Interview: Madonna of the Wasps

dvnrqmpuqaazeskFor those not on the ‘book, you can still see my interview with Chris Roy at Scream Hard Reviews here. I may be giving too much away with that picture of the outline of Madonna of the Wasps¬†in my notebook, but I trust my handwriting is so bad that it’s pretty much indecipherable. ūüėČ (Also note Stephanie’s SpeakEasy design mug, Karen Jolly’s Anglo-Saxon charms book, Heyer’s¬†Arabella, and the eyes of Hello Kitty).

Also The Blood Red Experiment has gained a few reviews, including a nice one here.

Review: Girl from the North Country


Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see¬†Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with¬†Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciar√°n Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinz√© Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty.¬†The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman √† clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.


The Secret to Life

Featured Image -- 9079…can be yours for just $19.99 down and $19.99 a month until you finish buying all my books which should take less than a year, I expect (someone do the calculations: I can’t be bothered). Everything I’ve published over decades could be read in a year. Humbling, eh?

Is that a sufficiently clickbaity title? Apparently that’s all that matters anymore. Nothing has legs, nothing lasts past the news cycle. Let us all hope that tomorrow brings an end to some of the madness. As I said to a friend on the Facebook, I hope after tomorrow I can stop worrying about the destruction of the planet quite so anxiously and get back to worrying anxiously about the destruction of higher education.


But the secret to life: it was there in my review on Friday, right at the top. It is there in my humorous volume How to Be Dull, too — though a bit hidden behind the amusing digressions. It’s even in the pages of my ongoing #NaNoWriMo novel between the murder mystery and social commentary (and you can give a $1 to help kids find the joy of writing).

WWWBD? I have that on the corkboard in my office. What does William Blake say?

  • Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
  • If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
  • The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
  • No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

Or in other words, take care of your self with kindness, pursue the things you love, when troubled create something you enjoy, take pride in your work. Blake died penniless and forgotten, but he was a genius. There are no guarantees in life. If he had been famous, I suspect he would never have trusted it. All he trusted was his inspiration. Be inspired.

Blake Imagined

Review: Radio Girls

9780749020682RADIO GIRLS
Sarah-Jane Stratford

The Great War is over, and change is in the air, in this novel that brings to life the exciting days of early British radio …and one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC London, 1926.

‘If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation by vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.’

Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (1933)

Did you know talk radio was started by a woman? Did you know she wrote a handbook for radio broadcasting in 1933? And was also an agent of MI5? And worked with Lawrence of Arabia and Lady Astor? Does it sound like too much to pack into a novel? Are you now shouting aloud, ‘Why has no one told me about this amazing woman before!’ because I certainly was. Hilda Matheson was a pioneer, a visionary, spy, writer, insightful revolutionary, lover of Vita Sackville-West — well, it’s all gilding the lily a bit. If she hadn’t existed, you’d have wanted to invent her.

In this novel Stratford does a very wise thing: she looks at Matheson through the eyes of a young Canadian-American expat whose life is transformed by working with her. In so doing she gets to use all the fun of a novel (adventure, romance, intrigue, friendships) to show the glories of the beginning of the institution that is the BBC. It was once full of women who were over time systematically driven out. As I’m also immersed in early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s easy to see how women keep getting nudged out of history by neglect because men are trumpeted for genius and women are loathed for it.

Stratford’s protagonist, Canadian-American Maisie Musgrove, is gauche and a bit overwrought at first, but this allows us to see the peculiarly British system that makes up the BBC. It’s one that has the latitude to offer opportunities to women — when everyone thinks it will fail — and then squeeze them out casually once the power of the institution becomes clear.

Musgrove’s transformation is gradual and affecting. Though desperate for a job, any job, at the start she soon comes to realise the power of sound and voice. She begins to listen to the people on the trams, the click of heels on lino, and appreciates the artistry but also the science behind the broadcasts. When an emergency requires use of the old 2LO transmitter, Hilda introduces Maisie to its intricacies and she’s captivated by its magic ‘but it wasn’t magic. It was better. This was the result of endless questions, the search for answers.’

The pace is breezy: I read two-thirds of it in one evening, but there’s a lot of history and information here too. In the lead up to the second world war, there are a lot of people who want to commandeer the power of the new medium and very real intrigues went on behind the scenes. Matheson’s determination to keep the plurality of voices represented is something, alas, the BBC seems to have lost.

I appreciated the author’s note at the end and just ordered Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC which Stratford recommends. The book is out in the US too (though the cover isn’t as pretty, as usual). A very fun read that’s also chock full of interesting history.

Review: Much Ado about Nothing @DundeeRep


I am grateful to have so many opportunities to enjoy Dundee Rep, though I am shaking my fist to know I will miss for the second time my pal Gary Robertson’s latest play Scaffies which will be on in late January after I have to return stateside. However, I’m looking forward to their production of The Scottish Play in the Botanic Gardens: what a great idea!

Saturday we caught Much Ado about Nothing, the Bard’s light-hearted tale of trickery, mockery and a little love. Designer Ken Harrison prepared what seems like an enormous castle with a lot of different spaces for people to listen and mishear. Director Irene Macdougall has the actors making good use of all the walls, pillars and corners even between the acts, as there is no curtain.

The cast were all terrific. I loved that the evil Don John is costumed as a kind of Puritan or maybe Huguenot in contrast to the other merry folk. I particularly liked Jo Freer as a bawdy Margaret and Anne Louise Ross (Granny Island!) did doubly duty as the solemn Friar or Abbess and as the stiff comic foil Verges with Anthony Strachan’s Dogberry. Great comedy work there.

Of course the heart of the story is the witty battle between Beatrice and Benedick. Robert Jack brought a great physical ease to the role which often tends to rest on the words alone. Lots of fun. Emily Winter was in every way his match, confident and strong as well as hilarious. Beatrice is a complicated role because she also has to make you weep for poor, wronged Hero (Marli Siu) and Winter really tore your heart out with the speech that includes those indelible lines, ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.’

Running two more weekends. Go see it.

Review: Upstart Crow

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 15.27.23

The final episode of the first series of Upstart Crow has aired and David Mitchell, who stars as the bard himself, confirmed on Twitter that there will be a second series. It follows the adventures of the up-and-coming playwright who still finds himself  struggling to make his mark in the hurlyburly of Elizabethan England. Action moves between London and Stratford, where Anne Hathaway, the children and his parents wait for him to hit it big. Rival playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene (Tim Downey and Mark Heap respectively) add conflict and competition while the landlord Bottom (Rob Rouse) and his daughter Kate (Gemma Whelan) try to help him out of his seemingly inevitable scrapes.

On the plus side, Mitchell is appealing in this shaping of Shakespeare as a dogged plodder to whom nothing comes easily and revision is his best friend. While the writing occasionally gives way to ‘it wasn’t all genius eh?’ sneers (more about that in moment), Mitchell brings to life the reality of someone who doesn’t have all the advantages of school and wealth like the envious Greene (who indeed called him ‘upstart crow’) but quite yearns to have that success (and he did, hence Greene’s seething envy). The cast as a whole are quite good. Heap has heaps of fun as Greene, Downey makes Marlowe the cool guy everyone wants to hang with. Liza Tarbuck gives Anne Hathaway a no-nonsense briskness that makes her a perfect partner to the constantly anxious Will. I like how the episodes end with the two of them talking things over together by the fire.

The actors Burbage, Condell and Kemp (Steve Spiers, Dominic Coleman, and Spencer Jones) have only had moments to be on stage, ironically. It would be great to see more of the theatre in the second series. Kemp’s dead-on mimicking of Gervais is hilarious the first time, but wears thin with repetition. It’s not the actor’s fault: it’s repetitious schtick.

And that’s the main problem. It’s all written by Ben Elton and well, it has all the problems that suggests. Elton and Richard Curtis — two writers whose work I mostly loathe — managed to write one of the finest comedy series around, Blackadder (there is a nice nod to Blackadder fans in the 6th episode). I don’t know how, maybe they beat the worst things out of each other. Comedy is often better with two people; that tension is useful.

The sad parts of Elton’s writing come through in far too much vulgarity (Shakepeare knew how and when to use it for best effect, not as a comedy sledgehammer), formulaic structure and especially for Kate, far too much very modern gender essentialism. I suppose some of it is just a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder (see joke Ep 6) effect of writing about a genius: Stoppard managed it well in Shakespeare in Love and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. You may notice some of his joke reappearing here.

The most grinding bore though is the formula though: oh here it comes, another thin series of jokes about transport between London and Stratford (isn’t privatisation great?), Mitchell manages to sell most of them anyway, but I admit to wincing every time they started. It’s a fun idea to have Shakespeare’s daughter a gloomy teen, but Helen Monks deserves better than a one-note part. Likewise Harry Enfield, who can be funny, but not here (comedy sledgehammer) and Kemp embodying Gervais’ smug obnoxiousness: one note. Let’s hope there’s a bit more of a melody in series two because the cast is good and the concept potentially rich with comedy.