Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Theatre (page 1 of 4)

Give Dame Maggie an Oscar now!

The Lady in the Van

Firstly apologies for having gone AWOL for a fortnight. Life took a hectic turn (annual school fireworks extravaganza one week for which I’m Health & Safety Manager, at the same time as preparing for school inspection this week). I’ve been too worn out to blog, but have built up a pile of books to talk about now! But first, a few words about The Lady in the Van

lady in van film poster

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since first hearing about it, and had to see it on the day of its release. I took my daughter, and she loved it too.

I just couldn’t think of a better pair of actors to play Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett than Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings – both were pitch perfect. Although Maggie Smith is queen of the put-down with her impeccable tone and hauteur, she also doesn’t need to say anything – her face is just so expressive, it was a triumph of acting. Seen in close-up on the screen, it was very moving.

The film, made at Gloucester Crescent in Camden itself in and around the house still owned by Alan Bennett where he let her park her van temporarily – she stayed for 15 years, was adapted from Bennett’s stage play, in which fifteen years ago, Maggie first played Miss Shepherd – I do wish I’d got to see the original play. The film has built upon the stage play by expanding on the fact that Miss Shepherd had been a concert pianist, and in one moving scene near the end Maggie plays the piano – for real.

The story is narrated by Alan Bennett – who is split into two – ‘the one that does the writing and the one that does the living’ which is a really clever way of taking it.  The two Bennetts are quietly bitchy and supportive of each other at the same time.

I won’t say much more about the film, except that there are cameos for almost all of the History Boys, and the neighbours are a riot!  Go see it and enjoy the masterclass in acting from Dame Maggie.

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lady van gentlemanI first read The Lady in the Van  in Alan Bennett’s collection of memoir and essays Writing Home, published in 1994, although The Lady in the Van had been published separately previously on its own in 1989.  I’d thoroughly recommend Writing Home and Untold Stories which came afterwards.  But, although I already own a book with it in, freed from the inspection yesterday afternoon, I went to my lovely local indie bookshop and they had copies of a new edition of The Lady in the Van.  Apart from a film tie-in paperback, Faber have also brought out a hardback, illustrated by David Gentleman, and including loads of stills from the film, intro from director Hytner and film diaries by AB – and they had copies signed by Bennett – SOLD!!!

Two National Treasures at the Oxford Literary Festival

Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in Conversation


Earlier this evening I went into Oxford for my only visit to the Oxford Literary Festival this year. It was a sell-out event at the Sheldonian – with two national treasures who have been collaborating for decades in conversation. We were all crammed into the Sheldonian. I’d bought a lower gallery ticket, and the ushers were trying to fill the gallery up from the furthest corners. Not wishing to only see the back of their heads, I decided to be awkward and claimed a decent seat, happily moving to let people past – I’d got there early enough to pick my seat I’d hoped…

Time for the talk, and Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden lead the pair in, Bennett shuffling – he is 80 now. Ovenden then introduced them, and told us that Bennett had gifted his papers to the Bodleian in 2008. Bennett quipped that they were assured of legend status as both had been “a small stepping stone in the rise and rise of James Corden.”

They settled down to chat, and Bennett started off by quizzing Hytner about his time as a chorister aged 12 at Manchester Grammar School and the joy of singing under the direction of Manchester legend John Barbirolli. They then moved on to when they first worked together – on the Wind in the Willows in 1990 at the National Theatre. Bennett had been asked by Richard Eyre, then the NT director, to write a play coming out of Wind in the Willows incorporating Kenneth Grahame’s life, but Bennett found that too tragic and adapted just the book (I saw it twice – loved it). Hytner directed and went on to direct many more family-friendly productions for the NT including their adaptations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and latterly War Horse. Here Bennett interjected that he had been approached to adapt War Horse, but said no, “not a literary work at all.”  He said that there was not enough in War Horse for the playwright to do to it – it’s all in the action and production design and direction.

Moving on to The History Boys – Hytner thought it better on stage than film. They talked about how they collaborated on the drafts of the play. Bennett told a funny story about how he performed one of the scenes at the NT 50th anniversary gala – it was from the French lesson – so all in French – but he got a laugh in one bit where Richard Griffiths who played Hector never did – Griffiths would have loved to get the extra laugh.

Maggie-Smith-in-The-Lady-In-The-Van-531772Then, before questions, they talked about their latest project – the film of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. This is the true story of Alan Bennett himself and Miss Shepherd – who moved into Gloucester Crescent in her van – Bennett invited her to temporarily park her van on his drive – she stayed for fifteen years. Dame Maggie Smith will reprise her role from the stage as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett will be played by Alex Jennings (left). They filmed it in Gloucester Crescent in Bennett’s old house, so a real nostalgia trip for Bennett – and the remaining neighbours who remembered Miss Shepherd. I shall really look forward to seeing this film.

The early evening lecture finished with Ovenden presenting Hytner with the Bodley medal, Bennett already has one. I resisted going down to the book stall, there not being signing on offer (and I’d succumbed to a couple of purchases in Waterstones on my way to the venue earlier!). I could have sat and listened to Bennett all evening – he is just so simultaneously Eeyorish and witty – when he could get a word in edgeways – Hytner tended to be rather expansive, but it was a lovely event.

P.S. I forgot to say that Bennett finished off the conversation by reading a speech from his play A Habit of Art. Kay, the stage manager (as played by Frances de la Tour on stage) speaks the speech which defines ‘The Habit of Art’.  This speech was another collaboration between Hytner and Bennett – originally it had stopped halfway through, but Hytner suggested it needed more.

My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

at freddies

Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied’:

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.




Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

My Les Mis-full day – not glum at all

Les Misérables – On Film and Stage

Over the years, the one musical that didn’t appeal to me was Les Misérables. In fact, I turned down free tickets back in the early 1990s, such was my lack of enthusiasm for it – the very thought of having to sit through it made me feel glum.

But, dear readers, I am cured!  Vivent Les Misérables!

My daughter, for reasons I’ll come to later, was desperate to see it.  I said I’ll book for the summer. ‘No, can’t it be Easter?’ she asked.  ‘I’ll see what’s available.’ I replied, and found us tickets for yesterday evening – good seats at a price, but as an irregular theatre-goer these days, I’m willing to pay out a bit for a good view, (I chose the 2nd priced stalls at £67.50 each!!!).

les mis movie posterHowever, as my daughter likes to understand what’s going on before seeing shows, (something that spoiled seeing War Horse for her with her old school – she hadn’t read the book, and they didn’t explain the play at all) we watched the DVD at the weekend as Les Mis is a complicated story, (I benefitted from that too).

I loved it – especially Hugh Jackman of course, who has a great pedigree in musicals (my late mum saw him in Oklahoma and fell for him). Even Russell Crowe wasn’t so bad, and was suitably brooding, and Hathaway we know can sing and was so brave getting her real hair cut off – and her collarbones made her look skeletal as the dying Fantine. The naturalistic singing, which was live rather than dubbed as I understand, made it seem so much more … miserable.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (SBC and HBC!) were great comic relief as the money-grabbing Thénardiers. I cried like a baby at the end.  I went through the story with my daughter and we were prepared for our trip down to London.

20140415_192219_resizedWe had a good afternoon shopping in Covent Garden, then a burger and shake at Ed’s Diner in Soho before the theatre.  Our seats were great (no need to pay £20 more for that prime central block).  Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was smaller than I expected, but very plush.

On time, the orchestra struck up and we were transported to 19thC France. The staging was wonderful – using a surprisingly quiet revolving stage and clever lighting which allowed both props and actors to keep the action always moving.  Originally staged by the RSC at the Barbican, you expect the slickness and clever use of backdrops and props. An American party sitting behind me, although they loved the traditional theatre, had been expecting something on a bigger scale ‘like back in Boston’ (yawn!).

My daughter (left) gets Carrie's (middle) autograph

My daughter (left) gets Carrie’s (middle) autograph

None of the cast (except one) were familiar to me, but they were touts merveilleux! I  did have a sniffle when Eponine died, and could see lots of hankies being dabbed to eyes then and at the end.

Eponine was the reason for going at Easter, she was played by Carrie Hope Fletcher (sister of McFly’s Tom) and my daughter follows her on the web. So afterwards, we quickly went round to the stage door and found ourselves in a small cluster of waiting fans and she kindly signed our programme which made my daughter’s day.

Les Mis has now trumped both Oliver! and Matilda as her favourite musical and film. My favourite will always be the original Jesus Christ Superstar, but Les Mis will now vie with Oliver! for my second spot.

Victor Hugo’s story is epic in its scope, I started reading it around two years ago, and ought to resume – I got as far as Jean Valjean being given the silver, i.e. not very far, and paused. Seeing the musical twice has renewed my enthusiasm for it.

Musically, Les Mis is sung-through; there is no dialogue at all, and the score relies on recitative to link the main scenes. I was fascinated by the way there are really only about eight (guessing here) musical themes which get mixed up and reappear throughout the show, most obviously the Thénardiers’ comic song, and Javert’s brooding one, but they all blend together and never appear repetitive at all. This made it feel less of a musical, more an opera.  I loved it.

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Here’s links to Les Mis at Amazon UK, in case you’re interested:
Les Misérables [DVD] [2012] starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway etc
Les Miserables 25th Anniversary [DVD] the concert at the RAH with Alfie Boe etc.

Wendy takes the lead …

Wendy & Peter Pan by Ella Hickson, RSC at the RST, Stratford

70115-wendy--peter-pan-programme-2013-extra-1What a treat!  Juliet and I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday night to see their new family production Wendy & Peter Pan.  Yes, you read it right – Wendy comes first in Ella Hickson’s re-telling of J M Barrie’s original story, which was originally titled Peter and Wendy.

Although keeping much of Barrie’s original story in tact, Hickson has changed the emphasis, giving Wendy the lead over Peter. She has also added in a new plot driver for Wendy and her family in the device of a third brother who dies at the beginning of the play, echoing Barrie’s own life. It is Wendy’s belief that he has become a Lost Boy that fuels her quest in Neverland. Wendy’s parent too, in their grief, go on a separate quest to find their way through the emotions that threaten their marriage, and the two stories intersect throughout the play with resonance.

Wendy and Peter Pan: Fiona Button as Wendy and Guy Henry as HookNo sooner has Wendy arrived in Neverland than it seems that all the females there are out to get her.  Tink tells Lost Boy Tootles to shoot her out of the sky, Tiger Lily is a warrior princess who nearly shoots Wendy too, luckily the Mermaids are off-stage in this production.  In the end the girls realise that being part of Team Wendy is the way to go.

At first Wendy agrees to be Mother to the Lost Boys, but when it becomes clear that Peter doesn’t realise that it is not really just a game, she leaves them and gets captured by the pirates.  Guy Henry, who many will recognise as Dr Hansen from BBC TV series Holby, was a rather world-weary Captain Hook, aware that his slightly Jack Sparrow-ish looks were fading, waiting for the tick of the crocodile come to take him away – he wishes he had Peter’s time again. His rag-tag bunch of pirates were suitably shambolic, led by a lovelorn Smee.

As befits the girl being groomed to be mother, Fiona Button as Wendy (actually 27) was wise beyond her thirteen years, but often has to fight against herself to get her words out, to make the boys understand – which they do for just a second or two having the attention span of gnats, you could sense Wendy’s frustration.

As for the boys, well they were straight out of boys own adventures, where everything is about fun. The minute it stops being fun, they do something different. They were very entertaining, and fulfilled all the stereotypes needed, the geeky one, the swotty one, the working-class Welsh one… Wendy’s brothers John and Michael too – bombastic and in touch his feminine side.  And this bring me to Peter…

Peter Pan Shadows

As you can see from the photo, Peter had not just one shadow, but a team of six, who helped him to fly. It sounds bizarre, but they were for the most part totally unintrusive, and manipulated Peter, and any others who needed to be ferried in air or water with great dexterity, and were in charge of the wires from the ceiling during other scenes. Sam Swann was a stocky Peter, bristling with boyish bravado, his hair bedecked with a little red quiff that made me think of a young Morrissey(!).

tinkA lot of laughs though come from Tink, the little fairy with a larger than life personality. She initially appears as a light, but underneath that is a roly-poly Essex girl trying (and succeeding) to get out! Charlotte Mills was a revelation, and Tink quickly became my daughter’s favourite character.

Everything about this production, like Matilda which we saw at the RSC too (review here), was classy and the way they used the space was wonderful; special mentions go to the balletic crocodile, and Captain Hook’s rather wonderful ship.  It was a proper play with just enough panto in it to get the laughs, no dog and completely un-Disneyfied, but full of heart too.

I laughed, I jumped, I gasped, I very nearly cried too, I cheered, I booed, I clapped – We loved it!  It’s on at Stratford until Easter – Go if you can – it’s rather special.

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