Issue 101: 2017 04 20: Love in Idleness Menier Theatre (review)

20 April 2017

Love in Idleness

The Menier Theatre

Stars ****

by Adam McCormack

Not all theatre has to be relevant.  Sometimes a charming and engaging story, which may have something to say about a previous time, can provide perfect entertainment.  With this in mind there is no need to justify Trevor Nunn’s new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1944 play, Love in Idleness (itself a reworking of a play originally called Less Than Kind) other than as a good story well told; that can be more than enough.

Olivia (Eve Best) is in her element.  Vivacious and irresistible, she has escaped a loveless and impoverished marriage (her husband died) and is now the mistress of Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), a wealthy industrialist and cabinet minster.  She delights in her smart London residence and in compelling notable authors to dine with the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This idyllic lifestyle is rudely interrupted by the return of her son, Michael (Edward Bluemell) who has spent the war as an evacuee in Canada.  She insists on remembering him as a small boy, but he considers himself a man (of 17 years and 11 months), with strong views on his mother’s new lifestyle and choice of partner.  He has become a left-wing enthusiast.  He insists that his mother returns to her old lifestyle, although his socialist leanings do not prevent him accepting a job offer prompted by his mother’s lover, and he and Olivia are forced to move to a bedsit.  The story develops further as Sir John’s wife Diana (Helen George) appears, in search of help to pay her gambling debts, as Sir John strives to win back Olivia.

There may be valid questions asked about the triumph of motherly love over all other, and the steps to which a man will go to win the woman he desires, but for the most part this is a period piece.  We do get some insight as to the travails of being a single mother in wartime, and the difficulties of renewing relationships with family members after the long gaps necessitated by the war.  However, where this play really works is as a love story – which the performances of Eve Best and Anthony Head make especially heart-warming.  It also works as a comedy – there are shades of Evelyn Waugh (Sir John is Minister for Tanks), and Edward Bluemell gives a perfect study of adolescent angst.  Helen George is more than capable of playing a china doll-like high maintenance society wife, although the role is less than demanding and gives some concern that she might slip into being typecast.

Overall this is a very entertaining celebration of a tremendous writer on top form, delivered by some exceptional acting talent.

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Issue 100:2017 04 13:Revolution (Lynda Goetz)

13 April 2017

Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932

Royal Academy

reviewed by Lynda Goetz

Fantasy (flying red horse) Petrov-Vodkin

The time span covered by this exhibition in the RA main galleries ends roughly where the exhibition of American art, America after the Fall, currently showing in the Sackler Gallery begins.  However, whereas you have until 4th June to visit the American exhibition, you have only until 8pm on Sunday evening (16th April) to view this one, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

There is a lot in this exhibition worth seeing; there are also possibly a few more paintings that you might consider having on your walls (were they for sale and  were you a millionaire) but perhaps the images you come away with from your time spent in the galleries are the those of the black and white films. There are several these, all illustrating the dynamic enthusiasm, innovation and propaganda which characterised those years after the overthrow of the autocratic Tsarist regime and before the autocratic regime of Stalinism completely crushed the burgeoning creativity.  In 1932 Stalin decreed Socialist Realism to be the only acceptable artistic style for the Soviet Union.

In the intervening years, experimental and inventive work was taking place throughout the arts, even though much of it had to be directed towards encouraging the masses to engage with and support Communism.  Communism, being at the time of the Bolshevik revolution a minority movement, needed propaganda to spread its ideology to the millions of largely rural and illiterate members of the population.  Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda saw artists unfamiliar in the West produce ‘art for everyday life’, such as ceramics and textiles, to convey the Bolshevik Party message.  Alongside this Socialist Realism, avant-garde artists also embraced what they saw initially as the promise of new art for a new world. Chagall and Kandinsky are thus represented with a couple of impressive paintings each, as is Kazimir Malevich with a room of his own, but the overall feeling of the exhibition is of propaganda and the repression which, even by the early 1920s, had taken hold.

Most of us are aware of what the revolution rapidly became and of the betrayal of the workers and peasants by their leaders.  In the first gallery the official portraits of Lenin and Trotsky, by Isaak Brodsky, make them appear almost benign and patriarchal.  The one which shows Stalin looking rather like a cartoon circus ringmaster was (unsurprisingly) never shown to him.  By the time one reaches the Malevich gallery, the faceless peasants (Peasants c.1930) illustrate only too clearly the way those in power viewed the millions subjugated to their whims.  In other galleries are idealized images of industrial workers and healthy, cheerful-looking peasants on collective farms as well as some nostalgic views of the ‘old Russia’ with village celebrations and the onion-shaped church domes of the Orthodox religion outlawed by the Communists.

The Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin gallery was a revelation, at least to me, with his synthesizing of Eastern and Western art, his classic still-lifes, his impressive self-portrait and his memorable image of a young man astride a flying red horse, interestingly entitled Fantasy, which appears on the gallery guide.  Petrov-Vodkin managed, unlike so many others, to retain the support of the regime throughout this period and in 1932 was appointed President of the Leningrad Regional Union of Soviet Artists.  Like Malevich he was given his own room in the Exhibition ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Soviet Republic’ at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad.  That exhibition in November 1932 effectively marked the end for freedom of the arts in the Soviet Union; from then on the Union of Soviet Artists was the sole arbiter of Soviet art.

Before you leave the galleries there is a booth where you can (if you have not had enough by then) watch a parade of black and white photos of those who were executed during the Great Purge of 1936-8.  It is a depressingly long list and includes, among other similar figures, the famous Soviet theatre director Meyervold, featured in an earlier gallery, who had initially enthusiastically embraced the new Soviet theatre, but who was opposed to Stalin’s Socialist Realism.  Chagall and Kandinsky both of whom returned to Russia in 1914, but left in 1922 and 1921 respectively, each for different reasons, were probably extremely relieved to have done so.  If nothing else, and of course there is a great deal else, this exhibition reminds us what Russia was and still is; ‘revolution’ yes, but ‘liberation’ is not a word which springs to mind.

 

This exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly is open until 10pm Friday and Saturday and until 8pm on Sunday. Normal opening hours (10am – 6pm).

 

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Issue 100:2017 04 13:America after the fall (Lynda Goetz)

13 April 2017

America After the Fall

Royal Academy*

reviewed by Lynda Goetz

Painting in the 1930s

Portrait of Pat Whelan

This exhibition is not  going to fill you with the joys of spring.  Its mood is sombre and downbeat – possibly appropriate for the way many feel in the current climate.  The styles are varied, but almost universally the palette used by the artists is dull, the interiors dingy, the exteriors dark and the faces dour.  The celebrated painting by Grant Wood used to advertise the exhibition, American Gothic, says it all.  A grim-faced couple stand in front of what we assume to be their house; he, priest-like in a white shirt with dark jacket holding a pitch-fork reminiscent of the devil’s trident; she, possibly his wife, but apparently his daughter, (and posed by Wood’s sister and his dentist!) beside him, sour-faced and bitter, life’s disappointments, past or future, written all over her face; between them the church-like gothic upper window of the clapboard house.  Puritanical rural lives exposed or explained?

These were tough times everywhere.  The devastating and much-studied Wall Street crash of 1929 ruined many and the effects were felt beyond the end of the 1930s.  The phenomenon of the Dust Bowl, which affected much of America and Canada during this same decade, impacted those in rural America and exacerbated what was already a dire situation.  This despair and desperation is everywhere evident in this exhibition; in the moodiness of Edward Hopper’s solitary figures; in the beiges, sage greens and dryness of the landscapes in the room dedicated to Country Life; in the darkness of many of the paintings in the Industrial Life section; in the grim determination and purposefulness of the Irish-American union leader and Communist Party member, Pat Whalen, so powerfully portrayed by Anna Neel in her 1935 portrait and in the paintings of rather crazed ‘good times’ which appear sporadically throughout the exhibition.

Georgia O’Keefe’s Cow Skull with Calico Roses was another image which stayed in the mind after the exhibition.  Calico roses were apparently put on rural graves as, not only were flowers hard to come by, the intense heat of the Dust Bowl states meant they faded within hours.  This is a portrait of a long-vanished America, an America which was both looking back to an idealised rural past and looking forward to a different ‘machine age’, viewed with a mixture of awe and alarm.  Early abstract paintings, including a Pollock, hint at the next phase in American art.  It was interesting to view these paintings following the impressive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism featured by the RA at the end of last year, although perhaps in an ideal world this collection would have been the one to see first.

 

*The Exhibition continues in the Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy, Burlington House Piccadilly until 4th June.

 

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Issue 98:2017 03 30: Hamlet(Adam McCormack)

30 March 2017

Hamlet

The Almeida Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Stars: *****

There is an issue with changing the setting and context of great plays in an effort to make them more relevant and accessible – quite often the changes mean that much of the original brilliance is lost in the process. This is not the case with director Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet.  Using a modern day Danish setting, drawing on the current fascination with Nordic-noir television, not only works perfectly, but gives fresh nuances to one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, without losing the fundamental analysis of the human condition.  The success of this process is enhanced by an impressive set and some mesmerizing performances – not least that of Andrew Scott as Hamlet.

From the outset, as palace security watch CCTV for the appearances of the dead king’s ghost, the modern update is excellent.  The party settings allow us to see how Claudius  (Angus Wright) has entranced Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson), and the use of live TV broadcasts demonstrates his manipulation of the people by urbane propaganda.  This is not an old-fashioned scheming Claudius, but a modern political animal.  The production may be one chunky-knit jumper away from a modern Scandi-drama, but we do get a hipster-like Rosencrantz, and that a woman plays Guildenstern suggests Hamlet’s declarations of love may be somewhat beyond the platonic.  There are other elements of interpretation that work in this context.  The play within the play becomes a televised Royal Performance, allowing us to see the response of the new King to the action.  The fight scene with Laertes becomes a reality spectacle that turn spectacularly tragic, with Gertrude’s act of drinking the poison meant for Hamlet deliberate rather than accidental.

The staging is very well done and  thought-out, with the first interval occurring as we hit pause after the king storms out of the theatrical event, and the reuniting of the dead protagonists at a macabre party allows us to see the full extent of the tragedy that we have witnessed.  The use of music, much of which is by Bob Dylan, has a lyrical relevance that works, although perhaps distracts a little from the modern Danish feel.

I suspect that the overriding memory for the audience, who rose as one to give a standing ovation (a very rare event at the Almeida) will be the performance of Scott.  At first his delivery seemed a little ponderous, but quickly this approach became perfect for a man articulating his thoughts about his very existence and the wickedness of man.  There were moments of extreme and tortured angst that gave perfect modulation to his performance, which was also loaded with cynicism, holding us rapt throughout.   It was a very physical interpretation, with much chest thumping and falling to the knees – quite how he repeats a near -4 hour performance, twice on some days, is hard to comprehend.

The rest of the cast is none-the-less worthy of sharing the stage, with Juliet Stevenson delivering the performance you would hope for from an actor of her stature, and Jessica Brown Findlay exceptional in the difficult role of Ophelia – her journey from confusion, to devotion and then madness, perfectly observed.

As ever, tickets to the Almeida are hard to come by, but for this it is worth camping outside in the hope of a return.

 

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Issue 96:2017 03 16:Limehouse 9Adam McCormack)

16 March 2017

Limehouse

The Donmar 

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Stars ****

The Labour party is in disarray, unable to make changes without the sanction of the unions and moving further to the left.  The more moderate membership fears that the party is fast becoming unelectable.  No, this is not a summary of the current state of the party under Jeremy Corbyn, but the backdrop for the formation of the SDP by four breakaway party members in 1981.  The parallels are, however, painfully obvious and the opening of Steve Waters’ new play has been timed to perfection.  Identifying the vehicle is one thing, but executing a production centred around 5 people talking in a kitchen about left-wing politics for an hour and three-quarters is another.  The good news is that the intelligent and snappy dialogue and some quite brilliant performances make this a must-see event.

The “Gang of Four”, disaffected party members David Owen, Roy Jenkins Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams are under pressure.  They have just twenty-four hours to put up or shut-up regarding their dissatisfaction following a farcical party conference.  Owen has decided to take charge, subverting their usual marmite sandwich meeting at Rodgers’ house in Kentish Town, for a Delia-inspired (his wife Debbie is her agent) Sunday brunch at his house in Limehouse.  He is a man in a hurry with fears as to whether he can push the others into forming a new party, and as the guests arrive these seem well founded. Rodgers (Paul Chahidi) is in the thrall of Williams (Debra Gillett) and like her is struggling to come to terms with undermining a party that has been fundamental to their political lives.  Jenkins (Roger Allam) is played as a loquacious Europhile who is unsure whether his political life is over and sees a future where the disaffected form a working relationship with the Liberal Party – a scenario that does not appeal to the others.  Little do they know that Owen is to force their hand, having arranged an “impromptu” press conference that afternoon.  This helps add a nice theatrical jeopardy and an ultimately heart-warming reconciliation of views that leads to the new party.

Each of the five well-known characters is beautifully observed. Tom Goodman-Hill’s performance as Owen is frenetic and passionate.  Nathalie Armin’s Debbie Owen is the glue that keeps the group together as the meeting threatens repeatedly to disintegrate.  Allam is sublime as Jenkins, hitting the speech-impediment just the right side of parody and capturing the oenophile perfectly.  Rodgers is perhaps the most sympathetic character, played as a sartorially and culinary challenged faithful party member, fearful for the future of Labour and his own seat.  On Gillett’s arrival on the stage as Williams we could be forgiven for thinking that it was the woman herself and the play makes it clear that she is the heart of the intellectual credibility of the party – ultimately asking the question of what would have happened if she, rather than Jenkins (neither were sitting MPs), had been chosen as the party leader.

This leads to the one shortfall in what is an otherwise exceptional play.  We have a perfectly fine denouement when the four depart for the press conference united in their aims.  However, Waters and director Polly Findlay gives us a postscript of Debbie Owen talking us through the “what-if scenarios”.  Perhaps this was thought necessary for those too young to remember, but the effect is patronising and takes some of the edge off the dramatic pathos we had been left with.

 

 

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Issue 94:2017 03 02:Madame Butterfly (Adam McCormack)

02 March 2017

Madame Butterfly

The King’s Head,Islington

***

reviewed by Adam McCormack

The King’s Head Theatre in Islington has a long history of success in producing pared down versions of high opera that are original, accessible and entertaining.  Director Paul Higgins’ modern take on Madame Butterfly manages to sustain the trend, but more because of the quality of the singing and the enduring beauty of Puccini’s music and the original story.  Setting the opera in modern day Japan is a good way of highlighting the parallels between the plight of early twentieth century Japanese girls, who fell victim to poverty and the machinations of a marriage broker, with modern school girls, who attract the attentions of older men under the practice of compensated dating called joshei-kosei.  This version works well in generating our discomfort on hearing that Butterfly is just fifteen years old and totally enthralled by Pinkerton.  However, while these issues are credible, the delivery sadly  fails somewhat.

The problem is that the setting of a maid’s café and the speed with which a shorter format takes us through the story, leaves this production feeling rather 2-dimensional.  We get little insight into Pinkerton’s character and, while operagoers are used to suspending their disbelief, it is hard for an older western actress to convey a young Japanese girl in a schoolgirl’s outfit without looking somewhat macabre.  Nevertheless, this latter aspect is helped by both Butterfly’s adoption of modern American dress in the second act, and the power and purity of Becca Marriott’s singing.  Sarah Denbee is also a very strong and suitably shrewish as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid.  There are some nice touches of humour in terms of Suzuki’s dress (khaki socks with flip-flops to complement her kimono), but half-hearted attempts in the libretto fall a little flat and run the risk of undermining the true pathos of the story.  Fortunately, the other singers are similarly impressive.  Baritone Sam Pantcheff has all the right levels of discomfort as the American consul, and Sophie Goldrick is a sympathetic “second” Mrs. Pinkerton.  As ever at the King’s Head, the work of just two musicians in conveying all that is needed is truly amazing.

Despite the misgivings over the delivery of a more modern story, the strength of the performances and the beauty of the original opera still make this a production well worth seeing.

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Issue 91: 2102 02 09: Lion (J.R.Thomas)

09 February 2017

“LION”

a film by Garth Davies

reviewed by J.R.Thomas

Fashions in film come and go, but it must be approaching the time for a current one to pass – films with opening credits reading: “Based on a true story”; can we (please) soon hope for the rather more comforting (for novelists, anyway): “Total fiction, all made up”?  It seems that, for now though, the public cannot be persuaded to part with £16 a seat, and more for premium popcorn and wine in a plastic glass, unless they are about to receive some fact-based insight into life in the raw, the unvarnished uncomfortable unembellished (well, only a little embellished) truth.  But having got that off our critical chest, we immediately mitigate our own grumble in praise and warm regard for “Lion”, playing in picture houses throughout the UK.  For not only is “Lion” based on a true story, it is apparently a pretty accurate depiction of those true events.

That extends to various unexplained happenings and unresolved loose ends in the movie which are indeed such a feature of real life – and especially so, when as in the present instance, the first half of the tale is seen through the eyes of its central character, Saroo (Sunny Pawar, a most remarkable piece of child acting), a lost Indian boy of five years old.

The core story is simply told. Saroo lives in a remote township in north-west India in poverty, with his mother, his elder brother, Guddu, and younger sister, Shekila.

The boys contribute what they can to the survival of the family; one night Guddu goes looking for work by train to the nearest town, taking Saroo with him.  He leaves his brother while he finds some work, enjoining Saroo to stay where he is.  The little boy goes to sleep on a bench on the station platform.  From now, we see life through Saroo’s eyes; when he wakes up there is no sign of his brother and after searching for him, he gets into a train standing with its doors open.  The train moves off, ending up many hours later in Calcutta.  After some alarming and inexplicable experiences (this is a small boy’s recollections through his adult memory, remember), Saroo ends up in a children’s home, and is adopted, sight unseen, by an Australian couple, the Brierley’s, (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). The first time the Brierley’s meet him is when Saroo and his carer land in Australia. They speak no Hindi; he, of course, no English

Cut to twenty five years later. Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is met again as a successful young professional, living in Tasmania.  He is close to his parents; but all is not perfect in this Tasmanian idyll – the Brierley’s other son, also an Indian adoptee, is troubled, isolated, and unhappy.  Saroo though is making his way steadily through the Australian dream, but increasingly he wants to understand who he is and where he came from, and to rediscover his biological family.

He does not discuss this with his adoptive parents for fear of upsetting them; his American girlfriend (Rooney Mara) though bears the brunt of his agony and his increasing obsession with the search – much of it done trying to trace his memories on-line via Google Earth.  He gives up his job and his obsession begins to overwhelm him.  The rest is for you to watch (or read up, if you wish to cheat).

We will say that this is in its bones a happy film; boy in danger turns into fine well rounded young man and a splendid example to us all.  But this is no fictional story with a tidy resolution, but the record of real events, a very acute observation of true life; it recognises that lives pass through periods of, sometimes are overwhelmed by, immense sadness.  Life for most of us is never entirely a bowl of cherries and one of the great merits of this film is that the reasonably happy and normal existence of one man is seen in the context  not only of his own drives and weaknesses, but also of the amazingly difficult and fragile lives of so many.  This is particularly so in the first half of the film; seen through five year old eyes we are cheered by the remarkable survival strengths of one boy, which keep him alive, via a combination of instinctive suspicion of what he does not understand and an ability to run fast.  But he is one amongst many – and we do not know which of those many, if any, survive, let alone are making successful lives in the remarkable resurgence of India.  Even in Tasmania, Saroo’s adopted brother gives us the counterpoint to what disturbed childhoods may do to an adult – and the enormous bravery of those adoptive parents in taking on children of unknown parentage and only vaguely glimpsed formative experiences.

As a story this is perhaps a rather slight tale; a matter of great importance to the protagonists, of course, but sadly too common in a fractured world.  But the strength of the film is that it tells two other tales – the importance of identity in everybody’s sense of worth, and the hardship and everyday heartbreak of life in societies where poverty is still commonplace and human life not greatly valued.  The film does not dwell overlong on the conditions in which Indian poor and outcasts live – although Saroo’s childhood was in the 1980’s and India has seen remarkable economic and social progress since then, there are still plenty of snakes down which the unfortunate and lost can only too easily slide, into terrible privations.  Seeing all this through the eyes of a child and treating such conditions so matter-of-factly, the film points up to us what our fellow citizens of a shrinking world can and do endure much more effectively than many celebrity narrated documentaries.  Less can be more; silence can speak loudly.  Our western safety nets may be flawed; large parts of India are still to provide any at all.

The film is directed by Garth Davies (an Australian himself) who also wrote the screenplay, adapting the original book by Saroo Brierley.  It is Davies’ first film, though he has had a short but distinguished previous career in TV work and advertising.  Maybe it is that experience in advertising shorts that enables him to build in such a low key and restrained way this powerful series of punches; certainly it was received with enormous acclaim at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and has been slowly released, initially in the USA and Canada, and recently in Australia and the UK.  It is, in modern terms, a low budget movie, costing around US$12m (though with another Aus$12m paid to Mr Saroo for the film rights to his book) and has already taken three times that in gross receipts.  The new President of the USA would certainly approve of such commercial success; it would be nice to think that he might arrange a screening at the White House for him and his team, to give a thoughtful insight into other worlds, other lives.

“Lion” is playing in many London cinemas now

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Issue 90: 2017 02 02: An Inspector Calls (Lynda Goetz)

02 February 2017

An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley

The Playhouse Theatre.

Reviewed by Lynda Goetz 

This is a play familiar to many.  Perhaps you appeared in a school production, or one of your children studied it as a set text for GCSE, or your local theatre produced a version; whatever the source, it is at least vaguely familiar, and celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2015.  Not a piece of new theatre then, nor indeed a new production.  This production by Stephen Daldry first saw the light of day nearly 25 years ago.  Nevertheless it is a play and a production which retain impact today.

It is 1912 and the prosperous Birling family are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Shelia to the son of another successful local businessman.  The tone is self-congratulatory, smug and insular.  The arrival of Inspector Goole shatters the evening, as each member of the party, in turn, is shown a picture of a local girl who has apparently just killed herself by swallowing cleaning fluid.  It transpires that each one of them has, in some way, had an interaction with the girl which implicates all of them in her death.  The reaction of the younger members of the family to this knowledge differs markedly from that of their parents, still wedded to their ideas of social status.

The first performance of this play, rather oddly, took place in Moscow in 1945.  Given J.B. Priestley’s politics, however, this is not quite as surprising as it sounds.  This play was an unsubtle attack on the self-satisfied middle classes by a committed socialist.  Early productions focused heavily on the pre-war setting of the play, fossilising it to some extent.  The brilliance of Stephen Daldry’s award-winning production is that, although the dress and attitudes of the Birlings may mark them out as pre-First World War, the way the set is constructed brings the play out of its Edwardian drawing-room setting into a more universal appeal to social conscience.

The Birlings’ house looks almost dolls-house like, safe and cosy.  It is juxtaposed with a bleak cobbled street.  The link between the two is a somewhat fragile spiral staircase.  At the point of collapse, porcelain, cutlery and candelabra are smashed and scattered into the street below.  The intrusion of reality is almost shocking.

Liam Brennan was brilliant as the mysterious Inspector.  Sheila was, on Saturday night, played by the understudy Sophie May-Wake who dealt with her role with understanding and perception as she moved from ‘spoilt brat’ to recognition and realisation.  Diane Payne-Myers deserves a special mention as the servant Edna.  She first performed this role at the Garrick Theatre in the 1990s and has apparently performed in Stephen Daldry’s production more than any other actor.  A passing nod too, to the role of the tricoteuses at the guillotine which is superbly executed.

The production runs until 25th March.  Do go and see it if you have the chance.

 

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Issue89: 2017 01 26:The Healing Stream (J.R.Thomas)

26 January 2017

The Healing Stream

A book by Laurence Catlow

reviewed by J.R.Thomas

Occasionally we like to recommend a good book in the columns of the Shaw Sheet, one which we think our readers might not have come across, but which they may enjoy.  This week we take a leap into deep water – and recommend a book on fishing.  Before you press the page-turn button, bear with us though; this is no commonplace book on fishing.  It is (the puns do come in spate on books to do with fishing and rivers) a journey into very deep waters; and on how to get back to dry land.  Enough puns; it is a serious book and we will behave accordingly.  Although it is centred around fishing, that is the hook (sorry) on which a deeper tale is told.

Laurence Catlow is the author, one of those wonderful types on whom the United Kingdom once relied heavily to make things work and to keep an eye on its moral compass.  It is, alas, a type that one suspects is becoming rare, and increasingly confined to the fringes of these islands, both physically and metaphorically.  More’s the pity, you might think after reading this book, his latest in a series which deals with his life-long interest in country sports.  Fishing is Mr Catlow’s passion, fishing in the northern Pennine rivers, mostly for trout, and his back-up passion is shooting, again, amongst the northern hills and on quiet unfashionable shoots, including Mr Catlow’s own fifty acres or so of rough shooting land, High Park.  Great salmon rivers, Scottish or Icelandic or Canadian, do not feature in his writing, nor bone fishing or Hemingwayesque struggles with Caribbean marlin; neither will you find him among the Purdy dressed lot on fashionable shoots with lunches in castle dining rooms and enormous battues to pass the morning. Mr Catlow is what some of us like to think of as a proper sportsman, the rule of thumb being not to catch or shoot more than you personally can carry home on your shoulders (this scribe confesses that for him this is  oft forgot in the excitement of the chase).

Your reviewer came across LC (One could not possibly call him Laurence without a formal introduction, and Mr Catlow is too stiff for such an informal man) as a columnist in a shooting magazine, liked his writing style and what he had to say, and bought one of his books.  It was beautifully written, and offered a gentle old fashioned view of the countryside and the modest role of the sportsman in it, that struck a chord, and rather changed my view of what was desirable and proper.

It is not surprising that he writes so well.  LC is from a modest background but got himself to Cambridge and took a good Classics degree.  After some teaching experience elsewhere he went to Sedbergh, a fine old Catholic boarding school (LC is a devout Catholic) in the rural upper lands of Lancashire, and quickly became Head of Classics there.  One senses that he was a very able and admired teacher, not least because although devoted to his subject, reading ancient Greek and Latin poets for pleasure, he had also that rich hinterland of his fishing, and later, his game shooting, which he took pains to share with boys from the school.

He began The Healing Stream many years ago as a history of his life through his fishing, almost a fishing confession about how he learned to fish and acquired the etiquette of a country sportsman.  He says in the finally finished book that he made very few amendments to this early section.  It is certainly honest and open about the daft things we all do when we are young and confident and think we know everything, yet whilst somehow knowing that we are flawed and unlearned, if only we could ever admit it (which very few of us ever do).  This first part is to some extent also a fishing guide, and no doubt young aspiring trout fishers would learn much from it, about rods and waters, and flies, especially flies.  But this is no standard fishing manual, the quality of the writing and the openness of the author’s musings set it way above a normal fishing tome.

Deep Waters

But…at this point, you ain’t read nothing yet.  Some twenty five years on, our hero took up his abandoned manuscript to write the second part.  He had much to tell us.  He had matured as a fisherman and as a man, overcome some personal struggles of early life, and had a particular tale to tell, about himself and as to how in his view fishing had saved his life, or at least his sanity, though your scribe would also offer a bow to the empty and wild northern hills where he spent time wandering alone and which contributed their spirit as well as their waters to the healing process.

LC had retired from teaching, from Sedbergh, at the age of sixty, feeling, not that he was exhausted or had nothing more to give, but that perhaps the best of that part of his life was done, and that he had another life by the streams and on the fells that would delight the next part of his life.  But that was not how it turned out.  Within a few months he began to suspect that he was seriously ill.   He was, but not with the cancer or liver disease that he feared, but with severe depression.  He does not dwell much on what caused that sudden dive in his mental well-being, but he delivers a deeply moving and thoughtful account of what he went through, and as to how he began a steep and stumbling climb back to a stronger sense of being and worth.

LC is, one detects, a private and reserved man in possession of a large reserve of no-nonsense northernness.  This cannot have been an easy book for such a man to write.   Indeed there are considerable parts where his reserve fights fiercely any urge at disclosure; the history of his illness is interspersed with a recent diary of fishing expeditions, as LC twists and weaves away from relating his troubles.  He did recover and he is once again active with rod and gun in the northern dales, though, as he very casually reveals in passing, still with regular infusions of drugs to keep his re-found equilibrium.   He pays tribute to his drugs, although it took sometime to get the mixture right and to overcome the cynicism of a cynical patient who felt he didn’t need them or might become addicted to them.  He is much more scathing about the sessions with psychiatrists and counsellors who attempted to draw him out and to make him understand himself.   And very grateful indeed to his friends and relatives who took the trouble to care for him, and to show him that they loved him.

This is not just, or indeed really,  a book about fishing; nor is it a book about how to cope with depression.  It is a very honest account of how one man coped with and recovered from a mental illness; a man of that type who will always tend to reject the suggestion that it could happen to him or that he might need help in recovering and rebuilding himself.  It is beautifully written and fishing is key to the man – skip if you must some of the (actually fascinating) broodings on which tied flies might most attract trout in certain rivers in certain weathers in certain conditions of water, but by the end you will understand the completeness of his recovered life.  As a moving insight into one man’s struggle with his own demons it is well worth the read;  the fishing advice comes free.

The Healing Stream, by Laurence Catlow, is published by Merlin Unwin Books

 

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Issue 89: 2017 01 26:Raising Martha (Adam McCormack)

26 January 2017

Raising Martha

The Park Theatre

  by Adam McCormack

This laugh-out-loud black comedy from writer David Spicer is another hit for the Park Theatre.  At times surreal and ultimately frenetic, this is an engaging production that never lapses and benefits from highly talented actors whose feats of coordination and physicality demonstrate British theatre at its best.

The plot revolves around two disaffected brothers, united in their loathing of their long dead mother Martha.  Roger is a failing alcoholic businessman, Gerry a drug-soaked and lovelorn hippy who runs the family “farm” which has been producing frogs for dissection for many years – or least had been.  What are now produced are Cane toads, whose venom is extracted to “spice up” the produce of the 30,000 cannabis plants that Gerry has been cultivating.  The problem is that Gerry has been sampling a little too much of his produce and is constantly visited by 6-foot frogs in lab coats who want to experiment on him.  The dilemma for the brothers comes when an anti-vivisection group decides to dig up Martha and ransom her skeleton in return for the farm releasing the frogs.  The issue is further complicated by the two hapless grave robbers being in the thrall of Martha’s granddaughter, Caro, who is the brains behind the operation – and her motivations are questionable. The fast paced action that develops is critically enhanced by very funny philosophical and existential debate between the characters.  That Spicer has written extensively for radio is clear.  He ensures that our attention never wavers.

The action becomes ever more madcap as Martha’s bones are re-buried and then re-distributed by the local dog population.  Overseeing all of this to give us some narration is the frustrated policeman, Inspector Clout.  He may profess to know what is going on, but his vision is distorted by finally having a real crime to solve – one which he does his best to elevate to the level of terrorism.

Tom Bennett and Joel Fry play the grave robbers perfectly, along the lines of Jasper and Horace from 101 Dalmatians, but with more violence.  Stephen Boxer and Julian Bleach, as the brothers, extract the full yield of humour from the dialogue, while Gwyneth Keyworth is suitably machiavellian as Caro.  Special praise is due for Jeff Rawle’s portrayal of Inspector Clout, which is a perfect study in occupational frustration, with a high degree of gullibility. This is a production that deserves to go further.

Stars: ****

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