Archive for June, 2014

At the request of the family of Martin Luther King, Jr., King Scholar Claybourne Carson used Stanford University’s vast collection of King’s essays, his speeches and interviews with King, to construct this book, which tells the story of King’s life, with particular attention on his work for Civil Rights and equal opportunities for black Americans.  Each chapter focuses on a specific time, campaign or incident, and describes not only the events taking place, but King’s own determination to keep going, the difficulties that he faced – both emotionally and physically – and the reasoning behind his actions, including his absolute determination that the campaign should be non-violent.

I found the book thoroughly absorbing.  King was clearly an eloquent man with a passionate belief in justice for all, and this comes through on every page.  I knew about the man and his life prior to picking up this book, but reading his thoughts in his own words was still very enlightening.  I was full of admiration for a man who knew that his work put him in physical danger and indeed saw friends and colleagues die for the cause, who felt sometimes that he was fighting a losing (non-violent) battle, who encountered differences of opinion even within his own campaign, but yet refused to give up striving for what was right and fair.

Clayborne Carson has done a wonderful job of using King’s writings to build a clear chronological narrative, and it was often heartbreaking, but never less than inspiring to read.  I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

(For more information about Martin Luther King, Jr., his life and work, and his legacy, please click here.)

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The Mikado is the third of three Gilbert and Sullivan operas performed at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, as part of the G&S Festival 2014 (the previous two being The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe).

Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel, arrives in the town of Titipu, Japan, to find the love of his life, Yum-Yum, the ward of Ko-Ko.  Yum-Yum had been engaged to Ko-Ko, but he has been sentenced to death for flirting(!).  However, Nanki-Poo is dismayed to find that not only has Ko-Ko been pardoned, but that he has also been appointed to the post of Lord High Executioner, and the wedding to (a reluctant) Yum-Yum is back on!  Lots of comic twists ensue, providing lots of laughs and glorious music, all leading up to a joyous finale.

Nick Allen, who earlier in the week took on the role of Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, was Nanki-Poo, and he played the role just right, swinging from utter joy at finding the love of his life, to utter despair when he realises that they can’t be together.  Bruce Graham was perfect as Poo-Bah, an inept politician who holds a number of conflicting positions.   John Savournin played Pish-Tush, a noble Lord with great humour, and Simon Butteriss was absolutely brilliant as Ko-Ko, raising both laughs and sympathy from the audience.  Ko-Ko is a cruel and selfish character, but he’s so completely inept at his job that he is hilarious to watch.  Super performances too from Claire Lees as the vain but loveable Yum-Yum, and Sylvia Clarke as Katisha, an elderly lady who believes that she is betrothed to Nanki-Poo.

The songs were all beautifully performed and staged.  I loved Ko-Ko’s song about a list of potential candidates for execution.  This song is often updated for modern performances of The Mikado, and in this production, Ko-Ko sang about a certain Uruguayan footballer with a penchant for biting opposing team-mates and those who voted for UKIP in the recent European elections.

The scenery and costumes were spectacular, and the musical ensemble numbers were fantastic – so imaginatively and cleverly staged.  If you want an evening of comedy and music performed to the highest standards, try and catch the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival on tour.  This is a show not to be missed.

(For more information about this production, or the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival 2014, please click here.)

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Part of the 2014 Gilbert and Sullivan Festival on tour, The Pirates of Penzance is the first of three productions by the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company being performed at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.

The story concerns a young man named Frederic, who having reached the age of 21, is released from his apprenticeship as a pirate.  No sooner is he free, than he meets and falls instantly in love with Mabel, the daughter of a Major General, but circumstances conspire to keep Frederic under the employ of the hapless band of pirates, and also to keep him and Mabel apart.

G&S operas are not meant to be taken too seriously, and the great comedy and uplifting music meant that I was smiling and laughing throughout.  Nick Allen was lovely as Frederic, the lovelorn young man who is torn between Mabel and his duty to the pirates.  John Savournin, who also directed, was wonderful as the dashing pirate king, and Richard Gauntlett was simply hilarious as the Major General – his song, I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General was a particular highlight.

Excellent performances too from Bruce Graham as the ineffective Chief of Police, Elinor Moran as Mabel, and Sylvia Clarke as Ruth – Frederic’s former nursemaid and wannabee girlfriend.

The whole cast sang beautifully, whether in solo or group numbers, and the production hit just the right note (no pun intended) – it was funny and satirical, but never just plain stupid.  Fantastic colourful costumes and scenery added to the enjoyable experience.

This was the first G&S play I had ever seen, and I don’t think I could have had a better introduction to their comic operas.  The Festival is touring, and I recommend anyone to catch them while you can.

(For more information about this production, or the 2014 Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, please click here.)

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ID Plays Ltd. present this performance of Donald F. East’s play.  Set in the 1970s, Clive and Moira Richards are an unhappily married couple; Moira is having an affair with Clive’s younger business partner Philip, and Clive is fed up of Moira’s deception, and her constant snippiness and dissatisfaction.  Philip wants to sell his and Clive’s business, and is prepared to go to almost any lengths to do so, while Clive is equally determined to stop the sale happening.  When a woman claiming to be Clive’s first wife Jane arrives on the scene, the stage is set for murderous plots, swapped allegiances, and neither the characters nor the audience are quite sure who is deceiving who.

The play had a cast of just four – Paul Lavers and Carly Nickson as Clive and Moira, Peter Amory as Philip and Bridget Lambert as Jane.  With all of the action being set in the Richards’ living room, this made for a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere.  All of the cast were excellent, with Lavers and Nickson really showing the cracks that have appeared in their marriage, while Amory is immediately unlikeable as Philip (although it’s not hard to see how he could have charmed Moira).  Lambert was terrific in what was the least developed role.

This play is not particularly gory or scary – some unpleasant things do take place off-stage, but on-stage is reserved mainly for the characters plotting.  None of the characters are actually very likeable, and all of them have no apparent concern for any of the others.  This actually worked well, because it meant that you never knew what any character might do next.  There were many twists and turns, and double-crosses, so that the audience were kept guessing throughout.

Overall, this was a lot of fun for any fans of murder mysteries.  I bought my ticket on a whim, and was very pleased that I had done so.  I will definitely be looking out for further productions by ID Plays Ltd.

(For more information about this production, or ID Plays Ltd., please click here.)

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Caitlin Moran describes how she grew from an unconfident, awkward teenager into a happy and successful woman, using her own experiences as starting points for expounding her views about a variety of subjects – all to do with being a woman (obviously), what it’s like to be a woman, and how the world treats women.  She describes herself early on as a “strident feminist” and reminds the reader of this throughout the book.

I had high hopes for this book, having heard so many good things about it, but within about three chapters, I was ready to throw it up against the nearest wall.  However, by the time I reached the end of it – once I start a book, I have to finish it, no matter how much it’s annoying or boring me – I realised that I did enjoy certain parts.  The book is a collection of Moran’s own personal opinions, some of which I agreed with and some of which I didn’t.  That didn’t bother me; after all, it’s good to hear different opinions to your own.  What did bother me though was the way that Moran seems utterly dismissive or scornful of anyone who doesn’t hold the same views.  It seems at times as though her opinions are outright facts, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re wrong.

I didn’t like the way she was apt to say things such as there were no funny women at all between Dorothy Parker and French & Saunders, or that women have “done f— all” for the last hundred years.  Really?  REALLY?? And there are contradictions too – in one chapter, Moran explains why she hates strip clubs, why they’re the scourge of the earth, and bad for women in general.  But a few chapters down the line, she is happily off to a sex club with Lady Gaga, where Gaga ends up wearing just a bra, knickers and fishnets.  Moran also dislikes music videos where women prance about wearing next to nothing.  I agreed with all her points, until she explained why when Gaga does it, it’s okay, because it’s not provocative or sexual, rather it’s part of some feminist agenda.

I’m not overseen on the overly jokey, make-a-witty-comment-about-everything type of narration, but when Moran becomes more serious, I enjoyed reading what she had to say.  The chapter on overeating made some serious points, and was clearly told from personal experience.  There is a chapter on abortion where the author describes her own decision to have one, and gives her reasons behind not just her personal choices, but her beliefs about the subject in general.  I agreed with her points, but whether you agree with her or not, she was eloquent and sincere.

The penultimate chapter was also very enjoyable, and made some pointed comments about why women feel the need to go under the knife or the needle to look eternally youthful.  If Moran had maintained this more balanced and reasonable tone throughout the rest of the book, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  I liked her sentiment that people should be proud of being feminists, and that equality is good for everyone, but I think maybe style is just not for me.

Generally I’d have to say that this was a very mixed bag for me.  Some parts I liked a lot, some unfortunately really annoyed me.

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Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a Jane Austen obsessed, unlucky in love American, who decides to travel to Austenland – a British Austen-themed resort, where clients can totally immerse themselves in the Regency period, and find romance.  However, when she gets there, nothing is quite what she expects.

Based on Shannon Hale’s book of the same name, and with a similar theme to the 2008 mini-series Lost In Austen, this film is a lot of fun, and you don’t need to be a Jane Austen fan to enjoy it.  It’s definitely played for laughs, and it’s fair to say that some of the characters are completely over-the-top (Jennifer Coolidge as a fellow holidaymaker is ridiculously funny).  I can see how it would polarise audiences – reviews were very mixed, with many Austen fans hating it – but I thought it was a perfect way to spend an hour and a half, if you are able to switch your brain off and just enjoy the ride.

Russell was sweet and very likeable as the heroine of the story, and the aforementioned Coolidge provided much of the humour.  Jane Seymour was suitably acidic as Mrs Wattlesbrook, the manager of the resort, who treats Jane like a second class citizen, because Jane has not paid for the most expensive package available.  James Callis and Ricky Whittle, as two of the actors employed to play Regency gentlemen to the female guests were also enjoyable.

Jane finds herself torn between two men while staying at the resort – Martin the groom, played by Bret McKenzie, and Henry Nobley, with definite shades of Mr Darcy (he is offhand and cool at first, but soon finds himself becoming fascinated by Jane), played by JJ Feild.  They were both ideal for their parts, with neither Jane nor the viewers sure whether they are being themselves, or playing a role which they were hired for.

The ending is perhaps a little bit predictable,  but the same goes for most rom-coms, and in any event, it was nicely done.  If you like romantic comedies, and don’t want to take the plot seriously, this is a very enjoyable film.

Year of release: 2013

Director: Jerusha Hess

Producers: Robert Fernandez, Dan Levinson, Meghan Hibbett, Stephanie Meyer, Gina Mingacci, Jared Hess, Jane Hooks

Writers: Shannon Hale (novel), Jerusha Hess

Main cast: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Ricky Whittle, Georgia King, Jane Seymour

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After a traumatic childhood experience, best friends Jennifer and Sarah create the Never List – a list of things which they must never do, in order to stay safe.  Despite all their good intentions however, they are abducted, and thrown into a three year long nightmare.  The book opens thirteen years later, with Sarah still suffering from the effects of the ordeal.  She never leaves her apartment, never has physical contact with people, works from home, and has no friends.  However, the man who abducted her and Jennifer is being considered for parole, and Sarah needs to make sure that he doesn’t get it, so she decides that the only way to secure her future is to revisit her past.

When I started this book, I thought I was going to really enjoy it.  The first few chapters throw you headlong into the story at break-neck speed, and it seemed to pave the way for an intense psychological thriller.  In fairness, it does keep up the quick pace all the way through, with plenty of twists and turns, and in many ways, was a quick and easy read.

Unfortunately though, I ended up feeling a bit frustrated by both the story, and the main character.  At the beginning of the story, Sarah is suffering from severe paranoia and phobias, but she seems to overcome them so quickly, that it is just not believable.  To assume that a woman who is too scared to even leave her apartment (even when she orders food in, the doorman to the apartments has to bring it to her, rather than the usual delivery person) is suddenly feel able to drive miles, and jump on planes, all in a matter of a few days, just felt inconsistent.  In fact, most of the main characters seemed to act in an entirely inconsistent manner.

I had my suspicions about what was going to happen at the end, but there were a couple of twists I didn’t anticipate – and it’s always nice to be surprised when reading a thriller – but I did feel that the final denouement was a bit tangled up, involving a few characters that didn’t really serve much purpose in the story.

The book did have some good points and there were some genuinely tense moments (and it’s certainly had some rave reviews) but I think it was probably just not the book for me, with some of the themes, such as torture and rape, feeling particularly disturbing.


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