“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

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And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“Shades Of Grey” by Jasper Fforde (2010)

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Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

“Turning Forty” by Mike Gayle (2013)

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Life begins?

Life begins?

“Wiping my hand against the steamed-up window of the taxi I press my nose against the cold glass to get a better look at the worn but sturdy façade of my destination.”

Despite still occasionally getting asked for ID in Waitrose when stocking up on alcohol, I am actually a mere fortnight away from being twenty-eight-years-old. As such, a book titled Turning Forty may seem to have little between its covers that could interest me. As it is, it’s written by Mike Gayle, one of the favourite writers, and is the sequel to his book I read probably about ten years ago, Turning Thirty. Despite being a follow up, with the same characters ten years on, it doesn’t seem necessary to have to remember the first book, as I can recall very few specific details about it, just that I liked it.

Turning Forty is the tale of Matt Beckford, a thirty-nine-year-old IT industry professional who appears to have it all – wonderful wife, high-flying job that takes him around the world, and he’s just bought himself a shed. Frankly, he’s made it. But then his world comes crashing down around him, and a combination of a breakdown from the stress of his job, and the final acceptance from both himself and his wife Lauren that they don’t love each other anymore, sees him now facing his fortieth birthday divorced, broke and unemployed. With nothing else for it, he returns to his family home in Birmingham where his parents are happy to see him but concerned. Matt, however, has come up with an insane plan – he’s going to find his old on-off girlfriend Ginny and get back with her.

Fate, however, intervenes. He does indeed find Ginny again, and despite rumours of marriage, she’s still single. They embark on a whirlwind romance and book tickets to travel the globe, as they should’ve done when they were young, but she very quickly calls time on the budding relationship. Broken once more, Matt starts to wonder if his life will ever get any better.

The book, from what I remember, mimics the plot of Turning Thirty, where Matt returns home just before his thirtieth birthday to find his old friends and, as this time, rekindle things with Ginny. As you can guess from this, it’s a story about the past, about letting go and moving on, and about how one cannot stay in a rut forever. Time keeps passing, whether you like it or not, and it doesn’t always produce developments that you’re keen on.

Fundamentally, Matt is a decent character, but doesn’t always act on the best impulses. He is overly concerned about his age, and spends much of the novel comparing himself to people he knew from school and what they’re doing with their lives now. Most of them are introduced with their school superlative and then their current lifestyle, if only to further showcase how many people lose sight of their dreams and end up with a life that they didn’t particularly want. Although I don’t know what it’s like to be forty, many of the characters here are in their twenties, and the way they are portrayed, and especially their reactions to a deadbeat forty-year-old, strike a chord. I’m not so fond on Ginny as a character, but that may just be because we see her from Matt’s eyes. She isn’t painted as evil, and Gayle, as usual, does wonders with three-dimensionality, bringing to life characters who are fully-rounded, full of flaws and complications, the number of which only increase with age.

Gayle’s writing is warm and I always get the feeling that you’re hearing the story in a pub over a pint, just chatting with a mate. Some readers, including myself, may note the surprising number of coincidences that pepper the story, but they can be forgiven because none of them lead to anything good. If a story must have a coincidence in it, then it must lead to bad things, an idea I played with a little in my novel. It ends on a bittersweet note, and with an emphasis on the importance of family, something that seems to recur often in Gayle’s work. Although Matt may be falling apart, there’s no doubt that Mike Gayle is simply getting better with age.

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!

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