Thursday, October 25, 2018

'Early Riser' by Jasper Fforde

25 October 2018

Regular readers may remember my enthusiasm for Jasper Fforde’s silly fantasy novels, particularly the Nursery Crimes series (reviewed here in April and October 2007), his Thursday Next literary detective series (reviewed here in August, September and October 2008, February and April 2009 and April 2012) and his 'Dragonslayer' young-adult fantasy novels (‘The Last Dragonslayer’ reviewed here in August 2014). I was less taken with his more serious post-apocalyptic dystopian novel ‘Shades of Grey’ (no, not that one! – reviewed here in April 2011), intended as the first in a series but not yet followed up. Jasper Fforde’s new novel ‘Early Riser’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Thomas Hunt, is his first deliberately stand-alone novel. And this feels like a successful blend of what he was trying to achieve with ‘Shades of Grey’ and the comic parallel-world versions of real places from his earlier series. After his bizarre alternative-reality versions of Reading (Nursery Crimes), Swindon (Thursday Next) and Hereford (Dragonslayer), ‘Early Riser’ is set in weirdly recognisable but significantly different Wales. In this reality severe five-month winters (caused by some catastrophic but unexplained climate change) mean the majority of the population have to hibernate in order to survive. Only a few hardy ‘consuls’ stay awake to police the savage winter months. It’s a high concept novel, drawn in intricate detail but with enough reference to the real world to make it relatively easy to follow. I missed the silly humour of Fforde’s earlier novels but I enjoyed the unravelling mystery plot and the cast of eccentric but loveable characters. (You’ve got to love the night-walker zombie Mrs Tiffin, doomed to endlessly play ‘Help Yourself’ by Tom Jones on the bouzouki!). It was lovely to see a reprise (from the Thursday Next novels) of the Wales Tourist Board slogan ‘Wales: not always raining’. And interesting to see the parallel between the parts of the action that take place within fictional books in the Thursday Next series and within dreams in ‘Early Riser’. It was also nice to have a self-contained plot which properly resolves itself rather than just preparing for a sequel – though I will miss Charlie ‘Wonky’ Worthing and his friends. But “we’ll always have the Gower”.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

'Touching the Void' adapted by David Greig from the book by Joe Simpson

24 October 2018

In 1985, while climbing in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his leg. His climbing partner Simon Yates attempted to lower him down the mountain but inadvertently lowered Simpson off a cliff. Suddenly the rope tying the two men together threatened both their lives and Yates took the horrible decision to cut the rope to save himself while Simpson plunged to almost certain death. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Simpson didn’t die, as his incredible tale of survival against all the odds became an award-winning book and film. Now playwright David Greig and director Tom Morris have adapted ‘Touching the Void’ for the stage, in a joint production by Bristol Old Vic, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Royal & Derngate Northampton and Fuel, which we saw in Northampton on Saturday. Their creative approaches to dramatising Joe Simpson’s interior monologue and staging the mountaineering are very innovative and impressive – helped by Ti Green’s amazing set which creates a very theatrical version of the story. The cast of four actors take on some incredibly physical challenges and David Greig’s framing of the tale, beginning with a wake for Simpson in a Scottish climbers’ pub, is very clever. And I liked that the play’s musical soundtrack used tracks chosen by Joe Simpson when he appeared on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2004. But I felt they missed a trick by ending the play with the ‘revelation’ of Simpson’s survival rather than going on to explore the subsequent relationship between him and Simon Yates and that painful question of whether he should have cut the rope.

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Friday, October 19, 2018

'Troilus and Cressida' by William Shakespeare

19 October 2018

This week I ticked off one of the diminishing number of Shakespeare plays I had never seen, with Gregory Doran’s new RSC production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday. Shakespeare throws us straight into the Trojan War with the Prologue explaining that we are “beginning in the middle”. He manages to incorporate almost every ancient Greek character you have heard of: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ulysses, Paris, Hector, Priam, Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra, Helen et al. Doran’s production is set in a steampunk, ‘Mad Max’ version of Troy, complete with motorbikes and shipping containers (standing in for the Greek army’s tents). He squeezes as much comedy as possible from this brutal tale of war, with Sheila Reid’s Thersites as a Janette Krankie Shakespearean Fool, somewhat incongruous amongst the Greek warriors. ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is an odd play – a mixture of history, comedy and tragedy with recognisable elements of other Shakespeare plays (‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Henry IV Part One’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ etc) transposed to ancient Greece. It’s not his greatest work but the RSC production is impressive, with an original musical score for four percussionists by Evelyn Glennie (her first composition for the stage). And RSC veteran Oliver Ford Davies steals the show as Pandarus – a very funny performance as the kind of bumbling old fool that he specialises in: nobody does Oliver Ford Davies better than Oliver Ford Davies!

'Troilus and Cressida' will be broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon to cinemas on 14 November.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

'Dangerous Corner' by J B Priestley

15 October 2018

On Saturday we were at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans to see ‘Dangerous Corner’ by J B Priestley, presented by the very impressive local amateur theatre group ‘Company of Ten’. Written in 1932, ‘Dangerous Corner’ was Priestley’s first solo play. It is a drawing-room drama that reflects its period and is a very clever, slowly revealing thriller. Priestley’s intricate web of unrequited attractions is maybe a little too neat but makes for a very satisfying puzzle. Tina Swain’s production managed to unveil each hidden connection without descending into melodrama. She was aided by an excellent amateur cast: all seven actors were very strong but Andrew Baird as the knowingly cynical Stanton was the pick of the bunch.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

'Killing Eve' by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

12 October 2018

We’ve just finished watching Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant eight-part spy thriller ‘Killing Eve’ on BBC Three. Based on the Villanelle novels by Luke Jennings, ‘Killing Eve’ is the story of a MI5 agent, played by Sandra Oh, on the trail of a young female assassin linked to a series of contract killings across Europe. It is a scary and brutally violent story which is quirky and incredibly funny without ever descending into spoof. ‘Bodyguard’ creator Jed Mercurio recently said there’s no such thing as a “can’t-die” character and Phoebe Waller-Bridge seems to have taken his advice to heart, constantly shocking us by killing off someone we had assumed was one of the main characters in almost every episode. In this aspect, and in its particularly black violent humour ‘Killing Eve’ has much in common with Noah Hawley’s splendid ‘Fargo’ TV series (reviewed here in October 2017). There is a great cast: it was particularly good to see the Danish star of ‘The Bridge’ (reviewed here in January 2014), Kim Bodnia, who is a wonderful comic actor. But the star of the show, without any doubt, is Jodie Comer who is fantastic as Villanelle, making you fall completely in love with a callous, merciless killer. Her playful smirk is one of the most compelling and chilling things on television. ‘Killing Eve’ is being broadcast on BBC Two on Saturday evenings but you can watch the whole series now on BBC iPlayer:

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde

10 October 2018

On Tuesday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to watch the live broadcast of the Classic Spring Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde from the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is such a perfect play you really don’t need to do much to it and Michael Fentiman’s production was thankfully sparing in terms of tricksy interpretations or additions. Sophie Thompson was a great Lady Bracknell – all the more menacing for being a little under-stated. Her “a handbag!” neatly avoided Edith Evans by almost swallowing the words in stunned disbelief (though she did try to have her cake and eat it by allowing herself the full Evans every other time the word “handbag” occurred!). My favourite scene is always the first encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen in the garden, and Fiona Button and Pippa Nixon did not disappoint. The play is full of wonderful quotable lines but you can’t beat: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is always a delight and it is particularly lovely to hear the reaction of people in the audience who clearly haven’t seen the play before.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2018

'Bismillah' by Matthew Greenhough

3 October 2018

On Tuesday we were at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes to see Wound Up Theatre’s production of ‘Bismillah’, written and performed by Matthew Greenhough. Somewhere in Iraq a British solider is is being held prisoner by ISIS, chained to a metal pole. But when he discovers his captor comes from London and speaks English they embark on a conversation that becomes a very black comedy. Directed by Jonny Kelly, this two-hander is a really good example of fringe theatre, with the audience on the stage, surrounding and very close to the actors. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere – making us feel inside the prison cell. Matthew Greenhough’s script is very funny, while never forgetting the brutality of the situation. He does a great job of showing how soldiers on both sides often only have a fairly hazy grasp of what they are fighting for. The play manages to be gripping, laugh-out-loud funny and very frightening and is excellently acted by Matthew Greenhough and Elliot Liburd. It’s often uncomfortable to watch but completely compelling.

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