Tuesdays with Morrie – book review

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I have been told that Tuesdays with Morrie is a sentimental book with not much to offer in a literary sense. To be honest, I can see where people who say that are coming from.

However, my maternal uncle died from Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it is called in America, and in this book) so I was nonetheless intrigued to read about another’s experience of the illness.

Morrie Schwartz was a real person, a university professor, and Mitch Albom was his student from a number of years previously. Tuesdays with Morrie was essentially written as a memoir: focusing on the last fourteen Tuesdays of his life, where the professor would impart his final teachings to his student and, in so doing, the rest of the world.

That definitely has the ring of ‘cheesiness’ about it, for sure, but for those who are prepared to delve deeper, this is so much more than an uplifting read about a dying man’s desire to pass on life’s lessons to those who are still living. It is a powerful insight into a truly horrendous disease, and a moving account of one man’s impact on others.

Unlike some of his other novels, such as the surreal The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom appears as himself in this book. A driven and ambitious journalist whose desire for more and more success sent him chasing after the unobtainable and missing the point of life, Albom found himself staring at an emaciated version of his old university professor on the television one moment,and getting on to a plane to see him the next.

What transpired was an arrangement for regular meetings, on Tuesdays, in which Albom would fly 700 miles to sit down and talk with his old sociology professor, watch him undergo painful physical therapy and witness the often humiliating effects of his disease. Albom reports all of these, as any good journalist might, in what becomes a real page-turner of a memoir, filled with honest observations and contemplations on life, the universe and everything.

Interspersed into the narrative are reflections on the past; moments that show Morrie as he was, and fill in the necessary gaps in the understanding of a man who seems, at times, too good to be true. Morrie is the quintessential ‘perfect professor’, who inspires all he meets with simple, yet effective, maxims on the meaning of life.

“Learn how to live and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll know how to live.”

However, there are so many good reasons to read this book that don’t centre around the lessons of life. Albom’s writing style is one. His ability to take you within a situation, and a person’s mind, in so few words, is inspiring to any writer. His perspective, viewed through imagery that is not only honest and revealing, but sometimes just plain entertaining, is entirely captivating.

“In his graduation day robe, he [Morrie] looks like a cross between a biblical prophet and a Christmas elf.”

I stormed through this book in just one day – it really was that readable – and I couldn’t put it down. If it had just been a book full of cheesy platitudes, I would have slung it back on the shelf quicker than you could eat a gorgonzola sandwich, but these are not useless life lessons. On the contrary, Albom is giving the reader a moment to (in the immortal words of the great Ferris Bueller) “stop and look around once in a while.” And that’s always a good idea.

Perhaps the most effective truism in the book, the one that will stay with me, is this. Morrie coped with his illness by ‘detaching’ from it. Not in the way we usually detach from things that we struggle with…by ignoring they exist, letting our feelings bottle up and then exploding at a later date, because we haven’t dealt with them properly. He encourages the reader to fully feel, but he also didn’t advocate dwelling on things. Morrie’s style of detachment meant feeling something fully, then putting it to one side and getting on with feeling other, more positive emotions.

“Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.”

And that’s what will stay with me. That’s why I’m glad I read this book.

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Outings – Curve, Leicester

 

Featured image, Rainbow Flag, for Outings

The concept of this show is a simple but brilliant exploration into real-life coming-out stories. Launched on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, the script is a powerfully woven patchwork piece of over 20 true stories collected from online submissions, interviews and even celebrity accounts pieced together by writers Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin.

The way these stories are presented is equally different. Don’t go expecting a slick professional performance, because some of the actors may have only been given the script a short time before. Featuring a rolling programme of guest performers, alongside two resident actors, the whole show is delivered with the four cast members reading from scripts while sitting on clear plastic stools and occasionally sipping from nearby bottles of water.

There is the distinct impression that this is more of a presentation than a play, and no doubt that is the idea, but it is a shame that the format sometimes gets in the way of allowing the audience to get close to the characters, the real people, represented in it. The idea of using guest performers to demonstrate that these stories could be anybody’s is an admirable one, but sadly it does affect the quality of the presentation.

Nonetheless, this show offers a candid, often touching, regularly funny, and sometimes painful insight into the real lives of people from the LGBT community. Directed by David Grindley, the cast delivers some strong performances, despite being sometimes constricted by the rainbow-coloured scripts in front of them. Resident performer, Camille Ucan, is particularly convincing as a transgender young woman whose journey of discovery leads her to dress as a man in drag to try to make sense of how she feels. Ucan’s portrayal gently carries the audience along with her as she comes to the realisation that really ‘she’ should be a ‘he’.

Andrew Doyle is solid throughout, but saves his best performance till the end, as the boy who morphs from fat kid to anorexic emo in his teen years. Disappointed by his mother’s calm reaction to the news that he is gay, he throws a diva hissy fit until she agrees to replay the exchange and “throws him out” in disgust. Caroline Lennon, as the compliant mother, is perfect. Asking him “Do you feel better now?” his gratitude is hilariously out of place, but ever so genuine. That definitely sounds like a fun family to be a part of.

Hardeep Singh Kohli, as guest actor, puts in a memorable array of performances, from the gloriously camp to the painfully tragic. His most touching performances include a young man who was tortured in a 1960s “loony-bin” by vomit-inducing injections while trapped in a room with pints of Guinness and pictures of men in swimsuits; and as the jailed RAF medic who is branded with a criminal record for gross indecency for simply being gay.

That is the greatest thing about this show. The stark, wonderful, heart-wrenching and refreshing reality of it. In terms of set design, lighting and sound, however, it is nothing special. It is a shame the touring production has abandoned the original backdrop of handwritten notes and pictures, they are replaced by a large suspended sign with the title of the show on it, and more could have been done to give the stories some atmosphere with sound and lighting.

The presentation-style concept works to an extent, but sometimes it means the substance is lost. Giving this show some more drama could have done more to really do these wonderful stories justice.

Three stars

I saw Outings at Curve, Leicester on 26th February 2016

The Reviews Hub

Originally written for http://www.thereviewshub.com and reproduced here with their permission

“Ultimately, I’m going to be the Queen”

Heidi face on

Heidi Agan tells Claire Going how she went from being a waitress to the future queen of England and reflects on three years as a royal lookalike.


I’m sitting in a swanky hotel just off the A14 in Northamptonshire and a very familiar face walks in. There is something decidedly uncanny about this woman and I’m not the only one who notices. There are business executives sitting nearby who look up from their laptops and lattes and gaze at Kate Middleton as she breezes in and sits down opposite me. It kind of makes me feel important.

But royalty are not usually accustomed to meeting journalists for coffee and behind us the businesspeople quickly go back to their discussions, having ruled out the possibility that the visitor really is the Duchess of Cambridge. And they would be right. Heidi Agan is a Kate Middleton lookalike. It’s quite a different story, though, when she strolls through Times Square in New York, flanked by bodyguards, or stands on Westminster Bridge with a television cameraman. Sometimes she is completely mobbed.

Three years ago Heidi was waitressing at Frankie and Benny’s, just trying to pay the bills as a single mother. Customers would comment on her similarity to the Duchess but she just brushed it off. “When I watched the wedding, certain angles she turned I thought that could be me,” she said, “but I still didn’t believe it.” A family friend took some pictures of her and she was eventually persuaded.

“I didn’t believe you could earn a living looking like somebody, but everyone was saying I should do it so I finally googled lookalike agencies and sent my picture off. I got my first job four days later.”

No stranger to showbiz, Heidi’s mum was a contortionist on Opportunity Knocks and her dad was in a band. Heidi had done a little acting as a youngster, playing an extra in the TV series’ Crossroads and Boon. Being a lookalike is, after all, an acting job, but this was evidently going to require a lot more than just her appearance.

Take a guess at the number of Kate Middleton lookalikes that are currently strutting their pregnant stuff on the pages of agency portfolios and you might be surprised that there are close on 200 out there. So why is it that when you google Kate Middleton, Heidi’s face pops up in the image results?

She puts it down to luck. After doing a charity event she was interviewed by the Birmingham Mail, and when it went out the following day she was stunned by the response. “My life completely changed overnight” she reflects; and it seems that three years later she still finds it astonishing, “It got to the point where my dad answered the phone and said if they want to speak to me they’re going to have to wait until tomorrow.”

It was a swift learning curve for Heidi, though. “I think the two things I learnt were how to deal with the press and that internet trolls are real.” She has had death threats and people saying she is scrounging off another person’s life. “I think some people don’t understand what we do. This is an actual job and people hire us to act as people because, let’s be honest, the royal family is not going to rock up to everybody’s event.”

What is evident is that she puts a great deal of hard work into what she does. “You can’t go into it without doing your research because there’s always that one person who will ask what your dog’s name is, or where’s Harry today and you have to know that stuff.”

The clothes are important. Heidi looks the part in knee-high boots and a plum coat that are the brands Kate wears, but the job demands more than simply an authentic look. She has had to learn how to pose for photographs, how to improvise ‘royal’ small talk, has a foam fake baby bump and has even changed her accent.

As she is explaining how she has managed all these things I am struck by the similarity between what she does and being a long-term character in a soap opera. She has taken on a persona, she acts as that person day in and day out; she is living two completely different lives.

The difference is that Heidi has no script and no director to help her do it right. “It’s improvisation most of the time and there is a lot expected of me. Sometimes they say can you come and wow these people and there is a lot of pressure on me.” But she loves the fact she is promoting Britishness, and is enjoying the rollercoaster ride.

Last year Heidi flew first class to Melbourne to appear in a Chinese commercial for Jersey milk. She also performed in a mock opera on the Edinburgh Fringe. She namedrops a few other places her job has taken her to: Verona, Cologne, Hong Kong….“I have the most bizarre conversations with people now,” she says. “My parents ask where I am next week and I reply that I’m going to be in Austria with Harry Potter and the Queen.”

She is grateful that her life has taken this turn. “Waitressing, I would never have done these things, so it’s the biggest blessing that I look like somebody that people want, and as a member of the royal family you’re not really going to fall out of fashion.”

And the future? “I will ultimately be Queen, and that’s nice.”

Abigail’s Party at Curve, Leicester – A Review

Cringing but Crying with Laughter

Not a single word has been spoken when the first laughs come.

It’s testament to the fact that, in this production of Abigail’s Party it is not just Mike Leigh’s brilliantly comedic script, but also the sheer physical expression that the actors convey which leaves the audience both uncomfortable and rolling in the aisles.

It is a rare gift, to be able to make people laugh and squirm at the same time, but this new production of Abigail’s Party has managed to achieve exactly that.

The architecture of the Curve Theatre in Leicester lends itself well to the theatre in the round, but this is the first time such a production has been staged here and no doubt it won’t be the last. The audience is practically pulled into the party as they surround the stage.

Sitting around the low stage, the living room and all its accoutrements are close enough to touch and it feels like you are sitting right inside Beverly and Laurence’s kitsch living room.

It’s all here; the loud, orange carpet, shag-pile cushions, fibre optic spray lamp, record player and silver (plate) candelabra transport you back to 1977, not to mention the drinks cabinet complete with pineapple shaped ice bucket and soda syphon.

The action is at times fast paced, at others filled with the kind of awkward silences and wooden conversation you would find at an unsuccessful party…. it is the kind of party we have all been to and the kind we all wish we hadn’t.

But this isn’t Abigail’s party. Abigail is the teenage daughter of divorcee Sue, who Beverly has invited round so her daughter can party without mum in the way.

Beverly has also invited new neighbours Tony and Angela, although we get the distinct impression that her husband Laurence isn’t exactly in the mood for a party.

Laurence, played by Patrick Moy, is an angina attack waiting to happen. He is constantly agitated and preoccupied with his work as an estate agent for Wibley Webb. The way he pronounces the name of his employer is itself a scream.

Moy’s characterisation is completely credible as the ambitious but nervy and overly tense middle class man who is concerned that his neighbourhood is becoming more downmarket and is continually frustrated by his empty-headed wife.

Emily Head’s portrayal of Angela is suitably sweet and ditzy and her quirky dancing is both wonderfully awkward and delightfully hilarious.

Her tightly monosyllabic ex-footballer husband, Tony, played by Cary Crankson, visually loosens up as his blood-alcohol levels rise throughout the play, eliciting more laughs from the audience as he responds to the advances of Beverly like a giant, sleepy koala hugging a tree.

The tension in Jackie Morrison’s Sue is palpable, not just because of her worries about her daughter’s wild party antics up the street, but as Beverly and Angela hilariously make insensitive references to her divorce we see her polite discomfort rise towards breaking point.

The irony of nurse Angela’s attempt to make her comfortable by stuffing cushions behind her, to the extent she is actually tipping forward, is emblematic of the way the play is so uncomfortable, and so gloriously comical.

Of course, the pivotal character in the whole debacle is Beverly. In a role made famous by Alison Steadman, Natalie Thomas is very well-suited.

There are comforting references back to Steadman’s portrayal, but Thomas adds to these and, in so doing, makes it her own.

From her side-splitting sexual dancing display to her self-absorbed insensitivity, Thomas’s Beverly is most definitely stunning. You can’t help but love her and hate her all at the same time.

The climax of the play features a picture that Beverly considers a piece of erotic art, but that Laurence despises as pornographic rubbish, but when Beverly brings in the picture it is a shame that where we were sitting we were unable to see what all the fuss was about.

This kind of thing is always a drawback with theatre in the round, but then does it really matter? This play is all about the characters.

Despite being set in the 1970s, Abigail’s Party is timeless. All the seventies icons and references are mere framing. The real brilliance of this play is the characterisation.

Everyone in the audience has undoubtedly met people just like Mike Leigh’s characters. They are not simple cariacatures, they are just like real people, and coupled with the normality of the setting and the situation, this is what makes it all the more uncomfortable.

It’s horrible. It’s excruciating to watch. But, as Beverly would say, it’s ‘fantastic!’

I saw Abigail’s Party at Curve Leicester on Friday 17th October 2014. The play is running until Saturday 8th November 2014

More information can be found by visiting www.curveonline.co.uk

The Thinker got me thinking…

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During my recent exploration of Paris I came across a thought…

What was Rodin really thinking when he sculpted The Thinker? Who really knows? I certainly thought a lot when I was sitting on the bench in the sunny garden, contemplating his masterpiece.

As I thought about the meaning of life and the, often surprising, strength of the human form, both externally and mentally, I spotted something…

There was a woman, among many other tourists in the garden, taking a photograph of the sculpture with her tablet computer. Nothing unusual these days, I hear you say.  However, this woman was taking her photograph with the protective film still over the screen, the one that comes with the tablet in the box.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, only for the fact that on it was printed all sorts of information about the tablet…”Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, 1.4Ghz Quad Core CPU, WiFi Certified, Bluetooth Smart Ready…” and this information (however helpful) was surely getting in the way of her being able to see the photograph she was taking.

It made me wonder.  What filters do we have that are getting in the way of us seeing things as they really are, or as the artist intended them to be?

I guess it might be that the busyness of our lives crowds our thoughts so much that we cannot see the art for the activities of life, that the hustle and bustle gets in the way.  I sometimes see people in museums and galleries, so eager to get to see the next exhibit that they don’t take the time to stop and contemplate.  Our lives are so rushed and there is so much to see, that sometimes we don’t actually see anything at all!

Maybe we have concerns and worries that cloud our perspective.  Looking at Rodin’s Thinker, might remind us of the way in which our life’s troubles are weighing us down and causing us emotional distress.

Perhaps we have been working out at the gym (fat chance for me…quite literally!  But people do…) and staring up at the beautifully toned and perfectly sculpted Thinker might make us think about the power in the human form, or conversely may give us a sense of inadequacy in our own flabby bits…?

The thing is though, whatever we might think is unlikely to be exactly what was on Rodin’s mind when he sculpted The Thinker because we all, in some way, have a clouded perspective.  We all view life, and art, through a filter…

…what’s yours?