Tuesdays with Morrie – book review

tuesdayswithmorrie

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

Oliver-prod2

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

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

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Curve, Leicester

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed ThingImage: Micheka Bodlovic

There aren’t many productions that leave an audience speechless, but this is one of them. Maybe it is something about Eimear McBride’s use of language in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing or the stark nakedness of Annie Ryan’s production choices, but there is no doubt that Aoife Duffin’s solo performance in this gutsy one-act play takes your breath away.

Told through the eyes of a girl, growing up in Ireland within a single parent family, McBride’s fast-moving stream of consciousness style of prose is deliberately fragmented and disorienting, but often poetic. With snatched impressions, half-phrases and disjointed images, Duffin delivers every line with an equal measure of passion and pain.

This is an often harrowing portrayal of the very Irish life story of a girl, from birth to the age of 20, and her brother who suffered from a brain tumour before she is born. She hears from within her mother’s womb that he has recovered, but that it will always be with him. Her brother is left with a scar on his head, and her mother is left by their father, who cannot cope.The account follows the girl’s life and is told always to her brother. There is the clear impression that the two of them are inextricably linked, and this is no more apparent than when his tumour returns. There is a definite malignancy running relentlessly through the entire play, as Duffin’s character suffers all kinds of sexual abuse that leave her hurting and send her in a downward spiral, with a distorted view of sex at an early age.

This is certainly a harrowing piece of theatre. Its raw and penetrating view of life in an Irish family delves deep into the nature of family, the Catholic faith, abuse, sickness and death. Ryan’s staging leaves nowhere for Duffin’s character to hide and we see her laid bare moment after moment as she relates her life in stark vacuity on stage.

The set is simple – a Brechtian-style open stage with a dirt floor and not a single prop used throughout. Duffin uses her body language and voice to convey every character and every emotion with exceptional skill. She is dressed simply and androgynously in check pyjama-style bottoms and a blue and grey jersey two-piece top – an equally appropriate representation of the brother as much as the girl. Over the course of the play, Duffin plays every character using simply a subtle change of stance and voice. Her masterful portrayal of staccato conversation between several characters is breathtaking, and the way she presents the abusive uncle is particularly chilling.

Ryan’s use of music, lighting and sound effects is perfectly done. From the small sound of a hospital monitor beeping to an almost imperceptible lowering of the lights, all the effects are so incredibly subtle as to not detract at all from Duffin’s performance, and yet work deftly to alter the atmosphere.

This is one of those productions that will stay with you, not only because of the idiosyncratic use of language and the heart-rending storyline but also because of Duffin’s astonishingly raw and naked delivery that sucks you into a world of sickness, rage, depravity and pain. Somehow, however, it also seems to enable you to tap into a real tenderness between two people whose lives and deaths are inexorably bound together.

Four and a half stars

I saw A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at Curve, Leicester on 11th February 2016

The Reviews Hub

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

The Herbal Bed – Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Emma Lowndes as Susanna Hall in The Herbal BedImage: Mark Douet

Love, lies and loyalty are themes which are embodied and explored in this revival of Peter Whelan’s play based on the real-life scandal surrounding Shakespeare’s daughter in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, co-produced by Royal & Derngate, Northampton with English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre, Kingston.

A passionate, yet not overstated, retelling of a tale to honour the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, this production examines the dramatic events that took place during the twilight of his life.  Although the character of Shakespeare does not appear on stage at any time, his very being nonetheless permeates the text.

This is a story of a real family drama, realised by Whelan from a close study of ecclesiastical court records and originally written in 1996. The records on which he bases his play document the circumstances in which Susanna Hall, daughter of Shakespeare and wife of the eminent Dr John Hall, was publicly accused of adultery with a family friend, Rafe Smith.The play opens with a visit to the Halls by the Bishop of Worcester and the pious and imposing Vicar General, who immediately sets Church against medicine in a discussion about whether disease is God’s punishment for sin. The theme of healing and the Church underscores the text, as Susanna and Rafe struggle to resist temptation and look to rationalise their clandestine actions by the justification that they are following the path of love to make themselves feel whole.

Emma Lowndes, as Susanna, sensitively plays the woman who desperately yearns to be touched. Her portrayal has a touch of Austen’s Elinor Dashwood about it – a woman who controls herself on the outside for the sake of loyalty and decorum but inside is burning with a desire to be loved.  Jonathan Guy Lewis, as her physician husband, John, really finds his energy in the second half of the play, as the full understanding of what has been going on between his wife and his friend hits home. The inner passion Guy Lewis conveys as Dr Hall is expertly tempered by his realisation of the impact such a scandal would have on his position.

The most striking thing about this play is its sensitivity. Despite many moments of bawdy humour, such as the masterpieces of wit crafted by Whelan and effortlessly delivered by Matt Whitchurch as the morally lacking, vulgar and dangerously lecherous young gentleman, Jack Lane, James Dacre’s production is an intelligent and compassionate exploration into truth and virtue.

Dacre has paid great attention to detail in this production, and Jonathan Fensom’s design is both unpretentious and beautifully effective. It is impressive that the scenery, props and costuming were produced in the Royal & Derngate workshops and all are of an extremely high standard. The design of the herb garden is remarkably calming; something which is extremely welcome given the high drama at various points in the play, and the imposing setting of the cathedral during the court scene is simple yet inescapably striking.

Perhaps the most heart-warming moment of the play is delivered by Charlotte Wakefield as Hester, Susanna’s servant girl. Torn between her loyalty to her mistress and her devotion to her religion, she looks up at the ceiling of the cathedral during the Vicar General’s inquisition and manages to reconcile both with a touching vision of God.

This production is both pleasing and morally challenging. It won’t blow you away, but it is a sensitive, well-written and beautifully crafted piece of theatre. Full of insight and appeal not only to lovers of history and Shakespeare, The Herbal Bed is also eternally relevant to all those who are interested in human relationships, love, sex and scandal. Hang on a minute, isn’t that all of us?

Four stars

I saw The Herbal Bed at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton on 9th February 2016

The Reviews Hub

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

Jersey Boys – Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Sam Ferriday, Matt Corner, Stephen Webb and Lewis Griffiths in JERSEY BOYS UK and Ireland tourImage: Helen Maybanks

Riding on the back of a huge wave that hit Broadway a decade ago and saw massive success in the West End, Jersey Boys may not have the original cast on this current tour, but that hasn’t stopped the magic one bit.

This is no ordinary jukebox musical. There is actually something real and gutsy about this show. Unlike other productions where a storyline is constructed around, and sometimes awkwardly shoe-horned into, musical numbers, Jersey Boys feels truly genuine, and that’s because it was based on the real lives and experiences of The Four Seasons themselves.

The story follows the band from their early beginnings to the highs and lows of stardom. On the way they experience relationship breakdowns, extreme debt, and bereavement; and their loyalty to each other is tested to the limit. The writing is superb, with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice delivering a brave yet sensitive account of the lives of four guys from New Jersey who made it out of a world of petty crime, prison time, and the power of the mob, to the top of the tree; all the while injecting an ample measure of humour which keeps the foot-tapping show bouncing along.

In order, however, for the show to work it is imperative that the actor playing Frankie Valli is able to sing like Frankie Valli. Let’s face it; it can’t be easy to replicate his falsetto voice, but Matt Corner, who plays him, has it all. Not only does he have the requisite vocal range, coupled with a beautiful tone that, if you close your eyes, really could be Valli himself; Corner also has an on-stage presence that draws you in and makes you believe in him. Tragedy marks moments of Valli’s career and Corner plays these with the perfect amount of gravity and sensitivity.

The other actors and musicians in the show are equally talented. Lewis Griffiths’ deep baritone, as Nick Massi, beautifully matches his strong, silent persona, but when he complains about tiny hotel soaps and explodes after ten years of keeping quiet about a problem he has with towels, his personality really comes to life in a delightful way.

Going to see a musical about some lads from New Jersey, you should definitely expect to hear that distinctive Jersey accent. It is just a small shame that at moments the accent is so strong that it is easy to lose parts of the dialogue and, on the night, a couple of the cast members slipped out of their accents momentarily. Nevertheless, the show is otherwise faultless. The back screen projections, designed by Michael Clark, perfectly frame each scene and add a great deal to the production. The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, is slick and instantly arresting from the very first scene.

This show has a great number of things going for it: the cast is extremely talented, and the energy they each put into every performance is incredible. Most of the actors play a number of parts, wear no end of wigs – kudos to Charles LaPointe, the Wig Designer who really had his work cut out for him here – and, on the night viewed, one of the female actors was unwell, so Leanne Garretty, Samantha Hull and Amy West did a truly amazing job of sharing all the female parts between them.

Jersey Boys is well worth a visit if you can get your hands on some tickets. It’s not quite five stars material, but it is close, and it’s certainly guaranteed to leave you with one thought at the end of the show – Oh, What a Night!

Four and a half stars

I saw Jersey Boys at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton on 27th January 2016

The Reviews Hub

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