the story of Isobel Fairfax, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in ‘Arden’, a damp ridden mock-Tudor house on the site of the ruined Fairfax Manor on a street of trees that was once a dense forest.

Isobel’s family are fairytale-like gruesome. Her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was small, closely followed by her father who at least had the decency to return albeit with an uninspiring New Zealand wife, Debbie. Her Aunt Vinny is a chain-smoking ugly sister while her brother Charles has dubious parentage and an unfortunate face.

Isobel discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she can slip between time when she briefly finds herself in what will become Hawthorne Close, a man running past her with house plans shouting “soon there are going to be houses. everywhere you look, there will be houses, young lady”.

The novel swings trippingly between the past and the present, Atkinson erasing some of the events for another scenario, although sometimes with the same results. As I’ve discovered during my Atkinson book binge, her novels are deceptive, she writes with a lightness, littered with literary references, puns and (sometimes annoying) asides, but the subjects she explores are the stuff of Martina Cole thrillers- murder, incest, child and domestic abuse, rape. Human Croquet is a rich stew of nasty ingredients wrapped up in a magical world and sparkling language.

Human Croquet isn’t Atkinson’s best work, at times it’s sluggish and, yet, jarringly, manically busy with characters and alternative realities that aren’t as tightly drawn as Ursula’s in Life After Life. The weaving in and out of other characters’ lives and the dropping into time pockets distracted from the far more compelling backstory of Isobel’s family and, if 2015’s taught me anything, it’s that Kate Atkinson is at her best when she’s writing about humans and our  funny ways that are every bit as baffling as time.