Sunday, 26 February 2017

Norfolkbookworm at the Movies: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (film and book)

Here's something you don't often hear the Norfolkbookworm say - the movie was as good as the book!

From reading past entries on this blog it is pretty obvious that I have an interest in reading biographies/autobiographies and that I am fascinated with space travel. Here the two passions collide and for once everyone wins.

The book by Margot Lee Shetterly is a great read, it covers the lives of many of the people involved in the early era of manned (and it was only men at this time) space flight but this time from the rarely covered point of view of the backroom women. In addition to this these women were black and living in a segregated America in a highly segregated/racist state.

The book covers their lives from childhood through their fights for education and then into their wartime careers where colour of skin temporarily mattered less than winning. After the war these women - incredible engineers and mathematicians continued to work for NACA/NASA and were an integral part of the space program.

I've read a lot of books about this era and I'd never heard of them so they really were hidden figures. I enjoyed the book but found it a little chaotic in style, however it covered so much time and so many people that I was worried how a film could ever be made from it.

The film sensibly narrowed its focus to tell the story of just three women and tightened the time frame to a taut two years or so.  This lead to a fast paced, tense story with real heart.  It also retained most of its accuracy and I do feel that if you just saw the film you would get a pretty fair idea of what the space program and NASA were like at this time. Apart from the amalgamation of NASA characters in to one or two leads the space history itself was spot on too if occasionally played a little too much towards dramatic crescendos.

I had two issues with the film, while I didn't expect the actors playing the Mercury Seven astronauts to look exactly like their real life characters the wrong hair cuts, especially on John Glenn really annoyed me.

The second issue is a little more nuanced - in no scenes where the actors depicted as smoking, and I really do think that in those offices where people were frantically trying to solve problems to safely send men in to space there would have been a *lot* of smoking taking place. Even in the climactic scenes of the film no one lights up in Mission Control and I know that is inaccurate from NASA images of the time!  Further investigation into this by Mr Norfolkbookworm gave the answer - if there had been accurate portrayals of smoking in the film then the cinema rating would have been higher and the distributors rightly wanted as many people to see this as possible! Full details on this here.

My final thoughts are a little more controversial, and point the finger at an American Hero somewhat:

In this film (and book) John Glenn is portrayed as the Mercury Astronaut who is the most accepting of the black women's roles. In the film his trust in Katherine Johnson is so great that he won't fly without her working a mathematical problem.
Yet... I've also read a lot of books about the Mercury 13 - the women who also went through the same training as Glenn et. al. (and performed better on many of the tests) - and it was Glenn's word that got their training scrapped and the idea of women in space, via NASA, postponed until 1983 - 21 years.

Since learning this I've always felt very ambivalent about Glenn's status as 'all American hero' but I guess that this just shows that no one is as good as they are portrayed and at least he wasn't a racist as well as sexist.

Digressions over - Hidden Figures is nominated for 3 Oscar awards this weekend, including Best Picture, and I would love for it to win. It is a heartwarming film, based on a great book, that shows viewers that gender and colour of skin really shouldn't be a barrier to doing what you love and being successful in it. #ThisGirlCan

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Eight - The White Devil

The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. February 2017.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse really is the perfect place to see these wonderful Jacobean revenge tragedies. The eerie lighting really does let the evil of the plots shine through.

The White Devil was wonderfully nasty (in the best way) within this setting. The playhouse was dimly lit at the start and at first it was hard to work out who all of the characters were but as more candles were lit it became clearer to work out who was who and then the absurdity and evil really shone through, and as the play drew to a close the candles were put out and the room grew darker as the madness drew to a close. I don't think that the candles have been used to greater effect in anything I've seen in this location.

Vittoria is unhappily married - her family arranged this to save their own reputation and finances - and pursued by Bracciano who seems to love her despite being married himself.  We also have a scheming brother who will do anything, including pimp his sister, to advance his position, a disgraced Duke who will do anything to get back into the good books and then there's the corrupt cardinal and his lackey.

It is a revenge tragedy so no spoiler to say that by the end of the play the stage is littered with corpses - all of whom the audience doesn't really grieve over. And some of the deaths are wonderfully staged and incredibly amusing to watch. At the start I was concerned that the darkness of the plot wouldn't emerge as there seemed to be much overplaying of the crude humour but, like the lighting, this all just helped to show the true nature of the characters.

Since coming out of the Playhouse I've been discussing the play on and off with Rebecca and the Upstart Wren and like the best things I am liking it more and more.  As I said there are no characters that you admire wholeheartedly but unlike so many plays from this era I find Vittoria to be a believable and strong female lead. She is manipulated and used by all around her and yet throughout this production she remains strong and dignified, her crime is to fall in love with a man who is not her husband and then be caught up entirely in the wider politics of the time.

Unlike Rebecca I didn't dislike Bracciano completely, he is an out and out cad but he is also being manipulated by forces that he doesn't quite appreciate. His fickleness was played superbly and in the end he did seem to love Vittoria, however short their union was!

The true villain for me was Flamenio who had no care for anyone and would do anything to get what he wanted, the way he was played on stage actually made my skin crawl slightly.

On reading the programme on the train home I've learned that this production has cut text from the original and reassigned lines so I am now off to read Webster's original and see how it compares...

Monday, 20 February 2017

Talking Books Three: Sequels again

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

After the success of Holly Webb's Return to the Secret Garden I ventured back in to the work of reworkings/sequels to classic children's books.

Black Beauty is one the books that my dad recommended to me as a child, in fact I do still have his childhood copy on my shelves, and so to discover that there was a modern reworking available was exciting and nerve wracking!

Once more I am pleased to say that, for the most part this book, I really enjoyed this book.  Rather than being a sequel or prequel (something that the Pullein-Thompson family have already done*) this book took one small, but pivotal, character from the original and imagined a story around this.

Most of the story was believable, even the cross dressing, and Kuenzler's love for the original shone through and I found myself believing her version of the action totally.  My misgivings came in the London section when I thought the plot became a little obvious and unnecessary - although it had been signposted since the beginning. My quibbles might just be because I am an adult reading a book for children and so can spot this in writing more easily.

My main query about all of these modern day reworkings and sequels is hard to articulate - they seem to be so much easier to read than the originals. I know I read the source books as a child and these as an adult but they do somehow seem easier. I can't tell why though as I can't actually spot any clear examples of 'dumbing down' and in some ways these new books cover topics more adult and more explicitly than the originals.

It was good to be pleasantly surprised by this book and I think that the balance in good/poor reworkings has now equalled out so I will continue trying them with hope.

*I am 90% certain that I read this as child (I probably chose the book because of how thick the book was) and that it wasn't a book I reread unlike Black Beauty itself.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Seven - The Simon and Garfunkel Story

The Simon and Garfunkel Story, The Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone. February 2017.

I first saw this show in 2015 and even back then I knew that I wanted to see the show again. It has taken me a while but the duo's tour took in Folkestone on a weekend that I was in Kent seeing family it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

This time my companions were my mum and dad - and as it was thanks to them that I fell in love with the music it seemed right we all went together.

The show hasn't changed since I saw it last and once more it hit the spot totally for me - a great mix of the classic songs, some less well known ones and chat about the history of Simon and Garfunkel.  Again the two performers nailed the originals and it was a little like travelling in time.

Mum and Dad were doubly revisiting the past as they used to go to the Leas Cliff Hall to see theatre/bands long before my sister and I came along.  The venue did have some drawbacks as it was a little large for the size of audience in attendance and it was also decidedly cold in the room, but for me it didn't matter it was just like being at a concert again and I love hearing this music live.

Once more I was one of the youngest people in the audience but it was more mixed this time, and to show the true appeal of this music when we saw my 90 year old grandmother the next day she also professed to be a fan of the duo and expressed some regret that she hadn't come to the show too!

I know that I will look at this show's schedule occasionally and if it does come back to Norwich on a date I can make I will see it a third time.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Talking Books Two

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. Edited by Francis French.

I've read an awful lot of biographies and autobiographies from the early manned space programme but none of them were quite like this one.

Eisele died before he could revise or publish his memoirs and they only came to light a few years ago despite being first penned in the 1970s and boy are they frank.

Eisele flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, and it wasn't an entirely happy mission. This was partly due to illness and partly down to the temperament of the commander causing issues with those left on the ground - almost to the point of mutiny.

Even though ultimately the mission was a success it was never highly respected and none of the crew flew in space again and Eisele is not backwards in coming forwards in saying exactly what he thought about all of the treatment the crew suffered, nor does he spare his tongue when giving his thoughts on his commander.

Eisele also talks frankly about the behaviour of the astronauts when they were away from home, which has been alluded to before but never in quite such frank terms!

This book is interesting as it was put together by French from notes that Eisele left and I imagine that he had to also be respectful of Eisele's remaining family (sadly his second wife passed away before publiciation) but even so this is a book that fills in the details gleaned from histories of the era but never mentioned in the official autobiographies and biographies.

It probably won't appeal too much to people who aren't intimate with the players from the Cape at this time but I loved the background colour this gave.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January reading non round up!

I read lots of books in January and while none of them were bad nothing stood out quite as much as Take Courage which I did review at the time.

There are a couple of books which are worth mentioning but none of them are particularly ones I'm leaping up and down pressing into people's hands.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

This was a graphic novel based on the 1001 Nights, again a woman has to tell stories to save herself but this had a really strong feminist message as well as being all about the power of stories.  I missed some of the allegories but overall this was a really nice read.

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Back in 2011 when I set myself the challenge of reading all of that year's World Book Night titles I read my first book by Hamid and loved it since then I've tried others but did wonder if he was a one trick pony.
This book started the same way, I wasn't very involved and thought it decidedly off, but then I found I was over half way through and utterly gripped if incredibly unsettled.
It is a book about how easily a nice life can become disrupted and any of us could end up as refugees fleeing for our lives.

The book veered in to magical realism with doors appearing around the world for displaced people to travel through and it did get very bleak at times, however in our 'interesting times' it feels very pertinent.
This book isn't published until the start of March, I read an advance copy thanks to NetGalley

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A trip to heaven and hell - behind the scenes at the Globe

Heaven and Hell Tour, Shakespeare's Globe, London. January 2017.

As regular readers of this blog know the Globe and Sam Wanamaker Theatre are places that I like and willingly spend my time (apologies for the appropriation of Shakespeare for that line!). Before I'd even seen a show here, way back in 2010, I took the general tour and fell in love with the space.

When the extra special tour for Friends of the Globe coincided with a night Rebecca and I would be in London it seemed like fate and we were at the Globe before 10am on a Sunday morning for our tour of the theatre from top to bottom.

We were encouraged to take photos as we were taken right up to the very top of the theatre, in to the heavens, and then even under the stage to peer up through the trap door.  We even got taken down below this level to the room where (some) of the costumes and props are stored.
Our guide was wonderful and gave us a talk that included how the building was built, how the shows are staged, how the effects work, anecdotes from past productions and tidbits of information about plans for the theatre,  He was also wonderfully balanced and talked about things that had gone wrong and also what was incorrect about the building as has been discovered through research in the past 20 years - not least that the stage is built from the wrong wood!

I can't begin to replicate the tales so I am just going to fill this post with pictures from the tour!

We started on the stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

We then went, via the "dressing room" to the very top of the building, to the heavens.

The trap that lets people fly from down from heaven was then opened for us

We then went down to the musician gallery level

And then we got to go on the stage - the audience are *very* close!

The we went under the stage, right down to hell - it was surprisingly chilly!

Then we got taken to one of the costume and prop store, we were allowed to touch the costumes and wield a sword

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Six - She Loves Me

She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, London. January 2017.

After the confusion that was Nice Fish I was certainly a little bit nervous about going to see this musical on the same day. While I love the film You've Got Mail I was underwhelmed by the film that is adapted from The Shop Around the Corner and so the musical version of the same story could have gone either way. Then I saw it has Les Dennis in and to be honest my heart sank a little lower.

However this time I had a pleasant surprise. After reviving dinner with a glass of wine we arrived at one of our top theatres and the familiarity of the place, plus the knowledge that some of our favourite theatre productions come from this place calmed the nerves.

From the second the houselights dimmed I was transported into a beautiful, Technicolor whimsy that for two and half hours did make me forget everything else.

Again the set really needs to get a mention here as it was enchanting and revolved from a basic street scene to the beautifully decorated interior of the shop seamlessly. Then later on more scenery slid on and we were in a cafe/bar, a hospital and a bedroom - it all worked and was all so beautifully decorated and detailed that it really did look like you could step into these real places.  We were in the front row and seeing the small detail here set the tone for the detail and precision of the whole production.

The story could be hard to stage as the main romance is epistolary but as the protagonists meet in real life and dislike each other there is wonderful tension - they played the oblivious romantic connection really well and right up to the end there was just enough tension and doubt to keep the story interesting.  The subplots were also fun and this felt a real ensemble piece where everyone got to tell their story. Even Les Dennis was good in his role, and managed to make me feel sorry for his character.

The singing and dancing were great, the comedy funny and the right level of sadness/tension reached making this a wonderfully balanced show. I was also pleased that despite it being set in a perfume shop and scents being 'sprayed' throughout the creatives had decided to make this just visual and not olfactory - my imagination supplied the smells I'd like to sniff and not overpowering ones that cause headaches!

I'm not sure how highly it will feature on my best of lists come the end of the year but in a January that seems cold and bleak (weather-wise and politically speaking) this was just what I needed, pure escapism that left me feeling warm and happy.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Five - Nice Fish

Nice Fish, Harold Pinter Theatre, London. January 2017.

This was a play that Rebecca and I booked to see solely because it had Mark Rylance in it.  We know that this is a risky business. There is always the chance that the 'star' will be off sick when tickets are booked for the name but we've always liked the things we've seen him in so we took a risk.

I think it was worth it.

Let me start with the things that I loved. The set, which was visible from the moment we got into the theatre. It is a white expanse of ice tilted slightly upwards as you look at it more you realise that there are models on this, a town in the back ground with a light house and traffic and then also a small hut and a fisherman. These are used to great effect during the show as what is small and far away suddenly becomes life size with real actors, and then as the vignettes change these pop back to being models far back on the stage.  This is a really clever use of perspective.

I also loved the scenes on the ice with the fishermen that were 'real' the humour and affection between the two friends was brilliant, and the slap stick comedy very amusing. Highlights were the beer can, the mobile phone and the officious official.  These scenes reminded me utterly of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and also many of Lorna Landvik's Minnesotan set books.

I was however often confused watching this play, what was real, what was fantasy and basically what the heck was going on! The frequent total scene blackouts became annoying as I was scanning the stage Where's Wally style looking for the differences and then there was the breaking of the fourth wall and the final transformation scene...

I didn't dislike this play and bits of it were wonderful I guess that I am just a literal person who needs anything slightly surreal explained.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Four - Murder, Margaret & Me

Murder, Margaret & Me, The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich. January 2017.

I hadn't planned on a midweek excursion to the theatre this week but the arrival of an email while Mr Norfolkbookworm and  I were sitting in a local pub advertising this caught our attention.  Well to be more accurate it caught Mr N's eye - he is a great fan of Margaret Rutherford's work and she is also 'his' Miss Marple.

It isn't hard to persuade me in to a theatre outing and while I'm not a huge Agatha Christie fan the premise of the play sounded intriguing:

Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie didn't want Margaret Rutherford to bring her fabled spinster to life. And Margaret Rutherford was mortified at the prospects of sullying her reputation with something as sordid as murder... 
This is the story of the real reason why the acting legend and "the funniest woman alive" didn't want to take on the role that made her celebrated across the world. Margaret and Agatha form an unlikely friendship filled with high tea, brandy snaps and gossip. Meanwhile Agatha turns detective herself and she's on a mission. She's determined to unearth Rutherford's tragic and shocking secret.
I'm not going to talk much more about the plot, you either know the secret or you don't (Mr N did, I didn't) and the way the story unfolds is a delight if the story is new to you. Equally if you have a Norfolk Library card you can borrow the biography about Rutherford that this play draws heavily on.

This was an amateur production from the Norwich Player and while it was a little creaky in just a couple of places I was enchanted from the start to the end and more importantly this three-hander convinced me utterly that I was watching Agatha Christie and Margaret Rutherford explain their friendship with the spectral interfering of Miss Marple herself.

Miss Marple is the Me of the title and in a wonderful twist she was portrayed as 'my' Miss Marple - Joan Hickson! In a way she was the weakest character as she struggled with her lines the most but being a sherry drinking, interfering old lady this could be explained away as being in character.

The tow people sitting behind us commented on something I noted - just how much scenery kept being carried on and off stage. This is one of the things that can really bug me (it was something I commented on when I saw The Wipers Times last year) but when Mr N and I discussed this afterwards he suggested that it was another way of showing the utterly cluttered way in which Rutherford lived and so was a conscious staging choice.

I'm not 100% convinced but this niggle certainly didn't ruin my night out and for an impromptu night out on a very cold night I came away feeling I'd seen a very competent drama which was performed with poignancy, humour and great love for the characters.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Three - La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux Folles, Theatre Royal Norwich. January 2017.

Unexpectedly Mr Norfolkbookworm accompanied me to this which was a nice surprise, he isn't a great one for theatre or musicals as a rule but as he'd liked the film versions of this he kindly kept me company when Rebecca wasn't able to.

I still am unsure what I felt about this show. Visually it was stunning, the costumes, the set and the dances from the Cagelles were a feast for the eyes and the live music was very good, but...

At heart I thought this was supposed to be a bitter sweet comedy with a strong, but unconventional family being tested. This production was all surface humour, I found no depth in it at all and the dilemma that the son puts his parents through was so played for laughs that there was no poignancy or emotion to be found. Every so often pathos was approached with some straight acting and then the cast broke into song - and as only two of the four main singers could actually sing this broke the momentum time after time, especially as only two of the four main singers could actually sing well.

It would also have been nice if all of the cast knew their lines - this is a major tour with (allegedly) big names and yet three weeks in lines were still fluffed repeatedly.  Worse than this was the fact that I never believed in the relationship between George and Albin, they were supposed to have been a couple for 20+ years and yet to be it came across as no more than a working relationship. I know that after time the passion can diminish but here I thought it had vanished totally!

I did feel sorry for Partridge, playing Albin, however as there is one scene where he is 'doing' his cabaret and talking to the audience. The night we were in the house was less than a third full and as the Theatre Royal in Norwich is a big venue it must have been hard to keep the energy needed for this part of the show.

All in all this was an okay night out at the theatre, but I expected much more from a headline show and not all of this can be put down to the small audience.  It made me want to come home and watch the film again to remember that there is a good, funny, sad and enjoyable story to La Cage.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Keeping the resolutions and talking about books!

Take Courage by Samantha Ellis

By jove, Biggles by Peter Berresford Ellis & Piers Williams (Jennifer Schofield)

Non fiction always makes up a large part of my reading year and this year has started both strongly and interestingly with two very different biographies read for two very different reasons.

I picked up Take Courage by Samantha Ellis mainly because of how much I loved her book How to be a Heroine which I read back in 2014 and which ultimately made my best of the year list.
This book is a biography of the 'forgotten' Bronte - Anne and again I found it to be a book I couldn't put down - despite the only Bronte book I've every read being Jane Eyre!

The lack of knowledge of the books didn't matter as Ellis deftly wove enough of their plots into the biography to inform and pique curiosity but without giving away their entire plots.  I also liked how we learned about the whole family, but from Anne's point of view, in this volume - again a brilliantly rounded picture appeared. For me the winning formula was how Ellis herself kept appearing in the book, it made it feel a wonderfully personal story and I think that before 2017 is out I will read at least Anne's books if not more by Charlotte. I'm afraid that Emily's Wuthering Heights still holds no appeal whatsoever.

The second biography I picked up recently was that of W E Johns, creator of Biggles.  I expected this to be slightly more of a chore to read and indeed it is only because of work that I started it.  The library service's World War One online project this year is going to have a slight aviation theme and I knew that Johns had trained pilots here in Norfolk during WW1.

Despite being an avid reader of series fiction as a child I'd not read any Biggles (or Worrals) before and I know wonder if this was because of the campaign against him for being sexist, imperialistic and racist.

My eyes were opened during this read, Johns' links to Norfolk were deeper than I thought (although I will write about that for work not here) and his biographers make a compelling case that he was far more liberal in outlook than he is given credit for.

I've just started my first Biggles book, set in WW1, and I can see already how much his own war is retold in the stories but I will have to report back later on the case of sexism etc., however as during WW2 he wrote a whole series of books about a female flying officer who did fly I think that perhaps he was more liberal than later critics say.  The problem with the books is that they were updated/edited and republished in the 1960s and 1970s and so I wonder if this is where these ideas come from.  I of course am on the lookout for the three different editions of at least one book so I can draw my own conclusions!

So there we have it not yet the end of January and two books reviewed here and also proof that you can enjoy biographies of authors you've not really encountered before - even if it becomes bad for your to-be-read piles and bank balance!

Monday, 16 January 2017

The irony of my book review blog

I am well aware of the irony of this blog being called Norfolkbookworm when I spend much more time talking about the theatre.

One of my unofficial resolutions for this year was to write more about books and I think that to do this I am going to try and do a monthly round up of what I've read as well as talking about outstanding books as I come across them.

Watch this space as they say....

Friday, 13 January 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Two - The Emperor's New Clothes

The Emperor's New Clothes, The Blakeney Player, Blakeney, Norfolk. January 2017.

What a way to forget the grey, damp, chilly January weather!  As ever the Players have created a wonderful piece of theatre - this time their most faithful pantomime I think I've seen them perform, but of course with that very local twist.

As ever full of jokes on all levels: from the names (Sheik N'Not Stirred) to the lovingly ripped off famous productions (Miss Saigon this time) and the best ones of all coming from the audience ("Hello boys and girls" calls the Prime Minister, "Hello Nanny" replies a small child in the front row...!)

These really are shows where you have to be there to really find them at their funniest and the over enthusiastic smoke machine at the end of Act One (along with a miss behaving prop) really were delights but the whole show was funny from start to finish and it has to be said this is a group of actors unafraid of anything, including very cleverly done stage nudity.

It doesn't matter what sort of mood you are in before settling into the plastic chairs in the village hall as soon as the curtain goes up you are swept away by a tide of goodwill and enthusiasm which sets you up for the rest of the day/week/winter and has you demanding the dates of the next shows as you leave the hall.

(As ever knowing the cast means that I am always going to be incredible biased when reviewing anything the Players put on but I do think that their productions stand up there with the best professional shows,)

Monday, 9 January 2017

Theatre 2017 - Review One: All the Angels

All the Angels, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London. January 2017.

Wow - what a way to start theatre trips in 2017! This play had appealed to me from the instant I saw it in the Globe's brochure a while back, and I was sad that I couldn't get to those first performances. When it was announced that it was coming back for the winter 2016/17 season I knew I had to go.  I'm not sure Rebecca knew what she was agreeing to but she gamely took on board my enthusiasm and we booked seats.

How to explain is the story of Handel writing and staging the first performances of the Messiah but it isn't a performance of the oratorio, nor is it a straight play about the writing process.  It travels from Chester to Dublin and is about redemption and the power of music. It is also a masterclass in singing and composing.  It was also utterly spellbinding and overwhelmingly powerful.

I've loved (the famous bits of) the Messiah for a long time and the power of the music was made clear to me when we heard excerpts performed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of their candlelit Christmas festival a few years ago.  Hearing the evolution of the music in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker was magical. The voices filled the space wonderfully and being both an intimate but still quite large space it was wonderful to feel the music filling the space.

The two subplots, one imagined and one real, did bind the music together and being interested in Shakespeare and performance history I really enjoyed Susannah Cibber's story while the Crow's provided a valve from the heightened emotion of the Messiah.

The use of the singers as almost actors was inspired too - they personified the power of music in a very clever way whilst being consummate professionals. Kudos to them all as they had to perform singing badly too which must have almost been harder than Handel's original.

I think that you can tell I loved this piece of theatre,  I could quite easily have sat through it again that day despite the discomfort of the seats. If this doesn't make my top 10 plays of 2017 then this year is going to be really brilliant in terms of theatre.

Now if someone can recommend a really good recording of the Messiah for me to listen to I'd be most grateful

Monday, 2 January 2017

That was the year I read...

The end of the year round up for me concludes with my lists of best books for 2016.

This was a year that saw me complete (and pass) my MA and find lots of time for reading. This year the grand total was 223 books finished between 1st January and 31st December.  There are quite a few I've started and wandered away from, none of them bad enough to give up totally on - just ones that failed to engage me at the time.  With so many read I haven't broken them down (yet) into fiction/non fiction or male/female etc.

In mid December I was asked to write for the work blog and list my top reads of the year there, that list can be read here along with the choices of my colleagues. After some more reading and reflecting many of my overall choices remain the same but I have made some last minute additions and alterations - books I remembered how much I'd loved them as I added the books from my journal to my spreadsheet.

My overall top fiction book of the year does go to my friend James' The Apprentice Witch.  It was such a happy read and one that I want to share with so many people that how can it not be my top book?  Before reading it I knew nothing about the book apart from the author but I know that as a child I'd have read and reread this one loads - it ticks all of my boxes, and while it is the first of a series it is also a complete story which is wonderful.

In non fiction my top book is actually one I read last year but due to restrictions that came with it I couldn't talk about it then. Philippe Sands East West Street went on to gain lots of praise (and prizes). It isn't an easy read but by heck has it stayed with me. I'm really sad that we were away when Sands came to Norwich as I'd like to have told him in person just what a brilliant book I found this one.

The rest of my lists have been really hard to compile - it seems that I have had a really good reading year after all!

Top Young Adult Reads 

Am I Normal Yet? - Holly Bourne. This was a World Book Night title and I read it down in one sitting. The sequels are good but didn't stay with me in quite the same way.

Chasing The Stars - Malorie Blackman. In the year of Shakespeare this retelling of Othello isn't just for a young audience. Shakespeare in space worked really well.

The One Memory of Flora Banks - Emily Barr. This was one of the last books I read this year, and as it was a Netgalley book it isn't officially published until next week but it was still gripping enough that I stayed up far too late to finish it! If pushed to describe it I'd say Before I Go To Sleep for a slightly younger readership, with added snow.

Nina Is Not OK - Shappi Khorsandi. Another 'issue' book but again one that had me reading from cover to cover avidly.  Coming from a comedienne it has a nice vein of humour running throughout but this never detracts from the serious point.

Top Fiction Reads

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Years Old - Hendrik Groen. Reviewed here.

The Infinite Air - Fiona Kidman. A wonderful tale of the first women fliers chasing records in the air.

Cartes Postales - Victoria Hislop. Reviewed here, and Father Christmas did take a hint and there was a copy of this under the tree for me!

Shtum - Jem Lester.  I read this early in the year and had almost forgotten it until I read through my journal, on seeing the title it all came flooding back - a deeply moving story about a mad dealing with a disabled child and a dying father. Put like that it sounds terrible but the writing was beautiful.

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain- Barney Norris. This made many of the 2016 'best of lists' and it is again a clever novel weaving 5 stories together.

The Summer Before the War - Helen Simonson. I can't praise this one highly enough, it really did make the summer before WW1 come to life for me and show what a shock the brutalilty of the war was for many.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment - D E Stevenson.  This was my discovery of the year, all about the life of the wife of a regiment's CO in the 1920s.  Reminiscent of Diary of a Provincial Lady, I'm now on the hunt for more books featuring the delightful Mrs Tim.

Top Non Fiction Reads (incl. graphic novels and poetry)

The Old King in His Castle - Arno Geiger, tr. Stefan Tobler.  I can't really explain this book, on the surface it is Geiger recounting his father's life and battle with Alzheimer's but it is so much more than this.

Eighty Days - Matthew Goodman. Two New York women set out to see if you really can go around the world in 80 days - one goes east, one goes west.

The House by the Lake - Thomas Harding. The history of Germany since 1900 told via just one house on a lake just outside Berlin.  Since reading this I've read a couple of other books that reference this village which has been a bit weird but added a lot to those books!

A World Gone Mad - Astrid Lindgren tr. Sarah Death.  Better known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books this was a fascinating insight into life in neutral Sweden during WW2, their ideas of shortages will make you laugh but it is a fascinating take on the war.

Frontier Grit - Marianne Monson.  The West of America is, rightly or wrongly, associated with cowboys, gold rushes and men so this book addresses this by telling the story of some of the women who opened up the West. Fascinating reading but I'm glad I can visit in the 21st century!

Food Fights and Culture Wars - Tom Nealon. A history of the world told via food stuffs as varied as carp and Bovril. Quirky and full of beautiful eillustrations from the British Library collection.

Marzi - Marzana Sowa tr. Sylvain Savoia. A graphic novel about growing up in Poland in the 1980s, before the fall of communism.

Jerusalem - Guy Delisle. I reviewed his books in general here but it is Jerusalem that has stayed with me as Delisle echoed so many of my thoughts about this troubled city.

Sentenced to Life - Clive James. This is the second year running that James has made my best of lists, and this time - to my surprise - it is his poetry book that I loved.  It is again a sad/morbid book but there is so much beauty and hope in these poems. As ever I didn't like them all but the volume as a whole was a delight.

The Print Museum - Heidi Williamson. In 2016 I got to be a shadow judge on the East Anglian Book Awards and this took me way out of my comfort zone with the reading I undertook but again, to my surprise, it was the poetry book The Print Museum that stayed with me - and I'm pleased  to say the main judging panel as it won the poetry section of the prize!

Here's hoping that 2017 will be an equally good year book wise!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Theatre of the Year 2016 - Good and Bad!

Top and Bottom of the year.

In 2016 I saw 38 plays.  It should have been 41 but for the being poorly scrubbed three off of my calendar.  I'll never know if Rattigan's Ross, First Light or Father Comes Home From the Wars would have made my top ten - from reading the plays I feel that First Light may have done but as this was a new play for 2016 I don't rule out the chance of a revival...

Let's start with the duds of 2016, not too many of these but they really were stinkers.

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany's heads the pack here.  Way to ruin a good film and a good book  in one hit.  The cat however was amazing!
  • Doctor Faustus was the other play I really, really disliked this year, although in its favour it started early and was short!

There were others that I found unmemorable but these were the two that I actually regret spending money on. The outings themselves were nice, and for one of them it was great to catch up with The Upstartwren but the shows themselves were dire.

Now for the nicer part. My top shows of the year, in no particular order:

  • Lawrence After Arabia - not as deep and detailed as Rattigan by any means but a play that left me curious and wanting to find out more about Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw.

  • Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins - this fitted in so well with my studies and the research I'd undertaken into Terry that it was a delight, and Atkins gave a tour de force performance.

  • Pride and Prejudice - not a book I'd read before seeing the play but the condensed version and retention of so many of the lines made this a delight to watch (and I've since read and loved the book).
  • Two Gentlemen of Verona - so much of this production could have made it unbearable but in the end it was very cleverly handled and some of the terrible misogyny mitigated by the actions of the female characters. I'm not sure I'd like all of my Shakespeare updated like this but for me this was a delight.
  • The Boys in the Band - a perfect comedy in so many ways but also a deeply dark and disturbing play. Not a weak link in the cast and made up for the dreaded words "rail replacement bus."

  • Madama Butterfly - I'm not 100% certain that updating of the opera by 50 years worked or was needed but once I'd got over this it was a sublime evening at the theatre.
  • Jess and Joe - months after seeing this I can still close my eyes and replay much of this short, perfect, two-hander. I really hope that it is rewarded at award time as it was just brilliant.
  • Merchant of Venice - this comes close to being my favourite play of 2016 as well as 2015. A case where rewatching a great peice of theatre was as good the 2nd time.  The ending still broke me.

Plays that nearly made this list were Pericles and The Tempest from the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the start of the year (but *not* Cymbeline!) and also Boys will Be Boys.

What I find interesting is that in a year where I went to the Globe so little 3 of their productions are still in my top lists with another 2 only just missing out...

It has been harder to pick my best of lists this year, I don't know if I am getting harder to please or if I just didn't see the right shows... apart from the two stinkers I pretty much enjoyed everything, or parts of everything, when I saw it - less just stands out now at the end of the year.  I'm looking forward to seeing what 2017 brings.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty Eight

Les Miserables, Queen's Theatre London. December 2016.

This one really is squeezing in at the the end of my theatre going year and was a post-Christmas treat for Mr Norfolkbookworm, me and my parents. In fact we all gave each other the the tickets as Christmas presents!

Les Miserables is always going to hold a special place in our family as this was the first London show my sister and I were taken to. I still remember Dad coming home with the tickets and the anticipation of our grand day out. I think I was about 13 and my sister 8 or 9... I've seen the show twice more since then, once in London and once on tour in Norwich but not recently.

We had a lovely day, seats in the stalls with a great view (they were listed as restricted view but as we are short only Mr N missed a tiny bit of projected writing and despite knowing the show inside out we were still all swept up in the drama of the piece.

Dad and I agreed that it doesn't matter how many times we've seen it neither of us warm to Cosette and always find her the weakest part. We also all agreed that the show is really about Javert and not Valjean!  Every word of every song could be heard clearly and the staging was effective - many times the scene changes were done to expertly that we were surprised to see that they had taken place!

We jumped at the gun fire and wept at the sad bits and all four of us came out of the theatre feeling astounded at how good something so familiar can be.

This is the 2nd time we've had a family theatre outing at Christmas time and Dad is already asking what we can see next year - a new tradition is born, but the bar has been set very high!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Movie Going

I don't go to the cinema as much as I go to the theatre but this year I totted up my visits and I've been a respectable 17 trips to the cinema plus one National Theatre Live. This leads me to the first of my 'best of' lists for 2016.

It has to be said that about half of these films were animated and that this year seems to have been an outstanding for this genre.  Favourites here have been varied in topic but I enjoyed them all immensely and it has been hard to narrow it down to my top three - but these are Moana, Zootropolis and Your Name with Kubo and the Two Strings just missing out.

However my top film of the year, and possibly the decade was the incredible Eagle Huntress which I saw on release day. This narrative documentary film follows one family in Mongolia as their 13 year old daughter follows in the family tradition to become an Eagle Hunter. It has a strong feminist message - girls really can do whatever they set their minds to and compete in a men's world and it is also a film about the bond between fathers, grandfathers and daughters.

Aisholpan wants to follow in her father's footsteps, she wants to fly and hunt with Golden Eagles on the steppe in Mongolia, she also wants to be able to compete in the regional competitions showing her skills.  Her traditional (yet progressive) family support her wholeheartedly in this.  We then follow roughly a year in her life as she attains these goals - not without some hardships.

There has been a lot of criticism about this film for being too sentimental and also inaccurate. I don't recall the film saying that she wanted to be the first female huntress, just the first in her family and while any other women huntresses aren't shown at the competition I don't feel that this is against the story - this film is about Aisholpan's dreams. It is of course edited to have a narrative that draws you - that's how all films work.
It is also to be noted that the Mongolian and Kazakh communities do have a long tradition of equality which make Aisholpan's dreams realistic - it is just the Western perception of these different ways of life that need challenging and educating.

As someone who has a strongly supportive family and also a love of flying birds of prey this film really hit a chord with me.  I think that what ever criticism is out there this film should be shown in schools and also in Guide & Scouts units (and other such organisations) as a life affirming film showing that girls can do anything.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-Seven

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. December 2016.

My sister and I ended up seeing this by accident, we had planned on seeing Book of Mormon but this week they've moved the matinee of this to Friday rather than the normal Wednesday (after we'd booked the day off work of course) however we hadn't had a day out together, just the two of us, since 2007 and so we looked around for another good offer.*

Roald Dahl has always an author we've both loved reading - in fact I think my sister 'discovered' him first and he certainly turned her in to a reader - so we were aware that this show existed.  However the danger with seeing an adaptation of a favourite is that it can ruin the original.  Matilda is an example of this - for however catchy the songs and talented the cast I really can't forgive them for the liberties taken with an outstanding story.

If I'm honest my heart sank further as we arrived at the theatre to find it over run with large, excited and noisy school parties...

Fortunately the show won me round, I found it captivating, inventive and all in all a pretty good adaptation of the source material. The sets were glorious and the four grandparents stole every scene they were in and making the imaginary world of Dahl come to life without CGI was very clever. My favourites were the "live broadcasts" as the children won their tickets and the gum inventing room complete with robots but all of it stayed close to my own mind-pictures.

However I did have issues with sound and or diction - several times I couldn't here the words both spoken and sung, this was more shocking as the actors were clearly wearing working microphones. I'm also surprised because it was both child actors and Wonka himself that I couldn't here.  We weren't up in the very 'gods' either and I can't blame it on the school parties as they were impeccably behaved throughout the show.

The other negative is that there are no memorable songs, in fact it might have been better had this been more of a 'show' and dropped more of the musical numbers.  The lines added for adults were also a little over the top - did Verruca Salt really mention that she wanted North Korea???
I think that this managed to create an identity of its own away from the two films - I was worried that it would be far too much like the (terrible) Depp version but it kept the darkness of the Gene Wilder version and the book - with the casual Oompa Loompa racism removed!

I'm pleased we saw the show, I'm very pleased with how little we paid for such good seats but I can't express a lot of surprise that it is closing, and although there is talk of a tour it is going to have to be reworked an awful lot to make it work in smaller theatres I think it will also lose all the magic and charm.

*I have since discovered that is just as well we didn't get tickets to see Mormon as my brother in law was ready to disown me and have my sister sleeping on the sofa if we'd seen this without him...!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-Six

Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne on Tour, Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2016.

I have to thank a friend and colleague for the chance to see this as she very kindly let me take her second ticket to this show.

It has been over four years since I went to the opera last and while I wrote about it favourably at the time I do know that I was nervous about seeing a more conventional production. I had found the confusion caused by so much singing and yet so little translation appearing on the surtitles confusing.  Studying Othello over the pas few years, and seeing the (filmed) opera version of this had explained more to me and so I was much more open to trying again with the format.

I think that it also helped 'knowing' the full story of Madama Butterfly more - after all it does form the basis of Miss Saigon!

Whilst from the first bars of music I was captivated with much of the performance I did find the decision to reset the opera into a post WW2 setting strange - especially seeing as Nagasaki was one of the cities destroyed by the dropping of an atomic bomb, would it really have been a place that welcomed marriages to US sailors or even able to support a thriving Geisha community?

However this soon faded into the background as the story, singing and acting soon made me forget the time period and I was just swept away with Butterfly's story.  Her voice was just out of this world and I really believed that she was a naive 15 year old in love with her American sailor.

Pinkerton was a little more of a problem for me as I didn't really think he came across as quite caddish enough (although as he was boo'd in the curtain call I might be alone in this), he was certainly weak in character - not voice or stage presence - but his persona was for me more of easily lead child than opportunistic and callous opportunist which is what the surtitles seemed to say he was.

The supporting cast were all wonderful both in acting and vocal talent and I admit that at several points I found myself welling up.  The scene where Butterfly and her son were just standing motionless in silhouette at the back of the stage waiting for Pinkerton while off stage the cast performed the Humming Chorus was heartbreaking.

A little bit of me missed the opulence that a Madama Butterfly set in late 1800s early 1900s would have given but I adored this, I've had the score on a constant loop since and I know that I will be trying more opera in the future.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-Five

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Norwich Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2016.

Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my favourite films and when I found out that the play was coming to Norwich it has to be said I was happy.

Then the play opened in London to reviews that weren't great and I got a bit nervous - was this going to be one of those times where the film was better than anything else...

Sadly my fears were right, I don't quite see why the film has been turned into a play. It was very slow with lots of 'telling' not 'showing' and while I can't say I was actually bored during this play I certainly wasn't engaged with it for much of the time.

The cast were mostly likable and I am incredible impressed that they have managed to train a cat to act and I found the set to be very clever but the script was a little dull and all of it to be just "meh" which is very unusual for the things I've picked to see this year. I am pleased that I didn't go to London to see this - a half price ticket to a show I can get home from in 10 minutes made the evening seem a lot better!

The play was a hybrid of the film and Truman Capote's book and I liked some of the additions but overall I just think I'd rather watch the film - and I don't often say that!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Theatre 2016: Review Thirty-Four

The Wipers Times, New Wolsley Theatre, Ipswich. November 2016

Getting to and from Ipswich proved nearly as time consuming and awkward as getting to London but the journey was totally worth it.

This new World War One play from satirists Hislop and Newman could so easily have been over played and the jokes too contemporary, or overly sentimental but the duo managed to pull off the near impossible - a comedy about World War One that was balanced.

The original Wipers Times was a newspaper written and published by soldiers serving in the Trenches and was devised as an antidote to the inaccuracies and propaganda stories published in the mainstream media - and it is this where it would have been so easy to pepper the play with modern references.

The play tells the story of the men behind the paper as well as bringing to life some of the sketches from the paper in a clever way using Vaudeville, projections and a lot of very quick costume changes. Some of the jokes were terrible but on looking at my facsimile copy of the Wipers Times I see that they were all lifted from the original. The few comments about media inaccuracies also came straight from the original!

I enjoyed this greatly but my one criticism was that I found the set / scenery to be too fussy. The scene changes were well done and incorporated more original material from the newspapers but there were just too many of them and too much furniture moved each time for my taste.

What struck me the most was how much Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth owed to the papers - the humour in both of these, seen as edgy and challenging, came straight from the Wipers Times. There were moment of poignancy and sadness, and the gas attack was breath taking (pun intended) and I found this a balanced and enjoyable play. It isn't in the same league as Journey's End but I do hope that this gets a transfer or longer run somewhere as I think that the play is much better than the previous television documentary.