Dark Doors

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Category: Reviews

LTU Writers’ Festival 2016 – review

Last week was Leeds Trinity University’s 12th annual Writers’ Festival, and I was fortunate enough to snag a last-minute space for the day. Click on over to LTU’s website to read my review of the Festival.

Then set yourself a reminder for March 2017 to book your own spot in the workshops – you won’t regret it. Ever.

Hesitation and the Writer

Today on Twitter, I bumped into a tweet from Guy Gavriel Kay, in which he confesses his reluctance to post and share comments from readers about his writing. I tweeted back that he should share other readers’ opinions about his work, because he writes for the readers. Another follower joined in with his agreement because word of mouth is the greatest way to reach new audiences, new readers. And this was just how I was introduced to the wordsmithery of GGK.

Years back, and two months before I left Canada to study in Scotland, a friend recommended Tigana as the best example of how a book could be a self-contained story, and not require endless sequels and prequels. I was quite skeptical of his assertion, but he assured me that the characters were nuanced, the plot and sub-plots riveting, and the writing superlative.

I had to read this for myself. No book written nowadays is that damn good.

Thankfully, I was so very wrong.

Tigana reminded me what a good fantasy story should be. GGK showed me – in no uncertain terms – how beautiful prose could be. For the first time since The Narnia Series, I became invested in characters, empathized with them, cheered for them when they succeeded, and cried for them when they failed. Tigana was the first book I read and re-read and wore out and bought a new one and wore that one out too. Kay’s storytelling ability is inspiring; his writing showed me how characters interact, speak, react, and grow with every turn of the page. I devoured more and more of his books, scoured the shelves of UK bookstores (which sadly lacked any titles from one of the best writers our time), and learned how to inject humour into dire situations, how to shape quirks and flaws into good characters to make them more interesting, more engaging for the reader.

And I hope – oh how I hope! – that I have learned enough from reading GGK that I have been able to create characters and write dialogue and set a scene as beautifully as he does.

Mr Kay, please don’t ever hesitate to share your successes with us. Being a writer is a lonely job.  Even reading has become more isolated, as every person has their own library or e-reader, and storytelling in groups is a fringe event art. If you share the response others have had to your words, then we all benefit, knowing that we are not alone.

Urban and the Shed Crew – edited

On Sunday, 8th November, I was fortunate enough to attend the screening of Urban and the Shed Crew at the Hyde Park Picture House. (And, a week later, I’ve edited my review. Some points needed expanding.)

A few admissions before I begin:

  • I am not originally from Leeds. Hell, I’m not even British, but I’ve been here long enough to understand the issues presented in the film. This means, however, that some of the cultural subtleties are almost lost on me. (References to different areas of Leeds, and the reactions of the audience to the difference between growing up in Beeston and growing up in Bramley are still a mystery to me; even though I know there’s a difference, I wouldn’t know how to begin to articulate it.) I would worry that if this film goes global, not all the references will be relevant to a global audience. This cultural niche will have to be addressed somehow.
  • I generally prefer books to their film versions. This one is no exception. Issues like substance abuse and sexual activity presented in Hare’s book are difficult to comprehend and shocking because of the age of the children involved. And because of protection issues in working with young actors, these issues could only be hinted at, not portrayed. I think (and this is only my opinion) that the film version suffered from the omission.
  • I am not a professional film critic or reviewer.

I enjoyed the film. Not as much as the book, but that is down to the constraints of the medium. Films naturally must move quickly and do not have the same luxury for character development or discussion of motivation that books do. And Candida Brady had quite a lot of material to work with, to distill down to its essence and present on-screen. Some things may have been missed, but she got what mattered most. The soundtrack was haunting and beautiful throughout, and did not overwhelm the scenes but added to them. At times, especially in the early parts of the film, the pacing is awkward; encounters between Greta and Chop should have possessed greater tension, but fizzled at times, and her explosive responses did not fit with the preceding scenes. This may be down to editing choices.

Overall, the performances from Armitage, Friel and Kelly were nuanced and dynamic, bringing these main players to vivid life for the audience. The film highlighted the fragile balance of Chop’s own equilibrium as Greta and Urban pushed and pulled him with their own volatile natures. Chop suffers when Greta is involved, but he flourishes as Urban becomes more important in his life. Further exploration of Urban’s own anger and rage could have helped to illustrate how his environment has shaped him, and to highlight further how important the role Chop plays in creating a stable centre for Urban.

The Shed Crew themselves provide a stark backdrop of the hopelessness. Their shed is a precious safe place, cherished and cared for, with its fairy lights and bright colours, set in a brown burnt-out back garden. I think that the film didn’t emphasise the shed’s importance enough, and how Chop’s flat becomes their safe haven when the shed is forbidden to them.

Throughout the film, you must keep reminding yourself – this is not fiction. Something inside you will resist it – surely no one can live that way? This is the reality of East Leeds in the 1990s, and this is not a purely British issue. Children suffer in more ways than we could ever conceive. And as Hare says, childhood should be sacred.

This is a big story with a big message that needs to be heard.


Second View of ‘The Crucible’

If you’re looking for a review filled with gushing sentiment about Richard Armitage, go someplace else. You won’t find it here. Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I enjoyed ‘The Crucible’ both times I’ve seen it, and for very different reasons. There were strengths and issues in both performances, and I’m not going to go into the minutiae of Armitage’s expressions and movement, or any of the others on-stage, because that’s not the way my brain has been wired. I will admit that the fangirl part of me kept shrieking at me throughout the first time I attended the performance,* and I struggled to silence her, allowing me to pay attention to the full story unfolding before me. Because I didn’t just pay £85 to stare at one guy and not watch an entire play. If I just wanted to stare at him, I could have stayed at home and replayed interviews on YouTube,** thereby saving myself scads of money. However, Fangirl Bitch had the last laugh by not pressing ‘record’, and most of what I saw during the 22 August performance was reduced in my memory to mere reaction, based on vague recollection. Except for Act Two between Elizabeth and John, with the ghost of Abigail ever-present between them – that remains etched clearly in my mind, and Fangirl can’t take that away from me.

When the opportunity presented itself to see it again, I jumped at it.*** I guess I went with the hope for a repeat performance of the exact same intensity and overwhelming hysteria I experienced on the first viewing. Yet, there were many different factors involved in yesterday’s performance, all of which must have had some kind of impact on the production, that the second viewing – while good – did not match up. It is the final week of performances; this was an extra matinee on a day the cast didn’t usually have one; there were cameras filming all around the stage; the director herself was in the audience. Several voices were breaking under the strain, some of the actors seemed to be quite self-conscious around the cameras (or that could just be my impression), and there was a sense of just general exhaustion. These are humans, with limitations, and this cast is rapidly approaching theirs.

I wrote in my original review how the cast ‘became … something more than human‘. The in-the-round stage added to that impression, especially when you are sat in the Stalls; you almost become a part of the performance. That impression was less tangible when sat in the Dress Circle, for the distance from the stage reduced that impact noticeably for me. At least this time, I was able to see more of the play as a play, which was the whole reason for returning for a second sitting.

This time, I was able to see reactions at pivotal moments in the script, rather than staring at the actors’ backs, or having to strain to see around standing bodies or props. From that distance, I could not see the micro-expressions of the actors that other attendees have seen, but I could encompass more of the action – and the acting of an ensemble – and watch Miller’s play for the masterpiece it is. Though it is arranged as in-the-round, the traditional direction of the audience was favoured in the staging, especially for these pivotal moments. The only lie of Elizabeth’s life – nearly all key players faced the traditional direction; that kiss of unconditional love and passion between Elizabeth and John – also aimed in the traditional direction. And the several new factors all had an impact on these moments. Elizabeth’s ‘no’ was nearly inaudible as Madeley’s voice showed the strain of the long run; while some could argue that this a) was a human accident or b) enhanced the performance, the reaction of the cast on-stage seemed disproportionate to her squeaked response. At the opening of the play, various cast members seemed more than aware that they were being filmed, lending a stiffness to their performance until Miller’s words took over. Some of the staging was altered to account for the cameras, which is understandable. The pace was slower than my first viewing – though the reason for that could be anything from exhaustion, unusual time for performing, to some other factor unknown to the rest of us. However, it gave me more chance to process and engage and philosophize in my head while watching, without losing the thread or the energy of the performance.

I enjoyed this second viewing for the academic experience of the play, whereas the first was about the overwhelming emotion of the cast. For those of you too far away to travel, fret not, for with the filmed version, you will get the best of both worlds – front row and dress circle distances – without paying to see it twice.


*NB: A completely internal battle of wills, and I did not ever shout out during the performance. Just had to say, in case a rumour starts going around Twitter that I did a mad/bad thing. Which I didn’t.
** Which I don’t do, and I’m saying this to put hubby’s mind at rest – I’m actually writing and doing stuff all day!
*** The very next day, The Old Vic announced that they would be filming the play… train tickets weren’t refundable, so ‘down Sawf’ I went.

We Burn a Hot Fire Here – “The Crucible” review

The Old Vic’s in-the-round production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” surely does burn hot, distilling this story of hysteria, deceit and vengeance into a performance that scorches the audience. Miller’s play focuses on the events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, creating a scathing commentary on the McCarthy trials of the 1950s. The inevitability of Proctor’s downfall is startling, as Miller held his audience in suspense throughout, dropping subtle hints of the vengeful heart of a young woman, combined with the misplaced doubt of Proctor’s wife, leading us to the realisation that Proctor’s belief in goodness and reputation is so deep that he chooses the noose so as to keep his name.

Let me be honest with you at this point – I am a fan of Richard Armitage (and my previous post illustrates this quite clearly), and I bought tickets to see this because he was cast as John Proctor. As the production opened and the reviews started pouring in – five-star review after five-star review – I was worried that people were hoping to see a great performance and that they had forced themselves to see it. Thankfully, “The Crucible” cast has earned every last star attributed.

Armitage crafted a role of depth and dignity as Proctor, presenting this strong but flawed man in a performance that was approaching perfection. Jack Ellis as Danforth was the immovable object onstage, embodying how belief can become dogmatic and inflexible with a skill that left the audience despising him, though still hoping that he might see reason. Samantha Colley as Abigail Williams – in her first professional theatre role – brought explosive energy to the role, chasing Proctor to make him hers once more. Colley’s stage presence matches Armitage’s, and her portrayal of Abigail was chilling, as the girl is rebuffed and cast aside, which turns her anger into fuel for vengeance. Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale brought this character to his redemption without hypocrisy, highlighting the regret Hale has for his part in the hysteria that grips the community. The domestic scene of Proctor and Elizabeth hummed with tension as the ghost of Abigail seemed to linger between them, forcing Elizabeth to keep her husband at arm’s length. Anna Madeley delivered a delicate performance, showing both tenderness and steel as Elizabeth Proctor, as well as presenting the fragility of a woman recuperating from illness and heartache.

The runaway performance of the night came from Natalie Gavin as Mary Warren. At times, timid and fearful, at times, rebellious and strong, Gavin balanced the tearing conflict of emotion and loyalty felt by Mary with professional skill, and fulfilled Elizabeth’s summary of Mary: “It is a mouse no more.”

Yael Farber’s direction used the in-the-round stage to create her own crucible for the performance, as the play bubbled over the fire of tension throughout. This play could have sunk to mere talking heads, but Farber’s staging and vision created a dynamic piece of theatre. With part of the audience filling the fringes of the stage space around the actors, there was a risk of the players becoming mere mortals treading the stage. The talent, skill and trust in each other displayed by this entire cast built a performance of giants, as each actor filled the space and became – for a little while at least – something more than human.

The intensity of this production will remain with me for many years, and will be my measure for all future productions of “The Crucible”.

‘The Crucible’ continues at The Old Vic, London, until 13 Sept 2014. Most performances are sold out, though return tickets occasionally become available on the day.

FanGirl Moment

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A fantastic chance meeting with Henry Pettigrew, who is currently on-stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in “Of Mice and Men”. Sometimes, it is a good thing to have a kid, who can cover for your total geek moments and start the conversation for you.

Still haven’t seen the production yet? Read my review here and go see it! Tickets are nearly all gone, according to Henry, but there might just be a few tickets for the last performance!

“Of Mice and Men” stage production – West Yorkshire Playhouse

Those who know me, know how much I love Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.  As a teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching this novella for nearly a decade; every year, my students show me a new way of seeing the story and I learn something new.  Last night, I treated myself and my son to the stage production of this iconic story at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

Mark Rosenblatt, the associate director at WYP, may not have known that he would have to impress me, and that such a feat is nearly Herculean because of my enduring passion for Steinbeck’s story.  But he succeeded.

The set was unique, opening up Steinbeck’s claustrophobic descriptions of the bunkhouse and the barn, creating a fluidity to the acting space while maintaining fixed features – like the pond.  It was the strength of the acting from the entire cast that kept the audience’s focus where it needed to be.  Even the lighting paid homage to Steinbeck’s light and dark imagery throughout the story, adding subtle hues of meaning throughout.

Henry Pettigrew (George) portrayed a character of many levels – torn between self and duty, joy and pain.  Pettigrew delivered a performance that brought George to vibrant – and venomous – light on stage, and shifted my own loyalty from Steinbeck’s favourite character, Slim, firmly to George’s shoulders.

Dyfrig Morris (Lennie) brings serious lightness to the production, and delivers a performance of a perfect balance between Lennie’s intensity and his inadvertent humour.

Cast in the role of Curley’s wife, Heather Christian had the most difficult part to play of all.  A character without a name (even Slim’s dog is given a name), Curley’s wife is the fulcrum around which George and Lennie’s fortunes pivot.  Christian showed the audience a character filled with loneliness and pain, as well as her own thwarted dreams, but still filled with a naive optimism that dreams could still come true.  Her arrangement of music created an atmosphere of melodic melancholy, gripping the audience tightly and never letting go for the duration of the performance.

“Of Mice and Men” is playing until 29 March 2014 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.  Go see it.  Whether you’re studying it for GCSE, read it for your own enjoyment, or remember any of the George and Lennie references in cartoons.  You’re in for a treat, I promise.  Even as Burns’s poem says:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!


For in this story, there is joy, and pain, and grief.  This is not an easy watch, but you will not forget the experience.

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