Book Review: The Paradise Ghetto

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Published in Dec/Jan Buzz Magazine, page 50

Fergus O’Connell (Accent Press)

There is an argument that art is nothing more than delusion, and perhaps history repays this notion. At Theresienstadt, the ghetto established for ‘privileged’ Jews during the second world war – where Fergus O’Connell sets The Paradise Ghetto – a rich cultural life flourished; there were lectures series, recitals and even schooling. O’Connell’s narrative tells the tale of the intense relationship which forms between two Dutch inmates in Theresienstadt, Julia and Suzanne, as well as that of the book they write. The novel becomes an escape, and perhaps a saviour, as they become the war will end once the novel is complete. The story within a story construct is not original, and sometimes the novel is rather clunky, yet O’Connell manages to keep your attention engaged in both narratives. More importantly, he leaves you asking an interesting question: is fiction a futile, even damaging, delusion?

Price: £8.99, Info: https://www.accentpress.co.uk/

Image: OuadiO/Flickr (All Creative Commons)

Theatre Review: Spine

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29th November 2016, Buzz Magazine Reviews

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 18th Nov

‘Libraries are the cornerstone my gel! Course they want to shut ‘em, there’s nothing for sale!’ This one line sums up the damning political diatribe at the core of Clara Brennan’s award winning Spine, against the priorities of a government which has lost all sight of the public it supposedly represents. As councils continue to cut funding for libraries, Spine crystallises the indignant, justified anger of many in society against a politics which sees knowledge as only an asset up for sale, and in so doing relegates the many to become ‘life’s losers’.

One of life’s losers is teenager Amy, the ranting, raging and reluctant hero of the piece. After a series of fuck-ups, she seems destined to become one of life’s precariat: her best friend has become a fiend, she’s flunked her A-levels, lost her apprenticeship, started stealing with her boyfriend and now, on top of all that, she’s been kicked out by her ‘people’.

All this leads her to where she speaks to us now, standing in the darkened parlour of Glenda’s house, apparently in front of the silhouettes of generic household clutter. The Glenda she recalls – ‘a shrunken little biddy with shocking died red hair’- is anything but your cosy grandmother type. In fact, she’s turns out to be just as light fingered as Amy.

At this point the studio lights blaze, and reveal all that clutter to be crate upon crate of books. ‘I nicked ‘em’, Amy retells with relish, as it emerges that the books taken by her every time the council shut down yet another library. ’We’re keeping ‘em stored until such a time when they are safe again.

Glenda is looking for a political legacy, and in Amy she finds her opportunity. She’s gets her reading – Latin, a book on pondlife, anything. She wants to harness her rage, to give her a voice, and above all, a spine. ‘You kids wanna be angry than you are; No one to vote for? DIY it, my gel!’

Brennan has frequently been accused of promoting a brand of agitprop theatre, one which parades an affecting brand of politics but offers nothing of any substance. Spine seems to offer a rebuttal to that criticism; instead, agitation is the key to politicisation. Without anger we lose our drive. Without stories, we lack the understanding necessary to empathise with others. No wonder the council would rather burn the books in the night.

It’s a polemic, and a thinly plotted one at that, and it hangs completely on the central performance of Rosie Wyatt as Amy. There is a fine line between monologue and rant, and one which Wyatt steers with a performance that is sensitive to every one of Amy’s jagged edges, her bluster and belligerence, as well as every ounce of humour and vulnerability. It’s a performance which validates all the play’s material, and has you leaving the theatre game for a fight.

Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (free creative commons)

Book Review: Trysting – Emmanuelle Pagano (And Other Stories)

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Printed in Buzz Magazine 27 Nov 2016, page 50.

Emmanuelle Pagano’s award winning Trysting is a strange sort of novel. There’s no plot, no characters, and even the fact it is fiction is easily forgotten. More than anything it resembles scattered confessions which Pagano has simply collected and delicately placed on the page. But in fact, she has actually crafted the voices of her lovers in short, anonymous fragments, and it is they who detail the many varied and often strange forms that love takes.

In Trysting, Pagano insists on brevity. Of the over 100 fragments, some are as long as two pages, while others are epigrammatic. Love is made up of small moments, and detailing these minute instances Pagano manages to illustrate love in a way that no academic treatise could ever do. Whether it’s the lover thinking about the ‘line of hair’ between his partner’s pubic and naval, or another tasked with clearing out the rubbish left behind the house after her husband has gone, each vignette seems to reveals some deep emotional truth, even when what it has said is not quite clear. Trysting may be constrained by its form, but it does repay its subject.

Delicate and sensitive, the work rebounds with incisive observations that are uncannily accurate (‘Life with him is so easy and sweet and joyful. I have a feeling he’s cheating’). Pagano is a compassionate recorder of the everyday expression of love, but above all objective. This is no simply celebration of love: the animalistic nature of love is all there, as is the disappointment that is inevitable when we fall in love, watch it stagnate and then collapse, without a trace of ever existing.

Whether what will survive of us is love, Trysting illuminates what that love could be: exquisite agony.

Price: £8.99. Info: http://www.andotherstories.org

Image: The Girl in the Mirror/Flickr (free creative commons)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Occupied

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

From issues of patriarchy to the moral difficulties of hummus, ‘Occupied’ portrays the world of student protest in its overbearing earnestness. When a production of ‘The Producers’ is threatening the Fringe, a group of protestors occupy the theatre to stop this (probably) offensive production taking place. The stock protesters are all there: the anarchist, the Marxist; and the long skirted one who sings songs about the Scottish referendum (a song about Alex Salmond to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ was a particular audience favourite). The play could be seen as a cynical view of protest, but a sense of the difficulty that faces this group does come through in this engaging, funny and farcical production which is ultimately good-natured.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Every Brilliant Thing

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

The play begins with the death of a dog and revolves around the suicide attempts of the central character’s mother. Cheery stuff. Jonny Donahue takes us through his story, and a list detailing reasons to carry on living, coming up with those brilliant things of the title with the aid of some audience members who help him act out some key moments. The interaction is used to good effect: we empathise more with this already likeable character having travelled with him through his history. Yet, for all it provides an insight into coping with suicide and love, it still feels very much a fiction, and this somehow makes the piece seem somewhat false.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Robert Newman

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Surely only at the Fringe could you find a stand-up show about theories of evolution? I was given flashbacks to university lectures by Rob Newman’s discussion of the concept of survival of the fittest, and his description of how a series of mishaps and missteps led him to propose the ‘misfit theory’, his own new theory of evolution. The show is replete with descriptions of bizarre animal behaviours and intellectual insults to Richard Dawkins, alongside a well planned series of jokes; yet often the balance is not quite right, the stand-up feeling lost in sea of scientific jargon, while musical numbers add little. Ultimately the show is too much like a documentary for its own good.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Dane Baptiste

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

At first Dane Baptiste’s Edinburgh debut seems pretty pedestrian, as the material in ‘Citizen Dane’ is not-unfamiliar fare: using his experience as the son of immigrant parents, he entertains the audience with a stream of jokes about strict parenting, his family and gangsta culture. Yet Baptiste delivers his occasionally provocative material with such understated dryness that it seemed wholly innovative. His jokes kept the audience in almost constant hysterics but his best material came from some fantastically wry observations about the good luck of children from broken homes and how gangstas are scared of wasps. With this show, Baptiste promises to be a performer to watch and watch out for at the Fringe.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Stuck

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

The RH experience are not the pioneers of tomfoolery: they are the masters. In this blatantly silly show, the group follow the well-honed formula for improv to perfection. They get the ball rolling by asking the audience for a word and then proceed to get three characters ‘stuck’ in a situation with no apparent escape. As audience are incapacitated through near lethal levels of laughter the troupe run, spring, jump and sing themselves through a dizzying series of characters and sketches. The show never ceases to win you over with its sheer charm, as its goofy characters and set-ups ensure that this is laugh a minute stuff, to the point of making you feel quite ill. But in a good way!

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Thunderbards

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Fresh from the success of their last Edinburgh show, Thunderbards return to the Fringe in their new offering, ‘Seconds’. In this not-quite-a-sketch-show the duo – Glenn Moore and Matt Stevens – are pursuing “their real interest”: time travel, which they mainly use to (unsuccessfully) pick up dating and career tips from their ancestors. The laughs come constantly in this sublimely silly hour. Moore and Stevens have a penchant for off-the-cuff one liners and physical comedy, and appear to enjoy combining the mundane with the surreal. The highlights of the show are undoubtedly the sketches, in particular the one involving an overzealous librarian. Their charm and self-deprecation make this pair endlessly watchable and ‘Seconds’ a ludicrous joy.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Lloyd Langford

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31st August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh 

For all his miserliness and gripes about the modern world, Lloyd Langford never quite comes across as the old man in a thirty-something year old’s body. He starts his show with a list with things he doesn’t like on the one side and things he does on the other, which rather alarmingly starts with fire; he makes a few cracking observations which demonstrate a deeper grasp on certain topics than one might initially have expected, but at other points he fails to follow through, leaving the audience to wonder what the point of a five minute rant was. For me, Langford covers too much middle of the road material for this show to be particularly memorable, for all that it is enjoyable at the time.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Beans on Toast

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20 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Scott loves Jen, and Jen loves Scott, but Jen has gone. ‘Beans On Toast’ goes through all the significant moments of their relationship, out of sequence, with a song or two thrown in for good measure. These ‘loveable’ characters are sassy, fast-talking and so underdeveloped they remain practically stationary. Apart from when they have their sole argument, their relationship appears completely faultless, apparently formed with some kind of perfect couple cookie cutter. This lack of any real conflict makes for rather plodding viewing, with any meaning almost entirely lost in the action. The production is staged well by the cast, who all play Jen and Scott at various points, but this does nothing to stop it being a one dimensionally pretty, rather than meaningful, production.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Le Flop

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18 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

‘Le Flop’ is like a tin of chocolates: bright, colourful but ultimately disposable. The idea behind the show seems to be that mind-numbing stupidity is funny, but it’s impossible to sum up what ‘Le Flop’ is actually about. “Four clowns muck about for an hour” doesn’t quite seem like enough of a description, but it’s accurate. Clearly ‘Le Flop’ is trying to be ironic, hoping to score laughs by being deliberately awful, but around half the audience left within the first ten minutes, when it became obvious that a man with a whoopee cushion was going to be the highpoint of the show. The whole show was tedious to watch, a real disappointment.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr