“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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cursed childThe eighth story. Nineteen years later.

Not much compels me to stop one book in favour of another, but the newest installment in the Harry Potter series dropping onto the doormat will do that to a person. So, here it is. Merlin knows when I’ll ever get tickets to see it, so reading it is the next best thing. This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, so let’s just crack on. First, the plot.

No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you anything.

So, now how did I feel about it? You’re asking a very big question there. I guess primarily, I can’t believe that despite the fact the theatre has been previewing the show for months, and the sheer amount of people involved in it, absolutely nothing leaked. Maybe friends told friends, but the Internet in general managed to keep very quiet.

The one thing I will say is that the opening scene replays the epilogue from Deathly Hallows, so there aren’t really any surprises there. But then it carries on and we get the first new dialogue from these characters since 2007 and I got the most ridiculous goosebumps. You forget in between readings that these stories are magical. It takes a moment to get used to reading it in script form rather than as a novel, but I think I understand why it works as a play. Two plays, in fact. There’s a lot here, and to compress it would be a disaster.

The face (and hair) of one struggling with the state of finishing Cursed Child.

The face (and hair) of one who is struggling with his Cursed Child feelings.

The play somehow is nothing at all like I expected, and yet everything I knew it would be. And you can take that in any way you see fit. I’m trying to work out if I liked it, and I think I did, but there’s a lot in here that requires a lot of processing. It seemingly changes a few of the rules that Rowling had previously established, and added something that I don’t think any of us really expected. And even that feels like saying too much.

Many of the characters we know and love are present and correct. Some of them changed somewhat with time, but their cores remain in tact. The children are great, and occasionally you could have guessed what was going to happen with some of them, but there are some surprises present too. There are, however, some absences that are particularly notable. One old favourite is mentioned, but another has been scrubbed entirely from the text. I know they can’t name everyone, but, well, come on. Sadder still is the reveal of a couple of deaths we’ve missed in the last nineteen years.

My brain keeps playing with the question, “But did you like it?” All I can think is that the staging and casting must be the best the West End has ever seen, as I’ve not seen a single complaint from anyone who happens to have seen the show. It’s magical, but it lacks something. It feels too late, maybe. A sort of, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We all wanted more from Harry, and now we’ve got it, but is it quite what we hoped we’d get? Already I’ve seen polls on Twitter where people are debating whether to consider this addition canonical or not.

I sound negative, and I’m not really. The emotional wallops are very real and Rowling’s world stands the test of time for its depth, breadth and sheer power. I think it’s just because I’ve read it in three hours. I need to go back through, slower, and get to grips with it. That can be a summer project. I may even return to these pages to give a second review. But for now, I leave you with the most wishy-washy vague thing I’ve ever written.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter, @fellfromfiction. For now though, I need to go and sort myself and my thoughts out.

Mischief managed.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

THEATRE: “The Importance Of Being Earnest”

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earnest“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

Because my background at university is in writing rather than reading (that is, a degree in Creative Writing instead of English Literature), there are many areas of the British literary back catalogue that I’m still woefully ignorant of. I can’t abide Dickens, still haven’t read any Austen, and perhaps most unforgivably of all, Oscar Wilde remains a huge blind spot. Oh I know who he was, could name you a number of his works, but I’d never seen any of them or known what they were about particularly.

But then it was announced that The Importance of Being Earnest was to be staged again at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, my friend Charlotte Blackledge (aforementioned in my previous theatre review) was understudying and spoke highly of the show and, perhaps most importantly, David Suchet – Poirot himself – was to be treading the boards in the role of Lady Bracknell. Grabbing hold of my other half, we descended on the city to spend a few hours in the company of some of Wilde’s most eccentric characters.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which included myself; I resisted looking up the plot before going), this is the tale of John “Jack” Worthing, a posh country fellow who escapes to the city every now and again under the impression that he’s visiting his brother, Ernest. As it is, he has no brother, and uses the name Ernest himself when in town. When his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff discovers that his name is really Jack, he finds the whole thing hilarious, although admits that he has an imaginary friend called Bunbury who is constantly sickly, allowing him to escape to the country from time to time.

Complications begin to arise when Algernon’s aunt, Lady Augusta Bracknell, and cousin, Gwendolen, arrive and Worthing proposes marriage to the young girl. Gwendolen however insists that she has always dreamed of marrying a man called Ernest… After an interrogation from Lady Bracknell, Worthing is informed that he will never be allowed to marry Gwendolen. Things become even more confusing once Worthing returns to his country home, where he finds that Algernon has turned up and proposed marriage to Worthing’s ward, Cecily … all the while pretending to be the previously unseen brother Ernest.

In typically farcical British fashion, the situations quickly become confused as two women now believe themselves to be engaged to a man called Ernest, of which there isn’t one. It may take Lady Bracknell to sort out the whole situation…

True to form, Wilde’s writing is mostly just a string of one-liners, everyone witty and smart and armed with the right quotable quip for every situation. (My girlfriend actually comments that this is one of Wilde’s flaws – every character sounds like him.) But the lines are genuinely hilarious – “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune … to lose both seems like carelessness.” – and even though it’s a play with a heavy emphasis on the spoken word rather than stage direction, it retains an enormous energy and the characters are larger than life, meaning the small cast fills the stage.

Suchet's crowning comedy role

Suchet’s crowning comedy role

There’s not a weak link among the cast, and every line is delivered with perfection. Imogen Doel is charming and cute as the ditzy Cecily, a girl who sounds somewhat dim but knows what she wants, and opposite her Emily Barber plays Gwendolen with a wonderful realism and gentle humour. Doing battle with the girls are the boys, Michael Benz (John) and Philip Cumbus (Algernon). Benz is evidently a master of playing the frustrated fop, and Cumbus has turned the performance of the lazy aristocrat into something of an art form. A particularly amazing scene involves them fighting over the muffins that have been served for afternoon tea, cramming so many in their mouths at a time that they can barely get the words out. Rounding out the main cast is Michele Dotrice, as governess Miss Prism, who still has the skills of comedy honed during her time on television, and it was wonderful to see her perform live.

But when it comes down to it, the show is absolutely stolen by David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, as I think is always going to be the way with Importance. Suchet makes a stunningly convincing battleaxe of a woman, and if you’ve ever thought him camp or hammy when playing Hercule Poirot, then this will make you consider that that’s probably quite a straight role in comparison. From the moment Lady Bracknell bursts onto the stage (which immediately got a round of applause from the audience), she dominates and you know she’s in charge. You can tell that Suchet is enjoying the silliness and he delivers every line and facial expression with absolute perfection. He has however given his own take to the famous line, “A handbaaaaag” which is less familiar, but everything else more than makes up for it. Never have I seen such an excellent performer of double takes.

The play will be screened live in cinemas around the country on the 8th October, and it runs in the West End until November, so there’s still plenty of time to see this show, which I really think you should. It’s fast, still funny over one hundred years after it was written, and cast to wonderful perfection. Do not miss out!

“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare (1599)

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Heh, heh, heh

Heh, heh, heh

“I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

Nursing a hangover, the day required a simple book that I knew the story of and thus in came the manga version of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s probably my favourite of his works, often billed as history’s first romantic comedy, and it’s the play I’ve seen performed the most frequently in one form or another. I think most people know the story, but to summarise briefly:

There are two stories going on within the play. The first centres around old flames Benedick and Beatrice, who now trade witty barbs at one another and love nothing more than winding each other up. There is little love lost between them. The second story is about Claudio, Benedick’s friend who has fallen in love with Hero, Beatrice’s cousin. However, the nasty and jealous Don John wants Hero for himself, so conspires to ensure their marriage does not go ahead. Meanwhile, everyone else conspires to get Benedick and Beatrice to admit that they actually do love each other, despite their surface-level hatred.

While Shakespeare can be a bit dense from time to time, this is probably the easiest of his plays to understand and, even to a modern audience, it still stands up humour-wise and I actually did chuckle aloud a couple of times. One of my favourite lines involves someone saying to Beatrice, “So Benedick isn’t in your good books?” and Beatrice quickly replies, “If he was, I’d burn down my study.” That’s paraphrased, of course.

Beatrice and Benedick are two of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon, Benedick for his amusing arrogance, Beatrice for her devout hatred of men, and both for their sharp witticisms. Don John is a scheming and nasty piece of work, but otherwise even the minor characters seem quite good fun. The play is loaded with innuendo (hell, the title alone is pure filth if you know your Elizabethan slang) but it’s a good read. Studying the plays in manga form is very interesting as it allows them to be experienced closer to the original intent, and while I’d recommend this one, if you ever get a chance to see this performed then take it. If you’re new to Shakespeare, there are worse plays to start with than this.

“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare (1613)

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HENRY_VIII“An untimely ague stayed me a prisoner in my chamber when those two lights of men met in the vale of Andren.”

I mentioned a while ago on here that I have very recently been to Stratford-Upon-Avon and, as such, Shakespeare was bound to turn up on the blog eventually. So, here he is, although perhaps not in the form that anyone expected.

Y’see, I’ve had continual issues with Shakespeare over the years. He’s the finest writer in history, sure, but he was not a novelist. He was a poet and a playwright, meaning that his work isn’t really supposed to be read, but rather seen. I’ve seen a few performances in the past, as well as some modernised adaptations, and I do generally enjoy them. So when in Stratford I stumbled upon a new way to enjoy the plays, I jumped at it. This is Shakespeare manga.

Manga, for those who aren’t aware, are comics made in Japan, conforming to certain historical rules. The style is often beautiful, alternating between simple and detailed, rarely coloured, and they cover a whole variety of genres. Manga is not just for children – it is read by most of the population. In recent years, the popularity of the format has spread globally and, with its bold designs and ability to tell any story, it seemed logical to put Shakespeare’s stories into this format. As far as I can tell, fourteen of his plays have so far been adapted for the style, and I have begun with his last play. It is one of the less well known of the canon: Henry VIII.

As you may have surmised, the play tells the story of the eighth King Henry of England and his dealings with his first two wives, as well as political figures like Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. With Catherine of Aragon seemingly unable to provide him with a son, he moves to marry Anne Boleyn, although must first contend with the church and get a divorce. Meanwhile, Wolsey has gone crazy with power, so it seems, and many of the lords are plotting to remove him from his seat to further their own means.

While interesting and engaging, Henry VIII is not the Bard’s finest work. It is actually commonly suggested that collaborated with fellow writer John Fletcher on this one, although perhaps a collaboration with Andrew Lloyed Webber would’ve been more exciting. Otherwise, the play is notable for two other reasons. Firstly, the original has more stage directions than any other of his plays. And secondly, it was the play that was being performed when the original Globe theatre burned down in 1613, when a special effects cannon ignited the thatched roof.

Maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with – the other manga I bought are plays I know better, and will feature here in due course – but I didn’t dislike it, and the method of storytelling is a rather smart one, given that the medium is supposed to be visual. Just goes to show that you can’t keep a good bard down.

THEATRE: “Stephen Ward”

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Stephen-Ward

Scoundrel or scapegoat?

“I don’t mind admitting the last place I expected to finish up was as an exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors.”

So far on this blog, I have stuck solely to reviewing books, despite there being several plays, films and TV events that I’ve contemplated doing articles on. I was going to stick to this rule, but it’s my blog, so I can do what I want! As such, here is the first theatre review for the blog – the shamefully soon-to-close Stephen Ward.

The Profumo Affair was an incident from the early sixties that shook the government to its very foundations. Minister for War, John Profumo found himself having to resign after details of his affair with Christie Keeler became public knowledge – particularly galling given that he’d already made a statement saying that nothing had happened. Stephen Ward, a friend of both Profumo and Keeler, became the one the government blamed and a plan was formed to bring him down. But it’s long since been questioned – was he guilty, or was he just a scapegoat that the government used to brush the whole sorry mess under the carpet? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical tells us of Stephen’s life, and what really happened.

Ward, an osteopath to London’s rich and famous, seems an amicable man who befriends Keeler with, apparently, absolutely no interest in a sexual relationship whatsoever. He enjoys her company and soon she has moved in to his London flat, along with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, described by many as “a tart with a heart”. The two girls are young, sexy, and fond of short-lived liasons with many men, a lot of whom Ward introduced them to. Keeler meets Profumo this way and while their affair is short, when it is discovered two years later, it brings skeletons crashing down out of the cupboard and people begin to lose faith in the government – including Prime Minister Harold Macmillan himself. The court case comes down to the question of whether Ward was being paid and essentially pimping out Keeler and Rice-Davies.

The musical is in many respects what we’ve come to expect from Webber and team – powerful songs, genuinely funny writing, a truly emotional story – but there’s also some surprises. For example, the very notion of the story is surprising – how does one turn a political scandal into a musical? It seems a challenge, but Webber has done it, and he’s done it very well. And as for him being twee? Rubbish. The first act includes a full-blown orgy scene with women in lacy lingerie, men in very unattractive (but hilarious) briefs and vests, and even one poor sod in a gimp mask being controlled by a dominatrix in leather. This was the sixties after all and, as one of the songs says: “1963 – we’ll be fancy free”.

The author and the actress...

The author and the actress…

Performances were sublime – a strong, highly-polished cast. Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward was excellent and manages to portray the struggles of the man so well that you can’t help but feel empathy with him as his once-perfect life crashes down around him, despite the fact he seems to have done nothing wrong. Amy Griffiths was a strong Christie Keeler, with a great voice and a brilliant sense of childish innocence coming face-to-face with the real world too soon. Joanna Riding as Valerie Profumo is also definitely worth a mention, and her rendition of “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You”, the song in which she forgives her husband his affair, is spine-tingling and typically Webber.

Truth be told, the main reason I went to see it though (as well as being a musical fan anyway) was the girl playing Mandy Rice-Davies – Charlotte Blackledge. Although this was her first West End show, and you probably haven’t yet heard of her, I have no doubt at all that big things are coming and soon everyone will know her name. And I’m not saying that just because I used to work with her and we’re still friends. She is genuinely talented and portrays Mandy Rice-Davies marvellously, with a real sense of fun. People who were around during the original events have all said that she makes a very believeable Rice-Davies, and while I don’t know if that’s true or not (but I assume it is), she brings wonder to the character. (Note: Charlotte, £50 we agreed didn’t we? I’ll take a cheque…)

Just like Ward himself, the musical was never given a chance. You can’t make a hit in four months (Les Miserables was slated on its arrival, and yet it is still running nearly three decades later – imagine the cultural loss if they’d shut it down) and it is shameful that the show has to close so soon after its opening. Granted, the subject nature means that it might be something of a niche audience, but I believe that everyone can enjoy the show. If the option arises for you in the next month to get in and see it, I think you should, but somehow, I don’t think we’ll have seen the last of this.