Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: A Lady Mislaid

A Lady Mislaid A Lady Mislaid by Kenneth Horne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Horne's plays are showing their age. A Lady Mislaid, albeit one of his better efforts, still suffers from being over-long and repetitive, with dramatic moments blunted by wordiness and excess explanation.

Sisters Jennifer and Esther rent a house in the country so that the former, a novelist, can recover from a nervous breakdown. Bullock, an over-enthusiastic policeman, intrudes, searching for the body of the previous tenant's missing wife. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Bullock's suspect, Smith, who remains beyond the police's clutches as long as the body remains missing. Eventually a body does turn up, but so does Smith's wife, very much alive.

A good example of the slow pacing is when the sisters question the newly arrived woman: her line "I'm his wife" should be followed immediately by Bullock's entrance; instead, we get half a page of the sisters exclaiming "His wife?", "But I thought…" and similar such nonsense before the policeman's belated entrance finally shuts them up.

A Lady Mislaid can only be performed as a period piece because of the dated 1950s social conventions and phrasing. Characters talk of "making love" to each other, which sits oddly on the modern ear, and Jennifer's fiancé insists that she won't be able to write books after they're married because she'll be bringing up children. Horne, like most mid-century British comic writers, suffers from the curious delusion that the mere mention of lumbago is always hilarious. Mrs Small the housekeeper is a stock character from the period, but no less fun for all that.

With judicious cutting, this play could still pass muster in a Village Hall. Sadly, the director of the production I'm stage managing is convinced of Horne's unerring genius and that every syllable is sacrosanct. I'm sure the audience will enjoy it well enough, but it would have been better with the red pen deployed.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why would you hire a travel writer to pen a science book? Because he's Bill Bryson and you could put his name on the phone book and it would sell shedloads. Otherwise this book has little to recommend it. Sure, he writes with his customary engaging joviality, but as he says himself in the introduction, there are plenty of proper scientists writing engaging and interesting books for the layman, so quite why he felt the need to write his own book to counter the dull texts of his 1960s schooldays escapes me.

This negative impression isn't helped by finding a huge, glaring error in just the second paragraph:
"Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years."
That's more like five million days. It takes a couple of minutes with a calculator to work that one out, but neither Bryson nor his editor could be bothered. To quote from the Acknowledgements:
"Goodness knows how many other inky embarrassments may lurk in these pages yet, but it is thanks to Dr Tattersall and all of those whom I about to mention that there aren't many hundreds more."
At this point Bryson should have realised that he'd written a book whose only value would be to his own pension pot and his publisher's bottom line. I can understand him being reluctant to jettison three years of work, but considering he'd made a similar horlicks with Mother Tongue a few years earlier – on a subject where he might more reasonably claim to be qualified – one wonders why he started the book in the first place.

Sure, you can read it for the easy, witty writing, but it's distracting when you know you can't trust any of the facts. It's still the first chapter and we have: "with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea … Pluto would be … about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway". Even if it's a petit pois and I'm not wearing my glasses, I can still see Pluto on that scale.

If the errors are so obvious to me (and my degree is in Medieval History), what hope is there when it comes to the more technical science? Maybe things improve, but after barely an hour of reading I'm ready to give up.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: Noises Off

Noises Off Noises Off by Michael Frayn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best farces on the English stage. What looks like a poor farce is revealed to be the dress rehearsal (or is it the tech?), with the director storming out of the audience when the actors foul up. Act 2 requires the stage to be revolved, so we see the silent arguments of the cast backstage as the play goes into its run, before the final act portrays a disastrous performance later in the run.

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Review: An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge

An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge by John O'Farrell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Don't let the cover fool you. This isn't a satire. It's actually a history of Britain written by a comic writer, not a historian. So that explains why the history is peppered with mildly humorous quips while happily trotting out factoids and long-discredited assumptions. It's too long for the casual reader, too shallow for the enthusiast, too inaccurate for a textbook and not funny enough for a satire.

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