King John – Shakespeare – directed by Eleanor Rhode for RSC

We last saw this play in 2006, when it was set more or less in period and delivered fairly straight.

This version was definitely different, worked in some parts and confused and distracted in others.

The different bits that worked well were Rosie Sheehy playing King John – you forgot that she was a woman most of the time – and Katherine Pearce who was a brilliant manipulative and cynical Cardinal.

The first half, set in the 1960s worked well. I enjoyed the colour, the costumes and the music. And then, in the second half it didn’t seem to know which era it was set in and at the end seemed to have reverted well into the past. Confusing! I have a view that if you’re setting something in a recognisable time or location you need to stick to it or it’s distracting.

Another distracting thing was King John wearing a frock in one scene. Distracting in part because it reminded us that King John was being played by a woman, who up until that point had mainly worn trouser suits. Also, distracting because of the fabric it was made from: it had a fabulous shimmering almost liquid quality to it and I got side-tracked watch it move, making me lose my way in the plot a little.

The food fight at the wedding scene was fun. I liked that King John was holding a cake that looked destined for someone’s face and yet she just carefully put it back onto the table. On the other hand I was slightly appalled by the fact that the foil balloons spelling out “Just Married” were being popped to spell “Just Die”. I get the point being made but it doesn’t seem ecologically sound to have to keep using more and more plastic foil. I’m hoping the bangs came from elsewhere and the intact balloons were smuggled off-stage for reuse.

My final grump is the diction of the actors during the argument/fight scenes. Their lines were quite hard to hear and keep up with. Slowing it down by even half a beat would have made a huge difference to the clarity.

I can’t say I loved either this play or this production. I’m pleased I went to see it though; it reminded me that good acting can make you forget who is playing a part and that humour and laughter can be found in even grim stories.

Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General – Mungo Melvin

I can’t remember buying this book and it’s been sitting on my “to read” pile gathering dust for ages so I decided now was the time to get round to reading it.

I’m pretty sure I bought it wanting to learn more about the Nazi campaigns in the East. I should probably have checked out the author before buying it.

Some historians/biographers are great at telling stories and bringing their subject to life. Others are not and this book fell into the latter category for me.

I bought a biography rather than a book of the battles because I’m interested in people. What I got was factual information about von Manstein and a lot a battle detail I didn’t really want. It made it a very chewy book!

I did find out a lot from persisting and finishing the book: I didn’t know Hindenburg was Manstein’s uncle. I didn’t know how fraught the relationship was between Hitler and von Manstein. I didn’t know what happened to the Generals and Field Marshalls Hitler sacked. Most of all I learned more about the constraints Hitler’s distrust of the officer corps imposed on the Wehrmacht.

However, given that this is an account of some serious battles of WW2 the book is completely lacking any recognition of the suffering of front line soldiers on the Eastern Front and fails to acknowledge the scale of death and serious injury of these men.

If I’d known this book was written by a retired General I probably wouldn’t have bought it, rightly assuming it would be a detailed book of facts and events rather than about bringing a person to life. I’m pleased in a way I did buy it and did read it in its entirety. It has increased my knowledge. But it became a chore rather than a pleasure to read.

Gym & Tonic – written and directed by John Godber

It’s ages since I’ve seen a John Godber play and I’ve never been to Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough so when a friend suggested a group of us went I jumped at the chance.

If you’ve never come across John Godber before he writes funny plays that have a serious message at the heart of them. They are usually based around working class people in the north of England.

Stephen Joseph Theatre is a smallish theatre and it’s “in the round” – seats on all 4 sides with a space in the middle for the stage. I like theatres like this. They are intimate and you tend to get more involved in the play.

This play is set in a smart Spa hotel where Don and his wife Shirley have gone to celebrate his 40th birthday. Don doesn’t really want to be there and thinks they can’t afford it. Also, his marriage is failing and he is uninspired and trapped by the family business he works in, although he can’t see it.

The premise of the play may be gloomy but there were laugh’s aplenty. If you’ve ever been to a spa, whether for a day or a longer break, and not been quite sure what to do whilst everyone else seems confident and comfortable you will recognise the setting!

At the end of the play the group I was with spent some time discussing what the ending meant and I think we all took something different away, which is interesting and causes discussion but is a bit unsatisfying.

There were 4 actors, all but Peter McMillan who was Don, playing 2 parts. Stephanie Hackett and Jacqueline Naylor were really good as Shirley/Cloe and Gertrude/Gemma. Robert Angell was less successful with Keith/Ken as there wasn’t enough differentiation between the way he spoke and moved each character.

As a group of friends we had a fun night out with the play as part of it. If I gone out just to see the play I think I would have been a bit disappointed.

Sagan: My World – Peter Sagan

This book is memorable more because of the saga in getting it than for the book itself.

The story starts just after Christmas with a Waterstones offer: a signed copy of the book for £10 rather than £20. As someone who likes a good bike race, enjoys the antics of Peter Sagan and likes signed copies of books this was too good a deal to miss. I ordered 2 copies, one for me and one for a friend.

After about a month it dawned on me that they hadn’t arrived so I chased them up. “Oh, we’re just waiting for the payment to process”, said the girl at the other end of the helpline. I’ll give them a nudge and you’ll get your books shortly.

Two weeks later, still no books so I messaged the helpline again. This time I got an apology and a promise the books would arrive. They did…but not signed copies!

I messaged again pointing out that if I’d wanted unsigned copies of the book I could have got them much cheaper and will a lot less hassle elsewhere. Their reply was that the offer of signed copies was no longer available online but I could them in certain stores. My reply, that my nearest store meant a 60 mile round trip, generated no response.

I phoned the helpline to talk to an actual person. They agreed that since the initial delay was due to them it wasn’t acceptable that I would have to travel to buy the book so they would contact a store on my behalf and get them to post 2 copies to me. Hallelujah! Someone who can think and make decisions.

I packed up the unsigned copies and returned them.

Two weeks later no books had arrived!

I phoned again. “Oh, sorry. They’re out of stock. I’ll make an immediate refund.” At this point I was, to put it mildly, somewhat cross!

Three days later a parcel arrived from Waterstones. “I bet they’re some more unsigned copies”, I said to my partner. I almost fell off my chair when I opened the box and found 2 pristine, signed copies of the book in there.

The end result of this sorry tale is that I am very reluctant to hand over any of my hard earned dosh to Waterstones anymore. I’m very disappointed in their customer service. This also means I struggle to buy new books from physical bookshops, which I like to do because I want bookshops on the high street.

The other result was a reluctance to actually pick the book up to read and a building weight of expectation.

Unfortunately, the book got crushed under the weight of expectation. For someone who is very entertaining on a cycle and during pre/post-race interviews Sagan comes across as a somewhat boring, nerdy man. Not what I was expecting at all.

On the plus side, it was good to find out more about what it’s like to be in the middle of a big pro-bike race and to read a different version of Oleg Tinkoff.

Fall of Angels – Barbara Cleverly

I found this author when I picked up the first of her Joe Sandilands detective series, which I’ve enjoyed and am awaiting the next instalment of.

This book is the first in new series with the lead detective DI John Redfyre based in his home town of Cambridge. It starts with Redfyre being set up on a date by his aunt to go to a Christmas concert with an old friend. He is there, in the front row, when someone tries to murder the controversial female trumpet player. He is also called on to investigate the death of another woman found in the Cam the following morning. Eventually, of course, Redfyre, his boss, McFarlane, and Sergeant Theody piece the mysteries together and work out who the murderer is.

The book trips along at a decent rate and, already knowing Cleverly’s style, I enjoyed picking up the clues and being able to work out who the murderer was a little ahead of the denouement.

I think Redfyre needs fleshing out a bit more; I haven’t yet warmed to him although I really like the Aunt Hetty and Earwig characters. I will probably read the next book because of them rather than Redfyre, although he may get better.

The one thing that puzzled me though was that there was no crossover of characters from the Sandilands novels when they seem to be set in the same period and at least 2 of them are set in Cambridge or its environs. I expected some references if nothing else.

Would I recommend it? Probably. If you wanted to curl up with a not too taxing book on a rainy Sunday. It would go well with a nice glass of port and a good fire.

Ballet Shoes for Anna – Noel Streatfeild

Another Noel Streatfeild book I haven’t previously read. I bought this one because I spotted it when searching for the circus book and because I absolutely loved Ballet Shoes as a child.

I really wish I hadn’t bothered! Two of the three main children characters are spoilt, selfish brats thinking only of their own comfort and wants. I don’t believe anyone can be as unremittingly horrible as the uncle and I wish the aunt would stop being so pathetic and stand up for herself!

To summarise the story the three children live in Turkey with their English father, Polish mother and Polish grandparents. The father is an artist estranged from his family and the grandfather was, previously, a famous ballet teacher who sees the makings of a true ballerina in his granddaughter.

There is an earthquake and the village where the children live disappears, including their parents and grandparents. Only they survive.

They are sent to England to live with their father’s brother and his wife. The uncle doesn’t really want them and refuses to let Anna continue her ballet lessons. The brothers, with the help of a friend, helps them earn money for ballet lessons, shoes, tunic etc.

Eventually, the children are rescued and helped by the person who found them in Turkey.

In my view the amount of effort you’ve probably spent reading this review is as much effort as this book is worth! A disappointing read.

The circus is coming – Noel Streatfeild

This isn’t the book I was looking for but I actually enjoyed reading it!

I thought I had read most of Noel Streatfeild’s books when I was a child but it seems I haven’t as this one was new to me.

The story is about orphaned brother and sister, Peter and Santa, who have been brought up by their strict aunt according to rules she learned as a lady’s maid to a duchess. The children don’t understand how odd and badly educated they are until their aunt dies and they run away to find their uncle who works in a circus rather than be split up into separate orphanages.

The story is about them learning humility and how to live with other people as well as them gradually finding their niche’s within the circus.

I enjoyed the book because it was new to me, because Streatfeild has a way of keeping you interested in characters that aren’t necessarily likeable and because I learned a bit about what it was like to live in a circus in the 1930s.

After reading it I was left with a question to ponder: why are so many central characters in children’s books orphans? Answers on a postcard please! Or at least a comment in the comments box.

Actually, the thing I’d really like an answer to is the title or author of the book I was really looking for. What I remember about it is that the two characters were boys, one I think French and called Jacques. For some reason Jacques was being hidden from some bad people and the two boys ended up spending some time living with a circus troupe. I probably read it in the early 1970s although I suspect the book was published quite a bit earlier. Does anyone have any ideas or suggestions?