The Last Ship Review: Sting’s Musical Homecoming

It was announced last week that Sting’s Broadway musical The Last Ship will close early, three months after it opened on Broadway. I now feel all the more fortunate that I was able to see it, with Sting himself in a starring role, no less!

Sting fans will know that the rock icon was born in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, and that he has explored his Northern roots musically. First there was Soul Cages (1991), a poetic and sorrowful album set in a Northern shipbuilding community, which Sting wrote to help him deal with his father’s death. Then came the concept album The Last Ship (2013) which, although it followed more than twenty years later, shares a setting and themes with Soul Cages and feels in many ways like its sequel.

And from this concept album now emerges a fully-fledged original musical that plays tribute to the shipbuilders of Northern England and deals with fraught relationships between fathers and sons. The Last Ship is part parable and part gritty realism, a melancholy musical with a dark colour pallet.

The vaguely autobiographical plot centres on prodigal son Sting Gideon, who is returning to his hometown of Wallsend after a fifteen-year absence. Gideon (Michael Esper) refused to become a shipbuilder like his father and left home to become a rock star sailor. Returning just too late to attend his father’s funeral, he tries to find his place in the community, and more specifically where he stands with Meg (Rachel Tucker), the teenage girlfriend he left behind. The wise and spirited Meg is now with the safe and steady Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and so the show presents a love triangle. Who will she choose?

Gideon arrives just as the shipyard is closing and we are asked to consider the fate of men who have been deprived of the dignity of work. The gang of testosterone-fuelled shipbuilders are led by their foreman, the tough and salty Jackie White. The role was originated by Jimmy Nail (of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet fame), but in the performance I saw was portrayed by Sting, in an ultimately doomed last-ditch effort to boost ticket sales. Local priest Father O’Brian (Fred Applegate) encourages the men to build one final ship which they themselves will sail; this mission will once more endow them with a sense of purpose and pride.

What makes this show a joy is Sting’s evocative, English folk-inspired music. Let it be known that The Last Ship is not one of those contemporary musicals with only one or two good songs; from moving love songs to rousing sea shanties, every number is breathtaking. Though I was already a fan of most of the songs through listening to the concept album, I was stuck by how wonderfully they transferred to musical theatre style. Since seeing the show, the cast recording has been playing almost non-stop in our house.

The performances are also terrific. Rachel Tucker, as Meg, was a standout. Sting, unsurprisingly, sings phenomenally, though as an actor, he lacks stage presence. As thrilling as it was to see Sting, part of me wishes we’d seen the originally-cast Jimmy Nail, who sounds incredibly charismatic on the cast recording.

Unfortunately, the script, by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, lets the show down. For a start, it’s cliché ridden. There is a salt-of-the earth matron, a women’s number dedicated to the fecklessness of men, even a character on his deathbed with cancer with final wisdom to share. I also struggled with the strange mix of parable and realism. Clearly, the ‘last ship’ the men are building symbolizes salvation. Yet the show is set in a real community whose men are out of work. I was left wondering whether they’d look for jobs when they got back to shore. Another problem is that the character of Gideon lacks depth. Even after fifteen years of sailing, he seems so immature and angry that it’s hard to see him as a viable suitor to Meg.

Still, the beautiful score makes it all worthwhile, and I think the show deserves more success than it has had. Here’s hoping it comes to the West End with a script rewrite.

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Food Glorious Food Part I: In Defense of American Cuisine

An entrenched stereotype Americans have about English culture is that the food is terrible. A classic joke is that all the chefs in hell are English. Note that this view is out of step with the usual American attitude towards British culture. Generally speaking, Americans have a high regard for British culture, but when it comes to cuisine, we’ve traditionally felt superior.

I can remember being shocked and dismayed to discover that Brits held similarly dismissive attitudes towards American cuisine (though, looking back, I now find it hard to imagine I was ever so innocent). I can also pinpoint the moment I started to feel defensive about this issue. I was reading a copy of the Bookseller (a publisher’s trade magazine), which carried a review of Jamie’s America, then the latest cook book by UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I can no longer remember the exact words of the review, but it was something like ‘Jamie Oliver does the impossible and actually makes American food seem appetizing.’ Ouch! Ever since then, I’ve been a little sensitive to the issue of how American cuisine is perceived in the UK.

Although American cuisine is held in low esteem in Britain, I’ve noticed that most Brits are usually very positive about their experiences dining in American restaurants. True, they will typically complain that the portion sizes are inhuman, but they will nevertheless usually say that the food is very good. And yet the idea that American cuisine is inferior persists. On the odd occasion when US cuisine is described favorably, inevitably the phrases ‘bold’ and ‘strong and simple’ will appear. One suspects such commentators are conforming to a preordained narrative.

The problem, of course, is that the British concept of American food tends to be very narrow, most of it based on imported American fast food chains, like McDonalds and KFC. Let first me make the obvious point that many Brits love hamburgers and fried chicken (as do I, for the record). And though I can’t deny that hamburgers and fried chicken are popular in the US, and even emblematic, American cuisine has much more to offer.

American cuisine has been enriched by generations of immigrants, who have taken native dishes and reinvented then. For example, Italo-American cuisine has its own canon of classic dishes, which may not be authentically Italian, but are authentically American, and delicious in their own right. Creole cuisine, which primarily derives from a fusion of French and African cuisine, has produced delicacies such as jambalaya and seafood gumbo. The US boasts fantastic restaurants representing different nationalities. Many Brits may not consider these restaurants ‘American’, even though they are. Perhaps this partially explains the tendency for Brits to praise restaurants in America, but not American cuisine itself.

In order to broaden the discussion further, let me tell you about a few of my favorite foods from my native eastern seaboard. Naturally, the canon of US cuisine is wide (yes, it is), and this is just a small and highly personal sample. This blog entry will also partially answer a question I am frequently asked: which foods from home do I miss?

First of all: clams. According to my fish cookbook ‘Americans are passionate about clams’ — well this American certainly is. A classic dish is Clams Casino, large clams cooked with bacon, peppers, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Clam Chowder is another uniquely American dish. Essentially a stew made with bacon, clams, potatoes and vegetables, it comes in two basic varieties: Manhattan clam chowder, a tomato-based soup; and New England clam chowder, a cream based soup.

As a Delawarean, I’d be remiss not to mention our local delicacy: blue crabs. Yes, there is crab is England, but it’ seldom served, and, in my view, can’t match the succulence of the east coast blue. In Mid-Atlantic states, like Delaware, blue crabs are traditionally steamed with a spice mixture called Old Bay (paprika and celery salt, mainly). It takes a lot of time and effort to pick meat out of a crab, and consequently, friends and family will gather for hours to pick crabs as they talk and joke with one another. These crab parties, held every summer across mid-Atlantic states, are a genuine slice of local culture and among my most treasured memories from childhood.

Blue Crabs freshly caught in Delaware

Blue Crabs freshly caught in Delaware

Some things I miss are little more basic: fresh juicy peaches and ripe tomatoes. In the UK, the cool climate means that many fruit and vegetables are imported. There are of course exceptions, but the UK can’t match the abundance of fresh produce available on roadside fruit stands across America.

And finally let me throw in an honorable mention for my personal favorite snack (though I realize my passion for this simple snack puts me in a minority): popcorn — a food I was so obsessed with as a child that I wrote a mythic origin story for it. It’s much nicer made at home than as served in British cinemas.

Now, I started this essay commenting on how British food is poorly thought of in the US. This too needs to be redressed. Stay tuned in for Part II: in Defense of British Cuisine!


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Do Americans Know They Are American?

Most Brits, if asked, will claim that Americans have a much stronger sense of national identity than they do. As evidence, they will point to American displays of flag waving and the prevalence of the expression ‘God Bless America’. I disagree. Contrary to conventional UK wisdom, I think the English have a much stronger sense of nationality that their cousins across the pond. Truth be told, I think many Americans do not even know that they are American.

Certainly, I used to fit into that category. When I first came to England I had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of my nationality. Previously, I would have never referred to myself as American. Delawarean sure, but not American. The thought never occurred to me and then suddenly, it was what defined me.

Many Americans will never self-describe as American. When I was a kid, school children loved to define themselves with a detailed pie chart of their ancestry: ‘Why I’m 60% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% Cherokee . . .’ and so on. Growing up, I would have frequently described myself as ‘German’ because of my German ancestry. In England, I quickly realized I couldn’t go round calling myself German. Brits would find that ridiculous.

I believe the reason Americans don’t think of themselves as American is that you have to leave America in order to identify what constitutes American culture. How can a fish know it lives in water when it has never known anything else? US culture is so large and self-sustaining that it’s difficult for Americans to see it for what it is. So weak is the American sense of identity that many have told me that there is no such thing as American culture. For example, they don’t notice the flag-waving because they’ve never seen anything different. And few are aware that they live a country that is exceptionally religious, by European standards. Many would be surprised to find supermarkets in other countries selling fried chicken in American-flag packaging. Yet every Brit is aware that Fish and Chips is marketed abroad as a quintessentially British meal.

A strong and unique identity requires awareness of the Other, something Americans are missing. This lack of national identity is directly related to that frequently-lambasted American trait of insularism.  (American insularism of course makes perfect sense when you consider the sheer size of the US, but that’s a topic for another blog entry.) For many Americans, travelling to a foreign country is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or a happens-to-other-people thing. I can remember my sixth grade teacher telling our class that Europeans ‘travel between countries the way we travel between states’. This boggled my mind, but I can now confirm it’s true. Many Brits travel outside the UK, often every year, and think nothing of it. This enables them to keep a constant sense of what is British and what is not.

In my experience, English folk (admittedly I’ve less personal experience with the Welsh, Scottish and Irish), love to discuss their national identity and are frequently heard to remark, ‘oh, how very English’. If anything, the proliferation of television programmes and newspaper articles that aim to unravel and define English culture suggest that the English seem to be going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. Perhaps then the Americans’ weak sense of identity is not just due to insularism but also (over)confidence?


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Merrily We Roll Along Review

The original 1981 production of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along famously flopped on Broadway, closing after just sixteen performances. This revival, produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory, and now enjoying a run on the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre, gives the musical its dues.

Contrary to its light-hearted sounding title, Merrily We Roll Along is actually cynical and heart breaking. It is the story of three old friends: Mary, Frank and Charlie. They are creative types: Frank and Charlie are the composer and lyricist, respectively, of a song-writing duo and their friend Mary is a writer.

The play’s principle conceit is its backwards chronology: it begins in 1976, when the trio’s friendship is in tatters and they are cynical and jaded. The story then travels backwards, finishing at their first meeting in 1957, when they are still full of youthful optimism. The play charts the trajectories of their careers and friendship, and examines the betrayals and compromises that come with fulfilling our ambitions.

The entire cast is pitch perfect, every character clearly defined. I loved each member of the central trio. Jenna Russell is very, very funny as Mary, a cynic with an acerbic tongue even in her youth, who conceals an unrequited love for Franklin. Damian Humbley plays the lyricist Charlie, who is less flashy than Frank, moral and true. Mark Umbers is somehow likable as the composer Franklin Shepherd, despite the fact that we are to understand that he has betrayed his youthful ideals for commercial success. Umbers performance made his choices seem human and understandable.

Of course, the show’s main selling point is its gorgeous music, which is more accessible than any other Sondheim score that I’m familiar with. The singing is terrific. All the cast have impeccable diction. I could hear every word, which can’t be easy when you’re dealing with wordy Sondheim lyrics.

If I have one quibble about Merrily We Roll Along it’s that it could be more understated. It hits you over the head with its tender message of the savagery of time. But that’s a minor complaint.  If you’ve ever felt intoxicated by the past and musings about what brought you to your present position, this show will charm you.

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Secrets from the Slush Pile

One of the most fascinating aspects of my current job in publishing is dealing with the many unsolicited manuscripts we receive. I look after what publishers call, rather unkindly, the slush pile. I am the gatekeeper for all the aspiring authors. They send me their precious manuscripts and, more than 99% of the time, I will respond in several weeks’ time with a carefully worded rejection letter. I should point out that the fact that we consider unsolicited manuscripts at all is unusual. I work for a non-fiction publisher, where the practice is still common. Most fiction publishers, on the other hand, will only consider submissions from agencies. I’ll be starting a new job in a couple of weeks and looking after the slush pile will no longer be one of my responsibilities. So now seems like an opportune time to reflect on what is, for many, one of the most mysterious aspects of the publishing process.

For me, the most intriguing thing about the slush pile has not been the manuscripts themselves (sadly!), but the subtext of the covering letters, and the romantic assumptions about the book trade that they betray. Here are some of the most common misconceptions, which will guarantee that your proposal goes to the bottom of the slush pile:

Publishers don’t need to make money: This is, without a doubt, the most widespread fallacy. Many a proposal has been rejected on the grounds that it ‘will not sell enough to be viable’. I have sent countless rejection letters to this effect and, in response, have received a fair bit of hate mail accusing me of being a dirty capitalist. The underlying assumption is that that books don’t need to make money because they are intrinsically valuable.

Many people love to think that the book trade is special, but the fact is it is a business, and like any other business, it needs to make money. Paper and printing costs money, ebook distribution and production costs money, editing and marketing cost money, and so on. When a publisher decides to publish a new book, it is because they believe they will make a healthy return on the investment. If they don’t believe this is true of your book, it’s not publishable.

You must be a kindred spirit: Maybe it’s because authors see me as anonymous, or maybe because good writing must come from the heart, that they love to tell me loads of personal, and irrelevant, information. Romantically, they imagine that it will make me feel a connection with them that will convince me to publish their book. It won’t. Instead, it makes the author look unprofessional and not like someone we would want to work with.

My story needs to be heard: I receive many manuscripts that were clearly written as therapy. The writers have endured terrible personal misfortunes: divorces, death of children, life-threatening illnesses. They tell me that putting their story on paper has helped them to come to terms with it all and has created meaning out of the chaos. I can agree with all of that. But they then make a leap in thinking that therefore the book needs to be published. They tell me ‘writing the book has helped me, so surely reading it will help others’. They are certain that their story ‘deserves a wider audience’. Often, this thought pattern is coupled with a strong sense of destiny. Though the writing process may have been beneficial for the author, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the book has a large market.

I’m a diamond in the rough: Some writers admit in their covering letter that their writing isn’t very good and ‘needs an editor’. Again, there’s an element of fantasy. They imagine that the editor, with her super-human abilities, will be able to see past the mediocre writing to the gem that lies beneath. In reality, few editors have time to nurture and mould writers who aren’t up to scratch. If they are going to take the risk of publishing a new author, the material has to be very good indeed.

Publishers are fairy godmothers: Continuing the trend of imagining that editors have magical powers, many authors, both aspiring and published, see their editor as a fairy godmother. She can wave a wand and make their dreams come true: a bestselling book, fame and fortune. Though such miracles do happen, they are extremely rare.

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Review: Coalition at the Pleasance Theatre

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s new political comedy features a familiar set-up:  a coalition government, formed of Tories and Liberal Democrats.  Coalition shows the point of view of the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats.  The year is 2015, and after five years, their unholy alliance is starting to unravel.

At this point, I will pause to explain to my American readers that the last British election, held in 2010, resulted in a ‘hung parliament;’ that is, no party won the minimum number of constituencies required to take control of the government.  Consequently, the Tories (Conservatives), who had won the majority of votes, entered into an unlikely partnership with the Liberal Democrats (a third party, the closest US equivalent is the Libertarians).  The result is the current Coalition government, Britain’s first coalition to have lasted for more than a few months since 1929.  David Cameron, the leader of the Tories, is Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is Deputy Prime Minister.

So, back to the production at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.  Coalition stars comedian Thom Tuck as Deputy Prime Minister Matt Cooper.  His character is obviously supposed to make us think of Clegg, but in fact bears little resemblance to him.  Cooper is a grubby and embarrassingly needy politician.  An early gag concerns how desperately excited he is to have his first meeting with the Prime Minister in months.  The plot charts Cooper’s downfall after his Energy Secretary refuses to back a Nuclear Power station.  Spectacularly incompetent, Cooper bumbles from one disaster to another, ignoring the advice of his far more capable subordinate staff.  The play suggests that, in the pattern of an Aristotelian tragedy, Cooper’s lust for power leads him to sacrifice his principles, which ultimately causes him to self-destruct.

My chief complaint about this play as it could easily have been forty minutes shorter.  Several unnecessary scenes are played out before the plot falls into place.  When the plot at last arrives, the evening becomes more enjoyable.  There are plenty witty zingers and amusing performances.

Ultimately, however, Coalition lacks bite.  Part of the problem is that Matt Cooper bears so little resemblance to Nick Clegg.  I guess we are supposed to dislike him because he is a smarmy, and a figure of foolish pride.  But that’s shooting fish in a barrel.  I suspect another thing that cripples this play is the fact that Britain does political satire so well already.  Coalition fails to be as impressive as an episode of Yes, Prime Minister or The Thick of It.

I suppose I was never going to warm to this play because I disagreed with its chief accusation that the Liberal Democrats, as represented by Cooper, have sold their souls in the name of power.  I can remember a pertinent episode of Question Time that aired shortly after the Coalition government had formed.  Both panelists and audience members made the same accusations as Khan and Salinsky, branding Clegg as ‘just another politician hungry for power.’  But surely, I thought to myself, gaining power was always the name of the game.  No one becomes a politician if they don’t want power.

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The Starbridge Novels and the St Benet’s Trilogy by Susan Howatch

Sex, scandal and Christian theology–these are the substance of the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch, a sprawling soap opera about the Church of England in the 20th century.  A colleague introduced me to this one-of-a-kind series, which I quickly devoured.  These novels are both addictive and enriching.

The Starbridge books and the subsequent St Benet’s trilogy span 1937—1992.  The first six novels are set in the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge (for which read Salisbury, England).  Each novel is self-contained and indeed wonderful on its own.  Howatch has planned very carefully so that the novels can be read in any order without fear of spoilers.  But reading the full series rewards the reader’s dedication,  both because the interconnectedness of numerous characters comes into focus and because Howatch often winks at readers who are familiar with other books in the series.

So, the Starbridge novels:

  1. Glittering Images is set in 1937 and narrated by Charles Ashworth, a young priest trying to solve a mystery at the Starbridge Episcopal Palace.
  2. Glamorous Powers opens in 1940 and narrated by Jon Darrow, an Anglican monk called to leave the Order.
  3. Ultimate Prizes is set in 1942 and narrated by Neville Aysgarth, an Archdeacon obsessed with chasing worldly success, a fixation that leads him to make a potentially disastrous marriage.
  4. Scandalous Risks is set in 1963 and narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat, who begins a doomed love affair with Neville Aysgarth.
  5. Mystical Paths is set in 1968 and narrated by Nicholas Darrow as he tries to solve the mystery of a friend’s death.
  6. Absolute Truths is set in 1965, i.e. before the events described in Mystical Paths, but is the finale of the series.  It is narrated by Charles Ashworth, who began the series.  Now the Bishop of Starbridge, Absolute Truth finds him facing a personal catastrophe.

The Starbridge novels are followed chronologically by the St Benet’s trilogy.  These books centre on the London-based healing ministry of St Benet’s and feature a few characters from Starbridge.  Unlike the Starbridge novels, which are focused on priests, the St Benet’s trilogy turns the spotlight on characters who are new to Christianity.

  1. A Question of Integrity (published in the USA and Canada as The Wonder Worker, a better title in my view) is set in 1988 and narrated by several different characters.
  2. The High Flyer is set in 1990 and narrated by Carter Graham, a tough city lawyer.
  3. The Heartbeaker is set in 1992 and narrated alternately by Carter Graham and Gavin Blake, a male prostitute.

The Starbridge novels are about dedicated, intelligent priests making mistakes and getting themselves into messes.  One of the aims of the series is to show that clergy are only human and just as capable as anyone else of falling short of their ideals (in this sense, the Starbridge series does for Church of England clergy what ER did for doctors).

Howatch is fascinated by the complexity of the human personality and the dark secrets that everyone carries.  Each novel is full of robust theology and thought-provoking ideas.  But these books are not just intellectually enjoyable; Howatch is a good storyteller and there’s plenty of scandal.  You will have to know what happens next.

I particularly love these books for their psychologically complex characters that you truly care about.  Howatch is an astute student of psychology and a Freudian interview sits at the heart of all the Starbridge and St Benet’s books.  Her characters turn to psychoanalysis to uncover how heredity, experience and the ubiquitous British class system have shaped them and brought them to their present crisis.  A regular motif is the idea that the language of religion and the language of psychology both point to the same truths.

What I admire most about Howatch’s storytelling is her ability to tell the same story from different perspectives.  In each novel, she adopts a distinctive and convincing voice for the narrator.  She uses different Starbridge narrators to represent wings of the Church of England (Neville Aysgarth is low-church, Jon Darrow an Anglo-Catholic and Charles Ashworth represents the Anglican ‘Middle Way’).  Perhaps this sounds overly schematic, but Howatch presents the different viewpoints so intelligently and sympathetically that you can get inside the minds of the different characters.  Read as a series, the Starbridge novels enabled me to understand a range of conflicting perspectives within the church.

Howatch is also the master of the unreliable narrator.  Here is a meaningful exchange from Glittering Images:

‘Have you read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by the other, more famous Miss [Agatha] Christie?’

‘Yes.  That’s the one where you have to watch the narrator’.

‘Precisely.  I always find the more I read that story the more intrigued I become by the narrator’s omissions and evasions.[i]

The joke is that the same might be said about our own narrator, Charles Ashworth.  The truth about his past will only come to light later.

I believe Howatch uses unreliable narrators, and presents a spectrum of perspectives across the series, in order to highlight the limited nature of human knowledge.  Once the reader is familiar with multiple books in the series, she will constantly be aware of instances where our narrator makes an incorrect assumption and misunderstands the situation.  The subjectivity of our knowledge is depicted throughout the series.  For example, in Absolute Truths, the device of a diary forces the narrator to confront his personal delusions.  A Question of Integrity and The Heartbreaker both use multiple narrators within the same book to showcase both the individuality of our perspective and complexity of reality.

These novels taught me a great deal about the Church of England (very useful, as I work for an Anglican publisher!), delighted and enriched me.


[i] Glittering Images, page 120.


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Merry Crimpness Everybody!

Review: In the Republic of Happiness by Martin Crimp, a Royal Court production

This play divides opinion.  A number of people walked out of the performance I saw, but I also heard a lot of appreciative hollering at curtain call.  I must admit, I entered the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs with a bias.  I am currently rehearsing a production of another Crimp play The Country (details here!) and I wanted to like his newest play, In the Republic of Happiness.

Both plays are, I think, about puncturing the current idols of the middle class and exposing their inherent artifice.  In The Country, Crimp shatters the idealization of country life by suggesting that the country is plagued by the same immoralities as the city.  In the Republic of Happiness is an assault on the westerner’s tireless pursuit of self-fulfillment, at expense of all else.

Unlike The Country, however, ItRoH is experimental in structure.  It begins conventionally enough, with a dysfunctional family Christmas dinner.  There’s a pregnant teenager, a porn-loving grandfather, a liberated grandmother.  So far, so familiar.  Festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Bob.  He and his wife Madeline are on their way to the airport, but he has stopped by to explain, in lurid detail, why Madeline hates every member of the family.

In part II, entitled ‘The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual’, plot and characters are abandoned and things start to get weird.  The stage is transformed into a TV chat show set, and the actors face the audience to deliver narcissistic sermons.  They tell us, in the modern parlance of psychobabble, about their obsessions with therapy, modern technology and overcoming personal tragedy. Typical line: ‘I was angry with my partner’s cat.  I was angry with my partner’s body.  I had flashbacks’.

Structurally, this section is similar to Crimp’s best known play, the drama-school-favourite Attempts on her Life, in that there are no assigned parts for the scripted dialogue.  Instead, at every performance, the eight cast members speak spontaneously, not knowing which of them is going to deliver the next line.  According to Crimp, as well as keeping the performances fresh, this technique highlights that we are not the individuals we love to think we are; in our desire to be unique, we are all paradoxically the same.  The repetitiveness of the dialogue makes this same point, perhaps suggesting that we are socially conditioned to desire the same things.  We are members of a cult, all worshiping at the altar of the self.  It was during this section that audience members started to evacuate, presumably because of the repetitiveness and/or vulgarity of the dialogue.

Oh and there are some very enjoyable songs to break up the speech.  All the actors sing about themselves, X-Factor style.  Another platform for trite self-expression, I think.

Finally in part III, Uncle Bob and Madeline return and are in the titular Republic of Happiness.  In this dystopia, our obsession with individualism has been pursued to its toxic end.  Uncle Bob sings a ‘happy song’, but it’s clear that the long-sought happiness is phony.

Because I have focused on what I understood, I fear this review fails to capture the bizarreness of the play, and the absurdity of much of the dialogue.  I wanted to like this play, I really did.  And while I admire its inventiveness and incisiveness, I needed those old staples: characters and a plot, to hold my interest.  The blitz of self-obsessions in part II grows tiresome, though I guess that was the point.

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Peter Pan the the Starcatcher Review: A Peter Pan prequel

I have been a Pan fan since early childhood and so was excited to see Peter and the Starcatcher on my recent trip to New York City.  The new play, based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, is an origin story for the legendary Peter Pan.  It makes use of many of the same enchanting elements found in James Barrie’s original play: pirates, mermaids, crocodiles, bedtime stories, mother figures and the pain of loss.  The play underlines the richness of Barrie’s myth, while still being a mirthful theatrical experience.

At the start of the play, the boy who will become Peter Pan is an unnamed orphan aboard a ship called the Neverland.  Flashbacks show us glimpses of his miserable past in an orphanage.  The Neverland is carrying precious cargo: starstuff.  As any child will tell you, stars have the power to make wishes come true.  Consequently, the star stuff must be carefully guarded so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.  Lord Aster, the ship’s captain, is one of the world’s only starcatchers, who are entrusted with protecting the precious star matter.  Aster’s thirteen-year-old daughter Molly is a starcatcher-in-training, eager to aid in the mission of safely transporting a treasure chest of star stuff.  Conflict comes in the form of the pirate Black Stache (the future Captain Hook) and his crew, who are out to steal the starry treasure.

The fast-paced, madcap production runs like a well-oiled machine.  The first act is a bit confusing as the script works frantically to provide the necessary exposition.  But the show becomes sublime in the second act, when Aster’s crew are shipwrecked on a tropical island (future Neverland), with the pirates in hot pursuit.  For the Peter Pan expert, it is a pleasure to see many elements of the canon fall gracefully into place: the ticking belly of the crocodile, Hook’s missing hand, and the origins of his symbolic feud with Pan.

Peter and the Starcatcher is strongly influenced by British pantomime, a genre seldom seen in the US.  This is ironic given that Barrie intended for the original Peter Pan to elevate children’s theatre beyond the pantomime genre[1].  Men in drag, foppish villains, slapstick gags and innuendo are all in ample supply.  Perhaps the play’s most memorable image is a coterie of drag mermaids, sporting everything from funnels to teapots for breasts.  But unlike a panto, Peter and the Starcatcher is, like its source text, unexpectedly moving.  The production veers skillfully between hilarity and poignancy.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic, but my favourite was Celia Keenan-Bolger as Molly.  The only female in the cast of twelve, she was endearing and delightful as the spunky and precocious heroine.   Also brilliant is Matthew Saldivar as the future Captain Hook.  A camp and outrageous villain, he had the audience in hysterics from his first appearance, with his tongue lolling and eyes rolling.  And as two lost boy prototypes, Eric Peterson and Carson Eldor charmed with a comedic style that would not be out of place in a Judd Apatow film.

The show is also delightful for its minimal props and imaginative stagecraft.  We are asked to believe that flapping yellow glove is a bird (or perhaps a fairy?), that a piece of rope is a doorway or a ladder, that a string of bunting is a row of crocodile teeth.  I was reminded that theatre audiences really will believe whatever you tell them, unlike film audiences, who are hyper sensitive to poor special effects.   This play made me realize that the story of Peter Pan and the theatre share a dependency on the magic potion of belief.  Yes, I do believe in fairies, and I also believe in theatre.

[1] Barrie, J. M.. (1995). Introduction. In: Hollindale, P., Cordner, M., Holland, P., and Wiggins, M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xii.

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Jumpy: Whatever happened to feminism?

The Royal Court’s production of April de Angelis’s Jumpy, which just finished a celebrated run at the Duke of York Theatre, depicts a turbulent mother/daughter relationship. Like de Angelis’s The Positive Hour (a play I have read but not seen), Jumpy deals with female empowerment and the legacy of feminism.

Tasmin Grieg (previously only known to me from the TV show Episodes) stars as Hilary, the modern, socially-liberal mum of Tilly, a monstrous, over-sexualized sixteen year old.  Hilary and her girlfriend Francis were feminist crusaders in the early eighties and the play indirectly asks the question, what has the feminist movement achieved?  Has Hilary’s hard-fought battle for women’s lib won her daughter the right to her stilettos and loud sex with her boyfriend in her mother’s home?  Are Tilly’s sexual liberation and Hilary’s friend Francis’s burlesque dancing manifestations of female empowerment, or signs that feminism has lost its way?

But all that makes the play sound more pious and less enjoyable than it is.  In fact, wonderfully witty dialogue and very funny performances made Jumpy a most enjoyable evening.  Tasmin Grieg is phenomenal as the idealistic but fraught Hilary.  Her performance found a truthful balance between comedy and pathos.  Doon Mackichan is also outstanding as Frances, Hilary’s comically desperate single friend.  Though I found Tilly (Bel Powley) too unrelentingly garish to become a three-dimensional character.

As in de Angelis’s The Positive Hour, the male characters are flat and pathetic.  Admittedly, Richard Lintern gave a memorable performance as the self-obsessed father of Tilly’s boyfriend.  Ewan Stewart as Tilly’s husband Mark, was likable but wasn’t given much to do.  The play’s other male characters, are, as far as I can tell, only there to be objects of female desire.

On the whole, however, the production was so enjoyable that it was hard to notice that de Angelis’s script often threatened to veer out of control and belie credibility.  A pregnancy scare, marital breakdown, a gunshot wound, menopause, burlesque and the consequences of David Cameron’s austerity measures were all thrown into the mix.  That the play cohered is a testament to excellent direction and some well-judged performances.




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