Theatre Review: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, from theatre company Mischief Theatre, at the Criterion Theatre in London last Saturday (although actually it was yesterday as I write this; such is the time travel magic of scheduled posting). It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a Wodehousian farce about a motley gang of crooks of various kinds, led by just-out-of-jail Mitch Ruscitti, trying to break into a 1950s Minneapolis bank to steal a large and very shiny diamond.

Is it funny? Yes; but not unqualifiedly so. Bearing in mind that I am not someone who laughs at a lot of things, there are gags here that are tedious and unfunny, and wordplay about as amusing as the puns that fathers make when they’ve had one or two to drink. Having said that, there are also a couple of set-pieces (one of them involving a fold-up bed and a serial case of mistaken identity) that made me cry with laughter. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

At the heart of the comedy is something a little more serious, a well-judged vein of sincerity that grounds the cast’s more outrageous antics, especially towards the end of the play. Here we find desperation, and loneliness, and revenge, and a little romance, and some betrayal. All of this registers a vague kind of malaise – the human condition, perhaps – which is too undefined to do anything interesting, but renders the heart of the play slightly…absurdist, I suppose, nihilist in its rejection of stability and meaning.

But comedy’s the most conservative of modes, and despite its refusal to provide some of the consolations of its genre The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is steeped in nostalgia for the fifties, accompanied by self-consciously vintage barbershop melodies sung by the cast which sort of undermine its more deconstructionist gestures. The problem, I think, is that the nostalgic mood this soundtrack generates expresses a yearning for a simpler time – viz., the fifties – when the kind of lines that the play draws between stealing from the rich and murdering the innocent, between petty crooks and dangerous criminals, were somehow more visible and more real.

As is always the case with nostalgia, there never was such a time.

Still, there’s no denying the slickness of the play: it relies heavily on comic timing, on props working properly, on everyone being in the right place on stage at the right time, and it comes together beautifully, a comic dance. Visually and technically, it’s extremely well done (as you might expect from a West End production). Ideologically? Well, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

Theatre Review: Les Miserables

So I finally went to see Les Miserables live on stage.

Chances are, if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you know what happens in Les Mis, but just in case: it’s a musical, set in France, that follows an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he tries to escape the life of poverty and crime which is the lot of freed prisoners, running from the ultra-dedicated police inspector Javert through a broken parole, a mayoralty, and perhaps most famously a failed revolution (the June Rebellion of 1832, to be precise).

I keep being asked if the production was everything I thought and hoped it would be (being a long-time fan of Les Mis). The answer is complicated, I think: I found it impossible to get away from the preconceptions of already knowing both the story and the music (which are one and the same thing) intimately, anticipating every note and comparing it to what I’ve heard and seen before. I suppose I wasn’t quite expecting to feel like that.

At the same time, though, I think knowing the story so well opened my eyes to what this particular production (at the Queen’s Theatre in London) is highlighting about the base “text”, as it were. Unlike most musicals, which, although a lot of fun, do tend to be rather one-note, Les Mis has a decent amount of depth and nuance to play with; and I think in particular the Queen’s Theatre version brought home to me just how religious the musical is. This is a story in which the answer to the question “Is my immortal soul worth more than the worldly wellbeing of hundreds of workers?” is “Yes”. The doomed June Rebellion forms the heart of the story in many ways – musically and structurally – but ultimately the musical is more interested in Jean Valjean’s arc of religious redemption than in the fate of the students on the barricades. There’s an overwhelming sense of futility to the efforts of the revolutionaries, their defiance becoming no more than an irrelevancy in the face of the grinding forces of poverty; and though their song (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”) is transmuted by the end into a rousing chorus of affirmation, it’s a specifically religious affirmation: “For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies/Even the darkest night must end and the sun will rise.” Ultimately, salvation for the people “here below” comes only after death, in the form of divine intervention; and all our human efforts are futile.

There’s more I’d like to write and think about here, which is remarkable in itself, that something I’ve known for so long can possibly offer up more meaning. At the moment, though, I’ve got WriMoing to do.

Theatre Review: La Boheme

So about a month ago, thanks to a work friend with a spare ticket, I went to see Ellen Kent’s staging of Puccini’s La Boheme at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre on a weeknight.

I should probably be clear that I know virtually nothing about opera, despite the Resident Grammarian’s best efforts. I have seen some Gilbert and Sullivan and I have watched Jesus Christ Superstar on TV, but neither of these really count in my mind since they are sung in English and you can hear what the words are.

Sung in Italian and set in Paris, La Boheme first premiered in 1896, which is (I think) interestingly late for opera. Our Protagonist is bohemian Rodolfo, who along with his bohemian pals is romantically poor owing to the fact that he cannot sell any of his writing. One evening, he meets the meek and retiring Mimi, who has lost her key, and is instantly smitten. The subsequent three acts follow various romantic reversals as it becomes gradually apparent that Mimi has that insidiously romanticised disease, consumption (Victorian culture being obsessed with female consumptive bodies), and Rodolfo struggles with the fact that a wealthier suitor will have more money to buy her medicine.

I feel like the word that best sums up my thoughts about La Boheme is “quotidian”; and this means both good and bad things. My favourite parts of it were those that celebrated the often-vibrant life of the city: the choruses of milkmaids, the bohemians carousing in their lodgings, the lively crowd scene featuring peddlers and children and townsfolk. It’s a story about the ordinary people (Mimi, for example, is a seamstress), raised into importance by the lavishness of opera.

By the same token, though, I felt that the emphasis of the narrative was actually on the wrong characters: Mimi is a typically colourless Victorian “angel-in-the-house”, and though Rodolfo has slightly rakish qualities he is in general the least interesting bohemian. Much more interesting is Musetta, the girlfriend of another of the bohemians, who is flirtatious, cheerfully interested in sex with multiple partners, loyal, empathetic and never judged by the narrative for any of these things; but she gets short shrift as a supporting character.

Partly the production’s general feeling of unremarkableness is, I suspect, down to the staging: certainly there’s little chemistry between the two leads, and as a whole the production feels conventional (perhaps necessarily, given the fact that it’s effectively touring the provinces). But partly it’s because the music is not terribly interesting; as the Resident Grammarian pointed out, there’s not much in the way of tunes in the scoring, no rousing numbers or clever melodies. The fact that there’s very little romantic tension in the story doesn’t help either.

It’s a perfectly nice evening out at a local theatre (next showing is in Richmond on Wednesday), perhaps with some ice cream and a glass of wine; just not, perhaps, the theatrical event of the season.

Top Ten Romances in Books

  1. Beren/Luthien – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. There are so many things wrong with this romance (the age difference, the fact that Luthien gives up literally everything because Beren is such a manly Man, the codependency) but, ugh, it is my fave and will continue to be unto the ending of the world.
  2. Rosemary/Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. It’s always heartwarming to see characters navigating something other than a conventional hetero monogamous relationship, and Chambers does it with such good humour.
  3. Alana/Marko – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I love that this is already an established relationship by the time the story starts. I think Saga is doing character work around Being In A Relationship which I don’t see very often in genre, and Alana and Marko feel like a properly strong couple.
  4. Axl/Beatrice – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Another long-established couple, looking back (or trying to) over their lives together. Again, their relationship just feels strong because of, not despite, the shadows that beset it.
  5. Holly Sykes/Hugo Lamb – The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. From a life-long marriage to a one-night stand. I don’t think I’ll ever stop shipping these two: I really, really hope there’s a fanfic somewhere in which Hugo doesn’t go off to become a soul-sucking immortal.
  6. Beatrice/Benedick – Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick have such chemistry: Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters, gutsy and witty, and Benedick is perfect as her foil.
  7. Agniezka/the Dragon – Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Again: yes, my fave is problematic. But I love that Agniezka doesn’t even think of pining for the Dragon when she’s away; she just gets on with her life.
  8. Glenda/Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I just think these two are adorable. Nutt is awkward and geeky and also an orc and Glenda is pragmatic and only very secretly romantic and their romance is quiet but true.
  9. Callanish/North – The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan. I just finished this book, and admittedly it is not a fantastic read, but one thing I do like about it is that it makes absolutely no fanfare about the fact that Callanish and North are both women. It doesn’t even bother making it an issue.
  10. Eugene Wrayburn/Lizzie Hexam – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Lizzie is, unlike so many of her Dickensian leading-lady counterparts, sort of a badass. She drags her love interest out of a river after he’s attacked and carries him to the nearest inn. Of course, she could only do that because she is working class (I cannot see Bella Wilfer even contemplating rescuing John from any body of water), but it’s still fantastic.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Theatre Review: The Spoils

“I believe in the ritual of lipstick;/The sanctity of my electric guitar.”

Erin McKeown

I am at Nine Worlds today (ZOMG!), so this post is brought to you from The Past – the secret to time travel being meticulous planning.

I saw The Spoils at the New Trafalgar Theatre (according to the Internet, anyway) late in June; its run finishes tomorrow, on the 13th. So, you know, this is obviously going to be an extremely useful review.

Flippancy aside: you only really need to know one thing about The Spoils, which is that it stars, and is written by, Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network fame.

This is by no means a bad thing; it’s just an excellent index of what kind of story this is. Eisenberg plays Ben, a twenty-something university dropout living off his parents money who claims that he’s an arthouse film creator but who rarely seems to do any actual filming. When he hears that his sort-of childhood sweetheart Sarah is marrying a random guy from school, he convinces his extremely put-upon housemate Kalyan (a Nepalese immigrant played by Kunal Nayyar of, yes, The Big Bang Theory) to invite the couple over for dinner.

Of course, this is never a good idea and does not go at all well.

So I have mixed feelings about The Spoils.

On the one hand: I think it is doing something genuinely engaging: it begins as a light (and very funny) comedy about an intelligent dickhead who wants to bring down the Man in a vague and middle-class way – until it changes, ve-e-ry slowly, and you get more and more uncomfortable as the extent of Ben’s issues becomes clear, and should you really be laughing as this guy self-destructs? but you do anyway, because everyone else is. It’s a clever piece of deconstruction, and Eisenberg is absolutely key to it: you simply can’t watch anyone else when he’s on stage. The play, I think, is something of a study in sympathy: we’re led into caring quite deeply about a hugely toxic personality, and the play is doing some thinking around worth, and what makes a human worthwhile. (Sarah is a teacher of kids in prison; Ben does pretty much nothing all day. So why do we care more about Ben than Sarah?)

Unfortunately, the play doesn’t really know what to do with the destructive energies it unleashes and explores over the course of its two acts: its ending refuses the uncomfortable nuance of the play as a whole to resolve those energies in a thoroughly conventional Hollywood ending that asks us to believe (unearned) that one choice made decades ago is enough to give a life worth. As a result, there’s a lot left unexamined in the play, not least the tensions around race and gender that raise their ugly heads in the penultimate scenes; they remain curiously and troublingly unresolved, not least because it’s the white characters – all the white characters – who gain resolution and closure while the play’s two POCs are virtually forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong: The Spoils is a hugely watchable play, almost entirely because of Eisenberg’s absolutely remarkable stage presence. But I don’t feel like it’s a particularly brave or true one.

Film Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From now until the break of day/Through this house each fairy stray.

Oberon, the Fairy King

The plot of Shakespeare’s Dream is probably familiar to everyone who ever did English GCSE: in a not-very-classical Athens ruled over by a King Theseus about to marry his conquered Amazonian foe Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander are in love. Hermia’s father Aegeus, however, thinks Demetrius would be a better match, and threatens Hermia with death if she doesn’t comply with his wishes. Meanwhile, ugly duckling Helena lusts for the uninterested Demetrius.

Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods outside Athens, pursued by Demetrius, who is in turn pursued by a lovelorn Helena. But once in the fairy-haunted forest, of course, everything changes: the fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania are in the throes of an almighty domestic. Oberon, however, possibly in a mood of sentimentality, instructs his tricksy servant Puck to have Demetrius fall in love with Helena instead of Hermia. But Puck is, er, puckish, and predictable high jinks ensue.

It’s not really a play that deals too much with psychological realism or, indeed, realism of any kind, and Russell T. Davies’ new adaptation for the BBC isn’t really interested in working out the plot’s more egregious holes. (For example, why does Oberon have Titania fall in love with Bottom, the rude mechanical? Surely there are better methods of revenge?) No, Davies invests his energy in the cultivation of affect and symbol (as he did when he ran Doctor Who): in the surface that the play presents to us.

And what a surface it is! Moving from the austere, classically-inspired court of Theseus to the East End pub where the Mechanicals practice their play to the otherworldly forest and back again, the film is a riot of faerie colour, beautifully lit and costumed, with some nice special effects (and some not-so-nice ones). Add to that Murray Gold’s admittedly rather bombastic score, and you get something ridiculously, gloriously operatic.

None of this is to say that Davies’ Dream is superficial; or, rather, it is, but it’s superficial in a very specific and deliberate way. And here I want to look at the ending of the film, and how Davies draws together his threads of symbol.

Davies’ main departure from the original play is in casting Theseus not as a wise and benevolent king (a la Theoden) but as a cynical and cruel tyrant (a la Darth Vader. More or less). So Hippolyta, his (Asian) queen, is no willing bride but a straight-jacketed prisoner, forced to read words of love from a teleprompter.

Theseus-Hippolyta is nicely echoed by Oberon-Titania: Davies’ second, and in this climate more radical, change to the text is having Oberon and Titania fall out not over an Indian child they both want in their retinue but simple jealousy. Titania and Hippolyta are – or were: the chronology isn’t clear – lovers.

(Incidentally, this rather neatly transfers the colonial anxieties in the play squarely onto Theseus’ head.)

So when the end of the play sees Hippolyta and Titania growing butterfly wings and snogging (Theseus is dead of a heart attack and Oberon has got over his jealousy) it’s a powerful visual symbol of queer emancipation.

And I want to add to that a word about racial coding. Every single romantic pairing that makes it to the end of the play is an interracial one. Demetrius and Hermia are both Black, which means Aegeus’ desire to see them married – instead of Lysander and Hermia – can be read as a conservative desire to prevent interracial marriage. Again, considering that the symbolic role of marriage in a Shakespeare comedy is unification, this is a powerful symbol of where the film’s politics lie: with integration, with multiculturalism.

These are not nuanced or sophisticated narrative ploys. There are hosts of problematics drawn up behind their superficialities. But: this kind of thing never happens in mainstream television. Not on this scale, and not with this wild, unapologetic joy. This is fucking huge.

(And, yes, my reaction to all of this is incredibly personal and incredibly subjective, because I can count on one hand the number of decent QUILTBAG characters I’ve come across in SFF, and you know what, it’s nice to see people like me celebrated for once in this incredibly artful and artless way.)

Finally, I want to talk about how Davies treats Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe, which I want to argue provides a model for how we can read Davies’ Dream.

As noted above, Theseus dies of a heart attack, just as Flute/Thisbe is performing his/her death over Bottom/Pyramus’ body. The words Flute is speaking thus have a real-world resonance the performer doesn’t have access to. Another thing: the Mechanicals’ play becomes a carnivalesque space in which the underprivileged and powerless working class can speak a kind of truth to power. Theseus’ anger as the Mechanicals refuse (not intending insolence) to go along with his assertions as to how their play should work is a symptom of his temporary powerlessness: in Pyramus and Thisbe, it’s the powerless who suddenly have the power, to shape this artistic world as they see fit. It is theirs, not Theseus’. And a third thing: much is made throughout the Dream of the Mechanicals’ (apolitical) desire to assure the court that their play isn’t real. And yet their prologue, which announces it as not real, is, through Elaine Paige’s genius delivery, mangled into something which sounds inflammatory without meaning to be: “In despite we do not come/As minding to content you/Our true delight is” becomes “We do not come as minding to content you.” The message seems clear: as ridiculous, as superficial as the Mechanicals’ performance is, its political resonances are yet vital and real.

So, when Puck finishes the film with his wild monologue:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:

That you have but slumbered here

While these visions do appear

he is announcing the play as fiction, as dream, as, precisely, superficial (“visions”); but he is also, by the exact virtue of announcing it as harmless fiction, asking us to remember how politically potent even the least overtly political artistic creations are. Art is, Davies wants us to know, always already political: it gives the powerless power, it represents minorities in the halls of the privileged, it resonates in strange ways with the straight-jacket of the real.

And of course this is a rose-tinted and superficial view of art. Of course it is a utopian dream of artistic creation which doesn’t come close to manifesting in today’s capitalist society. But, in the aftermath of a disastrous campaign which has shattered Britain’s short-term economy, its political system and its unity, it is exactly the kind of dream we need: one which dares to imagine a voice for the working class without succumbing to regressive right-wing ideology.

The English Student Cooks: Roquefort Quiche

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Roquefort Quiche

Method: Shortcrust pastry, as usual: I rubbed 2oz butter into 125g plain flour, added some water and stirred with a knife until it bound together in a dough. That went into the fridge to chill for half an hour.

Then: I rolled it out on a floured surface, lined my special quiche tin with the pastry, put some baking beans in and managed to get it safely into the oven (on 220 degrees Celsius) on the second attempt. (I had a slight mishap with the quiche tin’s loose bottom.*)

While that blind-baked, I made the filling: I mixed 90g crumbled Gorgonzola (so technically this is Gorgonzola quiche not Roquefort quiche) with 180g (a whole tub!) of Philadelphia Light, and then mixed in two beaten eggs and 150ml crème fraiche.

Once the pastry had finished its first bake (I took the baking beans out after ten minutes and let it cook empty for another ten minutes), I put the filling in – once again I had a little too much – and put the whole thing back in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius to bake for half an hour. Et voila.

Substitutions/alterations: I actually forgot to put any chives in the custard, which was annoying as I actually have a live chive plant which I never use. And, as noted above, I couldn’t find any Roquefort in Asda (funnily enough) so I used Gorgonzola instead.

Verdict: Another lovely Mary Berry recipe: creamy and cheesy and not too strong, with these amazing occasional veins of salty blue cheese running through the custard. I might well make it again, but not for myself on my own: it’s a bit too much of a faff for that.

*Ooo-er. That’s what she said. I’m sorry, I just watched Russell T. Davies’ Midsummer Night’s Dream on iPlayer and am having difficulty curbing my emotions.

World Book Night 2016/Late at the Library

“What is to me this quintessence of dust?”

William Shakespeare

So the Saturday just past, the 23rd April, was the UNESCO-designated World Book Night, as well as the birth- and deathdays of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Now. I have Thoughts on World Book Night as it manifests itself in the UK, which I have expressed before. To cut a longish story shortish, WBN is run by the Reading Agency, and involves a large number of specially printed books (from a list of about fifteen which changes every year) being given out by a large number of volunteers, for free, to people who don’t read very much. The first year, 2011, a full million books were given out by (I think) 200,000 volunteers. This year, under 200,000 books were given out by 10,000 people.

My point being, I suppose, that it is a lovely and charitable idea; but (like many of the works of Men) it has somewhat failed of its promise.

This did not, apparently, stop me from buying a ticket to the Reading Agency’s event at the British Library on Saturday to mark the occasion, along with a slightly reluctant Circumlocutor. “It sounds like a party,” he said. “I don’t like parties.”

The event began with a panel moderated by Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love) featuring five past and present World Book Night authors: Dreda Say Mitchell (Geezer Girls), Holly Bourne (Am I Normal Yet?), Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive), Sathnam Sanghera (The Boy With the Topknot) and Stephanie Merritt, who writes as S J Parris (Treachery).

Cathy began by asking the panellists about the role of reading in their lives. Dreda Say Mitchell talked about visiting her local library, and sneaking into the Barbican Art Gallery, and how although her family had no money they always had access to books and culture; and she read (and eventually sang) the lyrics from a Stevie Wonder song. (I have no idea which one, so please don’t ask.) Holly Bourne, in a theme common to the evening, mentioned that school English teaching made her fall out of love with reading, and that Louise Rennison and the Ace Gang made her fall back in love with it.

(As an aside: I think the assumption that Bourne and her audience made here, that all reading is intrinsically good reading and everything that stops a child reading is intrinsically bad, is worth questioning, if only because it’s a very common one that is rarely seriously examined.)

Bourne also referred to books as safe hallucinogenic drugs, and went on to make the more serious point that, while the stereotype of a reader is an introvert, drawn into themselves, her experience of reading was one of escaping out of herself. Which is an important point, about empathy, couched very subtly.

Matt Haig talked about his experience with depression, reading childhood books and rediscovering his love of story, as opposed to pretentious university novels that fuck around with time (The Sound and the Fury, I am looking at you); and he read from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, featuring the BFG.

Sathnam Sanghera, who wins the prize for Most Amusing Panellist, had some interesting things to say about the book as a status symbol, citing his first book purchase, The Collected Works of George Orwell, which he kept on his shelf for all to admire without ever actually reading it. (Sanghera was funny, but I also think the cultural pressures sitting behind this story are worth thinking about, especially in the context of the extremely limited diversity in the audience. It literally speaks volumes that in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world I could count the POCs in the room on one hand. World Book Night is all about inclusiveness – and £20 a head to attend its flagship event is not, frankly, very inclusive.)

I can’t remember what Stephanie Merritt said, which, I’m sorry, I’m a bad blogger, but I do remember her reading from A Christmas Carol.

The next topic (oh, yes, there’s more) featured Shakespeare, the man of the night. Again, the discussion revolved around how Shakespeare is taught in schools; the consensus was “badly”, with everything from teachers laughing at unfunny jokes to introducing students to texts rather than to plays being blamed for the playwright’s infamy among schoolchildren. The idea that his plays have natural “ins” which teachers should exploit more cannily was bandied about: multicultural interpretations, “unsex me here”, Keanu Reeves. (Mmmmm.) Which is true, but also easier to say at a panel in the British Library than I imagine it is to put into practice in a noisy classroom.

There were a couple of not hugely interesting questions from the audience (mainly of the “this isn’t a question at all, just me sharing my opinion” variety, which is fine if your opinion is new and startling or even just thought-provoking) and then it was time to file over to the lobby of the Library proper, where there was indeed a Late at the Library party in full swing. (It appears that this happens on a fairly regular basis at the British Library, with a different theme each time – that’s something I’m going to keep my eye on.) The programme for the evening included music and performances of various kinds, and there was food and drink, and, let’s face it, it was a party in a library.

Ticket price included entry to the BL’s exhibition “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”, which we wandered into vaguely expecting to come out after about half an hour to eat cake and watch the performers in the excitingly lit lobby.

Which: no. “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” focuses on ten key moments in Shakespearean performance history, with displays of books and models and costumes and other shiny things, and I wanted to look at everything, which meant it took me about half an hour just to get to Act Three. (The Circumlocutor was much more sensible, and moved twice as quickly as I did, which meant he had to stop and wait for me in Act Five.) This was a pity; because by the time I had got to Act Eight, which had all sorts of interesting displays on postmodernist Shakespeare, I had had enough. It’s a well-curated and fascinating exhibition, but you do need to pace yourself.

So cake and watching performers did not, alas, happen (the Circumlocutor was disappointed to have missed the Crystals, Ben and David, who evidently do original pronunciation performances of Shakespeare) (and I’ve just realised, looking at the programme, that John Agard was there and I missed him, godsdammit) – we were kind of tired by this point, being feeble – it was still a most excellent and thought-provoking evening, with a great atmosphere. I always forget what a rich cultural resource there is in London; I’m definitely going to be looking out for more events like this.

Theatre Review: Hairspray

“Big ain’t the problem in this family.”


You may remember, if you have been a very attentive reader, that the first time I saw Hairspray on television I switched straight over to E4+1 and watched the film’s last hour again.

I liked it quite a lot, in other words.

So when I went to see the stage version in Cambridge on the 20th February (it’s currently touring the UK, and is playing in Cardiff as of yesterday), I think I was expecting a little…more.

Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad, a girl living in 1960s Baltimore who Faces Prejudice due to her weight as she tries to achieve her dream of dancing on television’s The Corny Collins Show. The musical also deals with the segregation of television at the time, as Tracy battles to get her black friends integrated with the white dancers on the show.

I think what struck me the most on watching Hairspray is just how much of a white person’s show it is. The show’s agenda of keeping the energy in the theatre up to almost manic levels means that a lot of the film’s quieter and more subtle moments are cut, the production moving from song to song without taking too much account of such things as continuity and logic. (“So…how did she get on television again?” said the Circumlocutor at the interval.) The upshot of this is that obstacles feel easily erased, with integration and acceptance more or less a foregone conclusion; the show feels relentless in its insistence that racism is easy to defeat, that it can be done with a judicious song and a dance. The outright bigotry of the Corny Collins Show‘s producer Velma is too easily dismissed as, well, batshit crazy (although, see also Donald Trump – I wonder how Americans watch this show), when the actual tragedy of racism is that millions of otherwise intelligent, reasonable people discriminate, in subtle and insidious ways, against those whose skin colour is even slightly different from theirs. And – this is the clincher – we note that the show chooses to focus the struggle for integration not through the black community who are actually directly affected by it but through our single white heroine, Tracy. The show isn’t, ultimately, interested in black experiences of segregation; it’s interested in segregation only as a way to make its heroine more agreeable and its villain more villainous.

In other words, the show feels self-congratulatory, written entirely by white people for an audience which was, at least at the performance I saw, overwhelmingly white (in a city which, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, has a significantly higher non-white population than the national average). It allows its audience to feel liberal and tolerant without actually having to, e.g., examine their own prejudices and biases and do something about them. And, yes, this is a problem in a country which feels outraged that its government is going to take in a few Syrian orphans, in a culture in which Brussels gets a safe button on Facebook while Ankara does not.

“Look! We solved racism,” says Hairspray, complacently. “Now we can all be uncomplicatedly happy.”

Top Ten Book Club Books

“Solitude is the playfield of Satan.”

Vladimir Nabokov

  1. The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry. A book that’s accessible and short, yet has plenty of room for alternative readings – I can imagine some very fruitful and interesting discussions coming out of a group read of this.
  2. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. A gentle book, this one, despite its post-apocalyptic subject matter, and one that’s unusual without being scarily so. Again, I can imagine that different people will take very different things away from it.
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This one’s a little trickier, I think: I could imagine a book club discussion of this turning into a weighing-up of the relative merits of each section without actually engaging with the meanings of the text, but in the right book club I think it would do well.
  4. Persuasion – Jane Austen. A frequently overlooked classic of Austen’s; running it as a book club read would introduce it to a larger audience, as well as hopefully generating conversations about romance and feminism.
  5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. A slightly spooky one, and a Gothic generator of meanings, and seriously who wouldn’t like this book.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. As with Divry’s novel, there’s plenty of narratorial uncertainty to kick off a discussion with, and enough instability to the story to contain myriads of possible meanings.
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a novel of many voices, so it seems appropriate that it should be discussed by many voices too. (That’s cheesy, I know. I also know that it is 9:46pm and I want to go to bed.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. I think people tend to have very different responses to Shakespeare, and those responses are almost always worth exploring. He’s a very versatile playwright in that respect.
  9. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I wasn’t sure whether to include this one; you’d need a very specific book club indeed to tackle it. But it feels like such a personal book – in that how you read it is almost certainly grounded in personal circumstance – and such a tricky one to tackle all alone that I think a shared reading experience would just be fantastic.
  10. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. On a similar note to #9: it’s not the most accessible of novels by a long stretch, but you’d get a lot out of it.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)