Monday, 15 September 2014

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic


From the moment an impeccably dressed Gillian Anderson teeters across the stage as Blanche, designer luggage in tow and giant sunglasses covering most of her face, you know you’re in safe hands. If anything, she looks even more out of place than Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film rendition.

Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire still channels the sultry heat of New Orleans, where the French Quarter is home to a riotous cacophony of folk. However, this new stage version at the Young Vic uses modern trappings. Eunice (Clare Burt) is pure American white trash in frayed denim mini-skirt, leggings and open toed cork mules. It’s a laidback world where people drink late and rise late, and Stella (Vanessa Kirby) slips into it easily, ditching the airs of Belle Reve for midriff baring halter tops and skin-tight jeans. But it’s a risky world too. What looks like an old bruise on Stella’s back hints at her husband’s violence (or it’s simply a bruise. As Freud didn’t say, sometimes a banana is just a banana).

Anderson brings out the contradictions in Blanche—the moth-like destructibility but also an inner hardness. I like this Blanche – and I don’t like her. She’s catty, harsh, but also needy. She deals in fantasies but also understands the world better than her sister. Blanche’s attempts to cling to her old life and money, by wearing her armour of designer labels, barely disguise her fragility – shaky ankles that look like they might snap at any moment and neurotic nervousness as she explores the cramped apartment, looking for liquor. Anderson is funny too—she cranks up the humour of Blanche’s snobbish tendencies.

Ben Foster as Stanley is a slow-burner. At first I worried he didn’t have the presence (alas – Marlon Brando has forever set the bar ridiculously high) but soon you start to see his menace. Quiet, explosive, quiet, explosive, and there are some great touches in his mounting viciousness towards Blanche. At one point he offers her the phone as she waits, teetering on the brink of insanity for a call from Mitch, before pulling it back from her. A total psych.

The weak link for me is Stella. Vanessa Kirby plays Stella as a girly, floaty young thing, caught in a permanent post-coital glow. Well, that’s okay, but her accent kept slipping out of the American south and into something distinctly British (and possibly northern) in the showing we saw.

The staging turns us all into voyeurs. As anyone familiar with Streetcar knows, the action only takes place in Stanley and Stella’s tiny apartment. Kazan famously played out the growing claustrophobia, and literal and metaphorical entrapment of Blanche by moving the walls of the set in closer and closer throughout the scenes. 

The design here is similarly effective. The whole stage is a raised rectangle with the “rooms” of the apartment, however no walls. We can see through each room and the action going on in different parts simultaneously. The stage also rotates continuously – sometimes changing direction, mirroring Blanche’s tumultuous state of mind. The effect is fascinating. You see everything from different angles—sometimes your view is obscured, sometimes you’re forced to focus on Stanley in the living space while Stella and Blanche are talking in the bathroom at the other end. You’re an outsider looking in or a rubbernecker on the sidelines, watching the car wreck play out. It reminds us there are no simple answers with this play.

Benedict Andrews’ take on Tennessee Williams is captivating. It’s edgy, stifling, and simultaneously modern and retro (we get blasts of P J Harvey and Chris Isaak). Anderson is definitely the glue holding it all together though. She’s absolutely mesmerising, right up to the tragic mess she becomes, complete with red lipstick all over her face and then finally the broken, lost woman who has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Watch it if you can—it’s being shown in a live stream in UK cinemas.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Danny Torrance, the kid in Stephen King’s The Shining, is all grown up. And, perhaps, not surprisingly, he’s a bit screwed in the head. And who could blame him? Hearing voices, seeing dead people, getting throttled by a fishy dead woman, being chased by hedge animals, having to wear those flares (sorry – onto the movie) – poor Danny’s had a rough ride. That’s not even taking his alcoholic, wife-beating, murderous father into account.

Initially it looks like the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Danny—now Dan—has become everything he hated. A drifter addicted to booze and fights, he stumbles from one car wreck to the next, until he ends up stalling for a while in Frazier, New Hampshire – a sleepy small town where he discovers the Twelve Step Programme.

Add in a young girl, Abra who also “shines” with psychic powers, like Dan’s, and a bevy of vampiric “RV people” who spend their preternaturally long life shuffling across America in a convoy of motorhomes and feeding off kids who shine, and you can see where this novel is heading.

Doctor Sleep is typical fare in many ways. King has always been gifted at grabbing you straight away with detailed characterisation combined with increasingly spooky hints of nastiness to come. It’s generally later that things tend to fall apart (Cell anyone? 22.11.63?). And Doctor Sleep does grab you. That’s probably because King is cruising in his comfort zone. Anyone who’s read On Writing will know about his battles with addiction. Apparently at his worst the guy couldn't even remember writing Cujo, and would just wake in the morning to discover pages and pages he’d produced the night before. So Dan reads, well, very authentic. He’s engaging, you’re invested and there’s even a kind of horrific primal adult scene (no, not one of those) that you know is going to come back and bite him on the behind. Dan’s the "Doctor Sleep" of the title by the way, so called as his shining gives him the knack for ushering old folk in the hospice over the final threshold and into the great unknown.

These sections are well crafted by King, with just the right amount of sentimentality to make them moving rather than cheesy. And then there’s the True Knot--that herd of RV folk. They’re kinda creepy and certainly a bit odd. To keep young, strong and beautiful they must murder young children with the shining in the most horrific ways imaginable and then feed off their “steam”. Their leader is a nubile and alluring woman called Rose, with a freaky single long tooth (that as far as I can work out only appears when she’s feeding. Yummy). The True Knot meander to NYC in all readiness for 9/11 and hang out in Sinatra Park, feeding off the steam. Bleurgh.

I've got to be honest—I was worried when I first bought this book. And let’s face it, Doctor Sleep is a dreadful title (yes I know it refers to Dan, but it’s still abysmal. It sounds like something from the deliberately cheesy House of a 1000 Corpses). But I was pleasantly surprised (well, a little bit). It’s certainly not classic King, but it’s a reasonable length, has solid characterisation, is pacey, has some evocative passages and does tie everything up.

Okay, this ending might be a bit too neat, too tidy and too convenient – with no real sense of danger or urgency. A bit like it’s going through the motions. There’s some unconvincing later scenes with Abra’s parents and it all seems a bit like King is trying to race to the end, while some aspects of the plot that you’re just sure will develop into something, amount to nada. And I'm not sure how much you’d get out of it if you hadn't read or seen The Shining.


But on the whole, Doctor Sleep was a generally enjoyable read, even without being one of his greats. IT WAS OKAY. OKAY?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro


Kazuo Ishiguro returns to what interests him most in his Booker Shortlisted When We Were Orphans: the duplicity of memory, social mores and the fusion of Asian and English culture.

It’s 1930s England and Christopher Banks is in the process of becoming a famed detective.  Suddenly he finds himself on all the best guest lists and talked about on the social scene – ironic really as Banks seems an awkward, terribly English type, horrified by public displays of affection and he’d certainly never make a scene.

But then a scene is made and it’s all due to the magnetic and ballsy high society (well sort of) Sarah.  She wants Banks to add her as his ‘plus one’ to a charity dinner, he doesn't want to (even though he clearly fancies her) as he’s already said he’s going alone (did I say he’s terribly English?).

I can sympathise with Banks.  I mean, these kind of social quandaries often plague me.  What to do when you see someone you sort of know when you’re walking through town?  Do you make eye contact?  Nod?  Pretend you didn't see them?  Duck into a shop?  Cross the road to avoid the whole sorry dilemma and hope they didn't notice you?

If Banks is reminding you of another Ishiguro character, then I'm not surprised.  Come on, he’s clearly Stevens.  Good ol’ Stevens, our awfully repressed butler from Remains of the Day, who just couldn't articulate what he really wanted.  It’s hard to read When We Were Orphans and not hear Steven’s voice channelled through the first person narrative.

Anyway back to this Sarah.  She seems kind of interesting.  I wonder what role she’ll play in Banks’ story?  The answer is not much.  She’s what we might call a red herring (and there’s a lot of those in this book).  Instead we’re drawn further and further into Banks’ crazy, hallucinatory inner life and his decidedly unique way of looking at the world.

Banks’ parents mysteriously disappeared when he was a boy living in Old Shanghai – possibly kidnapped.  His father worked for Morganrook and Byatt doing something ‘official but a bit dodgy to do with opium’ while his mother was a very vocal campaigner against the opium trade – often at odds with those around her (you can see where this might be going).  As you’d expect, this childhood event has cast a shadow over Banks, and it’s not long before he returns to Shanghai to try and solve the old case.

One of the issues I have with When We Were Orphans is I feel a bit duped.  What starts out as a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective story, interspersed with Banks’ memories of his parents and Japanese friend Akira in Shanghai, soon morphs into something else completely.

The latter sections of the novel are pretty much unbelievable.  Ridiculous plotting and contrived coincidences abound as Banks does his detective thing in Shanghai.  He returns to his childhood home and the family living there invite him for dinner and then say they’ll move out once he rescues his parents (they went missing 25 years ago) so they can all move back in together happily.  Er…yeah.  Do you want to break it to him or shall I?  

Banks also heads right into the front line of the Sino-Japanese War, darting among the troops and locals, getting soldiers and police to drop their weapons and escort him about, even bumping into his childhood friend Akira.  As you do.  I was fully expecting some kind of deus ex machina ending – you know, like the ones in Star Trek when we find out the alien who’s been tormenting the Enterprise and is about to kill its crew is just a kid and now daddy alien has ticked him off and sent him home without tea.  However I can’t believe that Ishiguro suddenly decided to go all airport fiction on us.  It seems that Banks is simply a lot more unreliable than I originally thought.

Looking back there were early signs of course.  Two old school acquaintances remember Banks as a loner weirdo, something he strenuously denies and attempts to dispute by providing some detailed ‘un-loserish’ memories.  Perhaps the biggest clue comes with the games he played as a kid with Akira, endlessly re-enacting the rescue of his parents and a welcoming home ceremony in their honour.  It’s hard not to see this motif appearing in his adult life on his return to Shanghai, and the more I think about it, the more I'm not sure what I can actually trust about the earlier sections.  I mean, why exactly don’t we see him solving any of his famous cases?  Instead, we always seem to meet him after he’s solved another one.

I know Ishiguro enjoys writing about memory – and how there’s a gap between what happened and what you remember happened.  But for me, When We Were Orphans is hard to pin down – I'm not really sure what its purpose is, apart from exposing the duplicity of memory, fantasy and unreliable narration.  There was nothing to hold me to this text, no real sense of character and the plot is far too smart for its own good.  When We Were Orphans is all about the clever and subtle manipulation of genre and reader, but it’ll leave you feeling cold.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book Review: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

If you could live your life again, would you? If you could magically go back, would you change all the crappy things, all the things which ended up a bit, well, pear-shaped? Where would you even start? With that dodgy perm? That fish course? A spouse? Or perhaps you’d go big – really big. Why not change the course of history? Why not assassinate Hitler?

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel plays with these ideas. Its heroine, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 to middle class parents and into a world on the cusp of change. However Ursula is stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day scenario, doomed (or gifted?) to repeat events again and again in slightly (or enormously) different permutations. So our first Ursula dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second Ursula survives a bit longer, until the Grim Reaper once again steps in. And again. And again.

In fact the whole novel is populated by a myriad of Ursulas. Each time she dies, she’s reborn and lives her life again in a slightly different way. So one Ursula survives the Blitz only to die a sad lonely death in a squalid flat, while another is killed during the bombings. Another spends the war in Germany, hanging out with Eva Braun. One is killed by a backstreet abortion while still a teenager. Sometimes she finds it hard to work out how to avoid her fate; the influenza pandemic in 1918 takes a few goes to get through successfully. Each Ursula seems to become a little bit more aware of her past lives, if only through a strange feeling or what her mother, Sylvie, explains as déjà vu.


If this all sounds a bit like season 5 of Lost make no mistake, Life after Life is primarily a family saga. This is comfortable ground for Atkinson, it’s what she does best; 1995’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows its protagonist Ruby Lennox, as well as the four generations of women behind her and Life after Life has a similar feel. The minutia of everyday life jostles against the novel’s expansiveness and we’re reminded of the duplicity of time.

Atkinson’s structure will keep you flicking the pages back and forth continually to check and double check. But once you get into the rhythm the stop/start narrative feels more natural. There’s still a lot of piecing together for the reader though – you might say Life after Life is a puzzle to be solved. How will Ursula get it right?

And herein lies one of the problems. There doesn't really seem to be any point to Ursula’s varying lives. When her mother sends her to see a shrink, the doctor suggests she’s being reincarnated. But each Ursula doesn't necessarily improve things – in fact often one aspect will be made better but another is then sacrificed and worsened. And of course we have to mention Hitler. I'm honestly not plot spoiling to mention this – the very first chapter has Ursula attempting (or succeeding?) in assassinating the Fuhrer, but if this is one of the incarnations of Ursula or a flash forward to a later one is unclear (she points the gun at him, his guards point their guns at her, then ‘darkness falls’ – the code in the novel for her death/rebirth). The ending of the novel is very ambiguous too, and whilst this isn't something I’d normally complain about, in this case I was left feeling, well, unsatisfied.

It’s clever structurally – there’s no doubt about that. But Atkinson throws us a red herring. The first half of the novel has a clear rhythm and alternating timeline which goes something like this:

1.    Ursula lives her life then dies (we move through the years)
2.     We return to the day she was born and find out a little bit more about the events of this day (we move through the hours of this particular day in 1910)
1.     Ursula lives her life a bit further then dies
2.     We return to the day she was born…

Understandably I thought we were moving towards some big reveal about the family, some dark secret of Sylvie’s we’d learn on that day in 1910 (I was sure she’d been dallying with the farm boy George) but in the second half Atkinson simply abandons this structure, instead focussing on Ursula’s numerous lives, which were all starting to merge into one bleak and depressing blur of death and misery.

This really is a novel of two halves. For me, the first half was fantastic. Atkinson tells the story through a variety of characters (not just Ursula) so we learn about her parents, Sylvie and Hugh, and the family dynamic. It’s absolutely evocative in its depiction of a pre-Lapsarian England teetering on the brink of the First World War. The Todds live (aptly) in Fox Corner, a Forsterian country house where the children play outside during long hot summers and the family sip lemonade together on the lawn. Atkinson perfectly encapsulates the moment and it’s all the more poignant because of our knowledge. We know the future – we know 1914 is just around the corner and that Hitler will rise to absolute power in 1933. Fox Corner is the safe hideaway before the 20th century picks up speed, an idyllic space now lost forever. But even this sanctuary is threatened. A paedophile lurks just outside the boundaries, preying on the local children.

Later the other characters slip out of view and it’s all about Ursula, which I think is a shame as Sylvie interested me – there was so much more to learn. And then there’s the grim scenes of war torn London during the Blitz. These really are horrific. This hellish dystopia makes Fox Corner a distant rose-tinted memory and I don’t think Ursula ever really recovers from it.


Perhaps Ursula’s conversations with her shrink give us the biggest clue about how to understand Life after Life. She suggests life is a palimpsest – a series of overlays, a document erased and written over, erased and written over. In this case Ursula’s eventual idea to kill Hitler isn't the best idea or even the culmination of a series of lives and learning, it’s simply another idea, one of many. And after each life path variation there’ll be another. There’s no real closure at the end of Life after Life, no definitive Ursula and no absolute truth. Ursula’s role seems to be just to bear witness to events and history. Atkinson’s novel is intriguing, moving and somewhat flawed, but it’ll keep you hooked right up to its ambiguous ending.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Reading List 2014

Ender's Game - Scott Orson Card (seriously, why does everyone rave about this?)

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn (a crime page turner I enjoyed)

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut (witty end of the world satire)

Before I Go to Sleep - S J Watson (really not my thing. Don't know what came over me)

Life after Life - Kate Atkinson (clever clever book. Too clever? Does it actually have anything to say?)

Into the Woods - John Yorke (not redesigning the wheel but an interesting read nonetheless)

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro (I really couldn't recommend this to anyone. Sorry!)

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders - Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (absolutely fascinating!)

The Quick - Lauren Owen (some quite evocative parts lost their impact in the OTT plot)

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (INCREDIBLY disappointing)

Doctor Sleep - Stephen King ('twas okay. Not exactly a return to form but not a turkey either)

What Dies in Summer - Tom Wright (quite enjoyed some parts of this but it felt underdeveloped)

Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert (preferred it to Dune. Very dark and fatalistic)

Pompeii - Robert Harris (I shamelessly enjoyed this. Painstakingly researched, has the nod from Mary Beard and does what it says on the tin)

The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer (it had its moments)

Drive - James Sallis (hard boiled pulpy LA low lifes)

The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell (LOVED IT - ALL OF IT)

California - Edan Lepucki (a couple struggle with dystopian living. Some quite cool bits but went off at the end)

She Must Have Known: The Trial of Rosemary West (non-fiction so unusual for me. Explores the case from the courtroom)

Friday, 14 February 2014

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

I wasn't expecting to like Dark Places. I'm not a huge fan of the crime genre. However Gillian Flynn’s 2009 novel surprised me.

Dark Places follows the story of Libby Day, survivor of a 1985 massacre in Kinnakee which claimed the lives of her sisters and mother - and it’s her brother, Ben, who’s in prison for the murders. In fact Libby’s testimony helped put him there. Libby’s grown into a fairly unpleasant and selfish adult, wasting the past 24 years hiding away in a house in suburbia and living off monetary gifts from beneficiaries. That is until the money runs out. Unwilling to go out and work, Libby agrees to appear as “special guest” at The Kill Club for payment (it's a kind of ghoulish group into discussing, role-playing and attempting to solve famous murders).

Of course fundamentally Dark Places is a mystery story; we know that Libby’s family is murdered, we just don’t know exactly how. As soon as Libby joins in with The Kill Club she learns that most of them think Ben is innocent. Flynn’s structure works well here as we alternate between Libby’s first person sections ‘today’ and the actual day of the massacre. These latter sections are all in third person and follow different characters’ impressions of the day, from mother Patty to Ben himself. We get a real sense of dread as the 1985 sections move through that fateful day and events spiral out of control.

I was very much reminded of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Based on the real-life murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, when we start reading Capote’s novel we already know the bloody end result. We just don’t know the precise sequence of events that night. The novel’s first section The Last to See Them Alive alternates between parts charting the Clutter family’s last day (all the while we’re looking for clues) and those showing Dick and Perry’s journey across the states to the isolated farm where they’ll ‘blast hair’ all over the walls. But who actually killed the family? Perry? Dick? Both of them? It’s not until the end that we finally get Perry’s confession, and even then I guess we’ll never know if it’s the truth.

Flynn plays around with these questions about truth and ambiguity throughout Dark Places. Due to alternating viewpoints we often get different takes on the same event. Patty believes her son enjoys the blokey repartee with his father, but we later learn he feels bullied and emasculated by it. One of Flynn’s real strengths is characterisation, and Ben is a wholly believable portrait of an awkward teenager in the mid-eighties. For example Flynn notes how his jeans are just slightly too short in the leg, which his “friend” Trey teases him for. Ben’s obsessed with death and thrash metal: the perfect scapegoat for a series of gruesome, apparently satanic murders? However we also discover some dodgy things about Ben; Flynn isn't going to make it easy for us, and she keeps us guessing right up to the end.

Some of the details near the end perhaps test the limits of credibility just that bit too much. But Dark Places is still an engrossing read, especially in its depiction of rural poverty in eighties America. In fact the sections I found the most appealing were those set in the past, on the day of the murder. Flynn’s novel is fast paced, evocative and moreish: definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Book Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

For her third novel, Lauren Beukes abandons not only the urban fantasy sci-fi of her first offerings, but also her usual South African setting to tell the story of a time-travelling murderer who stalks and kills his victims throughout Chicago’s twentieth century history.

At the start of the novel Harper Curtis, a violent immoral drifter in Depression era Chicago, stumbles upon the House (we know it’s important as it has a capital).  It’s a building with a strange secret – it allows you to travel from the late ‘20s to the early ‘90s.  Harper also discovers a room filled with girls’ names (his shining girls) and trophies (tennis ball, Janis Joplin tape, contraceptive pill packet) from each victim.  It’s like a map which he follows, hunting each girl through time, killing her in an unpleasant way (guts flying) and swapping one of her personal belongings for the trophy from another girl.  

So when he murders Jinsuk in 1993 he leaves a pair of stage wings from another victim and takes Jinsuk’s baseball card.  He then leaves the baseball card on the body of Zora in 1943 and takes her goodluck letter “z”.  And so on.  Of course this leaves loads of anachronistic items across time, a trail of clues that no one can solve… until Kirby that is.

Kirby is one of Harper’s victims assaulted in 1989.  However she survives.  Fastforward to the early ‘90s when she’s doing work experience at a Chicago paper and teams up with reporter Dan to try and track down her would be killer.  It’s these two story lines we follow in The Shining Girls, told either from the two main protagonists Harper and Kirby, or other characters in the scene (Dan, a homeless lad, Harper’s victims etc).  

It’s actually a fairly straightforward structure, but initially it’s daunting and complex due to the constant and seemingly illogical shifts in time.  This is actually something I found really appealing; I always enjoy narrative puzzles and went to work on this one, flicking back through what I’d read and finding clues, creating a chart of time-lines, events and victims (of course it all works).  It’s an angle that gives the typical ‘serial killer stalking women’ thriller a new twist.

But make no mistake – this is a page turner.  It’s a pacey thriller with quick shifts in focus and speedy chapters, which is crying out for a big screen adaptation (I can already see it: Se7en meets The Time Traveler’s Wife).  And it works.  Beukes has a tight hold on what she’s doing and most of the characterisation is detailed; oddly it’s only the serial killer who seems not as well drawn.  Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic?  We find ourselves empathising totally with his victims – even when their deaths are narrated from Harper’s perspective. 

After all, Harper is just vile.  He’s the kind of guy who hacks the legs off a baby chick just to see what happens and watches while his brother gets crushed by a truck.  He time travels to wank over future and past crime scenes and even goes through a phase of visiting his victims when they’re younger and chatting to them, just, you know, to creep them out and give him bigger kicks.  Poor Catherine for example.  He finds her as a kid, steals her hairclip, tells her he’s going to murder her later in life then scuttles back to the House.  When he decides to come for her (bringing back the hairclip he stole) she’s spent so many years freaking out about her sinister harbinger that she’s a drug addled mess begging him for death.  Harper is one sick bastard.

So when the demises are narrated from one of the shining girls’ POVs it’s almost unbearable.  There’s nowhere to hide, no escape.  In a peculiar kind of foreshadowing we know they never had a chance and never will – unless of course Kirby can make a difference.  

We spend a lot of time with Kirby and she’s characterised in a layered way.  Damaged by Harper both mentally and physically, yet out of place and awkward before he ever attacked her.  Her mother is a lax hippy parent who dates widely and smokes weed.  I’m sure I read somewhere that Beukes is a big fan of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Kirby’s segments did remind me of the Luisa Rey story (about a female journalist in ‘70s California investigating corruption, nuclear power plants and murder, written in a thriller style).  Like Luisa, Kirby is trying to find the truth at all costs.  She’s an outsider, marked not only by her horrific scars but by her punk hair and Fugazi t-shirts.

It’s an intriguing and disturbing novel and it’s certainly more mainstream than her previous work, but it’s not perfect.  The ending feels rushed and unsatisfying while there’s something slightly clichéd about the final chapter (I won’t give it away).  And we never really get to understand why or how the House works.  Not that it really matters I guess.  The Shining Girls is an inventive, gruelling and unsettling read, but one that leaves many questions unanswered.