Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: People

People People by Alan Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

People is characterised by Bennett's trademark northern humour: sharp, clever, occasionally arch and with considerable human warmth. It's also characterised by what in recent years has become his trademark sloppiness. Bennett wants to get certain gags in, and sometimes goes meandering off to collect every laugh possible regardless of whether the journey was worth it.

Laughs come thick and fast in the first 20 minutes, but they peter out into occasional chuckles as the interval draws near and the script's energy dissipates. The second quarter of the play needs a complete rewrite; I didn't learn much or laugh much, and my attention started to wander. It's possible that I nodded off. Whatever I missed didn't seem important because when the action really got going in the second half, it still made perfect sense.

And it's worth waiting for the second half. The making of the porn film is hilariously scripted with an Orton-like farcical energy, while the denouement is slyly satirical. Maybe three stars is harsh, but I'm getting a bit tired of Bennett publishing half-baked work and still being hailed as a genius.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Kindertransport

Kindertransport Kindertransport by Diane Samuels
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Worthy subjects do not good literature make. One feels a duty to like Kindertransport because of its subject matter, but it really isn't a great play. The dialogue is flat, especially in the first half, and the transformation from shy, polite Eva into repressed, cold Evelyn isn't convincing. Added to that is the character of the Ratcatcher, who prowls the stage with wordless menace but who isn't properly developed and whose allegorical significance is muted.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review: Indiscretion

Indiscretion Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Indiscretion, probably consciously, has an air of The Great Gatsby about it as an ingenue, Claire, finds herself captivated by a golden couple, Harry and Maddy, living a life of etiolated prosperity in the Hamptons near New York with their young son. The captivation is reciprocated and Claire's emotional dependence grows into an obsession with Harry that sets them all on the road to tragedy. The story is told by the seemingly impassive family friend Walter, whose love for Maddy has been unrequited for decades.

In terms of narrative structure and writing style, the book is a delight. Dubow writes with a light, literary touch that raises Indiscretion well above pulp romance. It's a serious novel that is easy and enjoyable to read. Sometimes the fascination is with working out the apparently neutral Walter, whose reliability as a narrator becomes more doubtful as the book progresses. Five stars is justified, even if there are undoubted flaws.

The most serious flaw, and for me the only serious flaw, is that there isn't quite enough depth of character. Claire's, Harry's and Maddy's emotions are real enough, but their psyches aren't well enough developed to provide a bedrock for their emotions, which can leave readers wondering why they should care about them. That wasn't enough to spoil it for me, but I can understand why others disagree.

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Review: Stage Blood

Stage Blood Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michael Blakemore's account of his five years at the National Theatre is funny, gripping, brilliantly written, superbly structured and just possibly true. Of course, everybody's truth is different and Peter Hall gives a quite different account, but Blakemore is highly skilled in making his own version seem plausible. His account is also valuable for its insights into the skill of directing, into theatre management and the tumultuous reign of Hall's predecessor, Laurence Olivier.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: Barbara the Slut and Other People

Barbara the Slut and Other People Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This debut collection is essentially comedy of the banal. It's not bad, but it does seem to have been written by someone who's taken a writing class and has learned that stories don't need a structure or an ending. That's true, but in their absence something else needs to fill the gap. Also, the title and some of the publicity imply that this is a work of erotica, which it most certainly isn't.

There's a clue in the title "and other people", not "and other stories". These are vignettes: moments from people's lives. That would work better if the characterisation was deeper: if nothing is going to happen in terms of story, then something needs to happen in terms of character. Mostly it doesn't, or, when it does, the characters aren't deep enough for the reader to care.

In Desert Hearts, one of the more entertaining pieces, a law graduate gets a job in a sex shop (the reference to Jane Rule tells you it's a lesbian sex shop). All the gay clichés are there as this straight woman tries to pass off as gay, while her over-working boyfriend becomes increasingly distant. The story is moving inexorably towards a conclusion and Holmes knows it, so, to adhere to the diktat of Great Literature that 'nothing must happen', she simply kills the story, bluntly and implausibly.

The story that starts least promisingly is probably the best: My Humans, in which a couple's relationship is told through the eyes of their rescue dog. The simplicity of the dog's understanding allows the pathos of humans' feelings to come through; pathos that is absent from the characters in the other stories because Holmes doesn't dare show deep emotion. By focusing on the dog, she allows the humanity to shine through.

As an aside, these stories are strangely anachronistic for a collection published in 2015. Almost all the references, cultural and technological, seem to be from the 1990s: VHS, audio tape, Backstreet Boys.

On this evidence, Holmes is a writer of potential but perhaps she needs to emerge from the shadow of her tutors, who are numerously and profusely thanked in the acknowledgements (which appear prominently at the front of the book, not the back). At the moment, her work reads a little too much like exercises for a creative writing class.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: Deutschland

Deutschland Deutschland by Martin Wagner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deutschland is a short book, detailing a few days in summer for one family. Richard, Suzannah's American second husband, is wrestling with an unspecified guilt. Kate, Suzannah's daughter, is on holiday in Germany with her new lover, Steve, where she challenges him to do something that will test their relationship. Kate's nephews and niece, Tony, Jeff and Sam, spend their days concocting elaborate and dangerous dares. The common theme of pushing the boundaries of what is right holds the narratives together.

The strands of the three stories only really come together at the end, before which the motives of the players are nebulous. Regrettably, the writing and characterisation aren't compelling enough to hold the reader's attention while we wait for the point of the novel to be revealed. The reveal at the end isn't forceful enough to make the exercise worthwhile.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: Old Times

Old Times Old Times by Harold Pinter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

During the interval, my companion said, "I don't really understand Pinter." Two others said, "I don't think you're supposed to," with one adding, "Just let it wash over you." We concluded that if you think you've understood it, you almost certainly haven't.

Pinter was in the vanguard of the sixties drive away from linear narrative, and in Old Times the conversation is used not to drive any plot as such but to delve into the nature of Deeley and Kate's relationship. The obvious interpretation is that Kate and Anna had been more than friends, which would have been far more shocking in 1971 than now, but that seems too simplistic. More plausible is the interpretation that Anna isn't actually there: the memory of her is what intrudes into the couple's relationship rather than her physical presence.

But even that might be too literal. The younger Kate comes across as almost autistically shy, and would have been a curious best friend for the outrageously gregarious Anna. There's a clue in their sharing of underwear and in Deeley's assertion that he had known Anna too. Perhaps Anna is actually also Kate: the extrovert part of her personality that was suppressed when she married Deeley.

Despite its impenetrability, obscure dialogue and occasional pretentiousness, Old Times is also funny and poetic and has real dramatic energy.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

A book tells more than one story

For best results, this should be printed and read on paper, or preferably vellum…

Books are a pain. You usually need a bag to carry them and even then a heavy hardback is hard to handle on the train, especially when you don’t have a seat. That partly explains why I’m only a quarter of the way through that 700-page hardback one of my kids gave me a couple of birthdays ago. If you’re going on holiday, you have to lug several heavy tomes with you. And don’t get me started on reading in bed (yes, I know there are other recreations at bedtime, but let’s keep this decent). Your thumbs get tired (reading, I mean); you have to angle the book towards the light; in winter your arm gets cold – then you wake up with the book on the floor, the pages bent and your place lost because the bookmark is still somewhere in the folds of the duvet. Yes, books are a right pain. 

And yet…

The above-mentioned offspring is in hospital this week for a major operation, so I’m there lending support. Another patient on the ward mentioned downloading 19 books onto an e-reader in preparation, but I only had room for four. 

One of those books is ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson: one of those books you find on the bookshelf and question why you've never read it before. Something about the opening pages intrigued me, so I took a picture:

This is why, for all their antidiluvian inconveniences, I have a fondness for books. 

If you look at the picture, you’ll notice a few things. First, this a thumb-numbing hardback. Second, it’s old, published in 1926 to be exact. Also, it came from a publisher in Akron, Ohio, complete with American spellings – in the frontspiece Uncle Ebenezer is leaning out of the “first-story window”. Most interesting of all for me, a young girl has written her name and address in the front: 
Rosemary D Moorhouse,
“Durocina”, Field End Lane,
Holmbridge, Nr Huddersfield. 
I can tell she’s young because her writing later became firmer, more ornate and assured. I know this because that girl’s handwriting adorned all my school permissions and sicknotes. That girl was my mother.

Her own mother, my Nan Mabel, had moved her children to Yorkshire after the bombing got too bad in Carshalton, just south of London. She named the house Durocina after the Roman name for Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where she was brought up. The house still bears that name today.

Why would a girl of around eight be reading a a US edition of an old Scottish classic in Yorkshire in the early 1940s? I don’t know, but Americans had been donating books to English libraries since the end of the First World War, and maybe that gesture of solidarity continued into the dark days of the Second. My mother’s family certainly had no relatives in the US.
Mum (right) with her mother and brother outside their Yorkshire cottage

I don’t know how Mum read about David Balfour’s adventures in ‘Kidnapped’. Perhaps she was huddled up in bed, defying the blackout with a clandestine candle (whose flame would have been a far greater risk to her health than the Luftwaffe), enjoying the gift of an American stranger she would never know and who would never know how his or her gift was appreciated.

And now, eight years after her death, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. Her grandchild is in the operating theatre while I'm reading the same words she read, my older fingers touching the same paper her fingers touched seventy years ago, perhaps hoping her light wouldn’t be mistaken by a passing Heinkel for Liverpool docks or the Huddersfield Conservative & Unionist Club.

And this is what I get from a physical book. It has life, it has history, it tells a story and yet it’s also its own story. Download that onto your Kindle if you can.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Diana Ross: A Biography

Diana Ross: A Biography Diana Ross: A Biography by J. Randy Taraborrelli
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It doesn't take long to divine Taraborrelli's opinion of himself in this book: it begins with a quote from Miss Ross herself telling him how he knows her better than any biographer. Yes, the first words of the biography are about him, not her. And this reviewer found this writer's constant references to "this writer" (rather than simply "I" or "me") to be tiresome and pompously self-serving.

Now, having written two previous biographies of the Motown superstar, he's returning to squeeze the last bit of milk from his cash cow.

To be fair, despite being an unashamed fan, Taraborrelli is even-handed. It's long been alleged that Ross is an uncompromising, career-focused manipulator and, despite his obvious love for her as an artist, he's quite happy to show her in this unflattering light. He even colludes with the consensus that Ross was miscast in The Wiz when a one-eyed fan might have presented it as a triumph. This is by no means a hagiography. Its failings lie elsewhere.

The book is over-long and excessively detailed, with the accumulation of facts valued far above writing style. Taraborrelli is meticulous at the expense of readability and his prose is workmanlike and uninspired, as if he's desperate to collate every scrap of source material rather than tell a story. And yet the opposite is true when it comes to the photos. Nearly all of them are PR shots taken from the glory years 1966-68, giving a frustratingly incomplete picture.

In the end we don't learn much about Ross that we didn't already know. We just know it in more detail. A lot, lot more detail.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: La Turista

La Turista La Turista by Sam Shepard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

La Turista is not a play for reading, and probably not a play for seeing. It's a play to be studied. The political references are too obscure for most people to understand during a performance; for a start the allegories are very specifically American (I'm English) and of their time (1967). Even so, according to the reviews of its opening run, most of the New York audience didn't get it either.

For such a play to work as drama, there has to be something – a plot, a story, a character's journey – for the audience to identify with in case they're not getting the subtext. La Turista doesn't even pretend to have that, which explains why 90% of its original audience left the theatre utterly baffled by what they'd just seen. Shepard doesn't give you that. His characters are not characters but archetypes and their words have no meaning beyond the allegorical.

The plot, such as it is, has an American couple (Kent and Salem, named after cigarette brands) lying sick in a hotel in Mexico (i.e. Vietnam) – La Turista means not just a tourist but the kind of dysentery often suffered by tourists. A local boy comes in and won't leave but refuses their money and spits in Kent's face. Kent reappears dressed as a cowboy and is eventually killed by the ministrations of a local witchdoctor.

Act 2 mirrors Act 1 but is set back in America, with the witchdoctor replaced by an American doctor, whose attempts to cure Kent are frustrated by Kent's defiance – the allegory here being that of youth in revolt against its elders.

As usual, Shephard inserts a few coups de theatre that make the play difficult if not impossible to stage. There's nothing as drastic the one-legged man who shaves another actor's head in Buried Child, and it's difficult but not impossible to obey the stage direction:
"SALEM and SONNY make a lunge for KENT who grabs onto a rope and swings over their heads. He … runs straight toward the upstage wall of the set and leaps right through it, leaving a cut out silhouette of his body in the wall"
…but having a witchdoctor slaughter chickens live on stage would give most directors (and theatre managers) pause before staging the play.

Studying La Turista might well be very rewarding, even if it is no longer politically relevant, which is why I've given it two stars rather than the one it deserves purely as the text of a play to be performed.

If I read it again, I'll probably understand the allegorical meaning of the phone being torn from its socket, then being used normally and then being impossible to use because, obviously, it's been torn from its socket. Shepard is many things but incompetent isn't one of them. 'Pretentious' certainly is one of them, but it's the pretension of theatrical ambition, which is something to be applauded. Shepard, who was 25 when he wrote this, would go on to greater things, but La Turista doesn't really work.

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