Book Review: High-Rise by JG Ballard

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JG Ballard’s world of dystopian urban landscapes set somewhere in the near future has become so recognisable that he’s gained his owned adjective: Ballardian. These Ballardian novels evoke collapsing societies set against shiny modern worlds that are at once a sci-fi step removed from us and yet all too recognisable. In Ballard’s world, the collapse of our so-called civilised society can be sparked by something as simple as a smashed champagne bottle.

Ballard understood the fragility of the human psyche better than most. His teenage internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai, described in his autobiography Empire of the Sun, shaped his view of human nature and, in turn, his novels. High-Rise is the second in Ballard’s urban disaster trilogy, book-ended by Crash and Concrete Island and follows the professional middle-class inhabitants of a flashy newly built, upscale tower block as they revolt against it.

I first read High-Rise years ago during my “Ballard-period” (I used to have a habit of reading an author’s oeuvre consecutively, an excellent way of killing your love for a writer) back in my pre-London days. Its tale of professional people descending into anarchy within a 40 storey tower block has loomed large in my mind ever since, especially now I live in London and am under the shadows of tenement blocks that are increasingly owned by high-earning white collar workers. (The Erno Goldfinger designed Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, which is said to be one of the inspirations of High-Rise and was originally built solely for council tenants, is now one of London’s most sort-after addresses. Art, life etc).

Ballard begins the novel at the end with one of literature’s most enduring sentences before rewinding to the moment Dr Robert Laing pinpoints as the trigger that set off the building’s decline into a violent, lawless society with its primitive class system and clan-led brutality (that champagne bottle).

Amongst those sharing Laing’s experiences of a civilisation gone to ruin high above the streets of London are Anthony Royal, the building’s architect, a modernist Bond villain-like character presiding over his kingdom like a deposed despot – or your average London landlord. Then there’s Richard Wilder, a burly TV director on whom perhaps the building has the biggest impact, his madness gaining currency as he climbs the floors in a bid to conquer his concrete mountain. As the swimming pools fill with the carcasses of dogs and the air-con vents are blocked by faeces, the three men attempt to seize control of their minds – and the building.

Ballard’s vision of the impact architecture has on the individual runs through many of his novel and it’s particularly obvious in High-Rise where the building is as much a character as the tenants. But while the middle-class inhabitants of the tower block desend into anarchy, Ballard’s not dismissing this return to a simpler life as a bad thing. Are, he seems to be asking, Laing and his neighbours simply de-evolutionising back to where we should be? See how easy our primeval power makes it for us to adapt to less sophisticated situations (this is the same logic I apply to music festivals). And while High-Rise is often described as a vision of urban dystopia, when we first meet Robert Laing, he’s having a jolly old time gnawing on a dog’s barbecued leg amongst his rubbish strewn balcony, describing himself as the happiest he’s ever been. So perhaps it’s the world outside the high rise that is getting it wrong?

I enjoyed lapping up Ballard’s hugely imaginative and sinister world again, although I remembered half way through High-Rise that bingeing on Ballard had given me a distaste for his very distinct writing style. He writes with economy and little emotion, his prose as brutal and cold as a tenement block in November. Similarly, his characters are broadly sketched and his prose remains at a constant, middle-lane pace. Of course the simplicity of his writing hides his brilliance as a writer, the shocks of violence all the more brutal told with minimal fuss, while the juxtaposition of events are more sharply felt by the blandness of his description.

As a vision of an urine-soaked hell, High-Rise is an all too real one, and, like all Ballard books I’ve read, it’s a compulsive and powerful novel that lingers on the mind like the stench of a rubbish strewn hallway on a summer’s day.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

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

Book Review: Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

William Boyd is a writer than elicits great love from many a bookworm. His 2010 novel Any Human Heart, the story of Logan Mountstuart’s ordinary yet extraordinary life, tops many a favourite book list.

Keen to join this army of devotees, I read Any Human Heart a couple of years ago and waited – and waited – to be transported into that zen like other worldliness that a good book takes you too. But I never clicked with it. Was it pompous Logan? Boyd’s sturdy prose? The inescapable maleness of it? I don’t know, but whatever it was the book didn’t seduce me.

But Boyd is clearly a robust and imaginative storyteller and I wasn’t about to give up after one novel. I picked Ordinary Thunderstorms as a friend – a Boyd fan – said it reminded her of Ian McEwan, in my mind a Very Good Thing.

Ordinary Thunderstorms  – a rather grandiose title for such an unpoetic book – is the story of Adam Kindred, a climatologist, who on his return to his native England after years in the States, finds himself homeless, friendless and wanted for murder within a matter of hours.

His problems start when he stops for lunch in Chelsea. Most people’s do. But his problems are far worse than merely encountering a particularly rah-rah Sloane; his road to oblivion begins with some unnoteworthy chit-chat with another lone diner, Philip Wang. Wang is an eminent immunonogist who accidentally (on purpose?) leaves some rather important documents at the restaurant. When Adam attempts to return them to Wang at his flat, he becomes embroiled in some pretty dark business that shatters his life as he knows it forever.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller stuck in the Thames’ mud, its thrills bogged down by obscure details and unnecessary fluff (and I’m quite a big fan of unnecessary fluff). The book  tantaslingly hints at being a bigger, better, more multi-layered novel than it is. The themes Boyd touches on – the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, what it is to be a citizen in a 21st century city, identity and white collar crime – are rich for exploration, but are only given a cursory nod here.

The plot and the cast of characters are all in place; there’s an ugly bady with a soft-spot for dogs, a prostitute who still retains a tiny speck of humanity despite life’s best attempt to erase any compassion, a tough but kind police officer woman and some evil Suits. The Thames, in all its murky glory is the novel’s main artery, although Boyd doesn’t allow it to beat much life into the novel, the story’s pulse rarely rises above semi-consciousness.

Each of these main characters had their own – third person – chapter that are fairly indistinguishable. Rita, the police officer, who I think was meant to be a twenty-or-early-thirty something woman, sounded exactly like 59-year-old  Ingram Fryzer, the head of the drug company Calenture-Deutz who employed unfortunate Philip Wang and whose dealings are decidedly dodgy. Cockney bad ‘un Jonjo Case, who is also on Adam’s trail, sounds like a privately-educated middle manager doing a bad impression of a barrow boy.

London, specifically the Thames, is perhaps the book’s starring role, although Boyd never really captured its magic. I’m reading Marcel Theroux’s fantastic Strange Bodies at the moment, a book that shares a lot of themes and motifs with Ordinary Thunderstorms, but the London Theroux conjures up is a far more 3D city than the one that lies rather flat in Boyd’s book.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a readable if unexciting novel that doesn’t deliver that thunderbolt that a really great book should. Maybe it will be third time lucky for Boyd and me…

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham's Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir is one of those plays that’s about nothing and everything. It’s a gentle, funny play for the most part, with a plot that revolves around five people getting pissed in a down-at-heel pub in an unnamed, remote part of Ireland, livening their whiskey soaked evening with ghost stories.

But Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s script delves into the human heart and extracts a play that’s moving, funny and tender. Billed as a ghost story, The Weir isn’t a spine tingling scarathon in the vein of Woman in Black; The Weir’s ghosts are far more human.

It’s a wet, blustery night (both, as it happens, inside and outside the theatre) and local bachelors Jack (Brian Cox) and Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) have taken refuge in their local with barman Brendan in his shabby – in a decidedly un-chic way – pub. They are joined by married regular, the flashy in a small town way Finbar (Risteárd Cooper)  and Veronica (Dervla Kirwan)  a young woman who’s recently moved from Dublin to this part of the world searching for a bit of peace.

She doesn’t get much on this particular night as the four men, in a bid to impress the attractive blow-in, start narrating their personal ghost stories with verbocious Jack as the eloquent ringleader.  But amongst these stories of ghouls and spirits, the most haunting tale of them all is all too real.

The Weir is engaging and funny and filled with sadness and regrets that overflow like Valerie’s pint of wine. The cast are all fantastic; Brian Cox’s Jack shifts effortlessly from Guinness-fuelled show-off to reveal a man scarred by heartbreak and regret. Dervla Kirwan is quietly and then devastatingly brilliant as the lone woman with a past so shatteringly sad that the men – and the audience, or this audience member at least – are stopped in their tracks.

The Weir may not spook you, but it will haunt you in other – more affecting – ways.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre is 90 galloping minutes of incest, STDs, adultery, fire and death punctuated by some unexpected black humour (although don’t go expecting knock-knock jokes).  

Stranded on a blustery island in the middle of nowhere (although, my guess would be somewhere in the North Sea), Helene Alving  has a past that she’d very much like to forget. The past, however, isn’t quite so keen to let go of her, and its ghosts rattle around the empty rooms of Helene’s gloomy house, haunting her unhappy present.

After years of suffering and deceit, Helene hopes to exorcise her demons by revealing the brutal truth about her late husband to their son, Oswald who’s back home after living it up as an artist in bohemian Paris.

This being an Ibsen play, Helene’s idea to erase the past with some good old fashioned truth-telling goes awry as soon as the theatre lights dim. The dirt gets raked up before I’ve barely taken a sip of my wine by bossy boots Pastor Manders (Will Keen) who manages to bully the strong, yet fragile Helene (an amazing Lesley Manville) into revealing some of the murkier bits of her past. Accompanying this showdown is the pattering of rain that provides the perfect glum soundtrack  as Helene spills her demons much to the astonishment of the thought-he-knew-it-all Pastor . We learn, before they do, Oswald and Regina the maid (Charlene McKenna), who are making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, have a little more in common than an interest in French.

And then Oswald (Jack Lowden), a great hunky slice of Scandinavian blondness who looks like he could take all the slings and arrows of outrageous Norwegian misfortune, falls foul of syphilis, an inherited gift from his drunk, womanising father (thanks dad!). A particularly nasty sort of ghost.

The 90 minutes of gut-wrenching theatre plays out on largely dimly lit stage, the soft patter of rain setting the rhythm of the play. By the end, everyone and everything is in ruins, expect the man that Regina believes to be her father, Jacob Engstrand, who at least has his Home For Seamen (for now). Poor Lesley Manville looked traumatised as she look her well deserved bow.

The ghosts are all metaphysical, but Tim Hatley’s clever stage design separates the front of the stage from the back with a sheer screen, showing the characters in phantom  form when they’re not ‘in action’.

Back in staid old Victorian England (and even Norway may have been a little bit uptight in the 18th century) the themes in Ghosts (sex, syphilis and sibling flirting) would have had audiences reaching for the smelling salts. The play’s shocks are different for a modern audiences, but it stills leaves you reeling – the brutality of life, the powerlessness of the wife, the deception, the betrayal – I needed more than just that glass of wine afterwards.  But for all its doom, gloom and emotional brutality, Richard Eyre’s Ghosts is an engrossing and massively enjoyable hour and a half of heart-wringing theatre that will play in your head and heart for weeks to come.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Following her Oscar winning performance in Stephen Frear’s 2006 film The Queen, Helen Mirren once again slips into Elizabeth II’s sensible court shoes in the West End smash, The Audience.

She does it with such aplomb that I wonder whether the actual real-life Queen, standing “we are not amused”-like watching The Script at Radio 1 wishes she could employ Dame Helen as her life understudy. Or if one night she might fancy treading the boards and coming on as herself in The Audience. Although, she’d probably get panned for not playing herself as well as HRM (her Royal Mirren). For The Audience is as much about Mirren as it is about the Queen.

The audience refers to the weekly meeting between The Queen and her Prime Minister, a ritual that’s found it’s way into the British constitution allows the PM to discuss matters – both state and personal – of the day and the Queen to drop in a few sensible words of advice (usually: resign). David Cameron is the 12th PM to sit opposite her Maj once a week; if he dies suddenly before the next election then Nick Clegg will be her 13th, something Peter Morgan’s Lizzy II would no doubt see the funnies in.

Peter Morgan was also the man behind 2006’s The Queen, and he picks up (his no doubt souvenir Buckingham Palace) pen again to write this wholly fictional account of this very private ritual. No minutes are kept and even QE2’s trusted servants are banished from the room. No PM has ever blabbed about their weekly 20-minutes with The Crown and The Queen has yet to take to Twitter to spill the beans on what Cameron and Clegg really think of each other. So Morgan has little but rumour, Prime Ministers’ reputations (Thatcher’s demented; Major’s a cry baby) and imagination to go on.

The play, which behind the green curtain of its star performance, is slight and pantomime-light, at times careening off into caricature status – like Spitting Image without any of the  caustic humour, most of the PMs’ reputations are left remarkably unscatched – manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to HM, who is brilliant. She takes her 2006 role and adds humour, a dash of political flair and a dose of every-dayness to her Maj’s little chats with our dear leaders. Or some of them at least, there are notable absences, most obviously no Blair (was that to avoid The Queen comparisons? Is he too recent and complicated a leader to distill into a non confrontational script?).

Morgan spins the word on the (Downing) street that no-nonsense Labour man Harold Wilson was her favourite Prime Minister (some say after Churchill, but that wouldn’t have made quite so an amusing face-off). Shamefully I know little of Wilson, in fact most of my knowledge on the Labour leader came from a recent reading of Ian McEwan’s (brilliant) Sweet Tooth. But I doubt very much he was anything like the rude, naive, over-awed, “oop north’ buffoon he’s depicted as being in this play. But I enjoyed the Queen’s and Wilson’s moments, played out like a tale of friendly understanding across the great class divide and Richard McCabe’s Wilson did have most of the best lines – I particularly enjoyed his take down of Balmoral and the current Monarchy’s German ancestry.

Inbetween her tete-a-tetes, which aren’t told in chronological order, there are flashback scenes of a spirited Elizabeth as a young princess struggling to come to terms with her future as a Monarch. The scenes, designed to add a humanness to HRM, a humanness I’m not particularly interested in and I think adds little value, left me a little queasy, not helped by the young Queen coming across like the eighth member of the Secret Seven (the Esoteric EightEnid Blyton’s great, unfinished novel).

The Audience is sentimental, at times almost mawkish, but it’s charming, if unchallenging and often very funny. And it’s been a long time since I saw quite such a standing ovation…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Charles Dickens ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’

Wittier, cleverer minds have already given the world their thoughts on The Old Curiosity Shop, so there’s little left for me to add other than Oscar Wilde’s comment that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Nell’s death is probably the best review of the book you’ll ever hear.

For my part, I didn’t so much want to laugh through those final few chapters that set the scene for Little Nell’s death, as sigh with boredom. LN is so good she doesn’t feel human (Dickens intention?) and the heavy-handed English Lit student-friendly (something to underline!) symbolism would put even Thomas Hardy to shame.

So thank goodness that Little Nell and her tedious, spineless grandfather, despite being the backbone (if lacking one themselves) of the novel, are largely sidelined to allow a host of witty, compelling, eccentric characters to take centre stage. There’s the sinister, evil dwarf Qulip, the cold, calculating snuff-addicted lawyer Sally Brass; the thoughtless, but ultimately kind hearted Dick Swilliver (I loved those chapters with him and the Marchioness towards the end of the novel – he completely charmed the socks off me), and good honest, but not, thank goodness, too good, Kit who ultimately to each other that kept me turning the pages.

by Suzanne Elliott