Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Jefferson's Garden' by Timberlake Wertenbaker

26 February 2015

Last Saturday we were at the Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Jefferson's Garden', a new play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Brigid Larmour. It tells the story of the American War of Independence and the founding of the United States through the eyes of a quaker family, newly arrived from England. Wertenbaker manages to blend the macro political story with the personal family tale by using a Greek-style chorus. The chorus steps out of the historical period, using contemporary language and references wittily to prick the potential pomposity of a very worthy narrative. With a cast of nine actors playing a host of characters on a fairly bare set, this is a fast-moving and inventive piece of theatre. But there is a very serious purpose at the heart of the play, as it addresses Jefferson's dilemma in drawing up the Declaration of Independence – whether the hard-won freedom should be extended to the slaves, knowing that this would have split the new union.

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Bad Manners

26 February 2015

I have been to many concerts at Bedford Corn Exchange over the years, but (perhaps because most of the concerts have involved the Philharmonia Orchestra) I have never previously witnessed the audience anticipating the arrival of the performers on the stage by aggressively chanting “You Fat Bastard, You Fat Bastard”. When Bad Manners finally took to the stage, their inimitable lead-singer, Buster Bloodvessel, beaming at the adoring crowd, simply replied “you're too kind!”. We later learned that the portly Buster Bloodvessel, now 56 years old, had just got out of hospital and nearly didn't make the concert. Bad Manners' upbeat 1980s ska is cheerful, catchy and incredibly tongue-in-cheek. At one point Buster Bloodvessel said “now for something serious – and some people say we're just a joke band” before launching into a very cheesy version of Andy Williams' “Can't Take My Eyes Off You”. Buster Bloodvessel is a compelling front man who looks like he is having a ball. As I've said here on numerous occasions, you can’t beat a band that dances to its own tunes – and Bad Manners never stopped dancing. A packed Corn Exchange was full of fans who knew the words to all the band's songs and were also dancing like it was 1981. Towards the end of the evening my eye was distracted by a sudden movement across the stage. It took me a moment to realise this was a dog running into the middle of the band. “That's my dog” Buster informed us as the hound leapt up at him, playfully. He proceeded to hold the microphone so we could hear the dog barking in time to the ska beat, its tail wagging furiously.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

'Housekeeping' by Marilynne Robinson

20 February 2015

I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel 'Housekeeping' (as an unabridged audio book narrated by Becket Royce). 'Housekeeping' is widely regarded as a modern American classic, which Robinson followed more than twenty years later with the highly-acclaimed Gilead trilogy of novels. It's the tale of a family living in the remote Idaho town of Fingerbone. The domestic setting and gentle pace reminded me of the books of Anne Tyler. 'Housekeeping' is narrated by Ruth, one of two young girls who are cared for by a succession of family members after their mother's suicide. The writing very cleverly gives the impression of a girl emerging from the fuzzy confusion of childhood into a world that gradually crystallises as she approaches adulthood. At first I was not clear which of the sisters was the elder – for a while I wondered whether they might be twins – but as they grow older and more distinct from each other, it becomes very clear which is the younger sibling. This gently confusing, non-linear narrative feels initially a little hard to follow but you soon realise that this is not a book that requires you to pay attention to an intricate plot. There is very little plot in 'Housekeeping' – the most dramatic events (a train plunging off a bridge into the lake, a car driving into the lake) happen off-stage or before the start of the narrative. This is a novel that focusses on characters and family relationships. It's beautifully written – I found myself frequently stopping to note the most lovely phrases. Of Bernice, an elderly neighbour who wears an excessive amount of make-up, we are told “she was an old woman but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease”. When floods swept the town “the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey Decimal system”. Floods are a recurring theme of the novel, as are the call of the railroad and a transient life. The tone of Ruth's narrative is unexcitable, matter-of-fact, taking the eccentricities of others in her stride. 'Housekeeping' washes over the reader like a gentle, benevolent flood.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Natalie Prass

13 February 2015

I'm really enjoying the eponymous album by the young American singer-songwriter Natalie Prass. Natalie Prass has a delicate, pretty voice and writes beautiful songs in a variety of styles – from country to soul. This is upbeat but slightly wistful pop with soaring strings and a laid-back horn section. The brass sound in particular reminds me of Zach Condon's Beirut (reviewed here in November 2006 and October 2007) and the catchy, theatrical songs sound a lot like Nerrina Pallot (reviewed here in May 2006). The album has a retro feel that seems like a familiar old friend the first time you hear it. Lovely stuff.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen, adapted by Marcy Kahan

4 February 2015

Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel, 'The Corrections', is one of the great contemporary American novels and one of the best books I've read in the past twenty years. It's more than ten years since I read 'The Corrections' so I have enjoyed reconnecting with it through the recent BBC Radio 4 dramatisation which I finished listening to this week. Marcy Kahan's adaptation, in fifteen 15-minute episodes, necessarily cherry-picks key scenes from this mammoth novel but felt like rediscovering old friends. I had forgotten many aspects of the story and was surprised to remember how funny it is. 'The Corrections' looks at the relationships between an elderly Mid-Western couple, Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three grown-up children. It is an often-excruciating examination of the strains within a family. As Enid tries desperately to persuade her sons and daughter to come to the family home for one last Christmas together, Jonathan Franzen manages to make the reader simultaneously sympathetic to characters with directly opposing points of view (something also very impressively achieved by Andrea Levy in 'Small Island'). All the main protagonists can be quite annoying but each has some redeeming qualities. 'The Corrections' is incredibly sad, painful and terribly funny, with some great set-piece scenes. You can still listen to most of the episodes at:

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