Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, 2 November 2019

My Year in Books 2019: October

Once again, I didn't have much time for reading for pleasure this month. I think I managed one more title than last month, but still not a lot of books on the list. Hopefully, I'll get chance to read a bit more next month, as my to-read pile is getting scarily high!

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

And here are my reviews of the books I read in October...

The Image of You by Adele Parks (2017)


For reasons I’m not going to go into here, I recently found myself alone somewhere late at night with nothing to do. As if by magic, I wandered past a Help for Heroes charity book sale with an honesty box and a couple of titles still left for sale. I paid my £2 and took the one that looked most readable. Admittedly, The Image of You very much looks like one of those domestic noirs I’ve been trying to avoid… but it was this or Andy McNab. The blurb promises a story about identical twins – Anna and Zoe – who have a close bond, but polar opposite personalities. When Anna (the trusting, romantic one) meets Nick on a dating site, Zoe (the outgoing, edgy one) decides he’s not to be trusted and plots to prove Nick is lying to her sister. To be honest, if you haven’t already started to guess the twist, you’ve not been paying attention. The Image of You is quite a long book for the genre – which feels longer if you’ve already guessed what’s happening. Anna is impossibly sweet and perfect; Zoe is hyper-sexual and unrestrained. Nick is a sort of Patrick Bateman-lite character who uses online dating to get casual sex. He falls for Anna on their first date and proposes within months; he falls for Zoe on their first meeting and ends up in bed with her that night. Of course, he never sees them both in the same place at the same time. Hmmm…

The Taken by Alice Clark-Platts (2016)


This next book marks a return to the stash of books I got from charity shops in Cleveleys earlier in the summer. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one – and I certainly didn’t know it was the second in a series. The Taken is a detective novel featuring D.I. Erica Martin – who I now know is Clark-Platts’s series character. Martin is called is when a celebrity preacher/faith healer called Tristan Snow is found dead in his B and B, his head stoved in with an unknown weapon. Snow is the charismatic leader of a church called Deucalion, and he was in Durham for a live show as part of a national tour. With him in the guesthouse are his wife Sera and daughter Violet, plus his sister-in-law Antonia and manager/business associate Fraser Mackenzie. But which of them might have a motive for bumping off the much-loved preacher? And why – given Snow’s fame – are they staying in such a downmarket establishment? From the blurb, I thought this one might be a bit OTT and far-fetched. It has its moments, but mostly it’s just a really compelling and entertaining story. I struggled a bit understanding the detective’s private life (having not read the first book in the series), but I loved the atmosphere created, particularly in the glimpses of the Riverview guesthouse and Snow’s suspicious church. I wouldn’t say The Taken is the most original mystery novel I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely well-written and a bit of a page-turner.

Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside by Jon Bounds and Danny Smith (2016)


I picked this book up at the RNLI Lifeboats shop on a daytrip to Blackpool in June. The blurb promises an ‘eccentric’ road trip, in which the two authors travel England and Wales in an attempt to visit all remaining piers in just two weeks, and a ‘nostalgic’ take on ‘Britishness’. It’s fair to say I went into this expecting one thing, but got something quite different. It’s also fair to say that’s no bad thing. Yes, to some extent, this is a travelogue about a journey around 55 piers (plus a couple of ‘bonus’ ones), but it’s also an exploration of class, masculinity and insecurity. If it engages with ‘Britishness’, it’s as a vague, intangible concept, and the ‘nostalgia’ is always delivered with a knowing bite. This is a road trip in the Hunter S. Thompson mould, with as much attention given to the constant booze consumption and unwashed clothes in the car as there is to the marine architecture outside it. But it’s a compelling tale (not quite non-fiction travelogue, not quite novel), with a thought-provoking sense of darkness and detachment that culminates in a just brilliant chapter at Pontins in Southport. At times, I felt that the exploration of class and masculinity could’ve gone further – some points hint at profundity but don’t quite dive down to its depths – but the book makes up for this with some wonderfully evocative and somewhat virtuoso descriptions. And, appropriately, Blackpool is a highlight (for the reader, if not for the writers).

Friday, 11 October 2019

My Year in Books 2019: September

I didn't seem to get much time to read in September. And I haven't been able to find the time to write this post until now, either. Not my strongest month on the old reading-for-pleasure front, but at least I've got something to show for it in the end!

My posts for the rest of the year are here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

But here are the two novels I read in September...

The Dark Room by Minette Walters (1995)


Having really enjoyed all the Minette Walters books I’ve read so far, I thought I’d give The Dark Room a go. Jane Kingsley (known as Jinx) wakes up in hospital following a car accident. She is badly injured, and the staff tell her that she tried to kill herself by crashing her car. Jinx finds that hard to believe, but she can’t remember the accident itself. She also can’t remember any of the events leading up to it – she doesn’t even remember that her upcoming wedding has been called off, as her fiancé has jilted her for her best friend. Jinx’s rich, overbearing (and vaguely threatening) father has paid for her to stay in a private hospital, under the care of Dr Protheroe (who claims he’s not a psychiatrist). When the bodies of Jinx’s ex-fiancé and ex-friend turn up – murdered in a similar manner to Jinx’s late husband – the police start to wonder whether her amnesia is entirely genuine. The Dark Room has a lot of the hallmarks of Walters’s fiction that I’ve loved in the other books I’ve read – unreliable narration, snippets of newspapers articles and reports interspersing the narrative, careful character studies broken up by a pervasive nastiness (in this case, a subplot involving a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes) – but sadly there was something missing here, and I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as The Sculptress or The Scold’s Bridle (and definitely not as much as The Shape of Snakes, which is an incredible book).

The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie (2017)


My mum lent me this one, as she’d really enjoyed it. I know why she liked it – The Sewing Machine is the story of a series of people from different points in the twentieth century, whose lives are connected by a Singer sewing machine. The book is set (mostly) in Edinburgh, so it combines two things my mum loves – her hometown and her old hand-crank Singer. She thought I’d enjoy it because it has multiple narrators, and an interweaving of past and present (and she’s right… I do like those things in fiction). And I did enjoy the way the book switches between the different times and characters: from Jean, who works in the Clydebank Singer factory in the early part of the twentieth century, until her boyfriend is forced out of work following the 1911 strike, to Kathleen and Connie, a mother and daughter in the mid-century, who both rely on sewing to make ends meet, and then Fred, a young man in the early twenty-first century, who arrives in Edinburgh to clear our his late grandfather’s flat and discovers an old sewing machine (with a story to tell). It’s a charming story in many ways, and I love the central conceit. However, I found the book almost impossibly overwritten. The most mundane and everyday actions and objects are described with overly elaborate language and artificial gravitas that I found rather grating. Not a lot happens in The Sewing Machine – and this should have been part of the charm.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Phosphoros Theatre)

Friday 4th October 2019
HOME, Manchester (Orbit Festival)

This year’s Orbit Festival at HOME, Manchester runs from Wednesday 18th September to Saturday 5th October. The festival programme for 2019 seeks to ‘conquer the divide’, by bringing together artists and theatre-makers who explore prevailing societal divides and the ways these might be overcome. On Friday 4th October, I attended the press night of Pizza Shop Heroes by Phosphoros Theatre, which was on the Orbit festival programme this year. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…


Pizza Shop Heroes is an innovative piece of applied theatre based on the lived experiences of the performers, which was developed through a research process and development workshops. The experiences narrated by workshop participants (the performers of the show) were worked into a theatre script by Dawn Harrison (who also directs) with artistic direction from Kate Duffy.

The performers are Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, all of whom came to the UK between 2013-15 as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. Phosphoros Theatre are committed to making work that offers an alternative perspective on the refugee experience, using the lived experiences of the company to inform their performances.

Pizza Shop Heroes begins in – unsurprisingly – a pizza shop. The four young men are working, taking calls and dealing with awkward customers. But this setting is only a very small part of the story and characterization here. The eponymous pizza shop is immediately brought to life with verge, energy and humour, but it is really a staging-post, a device to bring the four men (and their stories) together.

The performance starts with a set of rules – beginning with the usual warnings to switch off mobile phones and not talk during the performance. However, the rules develop into more of a comment on the type of storytelling we’re going to be watching. We’re encouraged not only to listen, but think about how we’re listening. We’re told to avoid earnest chin-in-hand gestures, for instance (something which caused a couple of audience members to shift slightly in their seats). The instructions develop further, laying out directives on how we should receive the stories we hear. Inconsistencies should not be taken as indications of falsehood, and we have no right to judge the credibility of the storytellers. This performance builds into a clear reminder that the young men on stage have told their stories numerous times before, to various officials (border guards, police, social workers, education officers) who have made assumptions and judgements about veracity based on the manner of telling, and to people offering assistance who have attempted to frame and shape the narrative into a more ‘acceptable’ form. This time, the men’s stories will be told how they want to tell them.

Tewodros (Teddy), Goitom, Emirjon and Syed travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. As the theatre piece unfolds, snippets and glimpses of their childhood experiences and the circumstances that led to their journey emerge. These are presented differently and in a somewhat fragmentary way – Emirjon remembers rabbit hunting in Albania, Goitom explains the fear of being forced into the army as a child – but the main focus on the piece is on the journeys the four took to escape conflict.

One of the really powerful things about Pizza Shop Heroes is the way the piece plays with difference and similarity. At times, each of the young men reveals something specific and unique about his experience or the circumstances from which he escaped, giving voice to the individuality of each refugee’s story. However, the piece brings these stories together into ensemble performances that merge the individual tales into a collective experience, stressing the echoes and parallels in the boys’ tales. Some elements of the story – the fear on arriving in an alien country, for example – transcend the particulars of individual lived experiences. Nevertheless, Pizza Shop Heroes is careful not to fall into universalizing – and when the boundaries become a little too blurred, there is some light-touch humour to reshape it (at one point, Goitom pauses mid-act and asks ‘Wait, whose memory is this?’)

Though the show addresses some very serious subject matter – from war and terrorism to grief, regret and fear – it is far from grim. The humour in Pizza Shop Heroes is very well-handled, as it punctuates the stories without undermining or trivializing them. There is a powerful humanizing effect in the use of wry jokes about cultural misunderstandings – one bit in particular, where Syed recounts the response he got to giving a teacher a bottle of Head and Shoulders as an Eid gift, brings the audience and performer together in a subtle but companionable appreciation of the dramatic irony.

The only criticism I have is that I’m not convinced by Kate Duffy’s on-stage facilitation and artistic direction. Sitting on the side-lines, encouraging the men to translate into English lines spoken in their first languages (which they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t), or taking on the part of one of the characters in a particular part of the story (like Emirjan’s uncle at the beginning of the rabbit-hunting memory), Duffy’s role feels a little too close to that of a workshop facilitator, which sometimes dilutes the immediacy of the young men’s narration, especially when she brings in her own personal experiences of working with Asylum Seeking Children.

Nevertheless, the narratives of Pizza Shop Heroes very much achieve Phosphoros Theatre’s stated aim of offering an ‘alternative perspective’. As well as offering memories of the past and commentary on the present, the piece moves towards a moving and compelling performance about the (potential) future, as the young men imagine fatherhood and the ways their own stories will shape the lives and ambitions of their children – including their desire to prevent their children being forced into adulthood before they’re ready. Humorous, emotive and ultimately filled with hope, the imagined future offers a strong and thought-provoking climax to the young men’s narratives.

Overall, Pizza Shop Heroes is a powerful, dynamic and highly engaging piece of theatre. I genuinely found myself disappointed when it came to an end, as it is more than successful in its aim of getting audiences to sit and listen to the stories the young men have chosen to tell. I would happily have listened to a lot more from them. Phosphoros Theatre are currently touring the piece around the UK, and if you have chance to catch one of the performances I’d definitely recommend you take it.

Pizza Shop Heroes is on at HOME, Manchester on the 4th-5th October, as part of the Orbit Festival, and then at other UK venues until December. To see more about the Orbit Festival 2019 programme, please visit the HOME website.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: The Thunder Girls (Blake and Squire)

Thursday 26th September 2019
The Lowry, Salford

On Thursday 26th September, I was at The Lowry in Salford for the press night of Blake and Squire’s The Thunder Girls on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on the station on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Written by Melanie Blake and directed by Joyce Branagh, The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry from 24th-28th September. I was at the press night on Thursday 26th September, which saw a rather enthusiastic crowd attend. Unusually – almost unheard of – for a debut play, The Thunder Girls sold out its entire run at The Lowry, and the press night was certainly full to capacity.

Based on Blake’s novel of the same name – which she adapted for the stage with Fiona Looney – The Thunder Girls tells the story of an 80s girl band who are brought back together 30 years after an acrimonious split. The play is (almost) entirely carried by the four actors playing the members of the band, with just one other character ‘appearing’ through phone calls made on speakerphone. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the play selling out its run was the cast – and more on that anon – but (and this was certainly true on press night), there was also a great deal of curiosity as to how Blake’s script would be informed by its writer’s experience of working in the music biz – and of orchestrating reunion gigs for 80s bands.

The play is billed as being about the ‘Reunion Dinner from Hell’. While this is certainly a fair description of Blake’s novel, it doesn’t quite seem accurate for the play. The play takes in the lush – if somewhat brash – mansion (created with some excellent attention to detail in Richard Foxton’s set design) belonging to Chrissie, the Thunder Girl who split the band all those years before, took the copyright and royalties and forged a successful solo career to the disgust of her former bandmates. Chrissie and the band’s former manager Rick have summoned Roxanne, Anita and Carly to the house – but there doesn’t appear to be any dinner on offer! Instead, the women work through their festering resentments with a hefty side order of Prosecco, which they down liberally throughout the show.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The first to arrive at the house – and the first person we see on stage – is Carly, played by Sandra Marvin. Carly was the youngest member of the Thunder Girls, but she was the songwriter behind their greatest hits, which she has been prevented from playing solo due to legal wranglings over rights with Chrissie. Carly is followed by Roxanne, played by Beverly Callard, who has fallen on harder times since the band split. Roxie is a heavy-drinking single mum, who is trying to make ends meet running a clothes shop. After some back-and-forth between Carly and Roxie, Chrissie (played by Carol Harrison) makes her entrance – but it’s not until the end of the first act that we meet the fourth Thunder Girl, Anita (played by Coleen Nolan), who has been missing since a disastrous Eurovision performance.

The Thunder Girls is really very well-cast. Blake has been hands-on with most aspects of the production, and she cast the show herself (with Angela Squire). There are some well-judged decisions made. Callard, Harrison and Marvin are all well-known from soap operas, meaning that they are well able to handle the high-drama, histrionics and stinging dialogue. (And this is the only play I’ve seen this year that’s listed a ‘Cat Fight Director’ (Kaitlin Howard) in its programme!) The casting of Nolan as Anita adds a nice extra layer of self-referential humour, as not only was Nolan (of course) in a famous 80s girl band, but it was Blake herself who brought about the band’s reunion tour in the 2000s. The final performer is Gary Webster, who is voice of Rick, playing Charlie to the Thunder Girls’ Angels but also, perhaps, one of the architects of their various misfortunes.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Of the performances, Callard and Nolan were real standouts for me. Callard is really very funny as Roxie – she gets some fantastic lines, which are delivered with lovely northern relish – but she also imbues the character with a sweet vulnerability full of regrets and sadness. Nolan is great as Anita, revealing a strong sense of comic timing that hits the right notes. Marvin and Harrison are also very watchable, though they don’t quite get the opportunity to stretch their range. Marvin’s Carly is the band member who seems to be most content, but the points at which her smiley optimism cracks offer the more interesting performance. She also gets to deliver a hilarious retort to being asked if she’s had a boob job (‘Nah. It’s cake.’) Harrison begins the play as an unrepentant villain, but the second act introduces some more compassionate interactions with Roxie to soften her character.

That said, there are few surprises in characterization here – in many ways, the appeal of The Thunder Girls lies in familiarity, rather than shock, and so the character arcs play out pretty much as we might expect. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. Even though I had a pretty good idea from the start where things were going, I still found myself genuinely caring about the four women and their friendship. Admittedly, there were a couple of fluffed lines here and there, but the cast made up for this with some well-judged ad libs at other points. At one point, a line about Steps provoked a rather dramatic reaction (and some visible corpsing from the cast), due Claire Richards being in the audience. To be honest, I think this was completely forgivable though, as the audience felt like we were all in on the joke.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The Thunder Girls isn’t a musical, but it does include some music (written by Blake, with Lee Monteverde and Jack Wheeler). Each of the characters performs a solo song and, as you may well expect, there is a group number at the end. The solo numbers did feel a little bit superfluous, as they mostly just reiterated aspects of plot and character from the dialogue. The final number was a lot of fun, and certainly got the audience to their feet. However, the Thunder Girls’ big number (supposedly their signature tune) is a little anachronistic. Musically, it feels far more 1990s than 1980s, and I struggled to imagine it being a hit thirty years ago.

But overall, The Thunder Girls is a very enjoyable show, with some excellent (and very funny) dialogue, and a rare opportunity to watch older female characters taking centre-stage and talking about age, life experience and regrets in an engaging, humorous and honest way (except for Chrissie, who isn’t admitting her real age). If the show does tour, I can see it being a great success, and it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry, Salford on 24th-28th September.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Review: No Man’s Land (London Classic Theatre)

Friday 5th September 2019
Oldham Coliseum Theatre

I haven’t posted any theatre reviews for over a month, but it’s time to get back into it. I attended the press night of London Classic Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Oldham Coliseum on Friday 5th September. You can hear the radio version of the review on North Manchester FM tomorrow, but here’s the blog version…

Moray Treadwell as Hirst in No Man's Land

London Classic Theatre’s new production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land began its national tour at Oldham Coliseum this month, opening on Friday 5th September.

No Man’s Land has been described both as Pinter’s most ‘enigmatic’ play, but also as the most ‘poetic’. With a deceptively simple set-up and a single set, No Man’s Land balances on a knife-edge of comedy and menace throughout. Set in the living room of a North-West London mansion, No Man’s Land opens with two men in their sixties returning after a night out and continuing their drinking session. Or rather, one of them is returning. The other is a guest – or is he? The mansion belongs to Hirst, a rich and successful writer and essayist. His companion is Spooner, a shabbier, down-at-heel man, who is also a writer. When Hirst overindulges and is forced to crawl to his bed, two younger men (Foster and Briggs) make their entrance, and it’s clear that things may not be quite as they seem.

Memories – or their absence – play an important role in No Man’s Land. It has been described as a play about being haunted by memories, but it also offers a searing (often humorous) exploration of the ‘game’ of memory. In the second act, Hirst mistakes Spooner for someone he knew at Oxford (or is the recognition accurate?) and begins to ‘remember’ that he once had an affair with his wife. At this, Spooner jumps into the roleplay, ‘remembering’ his own sordid tale to beat that of his companion. Are any of these memories real? Do the men really share a past? In a similar vein, Briggs expounds on the circumstances of his meeting Foster, but he insists that Foster will deny his account and say it happened differently. So, can we believe anything of Briggs’s account?

Pinter’s play is cryptic and illusory about the connections and relationships between the four men – in typical style, their names and backgrounds are not entirely stable – and the script moves (often rapidly) between fragmentary dialogue and lyrical (though sometimes almost arbitrary) monologue. It is a challenging piece for both performers and directors.

Fortunately, London Classic Theatre are more than up to the task and have created a production that both charms and unsettles the audience. Director Michael Cabot makes powerful use of space, moving the four performers around the stage in almost circular motion, with Hirst’s armchair set in the centre. The circling of the armchair immediately conjures a world that revolves around its central figure (their ‘host’, as Foster repeatedly dubs Hirst), but there is also a feeling of more predatory inclinations in the performers’ movements around the seated figure (mostly Hirst, sometimes Spooner, but never Briggs or Foster). A single door to the room is used for the stage entrances and exits, which has the disconcerting effect of both conjuring a world outside the room and closing it off from our view.

Cabot’s direction is enhanced by Andy Grange’s lighting design and Bek Palmer’s set. In the play’s second act, the lighting is used effectively to draw our attention to the binary oppositions of inside/outside and day/night, without us moving from Palmer’s simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic living room.

The four actors give great performances in the production. Moray Treadwell plays Hirst with convincingly inebriated authority. For much of the play, Hirst occupies the single armchair at the centre of the stage – with the other characters revolving around him – but Treadwell’s performance shifts Hirst’s seated position from imperious to vulnerable by turns. Nicholas Gasson’s Spooner is a blank – and I don’t mean that as a criticism – absorbing some of the nastier insults of the play with an unnerving impassiveness that constantly hints that Spooner knows more about what’s going on than he’s admitting.

Graham O'Mara as Briggs in No Man's Land

Graham O’Mara plays Briggs with an appropriate air of menace and threat; however, his performance stays on the right side of thuggishness. In the second act – with the costume and lighting change signalling, temporarily, that daylight might bring some new clarity, O’Mara brings out Briggs’s more reflective side. Briggs’s monologue about how to get to Bolsover Street is one of my favourite parts of Pinter’s script, and O’Mara delivers it very well here. For me, though, the standout performance was Joel Macey as Foster. At once threatening, fey, calm, bright and mean, Macey’s performance is uncomfortable and yet eminently watchable. He set the tone with his very first line, making the ostensibly innocent question (‘Who are you? What are you drinking?) both friendly and alarming in equal measure.

It’s inevitable that any revival of No Man’s Land will invite comparisons with previous productions. High-profile productions have seen the roles of Hirst and Spooner in the hands of ‘theatrical royalty’ (Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). And in 2001, Pinter’s own revival of the play cast Danny Dyer as Foster – perhaps not ‘theatrical royalty’, but certainly someone with an iconic style and persona. Wisely, the cast here put these illustrious predecessor performances right out of their minds – there is no hint of imitation and no invitation to comparison, and Treadwell, Gasson, O’Mara and Macey make Hirst, Spooner, Briggs and Foster their own, suggesting different dimensions and emphasizing different undertones in their performances.

While there are some great individual performances here, the cast also work well as an ensemble. No Man’s Land is a disconcerting play, but it is also a funny one. Much of the humour derives from the performers’ unspoken responses, and the cast here handle this well. The innuendo-driven homosexual subtext (‘Do you often hang about on Hampstead Heath?’) is treated adeptly, almost like an in-joke or shared understanding between the four men, but to which the audience is never fully admitted.

Overall, this is a skilful and impressive production of a challenging and enigmatic play. With strong performances and clever direction, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking revival – and I highly recommend it.

London Classic Theatre’s production of No Man’s Land was on at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on 5th-7th September. It is currently touring nationally.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

My Year in Books 2019: August

I have to be honest here, August was not a good month. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away at the beginning of the month, after a battle with cancer. It's been very tough, and I haven't been in the mood for discovering new books or experimenting with random charity shop purchases as usual. All I've really wanted was to read a bit of comfy (but good) escapism, something I know and love, something I know I'll enjoy. And so... I turned to a series I've read a couple of times already (or, at least, I've read most of them a couple of times). Weirdly, I finished the last book in the series today, so my August post is entirely focused on the one series. But it is a very good series.

(In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

And here are my reviews for August...

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)


August was a tough month, and I decided I wanted a bit of comfort reading, rather than to discover something new. So, I turned to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series. I’ve read the first five books a couple of times (though I’ve only read Cast Iron once, when it came out), so I knew what I was getting with these ones! And, obviously, I really like them. Extraordinary People is the introduction to May’s larger-than-life amateur sleuth, Enzo Macleod. He’s a half-Scottish, half-Italian former forensic scientist, who now lives in France and works as a university lecturer. He’s also got Waardenburg syndrome (giving him a distinctive white stripe in his hair and odd-coloured eyes), two daughters (Kirsty, with his estranged ex-wife in Scotland, and Sophie, with his deceased French partner), a Citroen 2CV and a penchant for playing blues on the guitar. In so many ways, Enzo shouldn’t work as a character – he’s too self-consciously ‘cool’ (or, at least, what a middle-aged man might think is cool!), and he’s too good at everything (he spends most of his time embarrassing French police officers with his insights into cold cases) – but he does. I put that down to May’s excellent writing. It’s just weirdly easy to get hooked on Enzo and his rag-tag gang of assistants. Extraordinary People sees Enzo attempting to win a bet by solving one of France’s most notorious unsolved murders. It’s great cold case fun, complete with cryptic clues left with body parts and a high-octane finale.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)


Since I’m definitely going to be rereading the entire series of Enzo books, these reviews aren’t going to be as separate as usual… they’ll probably just flow into one long review in the end. Extraordinary People introduced Enzo Macleod and his quirky band of helpers: daughter Sophie and her muscle-bound (but surprisingly knowledgeable) boyfriend Bertrand, student Nicole (who is, apparently, a whizz on computers, though really this just means she’s better on c.2007 Google than her professor), impossibly-French journalist Roger Raffin, who isn’t really a ‘helper’ but rather the author of the book of famous unsolved cases that has sparked Enzo’s quest, and psychologist Charlotte, Raffin’s ex and Enzo’s sort-of current squeeze. The Critic sees the gang investigating the murder of famous wine critic Gil Petty, whose body was grotesquely displayed in a vineyard in Gaillac, after having apparently been pickled in wine for a year. There’s a lot to like about this one, not least the very informative descriptions of wine production and tasting. May strikes a good (and very entertaining balance) between developing the ongoing saga of the main characters’ private lives – will Enzo and Charlotte make a proper go of it? will Enzo reconcile with Kirsty? will poor Nicole be able to continue at university? is there any limit to Bertrand’s hidden depths? – with puzzling, and rather old-school, mysteries to be solved. While there’s plenty of angst in the characters’ lives, there are also a healthy number of clues to the murder for the reader to ponder.

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)


Blacklight Blue sees Enzo tackling the third of Raffin’s famous unsolved murders… though he doesn’t actually know he is until part way through the story. The book begins with some pretty dramatic stuff… Kirsty’s best friend is killed in an explosion, and it looks like Kirsty herself was the target. Bertrand’s gym is burnt to the ground, and all the signs suggest arson. And Enzo gets a diagnosis of terminal leukaemia. Is this the end for Enzo and the gang? Well… obviously not, but it is a sign that someone is trying to do them some serious damage. And when Enzo is framed for murder, he gets a clue that suggests who might be behind the attacks. Blacklight Blue has an interesting narrative technique in that the story of the investigation is intercut with flashback chapters told from (we presume) the killer’s perspective, so that the reader is acquainted with some information ahead of the main characters. May handles this well, as although we get the information, it’s not always immediately possible to fit it all together, so there’s still a puzzle to be solved. The series has hit its stride now, so there are some series-long strands that are picked up, but not resolved, in this one. As well as the individual cases from Raffin’s book, it seems that Enzo is facing a bigger challenge that lingers in the background. I’m really enjoying rereading these ones – they’re really fun ensemble stories with cerebral mysteries and puzzles to be solved.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)


Freeze Frame breaks out of the mould of the rest of the series, which is fair enough (nice to have a bit of variety). However, I think it’s probably my least favourite as a result. The big change is that, for the most part, Enzo is flying solo in this one. Aside from a short visit from Charlotte, the rest of the gang are absent throughout Freeze Frame, which is a shame. Enzo travels to Brittany to investigate the murder of Adam Killian, the next case from Raffin’s book. Before he died, Killian asked his daughter-in-law Jane to ensure that no one touched his study until his son Peter had a chance to find the message he’d left. Unfortunately, Peter died before he could get to the study, and so Jane has simply preserved the room, hoping that one day someone will be able to find and decipher whatever it is Killian has left behind. Like Blacklight Blue, Freeze Frame includes chapters (at the beginning this time) from the perspective of other characters. Unlike the previous book, these go into quite some detail about the events leading up to the murder. This is also slightly disappointing, as I feel it gives just that little bit too much away, and the puzzle is somewhat less cryptic as a result. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read. Charlotte’s appearance is a little ominous – she has unsettling news for Enzo and behaves in quite an unfriendly (and unfair) way. Their story’s not over yet…

Blowback by Peter May (2011)


Blowback begins in a similar way to Freeze Frame – Enzo’s on his own for this case. He’s investigating Raffin’s fifth case, the murder of 3* Michelin chef Marc Fraysse seven years earlier. The Critic gave May chance to indulge in some meticulous descriptions of wine; Blowback sees the same treatment dished out (no pun intended) to haute cuisine (although, to be fair, this is often paired with descriptions of the wine that accompanies it). Enzo travels to the victim’s famous restaurant in Puy-de-Dôme to reopen the case, which originally had precisely zero suspects. As I say, he’s initially flying solo, but he soon makes friends with the (unusually) helpful local gendarme, Dominique. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but some other members of the gang do make an appearance. Blowback is notable, perhaps, for having the strongest identification of Enzo with a victim. He really feels a connection with this one, for reasons that become clear in the first half of the book (readers may be surprised). Interestingly, May decides to drop the technique of interspersing chapter from the killer’s POV (which were used in the last two books), in favour of a glimpse into the mind of the victim. I like this – it lends the book a slightly different feel to the others. Enzo is still too cool for school in this one – and continues to be (slightly bafflingly) irresistible to women – but a bit of unexpected backstory gives some depth to this. On to the last one…

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)


There was a bit of a wait for the last Enzo book – it was published six years after the fifth one – and I (like a lot of fans) was initially disappointed to find that the series would end after six, not seven, books. After all, Enzo is supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book. I first read Cast Iron shortly after it was published, and I remembered it being a pretty decent finale to the series. Now that I’ve reread it, I take that assessment back: Cast Iron is an excellent finale to the series! Enzo’s taking on the sixth case – the murder of a young woman from Bordeaux called Lucie Martin – and the gang’s properly back together. Not only that, but a character who hasn’t been seen since The Critic also has a part to play. Cast Iron draws together loose ends dangling from the other books – especially Blacklight Blue (which ended with a pretty hefty unanswered question) – but also turns the individual cases into a series proper with some big reveals. Yes, there’s a little bit of a cheat with the introduction of a previously unmentioned plot point (no spoilers!), but I’m inclined to let it off with this. There’s some genuine (and upsetting) peril for a couple of characters, a rather cinematic climax, and some personal revelations for Enzo. All in all, a great way to wrap up the Enzo Files. I’m just a bit sad the series is finished, to be honest.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Mournful Loch Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 14th April 2017
Platform: PC


This is a slightly delayed review. I actually played this game last month, but I was tied up with GM Fringe theatre reviews and some other commitments so I wasn’t able to post this right away. I’m also aware that I said in my last game review that I was taking a break from the Phantasmat series, and that my next post would be a Poirot Project one… oops… neither of those things were true! Sorry!

My last game review was for Phantasmat: Behind the Mask, and I decided just to continue my play through the series. I was a little confused to discover that the next two titles were unavailable: Phantasmat: Town of Lost Hope and Phantasmat: Reign of Shadows were removed from the Big Fish Games catalogue earlier this year (not sure why). So, the next available game in the series was Phantasmat: Mournful Loch, which was developed (as all the instalments since The Endless Night have been) by Eipix Games.

Unfortunately, Mournful Loch feels a bit phoned-in. I’m not sure what the removed instalments would have added to the series, but playing Mournful Loch immediately after Behind the Mask didn’t really work for me. There were some notable similarities between the two stories, which only served to highlight the weakness in the later game’s storyline.

You play as an archaeologist/researcher who is setting out to explore Logan Castle in Scotland and hoping to discover a lost ancient artefact. The castle was the site of a historical (in the vaguest sense) massacre, and you believe something valuable was lost as a result. When the boat you’re in crashes (naturally!), you have to navigate your way through the creepy castle, past malevolent ghosts, and through inexplicably intricate locks and puzzle systems to find… whatever it is you’re meant to find.

And that’s the main problem with Mournful Loch. There’s no real sense of purpose or objective. The backstory as to why you’ve arrived at the castle is pretty sketchy, and the ‘history’ of the castle is vague, inconsistent and – at times – so historically suspect that it’s bad even by HOPA standards. As I say, there are similarities between this story and the one in Behind the Mask: you are faced with a series of malevolent ghosts, dealing with and dispatching one after another (I described this in my last review as being the closest a HOPA comes to having an ‘end of level boss’). The problem with Mournful Loch is that there aren’t really any backstories or explanations for the ghosts – who are they? why are they malevolent? what has this got to do with the artefact? what the hell is the artefact anyway? how many more times will the word ‘artefact’ be used? The game didn’t really answer any of these questions, and so what we’re left with is a paint-by-numbers storyline where puzzles have to be solved, baddies dispatched and objects restored, simply because this is a HOPA and that’s what happens.


Design-wise, this is very much of the standard I’ve come to expect from Eipix. Backgrounds and cutscenes are beautifully illustrated, with stylish detail and smooth animations where necessary. The colour palette tends towards blues and greys in this one, but that seems to fit with the ‘eldritch-esque’ feel to the overall story. There was much less sense of NPCs altering and ‘descending’ into evil – a detail that has characterized the previous instalments of the series – but this also meant that there was none of the cartoonish ‘monster’ illustrations that marred the design of Behind the Mask.

Soundtrack and sound effects were also as you might expect from a HOPA by this developer. Overall, though, there was little innovation or surprise in the game design. I have no real criticisms, but also no specific praise. Again, this game feels a bit phoned-in. It’s competently created, but a little bit mundane.

And this comes through in the gameplay as well, which is very much as expected. It’s point, click, move between scenes, pick up items for the inventory, use items from the inventory, complete mini-games, complete HOGs. There is a bit of back-and-forth between rooms (which I don’t mind), and one short cut that you discover part way through to cut down on this (also something I don’t mind, as it made sense within the game’s geography). Most of the inventory items were used in a logical way, and the plus-items (ones where you find something and then have to fix it, or locate additional parts for it to be usable) are pretty straightforward.

To be honest, the gameplay is also a bit mundane in this one. The HOGs (which can be switched for Match-3) and mini-games are very easy. The progression through the game is also easy (though the bonus chapter suffers from too much confusion about objectives and next steps). The game has a Custom difficulty option – yay! – so I was playing with longer recharge times on Hint and Skip, minimal sparkles, minimal black bar instructions, and no tutorial. I didn’t have to use Hint much at all during the main game, though I found I had to use it (and the jump map) in the bonus chapter, but more on that below. Generally speaking, there’s just a lack of challenge with this one.


The game does have some NPCs, but there’s much less interaction with these than in previous instalments. The interactions (and cutscenes) with the malevolent ghosts are limited, which means that we don’t get much of a sense of them as characters. There is some more sustained interaction with the sinister Boat Man (who originally brings you to Logan Castle), but admittedly this is marred by some slightly dodgy voice acting (an accent that’s meant to be Scottish sounds much more Northern Irish). Outside of this, though, there’s very little characterization going on in Mournful Loch. Even in the highlighted word puzzles, which are often used for exposition and backstory, the information that’s revealed is very limited.


I played the CE version of the game, so there was some bonus content. The main attraction – as always – was the bonus chapter, but this was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t completely clear whether this chapter is a prequel or a sequel (I think it was the latter), or how it related to the events of the main game. In the end, it mostly served as some additional gameplay (using some of the scenes from the main game, and a couple of new ones), rather than a development of the storyline.

In addition to the bonus chapter, the CE has all the usual extra features, including achievements, replays on HOGs and Match-3, collectibles and morphing objects, soundtrack and wallpapers.

So, all-in-all, Mournful Loch was a bit of a disappointment. It’s competently made, but with nothing special or surprising about it. The visual design meets Eipix’s usual high standard, but the game is let down by a rather confused and unexciting storyline. I don’t have any major criticisms of the mechanics here, but I like HOPAs that integrate these into a story I can (at least temporarily) buy into. I probably will try another Phantasmat game, but maybe I need a break and another series for a while!

Thursday, 1 August 2019

My Year in Books 2019: July

Another month gone, and time to do my run-down of the books I read for pleasure. I didn't really get chance to do much reading in July, but I've got four novels on my list, so that's not too bad.

In case you're interested, here are my book reviews from the year so far: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are my reviews for July...

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)


I’ve still not quite finished the pile of books I bought on my charity shop binge in Bakewell – but I’m working on it! I started this one last month, but I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure recently as I’d like, and it took me longer to finish it than expected. Monkey Beach is Robinson’s debut novel, and I’m pleased to say it was a break from the genre habits I tend to let myself get into. Monkey Beach is the story of Lisamarie Hill, a Native Canadian (specifically Haisla) girl. When Lisamarie’s brother Jimmy goes missing, she sets out to join her parents in the search. During her voyage to meet them, she reflects back on her childhood and the experiences that have led them to this point. Told in a fragmentary – almost dreamlike, in places – style, Monkey Beach is a haunting story that takes in both the personal tragedies of the Hill family, and the broader picture of First Nations cultures and identities. While Robinson doesn’t shy away from presenting the darker side of (post-)colonial First Nations life (referencing the trauma of residential schools, and depicting alcohol and drug use), this is combined with lyrical and poignant descriptions of spiritualism and traditions. The sections describing Lisa’s relationship with her Ma-ma-oo (grandmother) are particularly compelling, as is the almost-shadowy figure of her enigmatic Uncle Mick. There’s no denying that bad things happen in Monkey Beach, but the haunting prose imbues even these with a mystical quality.

The Confession by Jo Spain (2018)


I think this one is the last of the Bakewell charity shop pile! My mum and I were quite taken with Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels, so I was pleased to find a copy of this novel while I was browsing. The Confession is a standalone psychological thriller, which begins with a brutal (and apparently completed unprovoked) attack on semi-disgraced Irish financier Harry McNamara. A man walks into his house and beats him to a pulp with a golf club, in front of his horror-stricken wife Julie. To make matters more confounding, this man then walks straight to the police and hands himself in. He claims not to have any motive or pre-existing relationship with Harry McNamara – but is he telling the truth? The Confession is a whydunit, rather than a whodunit. It switches perspectives between Julie (Harry’s wife), JP Carney (the man who’s confessed to the attack), and third-person chapters detailing the police investigation. Julie and JP are interesting characters, and the background of Ireland’s boom-and-bust economics is well-drawn. And although this is a standalone thriller, Spain can’t seem to resist giving her police officers a bit of backstory too. I read this one quite quickly. It’s an enjoyable page-turner. My own quibble would be that there’s quite a big plot development, and I didn’t quite buy that the police wouldn’t have made the connections a little faster. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed this one. Spain’s a really good writer with a real talent for storytelling and character creation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2018)


As you may have read in previous review posts, me and my mum have been reading Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway detective series. And, as you may remember, I’ve become a little frustrated with the series and didn’t really enjoy the last one I read. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped me picking up another book by Griffiths! The Stranger Diaries is a standalone Gothic-inflected crime novel, set in the world of literature rather than archaeology. Clare Cassidy is a secondary school English teacher who loves Victorian Gothic novels. While the school she teaches in is low-rated state school in danger of academization, the building incorporates part of an old house that once belonged to Gothic author R.M. Holland. Clare is fascinated by Holland and is in the process of writing a book about him – but then one of her colleagues is bumped off in a manner reminiscent of Holland’s best-known short story. The story is told through alternating narrators and diary entries (a self-conscious nod to Victorian fiction, particularly that of Wilkie Collins), and sections of Holland’s ‘The Stranger’ intersperse the narrative. And I really enjoyed it! It’s an old-school mystery novel with supernatural accents, and it’s a real page-turner. The use of multiple narrators is done well, with the same events being described from different perspectives, and the fictional R.M. Holland casts an intriguing shadow. Personally, I found The Stranger Diaries more effective and gripping than the Ruth Galloway novels – let’s see if my mum agrees with me…

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood (2016)


Decided to take a rare day off and wanted a quick read – something that I knew I could finish in a day. I bought My Sister’s Bones at a charity shop in Cleveleys (day out with the parents-in-law). It’s clearly a domestic noir (which I’ve sworn off), but it’s been favourably compared with The Girl on the Train, so I thought… what’s the harm? As I started reading it, I remembered… they’re all favourably compared with The Girl on the Train. And it’s never a fair comparison. My Sister’s Bones is not great. It’s overwritten (the most egregious example being a description of someone putting vinegar on chips that takes three sentences and includes the phrase ‘pungent brown liquid’), and the storyline is riddled with implausibility and inconsistency. Kate is a journalist, who returns to Herne Bay from Syria with PTSD. Her sister Sally is an alcoholic who has stayed in Herne Bay. They don’t interact for most of the book – the title is seriously misleading, as there are no ‘bones’ and very little about ‘sisters’. Kate is staying in her recently deceased mother’s house, despite the fact that she had no relationship with her mother and shows no desire to clear or look after her mother’s possessions. She keeps hearing a child screaming and comes to believe that the neighbour is in an abusive relationship. It all builds to a ludicrous climax involving a dungeon under a shed (no apologies for the spoiler). This isn’t a recommendation from me.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of The Greek (Kinky Boot Institute, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from the 1st-31st July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows from the programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. And, sadly, that is the last time I’m going to get to write that this year. Yes… the time has come for me to finish my little journey through this year’s festival programme, as I’ve reached my final review. But what a great show I’m ending on!

The final show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Lewis Charlesworth’s The Greek. This is a show I was really looking forward to, as writer-director Lewis Charlesworth has been a guest on both this year's and last year’s Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Specials, but also on a regular edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf in November 2018. In last year’s interviews, he mentioned that he was working on a piece related to Brexit, and so I’ve been keenly waiting to see the final product. And I wasn’t disappointed.


The Greek is described as a ‘Brexit comedy without the politics’. Indeed, the word ‘Brexit’ doesn’t actually appear in the play, and mentions of the referendum are limited to a short introductory burst of audio – an edited montage of news reporters and politicians talking angrily that speeds up and blurs into a bewildering cacophony. Set in 2015, The Greek is a one-act play about the complex, contradictory and difficult circumstances into which the Brexit referendum was dropped.

The play opens with Mary (played by Betty Webster), an 83-year-old woman from Lancashire, sitting on her chair, while her neighbour John (played by Peter Slater) fusses around her and keeps her company. Everything about the play’s opening has an easy sense of familiarity – from the cushions on the couch, to the ‘state of the world’ conversations. Mary and John are white, working class people who perceive societal change as a downhill slope.

Mary and John sit together, drink tea, and bemoan the state of the world in language that is striking in its authenticity. Make no mistake, The Greek pulls no punches in the language and sentiments being expressed. Mary and John may claim not to be racist (in John’s case with some convoluted and highly unconvincing evidence), but the audience is very likely to disagree. Despite knowing that what they’re saying isn’t considered ‘PC’, they continue, on the grounds that ‘it’s a free country’ and ‘I can say what I like in my own house’. It’s clear that what we’re watching is a regular and normal conversation for the two.

However, on this occasion, Mary is keen for John to leave. She’s expecting a visitor – her grandson, who she hasn’t seen since he was a baby. We learn that Mary was estranged from her son, who was also once a good friend of John’s, and that as a result she’s had no real relationship with her grandson. There’s also clearly something that she doesn’t want to tell John… and we quickly find out (if the play’s posters hadn’t given us an inkling) what that is.

Mary’s grandson James (played by Charlesworth) is mixed race, and clearly uncomfortable about visiting the grandmother he believes is an unreconstructed racist. More than this, James embodies some other social positions that Mary and John have previously decried – he’s moved out of Lancashire, he’s cosmopolitan (working in marketing), and his politics (though not overtly stated) are left-leaning.


The Greek is a series of conversations – between Mary and John, Mary and James, and then between all three. Sparks fly, and some pretty dramatic statements are made – but this is not a play about conflict. Surprisingly – and refreshingly – this is a play about what happens when you have conversations with people you disagree with. My description so far may not have made this clear, but The Greek is a tender, sweet and honest comedy, filled with sympathy and affection for human nature (flawed as it may be).

The play’s real strength and originality lies is that Mary and John are criticized, but not demonized. At no point are the audience encouraged to sympathize or agree with their view of the world, but we are given the chance to listen to it, just as James is, and to view them as human beings rather than stereotypes. Charlesworth’s script is sensitive and subtle, refusing to shy away from harsh truths, but navigating these truths with humour and compassion. As the endless cups of tea and French fancies are produced, preconceptions and animosities are exposed and challenged in an upfront, but quintessentially British, way.

Interestingly, the night before I saw The Greek, I watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the role Cambridge Analytica played in manipulating the result of the EU referendum through cynical (and illegal) exploitation. The Greek makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Great Hack, as it shines a light on the very tensions, beliefs and concerns that Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ latched onto and exploited for their own financial ends. There’s a poignancy to The Greek in some ways, as it evokes a version of 2015 where global data-mining tech companies have less power than a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling. It hints at what the EU referendum would’ve looked like without Cambridge Analytica or Dominic Cummings or AggregateIQ – and it suggests that, hard as it might have been, we could’ve worked it out, we could’ve been okay.

All credit to the performers here. Charlesworth is excellent as James, tempering raw anger with kindness in a nuanced and thoughtful performance. Webster’s portrayal of Mary captures a combination of battle-axe stubbornness and fragility that is both authentic and sympathetic. But, in many ways, it’s Slater who is given the biggest challenge – John should be completely unlikable, but Slater’s performance dilutes his unpalatable views with just the right amount of baffled vulnerability. It’s a mark of Slater’s skill as an actor that we’re left with a character who’s hard to like, but impossible to completely hate.

While I am sad that my visits to this year’s Fringe are over, The Greek was a real high point to end on. An honest, funny and compassionate script, coupled with three pitch-perfect performances, made for an enjoyable, thought-provoking and surprisingly hopeful piece of theatre. I hope The Greek gets another run at some point – if it does, you should definitely see it!

The Greek was on at the King’s Arms Theatre, Salford on the 27th-29th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events on at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

Review: Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can (Joe Walsh, GM Fringe)

Sunday 28th July 2019
King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from the 1st-31st July. I’ve been reviewing a selection of the shows on this year’s programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, but – sadly – I’m now coming to the end of my festival experience. The penultimate show I saw at this year’s Fringe was Joe Walsh’s Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can, which was on at the King’s Arms on Sunday 28th July. You can hear the radio version of my review on Tuesday’s show, but here’s the blog version…


Written and directed by Joe Walsh, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is a one-act play about homelessness, or rather, it’s a one-act play about some people who are homeless. This distinction is important – the play is character-focused, and is invested in the relationships and personalities of individuals, rather than examining the underlying causes and effects of homelessness. Its message (both in its marketing and in its execution) is clear – this is a play that seeks to tackle preconceptions through humanization.

The play is set outdoors, on the streets where the central characters sleep. (Sunday’s performance was intended to be staged in the Beer Garden at the King’s Arms, but was moved indoors to the cellar rooms due to rather inclement weather!) While the dialogue switches between using ‘Manchester’ and ‘Salford’ (possibly as a nod to where it’s being performed), references to various Deansgate landmarks set it firmly in the former. Some of the pop culture references (especially the claim that people want to hear buskers playing The Stone Roses or Oasis) add to the generally Mancunian flavour of the piece.

Our protagonists are Barney (played by Paul Tomblin), Sarah (played by Leah Gray) and Derek (played by Craig Hodgkinson), three disavowed Deansgate residents, who sleep rough on the streets and get by on a mixture of begging, busking and reluctant shoplifting. They’re a loyal, if a little unorthodox, trio, who occupy a ‘fort’ of their own making. The play is never explicit on the circumstances that have brought the three together, but there’s a general feeling of camaraderie, trust and affection between them.

Sarah is a straight-talking young woman with a history of getting into trouble for ‘speaking her mind’. Our introduction to her is when she angrily wakes up from the bench where she’s sleeping to complain about Derek’s guitar playing. Nevertheless, as the play progresses and we get to know her a little better, she emerges more as a rather sweet and caring person, with a romanticized nostalgia for Southport. Gray’s performance is engaging (and rather charming in places), and she reveals a good knack for comic timing.

Barney is, on the whole, set as a counterpoint to Sarah. Sweetly naïve, yet comically optimistic, much of Tomblin’s performance is played for laughs – and he does get some funny lines. His OTT reaction to finding Sarah’s sanitary pads and a laugh-out-loud bit involving Barry Chuckle firmly situate Barney as a comic character, though there are some quieter, more reflexive moments, which allow Tomblin to show his versatility and add a gentle poignancy to the characterization.

Sarah and Barney’s friendship (could it be more?) is the ‘heart’ of the story, but they aren’t alone in their ‘fort’. The third member of the group is Derek, an older man whose troubled past is hinted at, though not substantially expanded on, throughout the play. Derek acts as a sort of avuncular guide for his younger companions, and Hodgkinson plays this with a compassionate, but melancholy, air that, again, is engaging to watch.


The three main performers – ably accompanied by Owen Murphy and Ella Fraser, who appear in minor roles – are very watchable, but I have some reservations about Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can. At times, it is a little confused in terms of tone and message. Some serious subjects are invoked – period poverty, for instance, and the difficulties faced by people on release from prison – but these aren’t explored in any real depth. While some backstory is offered for each of the characters, there is no real consideration of the causes of homelessness (which is entirely conflated with rough sleeping in the piece). The play’s mostly upbeat conclusion resolves what would be – in real life – complex and entrenched issues with a rather romantic and dreamlike finale.

However, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is a comedy – and a warm-hearted one at that. Its strength lies in its charm, and its message in the humanizing effect that light-hearted and optimistic comedy can create. This is certainly not naturalistic theatre, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not moving and heartfelt.

Some of the performance techniques used in the play are very enjoyable. The casual and repeated breaking of the fourth wall – including a little bit of ad-libbed audience interaction – is funny and endearing. This is combined with a couple of more serious short monologues from Sarah and Derek, which enhance the character development. Walsh’s script is controlled and well-written, with an excellent balance between comedy, introspection and good old-fashioned storytelling.

Do I think the play’s ending is realistic? No. Do I think it was the right way to conclude the character and narrative arcs? Yes, I absolutely do. And (no spoilers), I thought the final drop of poignancy that dilutes an otherwise fairy-tale conclusion was very well-done.

As I said at the beginning, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is not really a play about homelessness, and it doesn’t seek to offer a solution to societal problems. Instead, it’s an amiable and hopeful story about three likeable characters who happen to be living on the streets. With great performances, a strong script and direction, and some lovely moments of audience involvement, Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can is an enjoyable and funny piece of character-driven theatre.

Frozen Peas in an Old Tin Can was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on 27th and 28th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme of events at this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.