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Archive for October, 2013

Emma Bau, a Polish Jew, has only been married a few weeks when the Nazis come into her home town, and life as she knows it is changed dramatically.  While her husband Jacob leaves their home to go and work for the Jewish resistance, she is forced to take on a fake name, pretend that she is not Jewish, and live with Jacob’s Catholic aunt, Krysia.  When a chance arrives for her to help the resistance by working in the office of a high-ranking Nazi official, she takes it, but against all her inclinations, finds herself attracted to her boss – and the feeling is mutual.  While the devastating effects of the Nazi regime are being felt all around her, Emma (now known as Anna) must keep up the charade, and cope with her conflicting feelings.

I usually enjoy books set in the WWII, and this was no exception.  I thought it was an easy read, despite the subject matter, and events were moving quick enough that I was drawn in and always eager to find out what had happened.

The story was definitely more plot driven than character driven, and I was never sure how I actually felt about Emma/Anna on a personal level.  Nonetheless, the book does highlight the considerable risks that people took to fight back against the Nazis, and I am always slightly awed by such stories (because yes, these characters were fictional, but there were people who took such risks).  I felt that the author tried to humanise the Kommandant, for whom Emma has such unwanted feelings of attraction; he was almost – almost – likeable, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that he was a Nazi.  However, as Jacob barely featured in the book, he was also not a character about whom I could feel very much.  Krysia, on the other hand was a wonderful character – probably my favourite out of the whole book.

This aside though, I really like the book a lot, and an hour of reading it seemed to pass by in about 20 minutes!  The atmosphere of suspicion and not knowing who could really be trusted was depicted well, and I certainly felt thankful that I never lived through such times or make such decisions as Emma did.

On the basis of this book, I bought another book by Pam Jenoff (actually a prequel to this one, where more is written about the Kommandant’s first wife), and I look forward to reading it very soon.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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Adapted from ER Braithwaite’s book about his own experiences, this is the story of an intelligent and well-educated young black man, who having fought for Britain in WWII, is faced with racism when he tries to find work after the war.  He ends up as a teacher in a rough London school, where his pupils have no respect for adults and no interest in learning, because they don’t expect to be able to do anything with their lives.  Despite the difficulties he initially faces, he perseveres, and teaches the children that to earn respect from others, they must first respect themselves.

Ansu Kabia was wonderful in the lead role, bringing a dignity to the part that has long been lacking in the schoolroom where he attempts to prepare his students for adulthood.  Matthew Kelly was also great, although maybe slightly underused, as the liberal headmaster, who does not believe in discipline, and I loved Nicola Reynolds as ‘Clinty’ – a no-nonsense teacher with a great sense of humour.  Paul Kemp played a good part as a racist school teacher, who lacks any respect for his pupils, but who is also affected by Rick Braithwaite’s intelligence and dignity.

I loved the scenery – it was very clean and spare, and the cast cleverly incorporated the scene changes into the action.  The story had many funny moments, and a few uncomfortable ones, when the audience sees the racism shown to Rick by others.  The ending left me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.  Overall, a great show, well worth seeing if you get the opportunity.

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William Holden is one of my very favourite actors, and during his lifetime, he was one of Hollywood’s favourites too.  During the 1950s, he was a huge box-office draw, and the many films he made include such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sunset Blvd., Network and Stalag 17 (for which he won an Academy Award).  Handsome, masculine and talented, William Holden nevertheless struggled with chronic alcohol addiction for much of his life.  This book is a respectful biography of the great actor, and I enjoyed reading it very much, although it was hard not to feel sad at the damage that he was doing to his body and by extension, his career and his personal relationships.

The book is an easy read, and is never dull.  However, in some aspects, it was more of an overview of events – for instance, Holden’s childhood and adolescence is covered in a couple of short chapters, although as Holden was a private man, he might have preferred it that way.  Some of his film also didn’t even get a mention, although all of the high points in his career are covered.  I loved reading about his career, and the various films he made, both successful and less so.  He came across as I have always imagined him to be – a very gifted actor, with a strong sense of right and wrong (no, he wasn’t perfect, but why should we expect him to be?).  There is no escaping the effect of his addiction however, and it would probably be impossible to tell his life story without it.

I did feel a sense of sadness while reading, probably because I knew how it would end – with Holden’s death at the age of 63, when he slipped on a rug in his home and hit his head.  His body was not immediately discovered, and this is something that always saddens me when I watch his films or read about him.  I am glad that the book dedicated time to his career and the fine work he did in films, rather than being exploitative.

As far as biographies go, this was a good read, which I would recommend to fans.  As mentioned earlier, it is thin on detail in some parts, but overall, a well-rounded story of a fascinating life.

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This performance of the play which was adapted into the (wonderful) 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, features Martin Shaw in the role of Juror number 8, who must convince his fellow jurors that there is reasonable doubt in the case of a young man accused of murdering his father.  The rest of the cast of this production which I saw at the wonderful Birmingham Rep Theatre, includes Robert Vaughn as juror 9, Jeff Fahey as the bullying juror 3, Nick Moran as juror 7, who only wants to get the case finished with so that he can go to a baseball match, and Edward Franklin as juror 5.

I thought the play was wonderful, and judging by the enthusiastic response and standing ovation from the audience, so did everybody else.  Shaw was excellent as the only juror to initially believe that the defendant may not be guilty, and I also loved Robert Vaughn as the sensible and intelligent fellow juror who is the first to agree.  Jeff Fahey was ideally cast as juror number 3 – an unsympathetic character, who is projecting his own unhappiness at his failed relationship with his son, onto the young man sitting in the dock.

With a small cast of 13 (twelve jurors and a guard), all of whom were on stage the whole time, and with just one setting, the atmosphere was suitably claustrophobic, as tensions run high amongst the men who just can’t seem to reach a verdict with which they all agree.  The staging was very clever, with the table around which the jurors sit – for the most part, when they are not pacing the room or staring out of the window – slowly revolves, so that no character is ever really out of clear view of the audience.

The whole cast were wonderful, it did seem like a natural conversation rather than scripted lines.  It was completely absorbing and the audience seemed captivated throughout – I most certainly was!

Whether you have seen this play before, are a fan of the film, or just like excellent drama performed by a top-notch cast, this play is definitely worth seeing.  It will shortly be playing in London, and I highly recommend it.

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Click here for my review of the 1957 film.

Click here for my review of the 1997 film.

Click here for my review of the 2015 production.

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It’s almost 20 years since I saw Fiddler on the Roof, at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, so I was due another performance, and had the absolute pleasure of seeing it at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, with the iconic Paul Michael Glaser, heading the cast as the Jewish milkman Tevye.  Set in the poor Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, the story – taken from a collection of stories by Sholem Aleichem – revolves around Tevye’s attempts to find good husbands for his eldest three daughters, while also trying to maintain his family’s Jewish traditions in a changing world.

The most famous song from Fiddler is of course If I Were A Rich Man – which Glaser performed wonderfully – but the show is packed with wonderful music, all delivered by an excellent cast, most of whom played the instruments for the songs while in character.  The eponymous fiddler on the roof was the excellent Jennifer Douglas, who is present as an observing character throughout most of the show.

Although there is much humour to be found in Tevye’s determination to marry his daughters off to men of whom he approves, while they themselves have other ideas(!), Fiddler does deal with some serious subjects, especially that of the Jewish people being turned out of their own homes.  This brought a touch of pathos to the show and I was genuinely moved at the end.

Craig Revel-Horwood choreographed the show, and his talent is obvious in such marvellous sequences as the Matchmaker song, performed by the three eldest daughters, and especially Tevye’s dream, which had the audience in fits of laughter.

I’m somewhat reluctant to single out specific members of the cast for praise, as they were all excellent, but Paul Michael Glaser showed that he has lost none of his charisma in his superb performance, and Karen Mann matched him perfectly as his wife Golde.  Emily O’Keefe, Liz Singleton and Claire Petzal were also superb as the three eldest daughters.  However, there was not a weak link at all amongst the cast, and every single one of them deserved the enthusiastic applause which they received.

(For more information about this production, please click here.)

 

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The diminutive (in size, but certainly not in heart) Owen Meany is the subject of this book, narrated by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright.  Owen believes himself to be God’s instrument, and that he has a very specific purpose on earth.  As an older John (in the late 80s) tells the story of his and Owen’s childhoods and adolescence in the 50s and 60s, the story takes several threads and brings them neatly together at the climax.

I wanted to read this, because I have read and enjoyed John Irving in the past.  However, I always find him to be a writer I can appreciate rather than always enjoy, and this book was no different.  The story started slowly and I wasn’t sure whether I would like it or not, as Johnny describes himself and Owen in their younger days, and how Owen accidentally kills Johnny’s mother with a baseball, as well as Johnny’s interest in the identity of his unknown father.  However, as the narrative progresses and the boys become young men with the shadow of the Vietnam War hanging over them, it picked up pace and I started to be drawn in.

As a narrator, Johnny is something of an enigma – I never felt that he was really fully fleshed out, but that actually worked, as it made Owen the true focus of the story, as he should be.  Owen was an extremely interesting character – highly intelligent, shades of arrogance, and not always likeable.  He rubbed people up the wrong way, some people were even frightened of him (not least Owen’s own parents), but it was clear that he always felt he had a mission to complete that was more important than himself.  A few times I wondered about the significance of certain plot points – exactly why was Owen so determined to master a tricky basketball shot? – but this made the ending so much more satisfactory as events are brought into sharp relief, and everything clicks.

Some parts are genuinely moving, and other parts are extremely funny – the nativity scene with the four feet tall Owen playing a swaddled baby Jesus, had me laughing all the way through.

Overall, I am very glad I read this book.  It was not always easy going, but I felt that it paid dividends to readers who kept with it, and I imagine it will be a story that I will remember for a long time – particularly the wonderful ending.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This film, based on a Noel Coward play, stars Julie Andrews, as Lady Felicity Marshwood, who is upset to learn that her son, Lord Nigel (Edward Atterton) is engaged to be married to Hollywood film star Miranda Frayle (Jeanne Tripplehorn).  However, the situation soon becomes even more complicated when Nigel plans to bring Miranda to meet his aristocratic family, only for the family’s maid Moxie (Sophie Thompson), to announce that Miranda is in fact her sister!  Throw in Miranda’s co-star and former lover Don Lucas (William Baldwin) who is coming to England to try and stop the marriage, and Colin Firth and Stephen Fry as respectively Nigel’s cousin Peter, and the family butler Crestwell, and the stage is set for a fine comedy!

I loved this film – it did remind me somewhat of another Noel Coward adaptation – Easy Virtue, which like Relative Values, also starred Colin Firth, and which also featured the son of an upper-crust English family bringing his vivacious American girlfriend to meet his relatives, but the films play out quite differently (I loved easy Virtue too).

All the cast were excellent – in particular, Thompson, Andrews and Firth.  Stephen Fry was playing a role which could have been written for him, and although he is one of the supporting rather than main cast members, he certainly makes the most of his screen time.  Baldwin is also very funny as the often drunk Lucas, who throws a spanner in the works of Miranda’s plan to transform herself from a starlet to a Lady of the Manor.  And Moxie, who is transformed from a maid, into a wealthy family friend (so that Miranda won’t recognise her) is the centre of one of the funniest scenes, when Moxie gets drunk to try and overcome her fear at meeting her sister who she hasn’t seen for some 20 years.  Colin Firth is just adorable as Peter – it could have been a nothing role in the wrong actor’s hands, but Firth is perfect.

The plot itself is rather daft – why didn’t they just tell Miranda that her sister was working for the family, rather than try and cover up the fact (and surely Miranda would have recognised her own sister!), but I think that it’s just something that you need to go with, accept, and enjoy.  Overall, this was a very funny and hugely delightful film.  At just under one and a half hours, it never gets boring, the cast is top-notch, and I would certainly recommend it.

Year of release: 2000

Director: Eric Styles

Producers: Steve Christian, Alex Harakis, Chris Harris, Fabio Chino Quaradeghini, Francesca Barra, Maud Nadler, Alex Swan, Christopher Milburn, Paul Rattigan, Michael Walker

Writers: Noel Coward (play), Paul Rattigan, Michael Walker

Main cast: Julie Andrews, Sophie Thompson, Colin Firth, William Baldwin, Edward Atterton, Stephen Fry, Jeanne Tripplehorn

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