Sleeping Beauty – York Theatre Royal

The first “annual bit of rubbish” at York Theatre Royal without Berwick Kaler as the Dame and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The rest of the cast remained more or less the same, just moved around a bit with varying levels of success.

I enjoyed my evening out. I had a good laugh and I enjoyed the nonsense and the usual rounds of cast member’s corpsing, spectacularly when Darth Diva bashed Evil Diva with his beak!

But…it didn’t have the sparkle that I expect from York Theatre Royal panto.

I think this is down to a number of factors.

Firstly, I think some people were miscast. Martin Barrass as the queen, for example. I think Barrass is a great stooge but he doesn’t have the physical stature or diva qualities to make a good dame. I stick to what I said last year when speculating who might replace Kaler, AJ should have played the queen and Martin the king. Together I think they could have made a funny couple.

I also thought Jack Lansbury didn’t quite pull off the romantic lead. I kept expecting Princess Beauty to run off with Darth Diva instead!

Sadly, Suzy Cooper also lacked energy as Princess Beauty.

Secondly, there are a lot of rumours circulating about the future of the pantomime. There was a report in the Press that Kaler was reconsidering his retirement. A petition on Facebook to “save our pantomime” and at the end of the performance Barrass suggested that not all the cast would be back next year. My partner had also been told that 10 years ago the theatre used to sell 50000 tickets to the panto. This year they sold 30000.

It will be sad if the tradition doesn’t continue but part of me, possibly a slightly cynical part, thinks that this might just be a publicity stunt to raise the profile and generate a bigger audience for next year. Otherwise, I can’t quite see how Martin Barrass keeps his job when he openly challenges the decisions of theatre management from stage.

To finish on a more positive note, I thought David Leonard did his usual sterling job as the baddy and this year he was given more space to develop it.

Newbie Howie Michaels was a good addition to the cast too.

York Theatre Royal pantomime has always been a wonderful retreat from the angst and stress of real life. I hope it continues and that the theatre allows it to evolve rather than throws the baby out with the bath water.

But please, think about how you play to the strengths of your cast.

Ho Chi Minh: A Life – William J Duiker

I have had this book sitting in my “to read” pile since I came back from a holiday in Vietnam in 2013 and a bit put off reading it by the size of the book.

I’m interested in Ho Chi Minh in part because of what happened in Vietnam and also because of the way our guide in Hanoi spoke about him, with reverence and respect.

This book pieces together, as far as was possible in 2000 and 2010, the life of HO Chi Minh. This isn’t an easy task as Ho had many aliases and wrote various “autobiographies” obscuring much of his early life. There is also material in France, Russia, China and Vietnam that isn’t yet available to biographers.

I think the author, who was a USA Foreign Office official, is quite pro-Ho Chi Minh without being pro-communist. He write with empathy about a man who, as he sees it, is primarily about achieving independence for Vietnam and doing it in the most bloodless and pragmatic way.

In this book Ho comes across as someone who believes communism gives Vietnam the best opportunity to achieve independence and to create prosperity for all.

The later stages of the book, post-WW2, become more about the struggle for a free Vietnam, reunification and the war than about Ho Chi Minh. The level of detail, about things I’m not particularly interested in, made the later parts of the book feel quite chewy!

I enjoyed finding out more about Ho Chi Minh the person, in so far as the detail is known, and comparing it to the information given by our guide in Hanoi. Our guide was adamant that Ho had never married and had no children. The book states he was married at least once and had at least 2 daughters, including one born to his much younger secretary whilst he was President of Vietnam!

I also enjoyed finding out about the Indochina Ho grew up in and his involvement in the new and, in those days, exciting concept of communism. I can understand why the people of the region were keen to become autonomous countries and can’t help but feel there could have been a different way than through all the bloodshed and bitterness.

Would I recommend this book? An equivocal yes. It’s a good way to find out about Ho the person, early communism across Europe and Asia and the development of Vietnam. If you decide to read it I’d recommend doing it in short chunks and taking time to reflect – and read something more frivolous – in between chunks.

Bones Are Forever – Kathy Reichs

I’ve been reading the Temperance Brennan novels off and on for ages but somehow I’ve lost where I’m up to in the series and so haven’t read one for a while. Recently, one of the honorary nieces started binge reading the series and asked if I could lend her some of the books I have. In return she lent me 3 I haven’t read.

For those who haven’t read any of the books forensic pathologist Tempe Brennan splits her time between Charlotte, USA and Quebec, Canada. Personally I prefer the Canada based books, they feel more pacy, and this is one of them.

This book starts with the body of a dead baby being found, more are uncovered and the trail leads to Edmonton. Tempe is investigating with former flame Andrew Ryan and another old flame turns out to be part of the Edmonton enquiry, causing tensions within the investigation. The story ends up being about mineral rights and diamonds.

I enjoyed reading this book as a much needed frivolous interlude in the hefty and heavyweight biography I’m also reading. Like all these sorts of books you can happily drift along allowing the plot to resolve itself. Overall though the story felt a bit disjointed and I didn’t really get involved in it. This might be because my brain it tired and wasn’t taking it in but I think it has more to do with the story.

I also think I may be reading this book out of sequence. I’m pretty sure event in this book are leading up to events that happened in the last Tempe Brennan book I read. This might also add to my sense of frustration with the book. Or maybe the series is just running out of steam? At lease Reichs isn’t resorting to the levels of ridiculousness that Patricia Cornwall has!

I’ll probably keep going with the series but it’s more likely to be as honorary niece lends me the books or I pick them up at a charity shop than through rushing out to buy them new as they come out. Still, everyone needs “brain-dead” books for some downtime.

Bhowani Junction – John Masters

I was bemoaning my lack of interesting but not too demanding books to reads whilst out with some friends. One of them suggested rereading the John Master’s books, assuming I’d read them as a teenager since we seem to share a similar reading history. I’d never come across him before so my friend lent me Bhowani Junction.

The book is set in India just before independence and mainly concerns 2 Anglo-Indians trying, in their different ways, to come to terms with India’s changing culture and their place within the new India.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Patrick Taylor, a very Anglo, Anglo-Indian who works for the railway. Victoria Jones, who is trying to work out whether she is English or Indian. Rodney Savage, the British Colonel of the local Garrison. Victoria is the link between the different strands of the story.

As well as being about people the story is also about the politics of the time and how it impacted on people going about their own daily routines; those who want a peaceful transition, those who want to hasten it with violence and those who would prefer no change at all.

The book took a while to get going and, if I was a person who didn’t finish books, I would probably have stopped reading halfway through Patrick’s first section of the book. However, I’m pleased I persevered.

It had never occurred to me how the Anglo-Indian population of India would live in pre-independence India. I had never thought of them as being a sub-group of the population with their own rules and norms. It didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t be fully accepted by either the British or the Indian communities, or that they would see themselves as being somehow better than “the Indians”. Perhaps that says something about Britain being a more tolerant world when it comes to multi-racial or multi-ethnic people, even if it doesn’t always appear that way?

I loved Victoria’s story; I loved her independence, the way she tried out different versions of herself to work out where she fitted and what she wanted out of life.

I was sad about the murder of Mr Surabhai, who was doing his best find a collaborative solution to the political differences. I was also sad that Savage’s batman and friend had to die to resolve the story threads. And I was disappointed that Colonel Savage couldn’t be honest about his feelings and so remained a lonely man.

Overall, the book brought small-town India, an India on the brink of huge change, to life. I recognised small-town life and I enjoyed meeting the characters.

I probably won’t rush to read any more of John Master’s books but if I find one in a charity shop, at a car boot sale or in a second hand bookshop I’ll probably buy it.

The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher

A sort-of autobiography of the actor Carrie Fisher based on the diaries she kept whilst filming the first Star Wars film in UK.

The book starts with a brief overview of Fisher’s life up to landing the part of Princess Leia as a teenage drama student.

The bulk of the book is about her time working on Star Wars. There is very little about the filming, other than about the trials and tribulations of having to wear “that” wig and a lot about the people and the parties. Some of the prose is Fisher interpreting what she wrote in her diary and other bits are straight lifts of poems and snippets from the diary; mostly about being in love with Harrison Ford, their relationship, him being married and an underlying sense that the emotion in the relationship was mostly from Fisher.

The end of the book is about post-Star Wars; going to sci-fi conventions to sign autographs and meet fans, some of them slightly unhinged. I loved this part of the book. It shows the open, honest and interesting Carrie Fisher we saw on Graham Norton’s char show sofa with all the warmth and fun of a person who likes other people.

I loved finding out more about Carrie Fisher and getting a flavour about what it was like to be forever recognised as Princess Leia. I hadn’t realised what an inexperienced actor Fisher was when she started filming Star Wars and the challenges she experienced when it was so successful. I imagined that as the child of a famous actor and a famous singer would take her own fame in her stride…even though I know about Fisher’s history of substance abuse.

I didn’t enjoy finding out more about Harrison Ford! I prefer to think of him as the fictional, dashing heroes Han Solo and Indiana Jones rather than a dope smoking, emotionally closed human being. Feet of clay, not meeting your heroes and all that!

Overall, I enjoyed this book.

RIP Carrie Fisher.

A Museum in Baghdad – Hannah Khalil for RSC and Royal Lyceum Theatre

I don’t quite know where to start writing this review, in part because I was coming down with a head cold the day we went to see the play and in part because I really don’t know what I think of the play.

With this last set of RSC tickets I have been going to the theatre on a Thursday evening; it’s one of the joys of no longer working full time that you can go to distant theatres mid-week – better ticket availability at cheaper cost, easier to book tables at nice restaurants and a slightly different audience.

What I hadn’t anticipated was audience demand on a rainy Thursday, close to Christmas, for a new play about a relatively unknown subject. Or distinct lack of demand!

I have never been in a theatre in Stratford with so few people in it before. My estimate is around 50 people in the Swan and probably around 45 came back after the interval! It was a slightly unnerving experience and it felt quite exposing; with so few people to act to, would the actors have higher awareness of our individual reactions?

The play was about The Iraq Museum in Baghdad and set in 2 eras; 1926 when Gertrude Bell was setting up the museum and preparing it to open and 2006 when Ghalia Hussein was trying to recover looted artefacts and reopen the museum.

Both eras were depicted on stage at the same time with the stage setting the same for both. The staging worked well. It looked like a functional museum office from the 20s as well as after a period of conflict and looting. There were no faffy scenery changes and nothing to get in the way of the acting.

The quality of the acting from Emma Fielding, as Gertrude Bell, Rasoul Saghir, as a world-weary Abu Zaman, and Houda Echouafni, as Layla Hassan, was good.

At the interval I was confused. What was the play about? Why were certain parts being repeated? Who was the goddess and what did she represent? I can understand why people might have given up on the play and just gone home. Not feeling very well I could have easily been persuaded to do the same. Living with an accountant who wants his money’s worth, this was never going to happen and I’m pleased it didn’t. Whilst the play is never going to be a favourite I’m glad I saw its resolution.

Ultimately, the play asks questions about what nationhood means. Does evolution of the state really works or is revolution necessary to sweep away old ideas? Why are artefacts seen as so important and why do people work so hard to preserve them? Who are museums for? Why do we feel a need to preserve an extinct culture? And, ultimately, shouldn’t we spend all our time and effort on preserving lives?

Do I know really what the play was about? No. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Would I go see the play again? No. If I’d known when I booked tickets what I know now about the play I wouldn’t have booked them. Am I pleased I did go to see it? Yes…sort of. It does me good to see something so different once in a while.

Dangerous Crossing – Rachel Rhys

Another 99p Kindle Daily Deal and a better book than the last few I’ve grumped about.

This one is set in July 1939 on a ship that is heading from Southampton to Australia. Lily Shepherd is fleeing from her past and heading out to start a new life in a new country. She makes friends with a man and his sister who are going to Australia for the man to recuperate from a long illness, she gets to know a couple travelling first class, who are escaping a scandal in London and she is thrust into the company of sour woman who shares her cabin and an unpleasant man who is seated at the same dining table as her. She also makes friends with an Austrian Jewish woman who is escaping from Nazi Germany.

During the 5 ½ weeks of the journey, as the passengers get to know each other in more depth than would normally within the confines of the ship, emotions and nerves are stretched.

By the end of the journey one man has been murdered by another. One of the women has gone overboard, some believe by accident, others by design. And no one turns out to be quite what they seemed. Oh, and World War II has started!

I enjoyed reading this book. I liked the twists and turns and not knowing until the end how many of the clues I’d picked up on. I liked that I got some of the clues right but not all of them.

The one frustrating thing about the book for me was not getting to know the back stories of some of the characters as well as I might have. This though is a minor niggle.

All in all, probably the best of the bargain “holiday read” books I loaded onto my Kindle before setting off on holiday.

In Search of Robert Millar – Richard Moore

I realise I’ve been quite grumpy with my recent reviews. And in truth I have been struggling to find a book I can really engage with and lose myself in. This one though makes up for some of those disappointing reads.

This is a sort-of, semi-authorised biography of professional cyclist Robert Millar, written in 2007.

Millar was one of a few professional British cyclists who rode the grand tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the days before Brits really competed in the big races and before Team Sky became all-conquering.

The book describes how Moore became fascinated by Millar and his disappearance in the early 2000s. It tells the story of how Millar got into cycling, competitive cycling and professional cycling. It tries to explain Millar’s singularity and insularity, his determination and the contradictions within the man.

A large part of the book concentrates on Millar’s professional career. It describes what life was like for an outsider trying to make it in a world that didn’t welcome incomers from the English speaking world. Having read biographies about later cyclists and their well-funded teams it makes the living conditions of Millar’s era look Spartan and not conducive to the health and wellbeing of professionals who are putting mammoth stresses on their bodies day in and day out on a long Tour.

I loved finding out more about Britain’s most successful professional cyclist before the Brailsford era.

What I didn’t like, at the end of the book, was not really knowing what happened next. I wanted to know whether Millar had become more at ease with himself, did he have a more settled life? Did he find some sense of contentment somewhere? Why did he disappear so completely from view and is he safe and well. It seems odd thinking this about someone who could be such a grumpy so and so but somehow you care what happens or what happened.

A quick Google search just prior to writing this blog thankfully fills in some of those gaps. In the period between 2002, when Millar disappeared, and 2010 when articles by Robert Millar started appearing in journals again, Millar transitioned and became Philippa York. In 2017 she revealed her transition and became a commentator for ITV4 during that year’s Tour de France.

The articles about Philippa suggest she is in a better place, emotionally, than Robert Millar ever was. I hope this continues and wish her every success.

Rules of Murder – Julianna Deering

And another 99p Amazon deal…and another holiday read! I really need to be more selective about what I buy. There are brainless books that are a good read and others that are just brainless.

This one is the first, hopefully the last, Drew Farthering mystery. It is set between the two world wars with Drew Farthering being the inheritor of a large country house, currently occupied by his mother and step-father.

The main characters are Drew, his friend Nick, who happens to be the son of the butler, Mason Parker the step-father, and Mason’s niece.

Drew has been avoiding his home because his mother lives there and he doesn’t like her house parties or the man she is reputed to be having an affair with. He arrives home for a visit with Nick to find the house full and his mother’s reputed lover asleep in his bedroom.

The lover, Lincoln is later found dead, followed a little later by Drew’s mother seeming to commit suicide.

Drew, Nick and Mason’s nice start investigating, uncovering a web of lies and deceit within the family company. They eventually uncover the murderer…a lot later than I did whilst reading the book.

I found this book quite annoying. There were far too many Americanisms that stuck out like a sore thumb. I have no problem with people setting stories in other countries but I do feel they should do some proper research into that culture and into the era they are setting the story in so the context sits comfortably with people from that culture.

My other gripe is that it was just too easy to spot who the murderer was. In a good detective series I feel it should be difficult to spot whodunit until the last chapter or couple of chapters, at least in the first four or five books. Eventually, you get used to an author’s style and pick up clues much earlier. But in a first book? Really?

In short, don’t bother reading this book.

The Children of Green Knowe and The River at Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston

Another dip into nostalgia and another 99p Amazon bargain.

I remembered reading these books at school, probably early Junior School…or at least I thought I did!

I read the first book on holiday, sitting on a beach on a perfect summer’s day. Perhaps the setting helped to create the right atmosphere to delve back into childhood for a short while and I absolutely loved this book.

The book centres on Toseland Gunning and the great-grandmother he has just met. The child is lonely; his father has remarried and gone to work in Burma, Tolly is at boarding school and for the Christmas holidays he is going to stay with his late mother’s grandmother at the ancient family house called Green Knowe.

Whilst there Tolly learns about his mother’s family and all the family traditions. He explores the house and grounds and gets to know the family ghosts, giving him roots and a way to find his place in the world.

I found it a lovely, heart-warming story and one that was vaguely familiar but not quite what I was expecting.

There was one scary bit about Green Noah and the gypsy curse. I imagine that’s why I didn’t fully remember the story from childhood. I expect that bit gave me nightmares and I shut the memories away.

I was expecting the second book to be a continuation of Tolly’s adventures. Instead, disappointingly, Mrs Oldknowe has let the house out to a professor who wants peace and quiet to write a book. Dr Maud Biggin and her companion, Sybilla Bun, take Maud’s niece Ida and two displaced children, Ping and Oskar, with them to Green Knowe.

This book is about Ida, Oskar and Ping’s adventures on the flooded river and fens around Green Knowe. I didn’t find these children or their adventures as interesting as Tolly’s. This might be because I really wanted to know what happened next to Tolly. It might be that having indulged in one retreat to childhood I’d had my fix. It might just be that this book isn’t as engaging as the first one. Whatever the reason, I just didn’t take to it.

It also annoyed me that Ping was known as Ping because no one could pronounce his real name Hsu. Which might have been acceptable when the book was written but which seems colonialist wrong and plain rude in the 21st century.

The experience of the second book has put me off reading any of the others in the series, although I might look out for the ones that also feature Tolly and give them another go.