Review: ‘One Hundred Names’ by Cecelia Ahern

Regular readers will know I’m a massive Cecelia Ahern fan, I love how the everyday and ordinary becomes pure magic in her hands. ‘One Hundred Names’ has been sat gathering shameful amounts of dust on my shelf, so blowing away the cobwebs I picked it up ready to be thrilled.

‘One Hundred Names’ is the story of Kitty Logan, a journalist who’s made a mistake: a big one at that. While her friend and mentor lies dying, she’s entrusted with the story of her career to salvage her reputation and her writing soul – and thus begins a journey of finding what matters amongst the rubble we build our lives in.

I’ll be honest, Kitty is not my favourite female lead ever, but this is undoubtedly deliberate: her journalism destroys a life and she has to learn her lessons, including that she might not be the nice person she thought she was. So she’s true, if not always likeable, and she grows on you as the story develops and she realises vicious journalism isn’t who she is.

The stories of the hundred names is in intriguing: what connects one hundred seemingly obscure people together? I won’t spoil the link, but it’s a decent payoff for your wonderings – predictable in some ways, but that’s what makes it heartwarming. It’s a weird feeling: not meeting all one hundred seems both logical and mildly disappointing, but it would have been impractical to meet all one hundred without creating a Game of Thrones style saga!

And the trick is this: enough stories are picked to validate the links, pour the right amount of depth into each storyline, and allow your investment in the people making the headlines. My favourite had to be Birdie – an obvious choice but a good one nonetheless, a story against adversity that doesn’t go dramatically overboard, but shows how simple goals such as living life can be the most challenging of all.

A criticism? Some of the plots tied up a little too nicely, mostly where couples were concerned: useful that the lady our man Archie has been watching for a year returns his affections, that Kitty’s best friend Steve has a sudden revelation about their whole friendship just as she does, that Birdie’s carer and her grandson very (very very!) quickly hit it off…you have to overlook the convenient couplings for a little while, but this doesn’t overshadow the story as a whole which is key.

Kitty’s final triumph in the offices of etcetera magazine is a wonder: it’s like seeing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon (our lovely Ambrose from the one Hundred Names can surely identify), and we finally get to see what the cocoon was hiding all along in all its colourful glory. It’s lovely, melting tummy kind of reading, and that’s what Cecelia Ahern is all about.

So add your name to the hundreds on the list who have enjoyed the tale of Kitty, her redemption and in understanding that life is the story before all else – you won’t regret the read!

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Review: ‘King Lear’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Greg Hick's as the fallen King.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ was a mixture of theatricality and raw emotion, all of which combined to show Lear’s descent from fool to madman.

Briefly, the plot revolves around Lear giving his lands to his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, but refusing to give his favourite daughter, Cordelia, her land as she says that her love is beyond words: a notion that does not sit well with the imagery-conscious Lear. She is banished to her marriage with the King of France, but Lear soon realises his other daughters mean to overthrow him, causing his descent into madness.

Although Greg Hicks was a fantastic King Lear, I think more praise is due to Sophie Russell (the Fool), Katy Stephens (Regan) and Charles Aitken (Edgar), who were superb in their supporting roles and were major driving forces behind the performance. The Fool’s unerring dedication to Lear was one of the most heartfelt aspects of the play, reaching its climax when Lear stood in the rain and the Fool is weeping at his feet, symbolising the movement of Lear from master to the pity of fools. Equally, Regan showed the passion behind the sisters’ plans to dethrone their father, providing the motivation and weaving seamlessly amongst the other characters to manipulate and devastate them. Finally, Aitken’s performance as Edgar/Poor Tom was brilliant to watch, as he shifted between guises his devotion to his father, Gloucester, and his rise from the ashes was performed spectacularly and without losing the credulity of Edgar’s compromised position.

There were times when the play felt versed: Cordelia, in particular, spoke as if she were reciting a poem, as opposed to acting the words, leaving her more of a representative figure as opposed to a human character. Some of the minor cast members also did this, but it definitely did not detract from the impact of the play.

Greg Hicks’ performance as the troubled King was amazing. He was able to dissemble from upright King and leader to downtrodden madman convincingly, and prompted a few laughs which underlined the extent of his descent into lunacy. Clearly well-rehearsed in Shakespearean acting, Hicks was able to manipulate Lear’s language to ensure that, despite his original folly, he was abused, which was complemented perfectly by Poor Tom’s feigned madness and Kent’s unwavering dedication despite the King’s misjudgement.

The theatrical elements were absolutely brilliant. The rain upon King Lear was a perfect way to both close the first half, and show the beginning of his descent into madness, perfectly setting up the shift to instability in the second half of the performance. However, the best staging came when Gloucester’s double life was exposed, and his eyes were plucked out as punishment: despite knowing it was coming, the inference of the action was still a squeamish affair, and maintained the pace of the performance despite the potential for the gruesome act to be mis-played and appear overly-fake or over-dramatised.

‘King Lear’ ended heartbreakingly, with the death of all three sisters at each other’s hands, whether directly or indirectly, highlighting the extremity of Lear’s mistake. The stage held five bodies at the ending, each one representing something lost, whilst Edgar’s closing speech was able to show that the wounds of the previous generation were the building blocks of the new generation, complimenting the devastation with a glimmer of hope in the rebuilding of an empire. The play was beautifully crafted to show the ease of transition from foolishness to full madness, and successfully showed the depths of Lear’s journey without losing its credibility.

Review: ‘Prophecy’ by S.J.Parris

(This was a preview copy sent by Waterstones for reviewing, and is available for further reviews and purchasing here: http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/s-+j-+parris/prophecy/8009847/).

 

Despite the Elizabethan era being a time of rapid change and religious upheaval, Parris subjugates all of this to find a hero, and fails to live up to the excitement of the age.
The plotline is compelling enough, and provides a satisfying current to the novel, although by following Bruno, we follow one too many red herrings, and are only aware of the full truth within a matter of pages, leaving to a hurried resolution. However, the secrecy and duplicity is fascinating at points, as living a lie forces desperate and ingenious decisions to be made, albeit ones that lead to false conclusions up until the big reveal. It’s bothersome having to just assume people are right, with Bruno jumping to conclusions that are not proven constantly, instead of teasing us before revealing all.
Stylistically, I really didn’t enjoy the novel’s attempt to merge the contemporary with the past: the language seems more fitting to a Dan Brown novel than one supposedly set in the 16th century. The language was a bit too clunky: one moment, the intricacies of the Protestant-Catholic divide are being divulged, and the next readers are being directly addressed as if to solicit an opinion, when actually what is needed is guidance down the author’s intended path.
However, I did read through to the end, and wasn’t displeased that I did so, but this is mainly because I forgot I was reading an historical novel quite early on, instead reading it to see the plot through to the end. The biggest disappointment was the evident lack of thought towards the magic plot, which was explored in detail in the Earl of Arundel’s home and then left when it was of no more use, without a fitting conclusion asides from Fowler’s confession, where magic was seen as a ruse, a theme which could have been put to better use.
I see this novel as full of half-starts: we could see Bruno as human, but his fallibility is prevented when he resists all human desires and acts only on behalf of others; magic could be seen as psychologically real, but it is just a means to sorting out Henry Howard’s involvement; the invasion plot could be justifiable, but is left with an inadequate excuse…and so on.
I think as someone who enjoys intricacies and being caught off-guard by a storyline, this book was not for me.

Review: ‘Black Swan’

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

After leaving the cinema, my friend asked which film I would say was better: ‘Black Swan’ or ‘The King’s Speech’. Not an easy choice: both fantastic, and both as different from one another as it’s possible to be. But, after deliberating, I knew the answer: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ won for it’s sheer ability to intoxicate and psychologically invade its viewers’ minds.

The premise is that ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is chosen to play both the delicate White Swan and the devilish Black Swan in director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassell) new production of ‘Swan Lake’. Tortured by the desire to be perfect and by threats of having her role taken from her, Nina’s journey from becoming a white swan to embracing her inner black swan is absolutely riveting.

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis’ (Lily) dedication to the film was incredibly obvious: both had trained well, and are reported as having lost weight though their ballerina training. They had an intense chemistry, which helped the plotline enormously, as it was impossible to tell until the very end whether Lily was who Nina thought her to be: the clash of the swans caused a wonderful sense of confusion that caused a yearning for answers. Equally, Cassell’s performance was just as riveting: his ease as slipping between mentor and seducer highlighted the depths of Nina’s transformation, by pushing her to effortlessly metamorphosise from one character to another.

The musical score was beautiful, bringing the passion of the ballerinas, and the psychological decay of Nina, to tense and entrancing heights. It underlined what we knew, and subtly guided towards questions and conclusions, bringing the film to its dramatic climax perfectly. The seamless movement between reality and fantasy led to a fitting resolution, where Nina’s fate was probably the only suitable outcome to the film after the torments the audience had witnessed. Portman’s performance was stunning: she was delicate and fragile, but convincingly moved to dark and devious without losing any of her momentum. With Kunis’ support, Nina’s inner struggle was perfectly framed within the reality she had been separated from unknowingly. Barabara Hershey, as Nina’s long-suffering mother Erica, definitely needs credit in this respect as well: the guilt felt when realising she wasn’t the one at fault, but the one trying to fix the damage single-handedly complemented the dawning realisation of Nina’s descent into decay.

‘Black Swan’ was a creepy, wonderful and haunting film, and I, for one, am desperate for an encore.

Review: ‘Comedy of Errors’ @ The Belgrade Theatre

The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry describes the Propeller version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as ‘Shakespeare rediscovered’, and they’re not far wrong. Sombreros, naked priests and rousing chorus’ of 80s pop brought Shakespeare tumbling into the 21st century, and the effect was fabulous.

The basic plot is that identical twin brothers, both named Antipholus, and their parents Egeon and Emilia, are separated by a shipwreck, with one twin and the father ending up in Syracuse, whilst the second twin and mother finding themselves in Ephesus, and conveniently enough, these are two cities that despise one another. Also separated in the shipwreck are the servants of both twins, who are twins themselves, both named Dromio…well, it would be odd if Shakespeare made it easy. Egeon gets caught in Ephesus and is threatened with death, but upon hearing that he is searching for the second twin and his wife, the Duke relents and says that if someone can pay Egeon’s bond by the day’s end, he will spare him.

What follows is one of the brightest and funniest adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve ever witnessed: the continual slapstick over Dromio’s beatings, the references to a ‘spherical’ kitchen wench who is trying to wed the wrong Dromio, the confusion over which Antipholus is which and the general chaos that ensures really does bring Shakespeare to a new level of understanding, and while it’s never easy to understand all the language, Propeller’s quirky performance certainly guides you along wonderfully.

As it would have been in the Elizabethan theatre, all the roles were played by male actors, which certainly added authenticity to the production, as well as boosting the comedy levels even higher than before. The use of Luciana as a ninja-warrior was probably the highlight of the female interpretations, as well as having Adriana as a balding man in a garish coat, and a courtesan in a slightly terrifying rabbit costume. This also highlights the absurdity of the relationships within the play: Adriana, as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, brilliantly guides the audience along as a marker of the confusion: shutting her rightful husband out to ‘dine’ with his twin and Antipholus of Syracuse’s propositions of love to Adriana’s sister, Luciana, just show the extremity of the confusion, as well as bringing events to such a height that it’s difficult not to get swept along in the  madness. Antipholus of Ephesus’ rantings in the second half over how he has been falsely accused of being elsewhere is performed with such a manic pace that the audience is left holding their breath alongside him, until he finally collapses from the absolute absurdity of his situation.

The show was brought up to date in several ways, including a separate performance by the cast during the interval of 80s classics to raise money for charity: a feature later incorporated into the second act. The set and costumes were fantastically bright, adding to the hilarity of the situation, as well as the use of music to underline the comedy. The best bit of modern relevance, though, was when the falsely-accused Antopholus and Dromio of Ephesus are put in wheely bins (an obvious substitute for a mental asylum I’m sure), which provokes a quip about the infamous YouTube Cat Bin Lady.

The only (very minor) criticism is Egeon’s speeches: yawn. They were the bit that dragged the play back towards Earth though, and created a gravity for the play to centre around, so as to create a beginning and an ending to the chaos. So while it was a bit tedious to sit through his soliloquies, Egeon is certainly a vital plot-device, in bookending the play and stopping it from losing its bearings.

Overall, however, Comedy of Errors was absolutely brilliant: the actors clearly had a passion for both Shakespeare and in interesting modern audiences in the bard, which led to a brilliant production which can appeal to those who love, and those who tend to steer clear of, Shakespeare’s works. Propeller did a wonderful job, and amongst the madness showed a theatrical sanity which showed the talent within their abilities.

Review: ‘The King’s Speech’

Colin Firth as George VI

Nominated for fourteen BAFTAs , twelve Academy Awards, and seven Golden Globes, ‘The King’s Speech’ has left audiences speechless. With a simple yet moving plotline, Coling Firth’s King George VI is able to create and maintain a depth of character that will leave you riveted.

The story is simple enough: King George V passes away, leaving his son to become King Edward VIII, only for him to abdicate to marry the twice-divorce Wallis Simpson and leaving an unsettled Albert to ascend to the throne. The issue being, Bertie has never been royally built: his stammer, alongside his other habits beaten out of him at an early age, has cost him both the publics, and his own, confidence. His dutiful wife Elizabeth pushes him to try Lionel Logue, speech therapist, who insists on unorthodoxy to tackle the root of the problem, and helps Bertie lead up to one of the most important moments of his regal life.

The best bit about the plot is how unwavering it is: the writers are dedicated to Bertie’s story, and at times when they could have been distracted (with Wallis Simpson, war…) they only acknowledged their periphery before returning to their tunnel vision, and while enough is incorporated to keep the story afloat, it is all kept in to ensure Bertie’s story is fully and beautifully explored. One of Colin Firth’s most touching moments as the wonderful Bertie is telling his daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, the story of the royal penguin, acting as a silent advocate for love conquering all and covering over the fault lines to smooth the way for their own private lives. Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, is wonderfully portrayed by the beautiful Helena Bonham Carter, whose strength and solidarity with her husband show a united front, helping to collect fragments of the future king’s life in order to provide unity and faith in his abilities. This was also seen in the selfish and impulsive Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), whose taunting of ‘B-B-B-Bertie’ leaves both Firth’s character and the audience speechless: cruelty comes in many forms, but it strikes hardest when loved ones knock us down. It’s horrific to witness the lack of familial support when Elizabeth has been attempting to prop up Bertie’s courage, although Edward’s act of dishonour frames Bertie’s relationship with Logue perfectly. While Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue has been silently breaking down barriers, this incident pushes their friendship together to unify their desires, leading to Logue’s place of honour at the coronation (again, something that could have become it’s own issue with the Bishop’s anger, but dealt with smoothly to continue the story).

Logue and Bertie’s friendship was dealt with brilliantly: it appeared as if from nowhere, despite knowing it would inevitably happen. Logue doesn’t push or force Bertie into action, he sits and accepts his decisions but instantly springs into action when his call comes. Driving through wartime Britain for Bertie was a brilliant finale to this ever-building relationship, turning the emotional into a physical act to show the lengths he would go through for his friend. His gentle approach isn’t too invasive on the screen, which means the story glides along instead of forcibly feeding us the key information. It also means Logue’s step into unfamiliar territory with regards to Edward is a point of confusion for audience emotions: who do we feel sorry for, the friend spurned for giving advice, or the prince resisting power through fear? Their reunion strengthens the resolve, and heightens Bertie’s bravery and Logue’s nobility: they both needed each other to realise when they were wrong and how to be right.

It’s a stunning film, showing that power isn’t all popular opinion would make it out to be: the King needs support to function and lead with dignity, determination, and above all, belief in the power of your own voice. King George VI deserved to be heard, and it’s a voice everyone should listen to.

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.

http://www.cheaptheatretickets.com/phantom-of-the-opera/

http://www.phantomoftheoperalondon.com

phantomoftheoperalondon.com/reviews

http://www.seatplan.co.uk/london/her-majestys-theatre/