Wednesday, 12 April 2017

La Strada - at Bristol Old Vic

Photo - Robert Day 


"If you spend long enough on the road, you forget what home is", or so says Zampanò in this new production of La Strada.

***

I mean, really, what’s not to like? Directed by Sally Cookson? Check. New musical score by Benji Bower? Check. Starring Audrey Brisson? Check. Yep, everything is in place to make Bristol Old Vic’s latest production La Strada a hit.

Based on the 1954 Federico Fellini film of the same name, La Strada (aka The Road) is set in Italy in the years after World War Two and follows a young woman called Gelsomina (Brisson) whose mother sells her to a cruel and intimidating strongman street performer named Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin). Given that Zampanò had previously taken Gelsomina’s sister Rosa on the road and that Rosa had perished within a year, her mother was utterly desperate or she would not have allowed her to go.

Zampanò takes Gelsomina on the eponymous road and by brute force teaches her to work in the carnivals, but his cruelty takes its toll on her spirit. When they hole up in a circus and Gelsomina befriends another street performer, the kindly but mischievous Fool (Bart Soroczynski), the tale unwinds.

It is hard to imagine anyone more perfectly cast as the innocent Gelsomina than Brisson. In a beautiful homage to the emotional yet slapstick performances of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Brisson manages to convey the willing enthusiasm and big heart of Gelsomina, combined with a feisty determination to keep true her promise to her mother and to ultimately do the right thing. In many ways, Gelsomina is Chaplin's Little Tramp in female form. Despite being on stage for virtually every scene, Gelsomina has remarkably few lines compared to the overbearing Zampanò, yet she steals every moment with the expressions she conveys via her facial gestures and body language.

In addition, Bower’s musical score performed by the cast of actor musicians perfectly supports the narrative without being intrusive, and without realising it the audience are tapping their toes in the stalls… and still humming a few bars as they leave the theatre.

Sally Cookson as a director is a good choice for this production of La Strada. Via Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Sleeping Beauty, she has already shown us her flair for imaginative productions with strong female leads - something theatre generally needs a hell of a lot more of. And in her hands, the theatrical version of La Strada is a tour de force.

Photo - Robert Day
La Strada is on at Bristol Old Vic until 22 April 2017. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.




Thursday, 30 March 2017

Long Live The Great Pottery Throwdown



Farewell to The Great Pottery Throwdown for another series. While millions wax lyrical about The Great British Bake Off and are angsting about its move to Channel 4, I’m much more excited about its younger BBC2 cousin The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Despite having no particular interest in pottery and absolutely no desire to get my hands dirty myself, I bloody love this show. Presented by the joyful Sara Cox, and judged by pottery giants (or so I’ve learned) Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, The Great Pottery Throwdown is the televisual equivalent of putting on your comfiest PJs and curling up to spend an hour reading a Persephone book under a fluffy blanket.

Each week, the contestants are tasked with one mammoth make (anything from an entire dinner service to a, err, toilet) that takes days, as well as two surprise tasks: a spot-test (where they are judged on skills including sponge decorating or sculpting the torso of a finely toned man), and an against-the-clock quick-fire task with a special judge (Johnny Vegas turned up one week with his one-minute teapots, which was a delight).

You know the formula, you’ve seen it in a load of similar shows (sewing, painting, baking, cooking…). And it’s easy to see why it’s so popular - with a bubbly host, passionate judges, and contestants we come to care about, it’s a gentle escape from the tedium of everyday life. We watch people who are, to all intents and purposes, just like us, but doing impressive things that we dream we might be able to do with a bit of effort (there is nothing stopping any of us from throwing a pot, if only we’d get off our sofas and attend a pottery class) but we can relax safe in the knowledge we know it’s unlikely to happen.

But the reason I watch The Great Pottery Showdown over any of its sibling shows (full disclaimer - I find Bake Off extremely dull: I know I’m in the minority but I find watching cakes bake as dull as watching paint dry) is the personalities. I love Sara Cox. I love her Radio 2 ‘80s show, I love it when she fills in for Chris Evans on the breakfast show… she’s fab. So I watched the first series of The Great Pottery Showdown simply because of Sara. And I watched it all in one go one day when I was off work ill - it was perfect, and compelling, and I was devastated when it ended. I genuinely felt like I was left with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, despite the essentially gentle nature of the show.

It’s a drama in itself. Will the pots crack in the kiln? Will Keith cry? How many times will Ryan mention his granny? Will Coit ever get anything into the drying room on time? Who will go at the end of the episode? The tension!

And I disagreed with the judges. (I’m assuming you’ve seen the final, if not, look away as I’m mentioning the winner in a moment). While I had Ryan pegged as the winner from the first episode, I also had Clover and Richard down to leave in early weeks. I had Nam down as a finalist (and I think he would have been, if he hadn’t ballsed up his Russian dolls), and Freya deserved to go through as well. But what do I know? I’m a humble viewer. Not a master potter like Kate and Keith.

So long live The Great Pottery Throwdown. Please return for a second, third, fourth and more series. Please put Sara Cox in front of our TV cameras all the time - the world needs more joy and she delivers it in spades. And I’m glad that the right potter won last week.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

'Crooked Heart' by Lissa Evans


Like a cross between Elisabeth Roberts' fabulous 1973 story of a carefree childhood, All About Simon And His Grandmother, and Barbara Noble's 1946 tale of a wartime evacuee, Doreen, Lissa Evans' newest novel Crooked Heart is an utter joy.

While All About Simon And His Grandmother is a warm children’s story of a strange little boy and his madcap adventures with his eccentric and fun grandmother, Doreen is the tale of a wartime evacuee who is torn between missing her mother at home in London and settling into her new life with strangers in the countryside.

Crooked Heart meets these two books in the middle, and throws in a helping of suffrage pride. There should always be a helping of suffrage pride in a novel. Deeds not words and all that.

Our hero is ten-year-old Noel who is growing up with his eccentric and joyful godmother Matty, a former suffragette, in a book-filled, art-strewn home in Hampstead. Without hammering home the suffrage message, Crooked Heart subtly informs us of Matty’s fight alongside her sister suffragettes, her prison experiences and what she went through to earn her WSPU medals. All of this instills in Noel a strong grounding in wilful, intelligent rebellion.

But then the war comes, bringing death with it. And Noel is evacuated to the country and the care of single mother Vera, who lives with her lazy son, mute mother and does whatever she must to keep a roof over their heads. Initially dismissing Noel as not-very-bright due to his quietness, Vera soon comes to discover she has met a kindred spirit in him… one with whom she has much more in common that she would ever have first thought. Together, the two come up with a variety of schemes to live on just the wrong side of the law, and ultimately Noel comes to wrestle with his conscience when an elderly lady’s hard-won suffrage medals come into the equation.

Crooked Heart is a fun and fascinating, fast-paced story of survival and rebellion. Delightfully, Lissa Evans hasn’t resorted to creating a subplot of romance for Vera anywhere, which is an enormous relief in a market overloaded with books filled with pointless romantic subplots. And in the Dorothy Whipple vein of storytelling, Evans has subverted the interloper story to show that not all outsiders are bad news. Indeed, with Noel, Vera’s life improves a thousand fold.

'Every Good Deed' by Dorothy Whipple


What cannot be made better by reading a Dorothy Whipple book? A classic hot-water-bottle author, becoming engrossed in a Whipple means becoming enveloped in a warm and captivating story of wrong-doing, good vs bad and, more often than not, women triumphing over men. A Whipple is not necessarily well-written in the sense of an accepted literary classic, but it is definitely well-written in the sense of an immediately gripping and compelling story - which, to my mind, is far superior to the former idea. A Whipple is a guarantee of a good book.

So thank goodness that Persephone Books has been making it its business to diligently re-publish every single piece of Whipple writing it can get its hands on. (For clarity, Persephone publishes lots of other forgotten women writers as well - but Dorothy Whipple remains one of their consistent best-sellers). And having just read their latest collection of her short stories, Every Good Deed, I am now up to speed on their Whipple offerings so far. Which puts me in a good position to reliably inform you that Dorothy Whipple has never written a bad book.

The story that lends this latest collection its title, Every Good Deed, is actually a novella, coming in at just over 100 pages and occupying most of the first half of this volume. It’s a classic Whipple construction: two elderly and kind spinster sisters live in luxury in a nice English village. And then their home is overtaken by an outsider: an adopted wayward teenage girl who exploits their kindness and bank balance. Being good eggs, the sisters won’t give up on the girl, no matter how tempting it must be, and time and again they show how good triumphs over bad. Until the girl pushes them one step too far… Brilliant! Classic Whipple!

The remainder of this collection is filled with short stories that also follow the classic Whipple vein: a husband who tires of his exhausted wife and demanding kids so plans to run off with his mistress (the twist in this is magnificent); a middle-aged spinster who runs away to show her cruel relatives just what she’s capable of (triumph over adversity); the kind couple persuaded to run a boarding house that is then destroyed by one overbearing guest (the snowball effect of fate). And I defy you not to be broken-hearted by the bitterly cruel hand dealt in the grossly unfair story Susan, which i found the most powerful story in this whole collection.

Whether in her short stories of her long novels (and I delight in the great length of novels such as The Priory, They Were Sisters and Greenbanks), Whipple has a talent for cuckoo-in-the-nest stories: an outsider comes in and upsets the previous harmonious home with disastrous consequences. And nine times out of ten, that dastardly outsider will be a man (boo, hiss!). It’s wonderful, it’s compelling… it’s exactly what I want to read.

If you are yet to read a Whipple (and oh, how I envy you, how I would love to have all those books to read for the first time), then I urge you to start with Someone At A Distance (also published by Persephone). It was the book that got me reading again after a period of ill-health where I had been unable to focus my attention on any book at all for six months or more. I picked up a copy of Someone At A Distance, and was hooked within pages, finishing the entire book within days. A classic Whipple about the fragility of the family, the superficiality of the male psyche, and - of course - an interloper in the home.