Chambers_, secret location, London

Food, wine and theatre are the perfect ingredients for an evening of immersive delights 

What better way to spend a searing hot day in July than in a bunker in the depths of east London? Hidden away under London’s steaming concrete, far from the record-breaking heat, the hottest ticket in town is Chambers_ – a collaboration between Gingerline and Flavourology – part theatre part culinary experience that ticks all your sensory boxes.

Described as a “palette twisting, interactive, multi-dimensional dining adventure”, Chambers_ is super sharp and wildly imaginative, the loose narrative arc no barrier to an evening of food, fun and flights of fancy. 

What happens in this underground world is shrouded in mystery – those who’ve passed through the multi-verse are sworn to secrecy, but it’s breaking no promises to say that Chambers_ is a tight, well-directed and acted romp with none of the hysterical improv that can tip an immersive experience into a toe-curling experience. 

There’s no real plot but you don’t really notice as you move through a series of set pieces each with its own cast of characters – and roles for the audience. In each room you get to tuck into one of the five dishes that you’re given along your journey, fusing the theme of the performance with appropriate food. 

The food is good… The programme warns it’s not Michelin star but the meals are tasty and flavourful (there’s a reason I’m not a food critic). I’m a vegetarian but my meat-eating plus one enjoyed her carnivorousness treats just as much. 

While the fusion of food, art and performance is the draw, the real star of the show are the sets. Wonderfully imaginative and brilliantly realised, they bring to life these other worlds and play a large part in taking your brains – and your tastebuds – to another dimension.

Chambers_ | Secret location | Until 28 September 2019

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Dance review: Macbeth, Wilton’s Music Hall

A haunting, gripping dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s sinister masterpiece

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths.

Dancing to Shakespeare may sound a bit like dancing to architecture, to (badly) paraphrase a famous phrase, but in the hands of the fantastic Mark Bruce Company, one of the bard’s greatest – and bloodiest – plays becomes a piece of absorbing and captivating art in its own right.

Macbeth lends itself well to dance, the inner turmoil of a man and his wife willing to commit regicide to be king and queen of Scotland, create an energy that is both powerful yet intimate. Unearthing the hidden meaning behind what drives this ambitious couple to commit murder in order to get their bloody hands on the crown has long fascinated directors, and in this production their angst, greed and lust for power. and their subsequent all-consuming guilt, seems even more stark.

From gentle beginnings grows a performance of great drama and passion. Bold, clever lighting washes the stage in blood-red and casts a banquet in stunning aspic, while well-placed symbols create a brooding atmosphere as the score – largely comprised of Arvo Pärt’s multi-layered music – enhances without smothering. But as sharp as the visual spectacle is, it’s the power of the dance that brings Shakespeare’s words to life.

The choreography is wonderfully realised, with every hand gesture and head turn revealing the characters’ passion and emotions. Shakespeare’s big scenes are all there: there’s the dagger and Lady Macbeth’s hand-wringing; a sinister reactment of the witches’ prophesy of Banquo’s descendants long rule over Scotland, and the banquet scene where the murdered Banquo haunts Macbeth with a terrifying intensity.

Jonathan Goddard as the titular character reveals Macbeth’s ruthlessness alongside a vulnerability – this is a man who seems aghast at his own capacity for murder, astonished at his lust for power. But, as with so many Macbeths, it’s Lady Macbeth who draws the eye. Eleanor Duval is wonderful in the role, a hugely captivating dancer who conveys the character’s steely-eyed ambition and her descent into madness with an incredible force, recreating Shakespeare’s words with compelling charisma. Together the two dancers are beguiling and compelling – this is a couple who are destined to rule.

Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth | Wilton’s Music Hall | Until 17 March 2018

 

 

 

 

Theatre review: Reunion and Dark Pony, John Harvard Library, SE1

Celebrate Libraries Week (9 – 14 October) with sombre, but touching father/daughter dynamics 

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David Schaal and Siu-see Hung in Dark Pony

Public libraries have always been about more than books. They have laid at the heart of many communities since their inception, designed to inspire, educate, engage and thrill. In recent years, they have become increasingly squeezed and compromised as budgets are slashed and their role questioned. So what better way to celebrate Libraries Week than show what they can be and turn these silent spaces into a stage. After all, libraries and theatres share the same currency: stories.

Baseless Fabric Theatre are a site-specific theatre and opera company that create work in public spaces to encourage people to see art forms and their local public spaces in new ways. As part of National Libraries Week, they have chosen two David ‘American Buffalo’ Mamet short plays (at seven minutes, Dark Pony is a slip of a piece), both sparse enough to lend themselves well to the space between the bookshelves (it helps that John Harvard Library has a coffee shop where Reunion, the night’s first performance, takes place).

The American playwright and scriptwriter is firmly in Richard Ford and Richard Yates territory where the all-American family is revealed to be less picket fence, more prison wall. Reunion, Mamet’s 1976 two-hander features a meeting between a father and his daughter, now (unhappily) married and a step-mother, who have been separated for nearly a lifetime. Through Mamet’s hyper-realistic dialogue that is both awkward yet precise, even lyrical at times, the characters’ attempt to find those lost years. Bernie, a reformed alcoholic, has largely found peace with himself, contemplating a third marriage and content with his job in a restaurant kitchen. He dominates the meeting, explaining his life and his mistakes through some amusing anecdotes. His daughter struggles more under the weight of his absence, her future also promising little. But while they may not walk off into the sunset, the pair do find some kind of equilibrium between the past and the present.

Dark Pony is a bitesized sketch where a father tells a favourite bedtime story to his young daughter as they drive home late at night – the story of a young native American brave and his trusty horse, Dark Pony. It’s sweet, although so fleeting it doesn’t have time to crawl under your skin.

David Schaal as Bernie and the book-reading father captures the right kind of wide-eyed intensity, reeling from his hard life and the mistakes he’s made, desperate for a fresh start. And you can almost hear Siu-see Hung’s (Carol and the young daughter) internal struggle, as she tries to find the words to put her life into focus.

Reunion and Dark Pony | Various library locations in London | Until 15 October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

In her latest novel, Pat Barker re-visits the same time and territory that she captured so compellingly and powerfully in her Regeneration trilogy.

Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and the Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road told the story of First World War soldiers, amongst them war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, receiving treatment for shell shock at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital. Toby’s Room, a non-sequel sequel to her 2007 novel, Life Class, shifts the attention from the mental anguish of the Great War to its physical impact, and focuses too on the fallout for those left behind in Britain.

The Toby of the title is a doctor and an officer who is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ on the battlefield. We first meet him in 1912 at the rambling family home in the bucolic English countryside where we’re also introduced to his sister Elinor. The pair have a claustrophobically close relationship that becomes inappropriately intimate one scorching hot summer’s day (English summers are always so wonderfully hot in novels, oh, if only life imitated art more often).

Skip forward five years to 1917 and Elinor and the Brooke family receive the telegram that everyone with a son or brother in France dreaded. Elinor, a starchy, tenacious and rather unsympathetic character, finds grief almost impossible to succumb to without knowing how, or if, her brother died.

She sets out to unearth the truth and in the process becomes entangled in a war she was hoping to ignore. In her search for answers, she is also forced to rekindle a dying friendship with the abrasive, and now, nose-less, Kit Neville, a contemporary of Elinor’s at the famous Slade art school where they studied under the tutelage of the formidable Henry Tonks. Elinor also enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Paul Tarrant, now a war artist, all three lives now fated to be forever messily and painfully intertwined in Elinor’s search for answers.

While Elinor may never end up on the frontline of the Sommes, she is forced to confront the horror of the Great War when she becomes an artist for Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, an institution that specialised in re-building the shattered faces of soldiers, including Neville’s.

As in Barker’s previous First World War novels, real life people get walk on parts. Elinor briefly spends time in the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell where she does little except insult the ‘conchies’ and annoy Virginia Woolf who looks on with her acerbic eye. There’s also a nod to the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, whose face has a particularly startling starring role at one point.

Unlike Sasson and Brooke, Barker is no poet. Sometimes her prose is plain banal and clunky. Eleanor’s diary, a rather odd occasional narrative device that serves little purpose other than to fill in some unexplained (if you haven’t read the unofficial prequel, Life Class that is) background, is a jarring change in pace and tone.

But complaining about Barker’s occasional heavy hand is like moaning at Woolf’s aversion to full stops. Barker has never been about delicate prose; her power for storytelling and unflinching truths is what draws you in and sucks you in like a quagmire on a battlefield. The pace (bar the slight derailment at each of Elinor’s diary entries) is cracking, the story fizzing along with growing expectation. In anything, rather than stripping the novel of emotion and tension, Barker’s no nonsense style heightens the drama. Importantly (and this is far rarer than it should be) Barker doesn’t disappoint as the novel reaches its climax. The characters remain solid; they may never reach Mrs Dalloway levels of realism and depth, but they are people you can believe who don’t dissolve in a weary puddle as the author panics at the looming deadline.

Toby’s Room may not hit the high notes of the Regeneration trilogy, but it’s still a wonderfully evocative, gripping novel that is taut and tight and utterly compelling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre, London

ImageA recent Guardian survey identified Great Expectations as the nation’s favourite Charles Dickens tale, and, with two movies, a BBC mini-series and a Charlotte Rampling-starring tv film all having been released in the last 15 years, there’s no denying Great Expectations pull. It’s Charles Dickens’ Pride and Prejudice.

The latest take on this enduring classic is Jo Clifford’s adaptation for the stage whose 1998 script was updated by director Graham McLaren for Dickens’ bicentenary last year and now makes its London debut at the Vaudeville Theatre.

So what is it about Great Expectations that catches people’s imagination more than any of Dickens’ other works? I suspect that the allure lies with the doomed romanticism of the cobweb-covered Miss Havisham, perhaps Dickens’ most beguiling character. This production certainly seems to think the jilted old lady lies at the heart of our fascination with the story, setting the entire play in Satis House as an older omnipresent Pip (Paul Nivison) watches over the ghosts of his past.

Condensing a novel as complex and long as Great Expectations meant extracting the essence, dispensing with the subtitles and trimming the characters down to their bare bones, which this production did with mixed results. The wonderfully daft Herbert Pocket becomes a small, if rather amusing, turn on a mantlepiece while the dastardly Bentley Drummond gets consigned to fondling Estella over a table for five minutes. The other minor characters fare better in most cases, Chris Ellison’s menacing Magwitch was a particular standout while Jack Ellis as Jaggers walked just the right line between caricature and characterful. Paula Wilcox’s Miss Havisham (pictured) was as bitter and desperate as we’ve come to expect, but was rather underused.

The set is the show’s trump card, a magnificent, dusty creation with all the cobwebs and moudy wedding cake of our imaginations vividly brought to life. The atmosphere is gloomy and sinister although the gothic feel is more Camden Market than Victorian, not helped by the ‘ghosts’ wearing black nail varnish and a young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) resemblance to Placebo frontman Brian Molko.

As visually delightfully as this production was it felt, ultimately, as cold as Estella’s heart. The very stagey, ‘am-dramminess’ of it that made it a theatrical spectacle stripped the story of its sincerity and warmth. The emotion seemed forced – there was a lot of moments when the actors strained to bring tears to their eyes when a more subtle and less desperate direction would have been more moving. And what was with the constant use of the characters’ names (“I know Joe”, “yes, Pip”, “It’s not right, Joe”)? The affection came across like a nervous tick.

A fun, frivolous piece of theatre that is absorbing if ultimately rather unfulfilling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Ballet Review: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Sadler’s Well Theatre, London

matthew bourne's sleeping beautyOnce the bad boy of ballet, Matthew Bourne is now as much a part of the ballet establishment as a pink tutu. His takes on ballet classics have become a hugely popular Christmas tradition at Sadler’s Wells and beyond. But while he is now practically an old master, his ballets remain as fresh and invigorating as they were when his first production leaped, sans en-pointe, onto the stage in 1998.

This year, Bourne completed the trio of Tchaikovsky works he began with Nutcracker and Swan Lake with his retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a story of prince charmings, princesses and bad verses evil. The story is slight, but Bourne’s version offers enough twists served up with a dollop humour to give this fairy tale a very 21st century feel without losing any of the original magic. In Bourne’s version, the bad fairy dishes out her very own brand of IVF; Prince Charming is now a gardener who Aurura was in love with pre-nap time (which neatly skips around the rather icky business of a strange man in white tights waking you up from your long slumber with a kiss and then having to spend the rest of with him) and the good guys are vampires. Best of all baby Princess Aurora is a puppet – all too realistic – doll that is so lifelike and charming that it threatens to steal the show.

There’s more than a touch of the Tim Burton’s about Bourne’s larger than life ballet with it’s fantastical set (think a sugary Pemberley) and opera-tastic costumes, and there is unmistakable drama to Sleeping Beauty. Bourne choses dancers who can act which makes all the difference in a ballet that has abandoned the pirouettes in favour of theatrics. At no point do I feel like I’m watching bad mime.

It’s all terrifically good fun, but despite the almost cartoonish set, the vampires, magic realism and bare feet, the dancing can still enchant even if it doesn’t spellbind in the way a traditional Sleeping Beauty can. Hannah Vassallo as Aurora is captivating while Chris Trenfield is adept, if a fairly blank canvas for Shaw, as her beau Chris Leo. Ben Bunce as the bad fairy Carabosse is every bit as menacing when he returns as her son Caradoc.

The story rather tempers off in the second half, giving way to Bourne’s imagination – a velvety, plush yet seedy nightclub, vampire angst and sleepwalking forest dwellers as Bourne takes a hefty edit to the (recorded) score.

I love a pas de deux as much as the next person (and there were a couple of lovely ones in this production) but Bourne’s ballets are less about pirouettes and more about pure pleasure. And that’s no bad thing

 by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Hymn/Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, The National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

I spent one summer working in Primrose Hill and the occasional lunchtime highlight was spotting Alan Bennett on his old-fashioned woman’s bicycle complete with wicker basket. He always seemed to be going to the Post Office. The whole effect – the bike, the wicker basket, popping to the Post Office and his thick rimmed glasses – was just like watching a character from one of his plays.

And here he is in one of his plays. Or rather, not him, but the remarkable Alex Jennings who inhabits the playwright’s awkward self-possession with such brilliance that there are times when I wondered if this was a double bluff and that it really was Bennett. His own mother would probably have trouble telling them apart. And here she is, or rather her dramatic ghost, played so beautifully by Gabrielle Lloyd in the second of the afternoon’s short plays, Cocktail Sticks.

Both Hymn and Cocktail Sticks see Bennett revisiting territory from his memoir A Life Like Other People’s, recalling his pre-poncy Primrose Hill days and reflecting on how his quiet, uneventful early life came to shape him and his work. The first play, the short but very sweet Hymn, is a musical memoir where Bennett’s words share a stage with George Fenton’s clever score and a string quartet (plucked from the Southbank Sinfonia). Fenton’s score is evocative of a bygone England, weaving Elgar and Delias into his original work while at one point providing sound effects to the memory that lies at the heart of Hymn. Hymn spins on the moment Bennett’s father, a keen and accomplished violin player, attempted, with little success, to teach his son his beloved instrument. Bennett laments that his father’s disappointment at his son’s inepitude would “outlast the violin and my childhood, and go down to the grave”. *Sob*.

Themes and storylines naturally overlap into Cocktail Sticks, a piece that is both a homage and atonement to his eccentric yet utterly normal parents. The play is everything Bennett has come to encompass – unearthing the funny, heartbreaking and poignant in the ordinariness of life – telling the story of how he got to understand that there was art in the everyday.

The play begins with him remonstrating with his mother about his undramatic, happy childhood, a childhood so devoid of incident that he claims (this is twenty one years ago, after Bennett had already found success on the West End stage) it’s given him nothing to write about. “We did our best. We took you to Morecombe”, “You played out with your friends”, replies his unmoved mother. “I bet Proust didn’t play out with his friend,” mutters Jennings’ Bennett later to none other than J.B. Priestley who momentarily walks into the Bennett’s domestic setting.

The piece starts after the death of his father; his mother now in a home in Weston-Super-Mare, when Bennett is clearing out the family’s kitchen cupboards and discovers a box of cocktail sticks. Bennett then oscillates between the years, resurrecting his parents to quietly demand questions and atone for his embarrassment of them that reached a peak during his time at Oxford. The portrait of his mother is particularly moving as we watch her slip from vague disappointment to depression and finally dementia. Mrs Bennett was a woman who dreamed of a life beyond bus rides to Skipton and trips to the cinema, convinced everyone else was sipping cocktails with prawns in them while she sat at home drinking tea. Her desires were simple – to hold a cockTAIL party, but the stench of dripping that wafted up from Mr Bennett senior’s butcher’s shop that the family lived above and her husband’s aversion to alcoholic drinks barred her entry to this glamorous world.

“I’ve been reading about these cockTAILS”
“They’re COCKtails, not cockTAILS”

“Yes, cockTAILS”
“COCKtails, the emphasis is on the tail not the, oh never mind.”

In lesser hands, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks could be twee or, worse, patronising. After all both plays rely on us, the audience, (we’re at The National here, so it’s largely white, middle class Londoners and those fresh off the train from Dorking) laughing at two working class northerners and their distrust of avocado pears. But Bennett’s deft touch ensures that we’re not laughing at them, but at him, at us – his happy parents don’t seem like the naive ones compared to our 21st century lust for drama and revelation that have brought us no-where. The performances also prevent it slipping into a nostalgia/lets-laugh-at-the-funny-northerners show. Lloyd and Jennings I’ve already mentioned, but Jeff Rawle as Mr Bennett senior also brought the right amount of gruff northernness to the role without falling into Last Of The Summer Wine territory.

This is a beautiful, tender piece of theatre with is written and performed with real affection and is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking.

Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, The National Theatre until March 17 2013. Transfers to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End from March 22 2013 for a twelve week run.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore

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Reading Lorna Doone is like a walk on Exmoor; at times you’re wading through a bog of words before getting lost in a fog of schmaltz, only for the sun to come out and for you to realise it’s rather beautiful – until it starts to mizzle again.

Based on a Devon legend, at the heart of Blackmore’s classic novel is the love story between Lorna Doone – a daughter of the local aristocratic outlaw clan the Doones of Bagworth – and the novel’s narrator John Ridd, a strapping, but simple lad who runs the family farm after his father is murdered by a Doone when he was a boy. Lorna is betrothed to a cousin, the brutal Carver Doone, but her pre-ordained life is discarded the minute her and John’s eye meet over a bubbling brook. Naturally it’s love at first sight, and throwing caution to the fierce Exmoor wind, John rescues Lorna from the clutches of her bad relatives, royally pissing them off and unleashing some pretty fierce retaliations  Fortunately John has friends in high places (at one point he’s even hobnobbing with the King, although I’m sure not sure how he managed that) so despite a few brushes with blunderbusses along the way, our hero and heroine’s too-good-to-be-true love lives on.

Lorna is the drippiest love-struck heroine this side of Juliet, a Victorian fantasy whose personality barely dents the page. John is a more interesting character, although a no more likable one. He’s a man with a good heart and high morals, but is unbearably pompous, boorish and arrogant. Set in the mid to late 1600s, I wasn’t expecting a metrosexual, but this 17th century version of a white van man is difficult to warm to. His unconditional love for Lorna seems largely based on her beauty (you can practically hear Blackmore salivating every time he describes his heroine’s hypnotising good looks) and how daintily she eats her food.

I’m not without romantic bones, but the way the pair talk to each is more rooted in folklore than any number of West Country faerie stories. Fortunately, his eldest sister Annie has a little life to her and then there’s Lizzie, the family’s youngest and fiestiest female who John struggles to hide his contempt for her backchat and her unladylike appetite. I try not to read classics with 21st century eyes, if I did I’d be disappointed with everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens. For a modern woman pre-2000 fiction (particularly Victorian male authors) can be very trying, as female characters are forever trembling or fainting and are frequently mute. But while I can usually overlook these flimsy females, I found John Ridd and his rose-tinted love for the beautiful, compliant, obedient Lorna particularly difficult to swallow.

But I couldn’t have read over 600 page without finding some redeeming qualities, and there were several – at the very least Lorna Doone is a cracking yarn. Set in a time I know little about, in a part of the country shrouded in legend, Blackmore’s ability to capture the atmosphere, every frosty fern and muddy puddle, the terror of a lawless land and the bleak, dangerous reality of life on the moors, drew me in and kept me reading. The best bits were when John and Lorna didn’t share a page. When John was er, rid of Lorna the pace quickened and plot sped up as he unearthed the truth about her upbringing while she cavorted in court in London. Lorna might be a wet bore, but her backstory was gripping. I’m currently nearing the end of Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s fresh, simple text and the very real passions, jealousy and doubts of the characters is a refreshing dunking in the real world after Blackmore’s quagmire of words and the other worldly romance of Lorna and John.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

I devoured Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize nominated novel, in hours, diving straight into its murky, disoriented chapter and allowing Levy’s beautiful prose to lap over me as the novel’s tension built to a sad crescendo.

Levy’s novel covers some well trodden ground – the middle class family villa holiday in a hot country (this time, France); the successful parents as lost in the world as their adolescent offspring – but the powerful poetry of her words takes the cliched and adds a beauty and depth.

The story is slight; set in the mid-90s the novel follows two families in as they holiday in a villa in the south of France. There’s Joe JacobsJozef Nowogrodzki – a successful poet, damaged by his horrifying past and empty present, his war-correspondent wife Isabel and their daughter, Nina. Awkwardly accompanying them are Laura and Mitchell (a wonderfully, grotesque, comic character) who own an ‘ethnic’ shop in Euston and remain largely shadowy, background figures to the drama unfolding in the hazy heat.

The bomb that these family-holiday-gone-wrong novels need arrives in the skinny form of damaged and beautiful Kitty Finch, who has used her connections with the villa’s owner (her mother was her cleaner) as a way to meet her hero/obsession Joe.

Isabel, despite, or because, she recognised Kitty’s obsession with her philandering husband invites Kitty to stay with them in the villa’s spare room, ultimately pushing Joe and Kitty together. Coming off the antidepressant Seroxat, Kitty’s behaviour is volatile, erratic and frightening with an underlying naivety which makes her even more dangerous

Swimming Home’s greatest achievement is Levy’s prose that evokes a dense, dreamy sinister atmosphere punctuated by perfectly timed humour. The detached underwater feel of the novel and the quality of dreamliness that she evokes captures the tensions and emotions of the characters without any of them having to articulate how they’re feeling.

But it’s not a flawless novel, largely because Levy is guilty of one modern literary convention that irks me, that of the characters wearing their wealthy middleclassness like some kind of green flag metaphor. Like Ian McEwan’s more recent works (Saturday wore me out with its hummus soaked overtones) Levy’s characters are successful, wealthy urban middle class – farmers’ market-shopping, swearing-in-front-of-the-children types who probably smoke weed to a soundtrack of Cat Power at dinner parties. Why couldn’t Joe have been a struggling poet who was forced to write celebrity gossip for a website inbetween stanzas to make ends meet? Why the large house in west London? Couldn’t they have lived in a flat in an unfashionably area south of the river? Couldn’t Mitchell and Laura have been estate agents? I understand that the comfortable, affluent, successful lifestyle was meant to juxtapose with the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction (news flash! people with big kitchens can be unhappy too), but I think that their circumstances diluted the point. If these characters had been more every day, their suffering would have been greater, more personal to us (me). I couldn’t see the worth in setting Kitty Finch’s background against the weathier characters, or, rather, I could, but Levy didn’t take it anywhere. Kitty was briefly angry that her mother cleaned rich people’s houses, but she didn’t install any class warfare into Nina, who she took under her wing for a few pages.

But none that has stopped me already beginning to re-read it; I’ll always take beautiful prose over character-quibbles…

by Suzanne Elliott