Friday, August 30, 2019

'Sweet Caress' by William Boyd

30 August 2019

I’ve been reading ‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd – a novel published in 2015 which weaves a 20th century family saga around a collection of old black and white photographs. Subtitled ‘The Many Lives of Amory Clay’ it tells the story of a woman born in 1908 whose personal and professional life bears witness to some of the most significant world events of the century. This reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ (reviewed here in June 2013) whose protagonist, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910. But ‘Sweet Caress’ is a much less tricksy novel: it’s a fairly conventional saga, partly told in hindsight by the older Amory Clay in 1977. William Boyd seems to have used a set of (apparently) unconnected photos as the inspiration for his story, making Amory Clay a professional photographer and constructing her history to explain how she came to be in each of the places and events depicted by the photos. The result is an enjoyable novel which lacks the literary ambition of ‘Life After Life’ but demonstrates William Boyd’s skills in engaging the reader: again and again when I was planning just to read to the end of a chapter I found myself unable to stop because I desperately wanted to know what happened next. Describing a book as a ‘page-turner’ can feel like damning with faint praise but ‘Sweet Caress’ is an entertaining read.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

'Yesterday' by Danny Boyle

21 August 2019

On Tuesday we were at the Odeon in Milton Keynes to see Danny Boyle’s film ‘Yesterday’, written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth. It’s a charming romcom, silly and ridiculous but completely loveable. Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling singer songwriter involved in traffic accident, who comes round to discover he is now in a world where nobody has heard of The Beatles, except him. Jack struggles to remember the lyrics to as many Beatles songs as he can and soon becomes feted as the greatest ever songwriter. But fame and fortune takes him away from his childhood friend/fan/manager/driver Ellie, adorably played by Lily James who was so brilliant in Ivo van Hove’s 'All About Eve' (reviewed here in April 2019). The real stars of the show, however, are those classic Beatles songs. You don’t need to know anything about The Beatles to enjoy ‘Yesterday’ but by presenting 17 of their best songs as fresh compositions it reminds us what all the fuss was about.


Friday, August 16, 2019

'The Book of Traps and Lessons' by Kate Tempest

16 August 2019

Writing here in October 2014 I said “Kate Tempest is a name to watch.” Since then the South London poet/rapper/playwright/novelist has continued to impress, with an eclectic track record that has been consistently brilliant. Her new album ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ feels more reflective and less angry than its predecessor ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ (reviewed here in October 2016). The beats have been stripped back (by producer Rick Rubin) to leave Kate Tempest’s distinctive voice revealed more obviously as poetry backed by music, rather than rap. The wordplay is incredibly clever, full of double meanings that turn the sense of a phrase on a single word. Each track reveals more each time you listen to it. Tempest hasn’t lost her anger, suggesting the UK is a nation living “in the mouth of a breaking storm”. She says “I’m a child of the gimme more nation” and “our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons”. But the scale of our looming crises now require more than anger and there is optimism in ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ in its celebration of love and dancing. Listen to the track ‘People’s Faces’ (and read the lyrics) at:

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Friday, August 09, 2019

'The Lehman Trilogy' by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power

9 August 2019

The defining moment of the 2008 banking crisis was the fall of Lehman Brothers Bank. The iconic image of traders leaving its skyscraper headquarters in New York carrying their personal effects in cardboard boxes summed up a grim period in our recent history. Sam Mendes’ National Theatre production of ‘The Lehman Trilogy’, which we saw in a NTLive encore screening at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford on Thursday, tells the story of Lehman Brothers – from the arrival in America of the three immigrant brothers from Bavaria in the 1840s to the collapse of the bank eleven years ago. ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is an adaptation by Ben Power of Stefano Massini’s nine hour long Italian radio play. Although Power has trimmed the play considerably it still lasts three and a half hours, in three acts with two intervals. But it’s an amazing theatrical performance. Three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley – play the Lehman brothers, their sons, grandsons, wives and a host of other characters in an acting masterclass. There are no costume changes and hardly any props, but the switches between characters are clear from small changes in facial expressions and posture. The play is mostly narration rather than dialogue, with the three actors taking turns to provide the narrative voice like a Greek chorus. This might have made for a dull play but the story is gripping and the script is playful and poetic, full of recurring phrases and repetitive episodes. The staging (by Es Devlin) is simple but inventive, with the three actors enclosed in a giant rotating transparent box through which we see constantly changing back projections (by Luke Halls). Apart from a boardroom table and chairs, the only furniture is a pile of the infamous cardboard boxes, which are used to construct each scene in this epic family saga. The actors are accompanied by Nick Powell’s sparse music, performed on a single piano in front of the stage by Candida Caldicot. It’s an unusual but incredibly effective theatrical experience. The focus is on the history of Lehman Brothers and the development of Western capitalism: there isn’t much detail about the causes of the 2008 crash. But it’s a fascinating story, brilliantly acted.

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Monday, August 05, 2019

'Things in Jars' by Jess Kidd

5 August 2019

We seem to be living in a golden age for detective/fantasy/science fiction novels set in Victorian England. I’ve written here recently about the ‘Newbury and Hobbes’ series by George Mann (‘The Affinity Bridge’, reviewed here in June 2019) and I’ve just finished reading ‘Things in Jars’ by Jess Kidd (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jacqueline Milne). ‘Things in Jars’ is a much more literary work, each sentence beautifully crafted in the manner of a poet. The mystery centres on a missing child but takes us into a world of collectors of scientific curios, weird creatures and circuses. It reminded me of another recent novel of Victoriana, 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry (reviewed here in September 2016) but ‘Things in Jars’ has the driving plot I longed for in my review of Sarah Perry’s novel. The almost incidental appearance of a ghost assisting the detective also made me think of 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch (reviewed here in June 2018). ‘Things in Jars’ is an unusual, compelling thriller and, in Bridie Devine – the flame haired, pipe smoking Irish detective with the ugly hat, Jess Kidd has created a wonderful lead character that deserves a series of novels.