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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Oliver! – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

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Image: Graeme Braidwood

Bart’s beloved adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel is a firm favourite with young and old alike, and a stock production for youth theatres across the globe.  It is, therefore, a challenge for any theatre company to produce an Oliver! that is both distinctive and freshly entertaining, but the Royal & Derngate Young Company and Youth Theatre have struck it rich, and didn’t even have “to pick a pocket or two”.

Effectively holding the attention of the audience, by simple virtue of their unwavering energy and raw talent, the company tell the tale of the young Oliver Twist with clarity and enthusiasm. From the screams of Oliver’s mother as she collapses on stage about to give birth, to the raucous Food, Glorious Food, sung by a company of talented performers as young as eight years old, the opening scenes immediately captivate the interest, and it just continues from there.

With all the trappings of Dickensian London: poverty, cruelty, crime, corruption, and murder, not to mention the vast chasm between rich and poor that punctuates the story, Oliver! is as fascinating today as it was in the mid-19th Century, when Dickens first published it, and in 1960 when the musical premiered in the West End.

The immediately recognisable, utterly hummable tunes echo harmoniously around the auditorium, as every single chorus is sung with gusto and, perhaps surprisingly for an amateur youth production, almost always in tune. The solo performances are equally strong, and Musical Director James Clements has worked in a number of particularly beautiful moments between actor and orchestra to deliver something extra special. Notably, the hilarious ‘conversation’ between Fagin and one over-eager violinist, offers a comical depth to an already stunning solo performance by Luke Nunn (Fagin).

There are very few weak performances, and there are some particularly notable talents. Lauren Moody offers an iridescent and characterful performance as Nancy, and Ryan McLean’s Bumble, despite being fairly unconvincing as an old, fat man (but then that’s pretty impossible when you are under 21 years of age), is effortlessly comical and a delight to watch. The young boy in the title role (Curtis Sloan) has a cheeky innocence about him that is truly captivating, and even Sikes’ dog, Bullseye, played by Blue Morgan, owns the stage whenever he’s on it.

Carl Davies’ set is essentially two sets of stairs with a central balcony, but by simply moving wooden benches and boxes around, and flying in objects from above, it transforms from a dreary workhouse, to Fagin’s colourful den of iniquity, and then to Mr Brownlow’s affluent home. Coupled with some effective sound and lighting from James Delamere and Andy Cox, the frenzied hunt for Bill Sikes, and Fagin’s poignant exit, are truly evocative.

With such a bunch of highly talented and enthusiastic young performers, you get the impression [They]’d Do Anything to put a smile on the faces of the audience, and they definitely succeed. Despite the plethora of Oliver!s that have preceded it, Christopher Elmer-Gorry’s production is anything but samey, and far from uninteresting.  While still retaining the comfortable familiarity of Bart’s epic musical, the pure passion and joy in this company’s performance means that this production of Oliver!feels wonderfully fresh and new.

Four stars

I saw Oliver! at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Leicester on 14th July 2016

The Reviews Hub

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

King Lear – The Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Michael Pennington as Lear and Beth Cooke as CordeliaImage: Marc Brenner

It is true to say that the ultimate success or failure of any performance of King Lear hangs precariously on the ability of one man: the one chosen to play the titular role.

In this new production of Lear, we are not disappointed with recent Olivier award nominee, Michael Pennington, who reprises his celebrated performance of the aged king. Having recently paced angrily about the “great stage of fools” at the Shakespeare Center in New York, Pennington’s Lear seems like a culmination of a lifetime’s work – a pinnacle of a wonderful career on the stage.

There is always a worry that a Lear is cast who would either be too young to carry infirmity convincingly, or too old to have enough stamina for the gruelling demands of the role, but Pennington is perfect for the part. He appears genuinely doddery, and yet is equipped with enough endurance and energy to be able to carry it off with remarkable skill.

King Lear is the ultimate story of family tragedy and the destruction of a dynasty, brought about by the vanity of an old man who fails to discern the difference between the ugliness of counterfeit love from the gentle modesty of true loyalty, until it is too late.

Asking his three daughters to profess their love for him as he apportions out his kingdom to each of them, Lear elicits nothing but empty flattery from the self-serving Goneril and Regan, played by Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, but his youngest daughter, Cordelia, played by Beth Cooke, cannot find the words to express her great love and loyalty for her father. His vanity becomes folly as he assumes her refusal to flatter him means she does not love him, and he disinherits her as a result.

Left with no kingdom, since he has passed it all on to Goneril and Regan, Lear only has his old friend Gloucester, played by Pip Donaghy, a Fool, two deceitful daughters and a pack of a hundred hangers-on for company. But then when Goneril coldly demands that he must reduce his retinue to stay with her, and when he is turned out of doors on a stormy night by the callous Regan too, Lear descends into madness as he realises what he has done.

With a wind machine and sound and lighting effects creating havoc onstage, Webster’s storm is epic in its intensity. From the opening scene to the tragic climax, Max Webster’s production is packed full of sound and fury, but it also allows for more introspection than many productions before it. Pennington’s Lear, although suitably loud and raging when his anger swells, is generally a softer and quieter Lear who comes across as a naive and foolish man, blinded to the true nature of his own daughters by his vain pride.

With an ensemble cast led by Pennington, there are some stand-out performances. Most notably, Joshua Elliot brings raw new talent to the portrayal of the Fool, a challenging part that he not only completely nails, but also manages to add a freshness to it that is rarely seen. Gavin Fowler, too, as Edgar, progresses from a carefree young man through feigned madness to mature protector with exceptional dexterity. And Bailey and Scott both degenerate horribly but perfectly towards the destructive jealousy that ultimately destroys them both. Unfortunately, however, Scott Karim’s portrayal of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, lacks a little in terms of credibility, but thankfully this is more than made up by the rest of the cast.

This production, however, truly belongs to Pennington, whose portrayal of the king who loses his mind is staggering in its mastery. He slips in and out of lucidity with alarming ease, and his quiet contemplations and momentary flashes of rage on the road to his ultimate downfall are exquisite in their execution. This truly is a performance not to be missed.

Four and a half stars

I saw King Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Leicester on 5th April 2016

The Reviews Hub

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

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

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There is a reason it’s called Jeeves & Wooster, not Wooster & Jeeves. The perfect gentleman’s gentleman deserves top billing. He is brilliant, quick-thinking, resourceful and reliable. P.G. Wodehouse’s famous literary toff has his butler to thank for making his life go smoothly, but in this show even Jeeves needs an assistant to really make it work.

In Perfect Nonsense, Bertie Wooster takes to the stage for the first time, having decided that this acting lark could be rather fun. Breaking through the fourth wall almost immediately, he begins to relate a story to the audience but has no real plan of how he will portray the events and the characters. Enter Jeeves, stage right – the unflappable butler who has the knack of ensuring everything works out. Becoming stage manager, props master and supporting actor; managing some truly farcical on-stage doubling, which sees him play two contrasting parts simultaneously, Joseph Chance’s Jeeves truly is the ideal valet.

The plot does seem like a whole lot of nonsense, but that’s the fun of it, having been faithfully adapted by Robert and David Goodale from Wodehouse’s third novel, The Code of the Woosters. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia tasks her nephew with the important acquisition of a cow creamer, a silver cow-shaped cream jug, but when he meets the father of his best friend’s girlfriend, Sir Watkyn Bassett, in the antique shop, things go a little awry.

With Bertie relating his story to the audience, much of Wodehouse’s original, beautifully figurative, language remains intact. While he plays himself in the retelling, the two supporting cast members, in the shape of Jeeves and Aunt Dahlia’s ageing butler Seppings, manage to play all the many other parts between them. Jeeves introduces Seppings as a man who is good at impressions, and so he is. Robert Goodale, who co-wrote the play with his brother David, delivers an outstanding performance as the geriatric manservant. Goodale plays Seppings acting as Aunt Dahlia, fascist Roderick Spode and more, and it is sometimes hard to keep up. He seems to have boundless energy and his portrayal of the nine-foot tall Spode is downright hilarious. While Jeeves works tirelessly to get Bertie out of trouble, his assistance from Seppings is key to the success of the show.

Sean Foley’s original direction is ingenious. With slick scene transitions, and even slicker costume changes that are enough to wow even the most experienced theatregoer, the cast keeps the audience on its toes, particularly in the second half of the play. While the pace of the first half struggles a little and Bertie, played by Matthew Carter, takes a bit of time to warm up to, he does personify a newt-impersonating lunatic tremendously well.

Much has to be said of the ever-changing scenery with subtle, but effective, changes drawing delighted oohs and ahhs from the audience. Not to mention a wonderful representation of Bertie’s car waiting at a level crossing that is a moment of pure delight. But this is not a perfect production, nor is it meant to be. With backdrops failing to drop and the curtain falling when it shouldn’t, there is more than a slight nod to Noises Off here.

Without his trusty butler, there’s no doubt Bertie Wooster would be a total disaster, and his first foray into the theatre business no exception, but it is not just Jeeves who pulls it off in this production. Chance and Goodale together make a delightful pairing, and while this play is not perfect, it does make for a spiffingly marvellous night out.

Four stars

I saw Jeeves & Wooster at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton on 5th October 2015

The Reviews Hub

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

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – Curve, Leicester

Adrian_Mole_Pamela_RaithPhoto: Pamela Raith

Watched Adrian Mole tonight. Laughed my socks off because it was dead good. Wanted to watch it all over again, but found out the cast can only do it once a night. Just my luck.

Sue Townsend’s awkward young anti-hero is still adorable. From the very first pages of her 1982 novel, Adrian’s teenage angst, intellectual aspirations and romantic longings have drawn the reader in. His guileless and hilarious diary entries have amused and delighted millions in the three decades since its first publication, and despite the novel’s ability to effortlessly capture the spirit of the 1980s, it somehow feels timeless.

This spanking new musical adaptation carries the essence of the original novel to the stage and brings the iconic characters to life. The ten strong cast includes four youngsters, and all deliver something truly exceptional. The rôle of Adrian is shared by four different actors and, at the performance viewed, Joel Fossard-Jones played the part with sensitivity and perfect comic timing. Bullied by Barry Kent, Adrian confronts him and then deftly and hilariously admits that, “A little bit of wee came out,” to roars of uncontrollable laughter from the audience.

Adrian is deeply in love with Pandora, the politically outspoken new girl at Neil Armstrong Comprehensive School. But so is his friend Nigel. When Pandora chooses Nigel and Adrian’s mother runs off with Mr ‘Creep’ Lucas from next door, Adrian and his dad are both left contemplating lost love.

It is the cast that are the true making of this show. Every single one of them puts in a flawless performance. Kirsty Hoiles, as Adrian’s mother Pauline, does seem to channel Les Miserables’ Madame Thenardier at the beginning of the show, making her seem a little too much like a caricature initially, but as we watch her character develop, her performance gains depth and genuine feeling. Her hapless husband, George, is played by Neil Ditt and, although his vocals are a little weak compared with the rest of the extremely accomplished cast, his portrayal of the rejected and redundant father is unexpectedly touching.

It is the insight into the parental relationships and the ability to see through the eyes of the other characters that takes this production beyond Townsend’s initial perspective. Hearing more voices than just Adrian’s helps to bring a greater depth to the story, even if it is not completely true to the diary form. What Jack Brunger has been careful to keep in his adaptation, however, is all those memorable lines from the original text, a great many of which he and Pippa Cleary have set to song. Adrian’s beautifully eccentric poetry sounds yet more genius when sung and the repeated refrain of “Pandora! I adore ya,” just warms the heart somehow.

Some of the musical composition seems fairly prosaic, but other numbers are simply outstanding. (Grandma) Rosemary Ashe’s performance of How Could You early in the second act is a stunning performance from a consummate professional, and the ‘experimental nativity’ number performed by the whole company is expertly choreographed by Tim Jackson. Appropriately and uproariously irreverent, the gospel vibe along with the comical lyrics and the hysterically funny birth of the baby Jesus are all magnificently memorable.

Director Luke Sheppard has definitely produced a winner here, greatly assisted by brilliant casting by Will Burton and a beautifully versatile set by Tom Rogers. It is the perfect treat to entertain the family; a show that starts well and just gets better and better until it ends – leaving you wanting to see it all over again.

Four and a half stars

I saw The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ at Curve, Leicester on 17th March 2015

The Reviews Hub

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

Life of Pi – Book review

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Being given an unfortunate name is quite simply one of the worst things that can happen to a person in the first few days of their life. It has an impact on the entire rest of their lives. But for Piscine “Yes, I am named after a swimming pool” Molitor Patel, it wasn’t the only unfortunate thing he had to deal with. The taunts from his peers were bad enough, but shipwrecked and stuck on a lifeboat with a massive Bengal tiger and only sea as far as the eye can see. That’s pretty bad luck!

Piscine, or Pi, as he later calls himself, is adorable in this novel by Yann Martel. I deliberately didn’t want to watch the movie before delving into the book, and it has taken me a while to get around to reading it, so I have had to try pretty hard to avoid the film. But I am very glad I waited. The book is exquisitely written. Every word draws you in to Pi’s narrative, every new character is intricately sculpted, especially the animal characters.

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The zoological references are peppered throughout the book, leaving you with a much greater knowledge and understanding of the animal kingdom without the feeling you have been lectured to. It is like delving into the undergrowth with David Bellamy (a reference for the older ones among us), or at times like being in an episode of Animal Planet.

The Life of Pi is a spiritual journey, an outstanding study into the remarkable endurance of the human spirit, and an insight into the world beyond the restrictive borders of mankind. Martel’s narrative draws the reader into scene after scene of horrifying beauty and somehow makes the impossible possible in a plot that is both fantastical and terrifyingly real.

Amazing!