Sunday, 3 January 2021

My Year in Books 2020: December

And so it's my final book post of the year. As seems to be usual, I read a little more in December than in previous months. This month's list isn't quite as festive as last December's (mostly because I didn't feel as festive as usual). This is a list of the books I read for pleasure - I did read quite a few others for teaching and for review. And in case you don't think this list is festive enough, here's a list of the much more seasonal reading I did in December for the Christmas Special of my radio show!

For the curious, here are my other book posts from 2020: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer (1951)

As it’s December, I found myself in the mood for some Golden Age crime (as I do most years, to be honest). I had two British Library Crime Classics on my to-read pile that my mother-in-law bought me for my birthday, so it felt like time to crack into them. The accidental theme of this pairing was ‘mystery novels written by people you didn’t know wrote mystery novels’. The first one I read was The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer, who is much better known as a playwright. It’s a locked room mystery, set in a B&B in the seaside town of Amnestie, and features a larger-than-life detective figure (Mr Verity). A man has been found dead in his bedroom. The room is locked, but this is somewhat confused by the fact that a man is seen leaving by the window, and another man was seen entering the room prior to the murder. It’s also confused by the fact that there’s – as the title announces – a woman in the wardrobe. The puzzle here (which I did like) is that, although there appears to be three people who all had the opportunity to commit the murder, Mr Verity keeps offering evidence that they couldn’t have done it. Sadly, though, this one didn’t quite do it for me. It didn’t quite hit the right Golden Age notes, and I didn’t find Shaffer’s Verity a particularly engaging or likable sleuth. It’s a shame, because the puzzle and its solution are great.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

The second book in my ‘surprising mystery authors’ pair worked a lot better for me – and I absolutely loved it! Ellen Wilkinson is (of course) better known as a firebrand Labour MP who served as Minister of Education. Although Wilkinson’s parliamentary career and legacy is reasonably well-known – though perhaps it could be better known? – there are some aspects of her career that are less famous. Firstly (something I did know), she served as a councillor on Manchester City Council for being elected to parliament for the first time. Secondly (something I didn’t know), when she lost her seat in 1931, she turned her hand to mystery writing. The Division Bell Mystery is actually the only mystery she wrote, as she was re-elected to parliament in 1935, but it’s absolutely brilliant. Set in the House of Commons and – surprisingly – with a Tory private secretary as its decent and earnest ‘sleuth’, Wilkinson’s novel is one part locked-ish room mystery with international intrigue as a backdrop, and one part fun little tale of the secrets and charm that lies behind the scenes at the House of Commons. Admittedly, the puzzle itself isn’t that complex (though it has a cheeky little solution), but the characters and setting completely won me over. I especially liked the friendship between Robert West, the Tory protagonist, and the socialist Labour MP (Gracie Richards) of the neighbouring constituency to his. This is a real gem of a book, and not at all what I was expecting. I loved it.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020)

I decided to stick with mystery books, but moved on to something a little more recent. I read Foley’s The Hunting Party last Christmas and really enjoyed it. I knew (it’s pretty obvious from the cover) that The Guest List was in a similar mode. This time, instead of a remote hunting lodge for a New Year party, we have a group of guests assembled on a remote Irish island for a wedding. As in The Hunting Party, the story is told from a number of perspectives – the bride, bridesmaid, wedding planning, best man and a ‘plus-one’ guest all take turns to share their view on what’s going on. Foley also uses the same technique as in the earlier book, in which the identity of the victim is held back until just before the murderer is revealed. The story is told through flashbacks and flashforwards, so we’re left trying to work out whodunnit, but also what it is that they dun. I’m in two minds with this one. I worked out the victim and the murderer pretty early on, and I didn’t think the clues were as well-placed as in The Hunting Party (plus one of the red herrings relies on a massive coincidence that I didn’t quite buy). However, in some ways I liked this one more than the first book. I loved the atmosphere of The Hunting Party, but I think The Guest List is even better. I loved the island setting – it made for an immersive read.

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (2020)

If you’ve read any of my previous book review posts, you’ll know that I am very fond of stories with twists. But you’ll also know that I’m constantly disappointed by books that are marketed on ‘twists’ that turn out just to be standard plot points. Sadly, Magpie Lane was one of these books. It’s described as ‘chilling’ and ‘twisty’, but it is neither of those things. There’s a nice framing device used (a police interview after the disappearance of a child, through which the narrator remembers events leading up to that moment), but otherwise it’s a pretty standard, linear narrative with a mostly predictable plot. That said, there are some things I liked about Magpie Lane – Atkins’ story of a nanny-with-a-troubled-past who is employed by the new Master of an Oxford college to take care of his bright-but-silent young daughter hits some good Gothic notes, and the characters are all engaging (if not always likable). I would’ve quite enjoyed spending more time with the dysfunctional family in their somewhat creepy Oxford house, and the descriptions of setting (the house and the town more generally) are really atmospheric and evocative. For me, this one had great characters and setting, but it was let down by a fairly mundane and underdeveloped plot. The framing device builds up expectations of a mystery that just doesn’t materialize, and I think that’s why I was disappointed. I have preferred to read more chapters about the frosty and brittle relationship between the nanny and the stepmother!

Darkened Wings Flutter by Lou Yardley (2020)

I am very behind with my Abominable Books subscription. Each month, I get an exciting parcel with a new horror novel, a surprise ‘vintage’ paperback, and other goodies (including magazines and eBooks). I love opening my monthly parcels, but I’ve fallen a bit behind with actually reading the books. I tried to catch up with all the magazines this month (issues of Black Static and Hellebore), and then decided to read the eBook that I got with the December delivery: Darkened Wings Flutter. Sadly, this one’s not a strong recommendation from me. Yardley’s novel starts out okay (though it is in need of a strong edit, I’m afraid) – it’s got a bit of suburban folk horror about it, with an ominous forest at the edge of town offering some good creepiness. There are some early descriptions of moths that set up a kind of underplayed horror that I liked – the moths aren’t necessarily doing anything unusual, but the very fact that they’re being described in such detail is unsettling. And I was okay when we’re introduced to an odd young girl who is being visited by ‘monsters’ who tell her about her ‘destiny’. But partway through the book just veers off into different territory and descends into gratuitous and unconvincing schlock (including graphic and splatter-style violence against children that just seemed to be in there for shock value). The book is tonally rather confused, particularly in terms of its use of humour (which is pretty scattergun throughout). A disappointing one.

The Dying Game by Åsa Avdic (2016)

Even though I’m behind with my Abominable Books and my otherwise massive to-read pile, I ended up buying a small selection of books on a whim. I really fancied reading something like Christie’s And Then There Were None. I did a search, and after going through a few blogs and lists of other Christie books or country house mysteries, I finally found a post with some titles I hadn’t heard of. I picked the four most surprising/intriguing books off the list, and these were the books I read next. First up: Avdic’s The Dying Game (Swedish title is Isola, but I read it in translation). The book is set in a dystopian near-future based on an alternate history that imagines a version of Sweden if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down in 1989 (that’s a broad description – it’s a little more complex than that!). Our protagonist is Anna Francis, a Party member (in the Orwellian sense) who is invited/instructed to attend a recruitment ‘game’. Six potential candidates for a project have been invited to a remote island where they will be tested. Anna is to ‘play dead’ – her ‘murder’ will be staged on the first night of the game, and then she will hide herself in the house to observe the behaviour of the others. Of course, when the game begins, Anna quickly learns that things aren’t what they seem. I enjoyed this one. It was a bit heavier on the dystopia than the mystery, but otherwise a fun read.

Friday, 11 December 2020

My Year in Books 2020: November

So I managed to read a couple more books than last month, though I've still not really managed to find much time to read for pleasure. I've reviewed and taught a lot of books, but I never include those titles on these lists. (I'm just saying that in case you think I'm getting rusty!)

My reviews of this month's books are below. In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October

Here to Stay by Mark Edwards (2019)

I decided to read this one on a whim, as it was available through Amazon Prime (I was in an impulsive frame of mind, so didn’t linger too long over my choice). Here to Stay looked like pretty standard domestic thriller fare (and yes, I did base that assessment mostly on the font choice on the cover). And looks were not deceiving here. The protagonist is Elliot, a rich but lonely man who lives in a beautiful old Victorian house. He meets a woman named Gemma, and after a whirlwind romance they decide to get married. And then she invites her parents to come and stay with them, and things get unpleasant. Here to Stay is well-written, but I have to say I didn’t enjoy this one. I read it in a single sitting, and I did finish it, but it was a tough read. The main problem is that none of the characters were particularly engaging. Almost all of them are over-the-top horrible, and those that aren’t (like Elliot) are underdeveloped. As a result, the book didn’t so much have a creeping sense of threat as a series of in-your-face episodes of people just being horrible to each other. Two other issues I had were that some of the things that happened just weren’t plausible, and (big no-no for me) there were a lot of references to animal abuse and a cat who was constantly in danger of being harmed. This one just wasn’t to my tastes, I’m afraid.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (2020)

I wasn’t intending to read the new Cormoran Strike book right away. I knew it was a massive tome, and the idea of reading it in hardback made my arms feel tired. My mum said she felt the same, but then she ordered it anyway. After she read it, she passed it to me, and I couldn’t resist. It is a massive book, but it’s also a surprisingly quick read (mostly because it’s a page-turner, so I kept ending up reading more chapters than I intended to, which is what happened with the other books in the series as well). I really enjoyed Troubled Blood. It’s a cold case story, which is a bit of a change of pace for the series. And I’m a bit of a sucker for a cold case story. It also takes place over a much longer timescale to the previous books, so the story unfolds more slowly here. Fans of Cormoran and Robin will find much to enjoy here (no spoilers), but it was also nice to read a book that feels like it’s enjoying just taking its time. In case you’re wondering what the plot of Troubled Blood is… forty years ago, a GP went missing somewhere between work and the pub. Her daughter now wants Strike to look into it. While that’s quite a simplistic summary – and some readers might be more interested in the character development than the plot – there’s a really good mystery here with some ingenious and well-placed clues.

Still Life by Val McDermid (2020)

Speaking of cold cases – and speaking of my mum – this is one that’s been on my to-read pile for a bit. Me and my mum were ‘at’ the launch of Still Life, a fantastic online event by Portobello Bookshop that we really enjoyed (McDermid was launching Still Life alongside Doug Johnstone and The Big Chill). Again, my mum read it really quickly, but it took me a bit longer to catch up. Still Life is the new instalment of McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, and I think it’s my favourite one yet. Val McDermid is a writer who just gets better and better. In this book, Karen Pirie investigates a long-dead body found in a campervan, but is also called in when a body fished out of the sea is discovered to have a connection to a ten-year-old missing persons case. What I really like about this series is the interactions between the characters. They’re all rather likable (perhaps even more so than in McDermid’s other series), which makes for an enjoyable read. The other thing that’s interesting about this one is that it’s set in the first couple of months of 2020. McDermid talked about this at the launch, saying that the book was mostly written during lockdown but set just before it. She said she wanted to have references to coronavirus there, but had to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. I think she strikes a good balance, with just the right amount of ominousness.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

3 Minute Santas - Festive Flash Fiction Wanted!

A call for seasonal submissions to be broadcast on the radio!

Can you tells a festive story in just 3 minutes? Hannah's Bookshelf presents 3 Minute Santas - back for its fourth fabulous year on North Manchester FM!

I’m looking for recordings of festive (not necessarily Christmas) stories for inclusion on my radio show on Saturday 19th December – but they can only be 3 minutes long! Stories are welcome from anywhere in the world, and in any genre. A selection of 3 Minute Santas will be broadcast on the show on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and on digital (for the rest of the world) – and don’t worry, there’s always ‘listen again’ feature if you’re in a different time zone!

3 Minute Santas isn’t a competition, but a call for submissions. It’s open to anyone, and the more the merrier! For details of how to submit a story, just click here. The deadline is midnight on Monday 7th December.

And please do share this info with anyone you think might be interested!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Review: Black Dark and Broken Wings (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Black Dark and Broken Wings. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

Sadly, this is the final post in this series of reviews, as the JustOut Stays In project has now come to an end. All of the plays in the series are still available to listen to, but the company is taking a short break to start planning projects for the new year. In this post, I’ll be talking about the last two pieces in the series: Black Dark by Aimee Shields and Broken Wings by Alison Scurfield.

Let’s start with Black Dark

Written by Aimee Shields and directed by Lexie Ward, Black Dark is a two-hander about a pair of flatmates who are… I think the phrase is ‘unhappy with their lot’. Sam (played by Ewan Mulligan) is angry/miserable about his ex, who is borderline stalking, watching him at the gym and getting jealous about his relationship with his personal trainer. His flatmate is Lara (played by Jessica Porter) returns home from work with the bombshell announcement that she has unceremoniously quit her job.

Sam and Lara are both approaching thirty (and have been friends since university). They live in an HMO with a landlord who keeps the heating turned down. It’s raining. They’re miserable. They have gin, and some ‘ouzo from the cupboard’.

They sit, drink and grumble about the disappointing direction their lives have taken. And when a power cut hits, they get even more despondent. Sam can’t get over his break-up and his broken heart, and Lara can’t see any prospect of another job.

Sam and Lara’s misery is undoubtedly – and quintessentially – the stuff of millennial angst. Lara bemoans the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder. There’s a mention of screamingly high university fees, and digs at the older generation (here, people in their 50s) who had work and housing handed to them on a plate, and who had reason to believe that hard work could actually reap some reward.

This millennial angst is lampshaded at times through the dialogue. Lara wonders whether, given she may now be unable to pay her rent, she’ll be forced to move back in with her parents. She says that this would be like a ‘suspended adolescence’. And Sam, still clinging to the remnants of his youthful dreams of fame, notes that since he’s now too old to join the ‘27 Club’, he’ll ‘have to live forever’. There’s something painful – but also a bit self-indulgent – in the characters’ belief that their only life options are prolonged adolescence, going out in a blaze of glory, or immortality.

I have to admit, I found myself getting a bit irritated by Lara and Sam, as the dialogue kept coming back to this stereotype of the somewhat entitled and self-absorbed twenty-something, who sees their generation’s woes as unique and unprecedented concerns. I sort of just wanted them to pull themselves together.

However, I think this irritation was kind of the point. Shields’s script is concealing a darker and more unsettling story (completely concealing, in fact) that throws this idea of ‘millennial angst’ into sharp focus. There is a difference between what Sam is going through and what Lara is going through, which we don’t see until right at the end – as, in fact, is also the case for one of the characters. Without giving too much away, the overwhelming message at the end of Black Dark is that sometimes angst isn’t actually just angst. And all credit to Porter and Mulligan for performances that give little away until the final moments.

It’s a bit of a sucker-punch, and it will make you feel bad for being irritated by the ouzo-fuelled moaning.

Speaking of unsettling stories with a bit of a punch… time to turn to the second play I’m looking at today and the final piece in the JustOut Stays In series: Broken Wings.

This final play is – like quite a few of the other pieces in the series – a monologue. Written by Alison Scurfield, directed by Shannon Raftery and performed by Laura Thérèse, Broken Wings takes us into the world – and into the mind – of a young woman who likes tending to vegetable plants.

Our narrator talks us through how she’s learning how to grow and care for her plants, reminding us that the most important thing to remember is not to overwater them. The opening section of the monologue is, on the whole, a bit mundane and apparently harmless. It’s just a girl who’s enjoying growing plants.

There are, of course, some hints that this might not be a completely mundane situation. For instance, there are little suggestions that the narrator is not in a typical domestic environment – she talks of someone called Carla who has been helping her, and it’s clear she lives with a number of other people. She is quite intense about her vegetable growing, and she hopes to perhaps use what she’s grown in cooking, serving meals that will remind her fellow residents of ‘before’ when they used to have ‘dinner parties’.

These hints – along with Thérèse’s performance, which blends a bit of a confrontational tone with an undercurrent of brittle fragility – suggest that the central character is institutionalized, possibly in a care setting (since she seems quite young and in some ways naïve) or possibly in a more punitive environment.

When she discovers her beloved plants have been torn up by birds, the narrator begins to reveal a little more about her situation and her character. And when she starts to talk about chilli peppers, a plant that has an inbuilt ability to cause pain and that grow red (the colour of danger), we start to get a sense of what sort of person we might be dealing with.

I enjoyed the way the character’s story unfolded here. It’s pretty disturbing (but in a way that’s compelling!), and a bit of an unexpected character study. The use of plants as a theme/motif is also interesting and thought-provoking. A combination of Shield’s script and Thérèse’s delivery means the audience gets quite caught up in the monologue as it unfolds. As things become clearer in the final third, it turns out that’s quite an uncomfortable place to be. But it’s too late to stop listening by then…

Broken Wings was a brilliant end to what has been a highly enjoyable series. As you will have heard from my reviews, I’ve been very impressed by all of the pieces I’ve heard, and look forward to seeing what JustOut do next (and I’m still hoping I’ll be able to see a live, in-person performance from them one day…).

Black Dark and Broken Wings are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

You can see my reviews of the other plays in the series by clicking on these links:

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track
A is for… and Accident of Birth
Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth
Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute
Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet
Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron

Review: User Not Found (Dante or Die)

Dante or Die

Time for another online theatre review from me. In this post I’m going to be reviewing User Not Found, an immersive video podcast by theatre company Dante or Die. The radio version of this review went out on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

User Not Found is an immersive video podcast, created by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan, and written by Chris Goode. It’s a production by Dante or Die, a UK-based ‘site-specific’ theatre company, a digital adaptation of their 2018-19 live show of the same name.

The podcast version of User Not Found was created as a lockdown piece – Dante or Die are a ‘site-specific’ company, and so during lockdown that ‘site’ is the audience’s own individual virtual spaces. Their intention was to translate the live performance (which utilized a bespoke app) into a piece that can be experienced by a socially distanced audience. Working with Marmelo Digital, the company created an immersive podcast that can be viewed from their YouTube channel (or as I did, via theatre websites, such as HOME Manchester).

So… what is an immersive video podcast, and what’s this one about?

The first thing to note is that User Not Found is explicitly designed to be viewed on a smartphone (ideally with headphones). There are warnings that the viewing experience will not be as good if it’s watched on a laptop or desktop screen. The viewer is also recommended to keep the phone in portrait mode, and to full screen the video.

The piece then begins with a ‘Starting Up…’ screen, soon replaced by a phone’s home screen. And there’s your immersive quality right there… your own phone has just become the performance space. It’s slightly disorienting at first – a bit like having your phone hijacked – and the temptation to swipe and click is definitely there. But then our narrator-protagonist says ‘hello’, and it becomes easier to see this as a performance rather than a hack.

The voice that we hear is that of Terry (played by Terry O’Donovan), and it’s his phone screen that we’re looking at. He tells us that he’s in a café, drinking his usual peppermint tea, and he shows us a waterfall sound app he likes to listen to while trying to write in the coffee shop. It’s a gentle introduction, with some tentative musings on our reliance on smartphones and digital networks. A WhatsApp message from an old friend pops onto the screen, and Terry ponders why – despite having once been so close – they’ve drifted apart. We can see on the screen that the last text prior to this one was a couple of years ago, a little detail that feels so real. An unexpected message from old acquaintance now drags with it the baggage of years-old chats. It’s a nice little visual detail, and an early indication of the attention to detail that’s gone into producing this performance.

Of course, the pensive equilibrium of the opening moments of User Not Found is shattered. And it’s shattered by the arrival of more text messages, flooding the screen at a pace that makes it difficult for the audience to catch them all.

Terry discovers that his ex, Luka, has died. And before he has time to process the complex emotions he feels in response to this news, an email from a company called Fidelis Legacy Solutions brings even more difficult news: Terry is still named as Luka’s ‘digital executor’, the person with the power to retain or delete all Luka’s ‘assets’, the fragments of digital identity scattered across social media sites, apps and website. Terry is left with the painful task of deciding what sort of digital legacy will remain now that Luka is gone.

In case this is starting to sound a little like an episode Black Mirror, I will say User Not Found isn’t so much a tech-noir, live-forever-in-the-cloud story, but rather a meditation on grief, and on connectivity. As he explores both Luka’s online accounts, and his own emotional responses to them, Terry takes us on a journey that, while solidly situated in the digital realm, feels so very profound. User Not Found is absolutely a story about grief, and while Terry’s story has some very specific details – and very contemporary packaging – it constantly gestures at something that feels timeless and universal.

User Not Found is an incredibly moving piece, and I will freely admit to shedding more than a few tears in places. This effect is created by the skilful blend of writing – Goode’s script is well-paced and balances the conversational with the poetic beautifully – and performance – O’Donovan’s delivery has a warmth and immediacy to it that is instantly relatable, meaning that the audience feels Terry’s pain keenly. However, the immersive quality of the piece can’t be overlooked either. Yes, the audience is drawn in by the writing and performance, but User Not Found is really an experiential piece, brought together by Daphna Attias’s careful direction and the subtly emotive sound design by Yaniv Fridel (including one particularly emotional use of music).

It’s actually really difficult to pull apart the strands of the piece and say, this bit is why I felt X, or this bit created Y effect. Clichéd as it is to say, User Not Found really is more than the sum of its individual parts.

While I found Terry’s story very moving and – and the piece is pretty up-front about its intentions here – thought-provoking (with Terry addressing the audience directly throughout, and even asking us, ‘What would you do?’ on occasion), I also enjoyed the conceit here. Dante or Die are a site-specific theatre company, and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into what this means in the COVID-world. Terry states this early on in his introduction when he says, ‘Our phones are the place.’ On the one hand, he’s reminding us that, for the duration of lockdown, smart devices are the sites to which site-specific theatre is confined. However, there’s something rather clever in the use of ‘our phones’ here, reminding us that, while we may be distanced in many ways (whether locked down in a pandemic, or sitting alone with our earbuds in, listening a fake waterfall in a café) there is a still an ‘us’, and ‘we’ are still connected.

This is an idea that runs through User Not Found. Though much of the story obviously focuses in on Terry and Luka, and much of the emotive content is drawn from an individual and personal experience, the podcast keeps returning to broader questions of connectivity and the ways in which we are networked with one another. How do we connect with other people? What do these connections mean? At times, these questions are explored with humour – a video attachment from a performance artist friend, an interaction with a stern-faced barista – and there’s a little bit of a meta-fictional tip of the hat at one point, when Terry decides to turn his phone off. (I think it’s important that I do mention the humour here, as I don’t want to give the impression that this is an unrelentingly sad performance… though it is pretty sad in places.)

Ultimately, as you may imagine, Terry does come to some decisions about how to handle the tough choices he has to make. Are those decisions the ones I would make? Are they the ones you would make? I guess that’s the most overtly ‘thought-provoking’ part of the show. It certainly raises questions that the audience may find themselves pondering over after the podcast finishes.

But, more than this, User Not Found is a moving and well-made piece of immersive theatre and, at its heart, a cleverly and tenderly constructed story about the human condition. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.

User Not Found is available to watch on demand, for free, until March 2021. For more information, and for a link to the video, please visit the Dante or Die website.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

My Year in Books 2020: October

Well, not a long post from me today. There's only one book on my October list, I'm afraid. That's not to say that I didn't read any other novels this month (I actually read a lot), but they were almost entirely books that I was reviewing for my radio show or preparing for teaching. It's been a pretty stressful month, but at least I got time to sneak one book in!

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from 2020: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

The Complex by Michael Walters (2019)

I bought this one to support the publisher, Salt, who were encouraging people to buy ‘just one book’ to help keep them going through difficult times. Ah… I bought three (and I really had to limit myself to just three). The Complex is the first of the three I’ve read so far. Set in what feels like the near future – but with hints that it might be a little bit post-apocalyptic – The Complex begins with a family going on holiday. But that’s a great way to undersell it! The family are Gabrielle, Leo and their son Stefan. They’re travelling to a remote retreat, to stay for a week with Art (someone Gabrielle has worked with), his wife Polly and daughter Fleur. It’s a break that promises luxury and a change to get ‘off Grid’ and away from the ‘Areas’. Before they even get to the resort though, a vague sense of menace starts to pervade the trip. And things just get worse when they get there. The Complex is a nightmarish tale of tech-horror in a semi-dystopian setting. However, what I really liked about it is that this horror and dystopia is never quite explained. This is a book that plays with suggestion, hint and incongruity in a really compelling way. The ill-defined menace is paradoxically tangible and elusive – there’s an excellent scene near the beginning where two characters play tennis (that’s all) and it was one of the most unsettling things I’ve read for a while. Loved this one.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Review: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Mother’s Day by Tom Ryder and Monday at the Flat Iron by Kate Ireland.

Let’s start with Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a relatively short (it’s around 10 minutes long) monologue, written by Ryder, directed by Michelle Parker and performed by Janice Fryett.

The monologue begins with the narrator signing a lullaby – which, when combined with the title leaves us in no doubt that the character here is a mother, and that she is likely going to be addressing her child. That is indeed the case. Fryett places an unnamed mother, speaking to her son and explaining her feelings about the fact that he persistently forgets Mother’s Day. She doesn’t mind though, as she loves her son.

Of course, the story isn’t really as simple as that. Mother’s Day, like a number of the other JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve reviewed, manages to fit quite a huge – and rather ambiguous – story into its short running time. The relationship between the mother and her son is absolutely the focus here, but it may not quite be the relationship we were expecting.

It’s hard to put your finger on where and how Mother’s Day becomes unsettling, but it definitely does. One striking aspect of Ryder’s story is that it is told in second-person (so a sustained address to the son), but also that it uses future tense (the mother is telling her son the story of what will happen, rather than what has happened). Given that we begin with that lullaby, the listener is left with the unnerving sense that this is a story the mother is telling her baby – the story of what his life, and their relationship, will become. It’s an unusual storytelling technique, but one that is suited to the short form.

Added to this – and, again, a judicious use of the running time – we never actually hear the full story. The mother describes particular moments in their lives – particular Mother’s Days that were forgotten – jumping forward by years each time to take us through to the son’s adulthood. And, again, there’s an unnerving quality to this. Not only does this add to the sense that the story – the future life of the baby being soothed by the lullaby – is already written, inevitable, it leaves a series of large gaps in the narrative for the listener to fill with their own imagined explanations.

Just what is going with this mother-son relationship is left distinctly unexplained. The moments that are described are weird, and the behaviours presented are definitely not right. But is this an overbearing mother smothering her child? Or a protective parent trying to navigate her child’s problems in the best way she can? Some of the mother’s actions seem strange, and her motivations unclear, but the fact that we only ever see the relationship from her perspective means that, no matter how opaque her thinking is, her son’s motivations are even more elusive.

Ryder’s script is tantalizing and suggestive, and it is performed well by Fryett, who lends the character sympathy – and even humour – even at the more disturbing points of the story. This is an unusual tale that will linger with you after it has finished.

Now, in previous reviews, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been choosing the pairs of plays each week pretty much at random, but that I’ve kept being surprised by the connections I find between the chosen pairs. I have to say that I think this review might break that pattern, as Monday at the Flat Iron is a completely different kettle of fish to Mother’s Day!

Written by Kate Ireland and directed by Andy Yeomans, Monday at the Flat Iron is a two-hander. It is performed by Rebecca Pythian (who plays Zahra) and Callum Scouller (who plays Joe), and it’s about the relationship between two very different characters.

Monday at the Flat Iron begins with Zahra (who’s from Salford) reading out her profile for a dating app. It’s a brash, abrasive, loud-mouthed profile, which Pythian performs with gobby northern gusto. Scouller’s Joe then steps in to criticize Zahra’s attempts, suggesting it isn’t honest enough, and then to read out his own, which consists of simple statements of fact: he is Scottish and a construction worker.

And so this is a classic ‘odd couple’ set-up. Given how wildly different Zahra and Joe are, how have they come to be such good friends that they seek one another’s advice on their dating profiles?

The one thing that Monday at the Flat Iron has in common with Mother’s Day is its relatively short run-time (it’s also around 10 minutes long), and so there isn’t space for Ireland’s script to give us the full history of Zahra and Joe’s relationship. Instead, the characters – moving into parallel monologues – describe the moment when they met, which happened in a pub called The Flat Iron.

It’s a beguiling little story – I was going to say ‘charming’, but much of Zahra’s narration is a little too earthy to really be called charming – about a loud messed-up lass from Salford accidentally crossing the path of a more introverted young man from Glasgow, as the latter tried to enjoy a few pints with his workmates and the former was stumbling round in the dying throes of a full-on weekender. A lot is not said here, and Ireland’s story focuses us on the specifics of what happened that ‘Monday at the Flat Iron’, rather than on explanation or interpretation. The characters describe one another – and themselves – and who said and did what, as the story builds to the moment at which their friendship began. Pythian and Scouller give warm and believable performances, which adds to the charm of it all.

I did really enjoy this one, though I found myself thinking that I would’ve liked to see a little more of Joe. Perhaps this is a deliberate character choice, though. While Pythian’s Zahra exclaims various ideas, experiences and philosophies through which we get a sense of her character, Scouller’s Joe is much more reserved, focusing more on describing the appearance and behaviour of the wasted woman who accosts him in the pub one afternoon. This gives us a good sense of the contrast between the two, but it does mean that the audience may feel a stronger and more rounded sense of Zahra’s character than of Joe’s.

Nevertheless, Monday at the Flat Iron is a really enjoyable piece of drama, with two great performances. I suppose you could call it a ‘slice of life’ story, as there is something very normal and down-to-earth in the characterization (as well as in the mundanity of how the two characters meet). But, especially in the final lines of the play, there’s a pleasing hint of something more profound.

Once again, I find myself really recommending these plays from JustOut Stays In. Two enjoyable and engaging pieces of audio drama that pack a hell of a lot of story into a tight run-time. With great writing, direction and performances, Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are definitely worth checking out.

Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.