Review: ‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman

It took me ages to get around to reading ‘Pigeon English’, despite a colleague highly recommending it and raving about it. However, after eventually getting to it, I couldn’t put it down; you’re running through Harri’s story all the way with him until the bitter end, and you feel every moment as he does.


Harrison Opoku is essentially, in my mind, the personality we’d all like to be: fun,carefree and innocent. He has no understanding of the cruelty and violence of the world, and his pigeon exemplifies this: he doesn’t chase it away, try to kick it or poison it, he makes it his guide and friend where everyone else sees the pigeon as sky vermin. What makes Harrison’s beautiful naivety even more endearing is the subtle weaving of his background into the story, a background he doesn’t understand but we pick up on: he’s come to London from Ghana for a better life, making the troubles he encounters even more heartbreaking to witness.

In a way it’s very much a book of types: gangs versus innocents, good versus evil, corruption versus innocence. It’s starkly realistic in portraying these; there’s no sugar coating or promises of happily ever after, the world just is what it is and we have to deal with that whether we like it or not, which is one of the further tragedies of the book that pulls on our heartstrings and makes us an active part of Harri’s journey through life in England: we’re sat screaming, despairing, cheering on the sidelines because we know how we want things to be, and Kelman makes us painfully aware life doesn’t work like that.

It’s beautiful writing; Harri’s dialect stays with us throughout and infecting us until you feel like you can hear Harri telling the story to you like…well, an excited 11-year-old boy. I challenge you to go through this book without having developed a clear and distinctive voice in your head that’s Harri: no other character becomes quite as vivid as this little boy, and again it’s how Kelman leads us into this dark and sinister world, making it feel like a first hand experience rather than just another story.

So unlike me, don’t take nearly a year to pick up this book recommendation; it’s something you’ll love, laugh and cry with, and it will stay with you long after the final page has been turned.

Review: ‘Shrek: The Musical’ @ Theatre Royal

On 17th September, I did two things: saw a brilliant musical, and finally saw one while it still had its original leading lady in it. And on both counts, this was a fantastic production.

The plot and dialogue followed the film quite closely, but this was not unwelcome. Too much of a change would have harmed what

people already enjoyed about ‘Shrek’, and a carbon copy would have simply made people wonder why they spent good money when they could watch the film at home. No, it was a really good balance, bar one or two of the jokes being a little lacklustre compared to the film (but then, I’m not entirely sure anyone could echo the brilliance of Eddie Murphy), that allowed the musical to flourish in its own right.

What I particularly enjoyed was how the musical was tied together: to combat the limitations of stage, Lord Farquad’s back story (which I won’t give away!) was a perfect substitute for the dragon’s role in the fiery finale, putting Shrek on top and Farquad…down low (see what I did there?).

Talking of Farquad, Nigel Harman…just wow. He was absolutely the star of the show, his voice is incredible and his performance was absolutely hilarious. I did wonder how they would deal with the height issue, and the poor guy’s knees must have been in agony by the end of the performance, but I absolutely adored that they mocked their own theatricality: some of the highlights involved Nigel Harman swinging his fake legs about, it was borderline slapstick and absolutely hilarious.

The theatrical techniques were not all based on laughs: the dragon was stunning. It was another question at the back of my mind: how on earth will a dragon feature on stage?! But my oh my, did it feature, and it was spectacular. At one point, the monstrous piece of craftwork came out from the ceiling right above our heads without us noticing, flying about the place and keeping the audience in raptures. This was one production that had considered every detail and you could see every effort had been put into ensuring the audience had a magical evening. And the voice of the dragon…she was definitely the best singer of the night. The set of lungs on that woman deserved a central role, not a smaller part, and I really hope that happens for her someday.

In fact, all of the supporting roles were fabulous, as proved in the song led by Pinocchio and co. They clearly put their heart and soul into their characters, and it made the story come alive in a truly unique way.

Now, onto the leading lady herself: I don’t know what I really expected from Amanda Holden. I certainly didn’t realise she was that pregnant, although I’m sure it helped for the ogre scenes! In all seriousness, I had never pegged Miss Holden as that¬†funny, that talented and that loveable. I loved her before and I think she’s a bigger star now. Sure, it’s not the best voice in musical showbusiness, but it was pretty damn good, and her Fiona definitely sparkled. She was kickass, and able to draw a tear at the same time. Her accent was consistent as well, which was a major positive: nothing is worse than a badly implemented accent, it brings so much attention to it being a constructed piece of theatre. As it was, Holden and her co-stars made the story thoroughly absorbing by being committed to their roles, and ensuring that they gave every moment one-hundred-and-ten percent.

Shrek himself, Nigel Lindsay, was good: not overly amazing, but he played a good role, and was thoroughly loveable in his development from angry ogre to unlikely prince. With the Scottish accent, I didn’t expect amazing singing, but Lindsay was surprisingly fabulous; the only thing that hindered him was not living up to some of the precedent laid down by Mike Myers in ‘Shrek’. I felt this was the same for Richard Blackwood as Donkey: he was great to watch, but at the same time he didn’t quite live up to Eddie Murphy, but then I think these were the areas where more script changes should have happened to prevent an over-reliance on the film precedent. However, I definitely cannot criticise their overall performances, because without these two being amazing the musical would have fallen out of the sky and onto its face…much like Donkey’s entrance!

It must have been so difficult to translate a film to the stage, but ‘Shrek: The Musical’ definitely did it well: the attention to detail, the sheer enjoyment shown by the cast, and the willingness to poke fun at its own theatricality meant ‘Shrek’ was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Also good to note: the view from the cheap seats is pretty panoramic, so I definitely wouldn’t knock them, unlike some other theatres! The evening was absolutely Shrek-tacular, and I would definitely go green again in the future!

Review: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

In it’s resistance to the aesthetic culture that dominated the late Victorian period, ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ achieves a fabulously intricate and fully accountable plot-line that enables the author to guide the readers along, allowing their own knowledge to unravel the secrets and mysteries.

Braddon uses Lucy Audley, nee Graham, who is actually Helen Talboys nee Maldon, to rubbish the notion that the female form is for aesthetic pleasure, by humanising her psychology as Michael Field did in their picture sonnets. Lucy Audley begins as the bewitching creature who could win hearts with a glance, and ends as the unveiled wickedness she truly is. The conflict between inner and outer appearances is uncovered by Robert Audley, Lucy Audley’s nephew by marriage, whose homosocial love of his friend leads to Lady Audley’s unravelling, and Robert’s detective work enables the resolution of aestheticism and consciousness, which is particularly witnessed in Lord Audley’s reaction to his wife’s deception.

The plot runs as such: Lucy Graham has been elevated beyond her rank, moving from a governess to Lady Audley after accepting Lord Audley’s marriage proposition. Elsewhere, George Talboys returns from Australia, having made his fortune, and bumps into his old friend, Robert Audley. The men discover that George’s wife, whom he left in the dead of night to provide for, has passed away, leading them to Southampton to see her father, Lieutenant Maldon, and George’s son, little Georgey. However, all is not as it seems, as when the men travel to visit Robert’s uncle, Lord Michael Audley, George discovers Lady Audley’s true identity, for which she attempts to rid herself of him, leading Robert to attempt to uncover what has happened to his friend.

The secret and its particulars are fairly obvious from the beginning, particularly when the storyline’s converge in Audley to link George Talboys’ disappearance to his visit to Lady Audley. However, the uncovering of Lady Audley is what makes this novel particularly fascinating and a compelling read, as the duality in her nature is revealed slowly but surely, as well as the journey to Robert’s discovery providing an insight into his own relationship turmoil regarding George Talboys. Braddon uses Clara Talboys, George’s sister, to resolve the homosocial love between the two men, and as such acts as an anti-decadent device to complete the novel in a manner which resists the fashions of the period, by placing each character in a conventional concluding position.

Lady Audley herself is a fascinating creature, whom we uncover alongside Robert, particularly through her free indirect discourse, which enables her to move from being akin to the pre-Raphaelite painting of her that George and Robert see, to a physical and conscious human being with motivations and urges that she has to fulfil. This movement highlights the shallow nature of the aestheticism of the 1890s, as well as constantly refreshing the novel by revealing layer after layer of her personality until the climax in Volume Three. Her hidden duality is also complemented by Alicia Audley, Lady Audley’s stepdaughter, who highlights the alternative side to aestheticism in giving free reign to her emotions, which she calms in order to fulfil her societal role, moving from the bouncy girl that Robert Audley cannot imagine marrying, to the future Lady Towers, highlighting her change from impetuous to refined.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon succeeds in moving her plot from an aesthetic to a fully-rounded viewpoint, in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of an aesthetic lifestyle in the face of personality, social events and consciousness. As such, she is able to represent the aspects of desire and duality that add variant dimensions to each character, as opposed to leaving them as lifeless as Lady Audley’s painting.

Review: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

A royal performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre

On Saturday 22nd January 2011, I saw one of the most stunning theatre productions I am ever likely to witness, beyond anything that modern technology can dream of producing: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

With fantastic staging effects, astounding actors and a sensational musical score, ‘Phantom’ was a hauntingly beautiful production. The music blew me away: I wanted the opening score to keep going, I wanted to be able to close my eyes and just listen to it forever. Enough can never be said in praising a fantastic orchestra, and this one was no exception. Add to that the cast’s voices, trained to perfection, and the combination was bound to send chills running through you. The biggest cheer of the night went to John Owen Jones, who played the Phantom, a man whose Phantom could have reduced anyone to tears. Needless to say, Sofia Escobar’s Christine Daae and Will Barrat’s Raoul were both fantastic: the passion they maintained throughout the performance was so intense and well-maintained that it was hard not to fall in love with all of them.

The storyline itself is simple yet allows a large amount of room for artistic creativity: the Phantom’s obsessive love for Christine replacing her father’s companionship, the theatre within the theatre, and the love triangle framing the plot all enable various interpretations, as well as showing what stagecraft is really about. The best bits were the chandelier falling, the Phantom’s hiding place during ‘All I Ask of You’ and the river that takes the Phantom and Christine to his lair. Whilst everything was clearly a spectacle, it was so well-timed and executed that it felt real, not like something that had been done for effect. I’ve said repeatedly since leaving the theatre, that with all the wonders of film technology, the theatre version triumphed against the film adaptation, I was nowhere near as mesmerised and enthralled as I was in the production. The chandelier falling was absolutely amazing: it was clearly a defining moment in every section of the play, showing the changes throughout the plot, as the theatre went from riches to ruins during the operatic war. And the river was just beautifully set up, despite the limits of the stage it really did look and appear as though they were gliding gracefully towards the Phantom’s domain.

The acting, as I’ve already said, was superb. The Phantom’s clear inability to deal with his own passion was heartbreaking, and made it impossible to blame him for what he did, even though he was obviously losing his control over the theatre and Christine within his desperate acts. Likewise, it was hard to see fault in Christine’s love for both the Phantom and Raoul, when the Phantom clearly gave her the protection she craved in the absence of her father, whilst Raoul was able to show her a safe and secure way of life after the music ends. And Raoul…well, yum. He was everything the gallant hero should be: suave, passionate for the love of his life, and absolutely gorgeous. They all combined to show how the love triangle had no definitive right or wrong outcome: Raoul would die for love, the Phantom would kill for it, while Christine is left with a heart-wrenching choice that led her to show the Phantom he didn’t have to be alone, but that he couldn’t control love. The supporting cast was stellar: Carlotta (Wendy Ferguson) and Monsieur’s Firmin (Barry James) and Andre (Gareth Snook) provided the comic relief to remove tension, before it was built back up again to monumental heights! Equally, Madame Giry (Cheryl McAvoy) was a stern influence to show how the Phantom affects everyone, not just those vulnerable to his influences.

My favourite song had to be the titular ‘Phantom of the Opera’, as well as ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Masquerade’, although I don’t think there was a single song that I didn’t love to be honest! They’re a credit to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s genius, and I have to say that I respect him so much more after seeing ‘Phantom’ than I ever did before, he really is an artistic star, which makes me incredibly excited to hopefully see the sequel, ‘Love Never Dies’.

To end on the biggest cliche possible, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is definitely inside my mind; with its gorgeous display of musical creativity, superb acting and fabulous scenery, I don’t think there’s a way to avoid being intoxicated with the ‘Phantom’ and its twisted and chillingly beautiful love story.