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Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

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Not having ever read the play by Alan Bennett, or seen the film adaptation of The History Boys, I went into the production knowing very little about it. Set in the 1980s, the story revolves around six bright, high-spirited students and their very different teachers – Hector (Ian Redford) and Irwin (Lee Comley). The teaching staff is rounded out by Jeffrey Holland as the results-obsessed headmaster Felix, and Victoria Carling as Mrs Lintott (in fact, the only female in the whole play).

Hector is a man confused about his own sexuality, which causes issues for him and others, and who wants to, if not incite the boys to rebellion, at least make them think for themselves about what they want to do with their lives, rather than merely follow the path to Oxbridge which Felix is determined they must do. Young supply teacher Irwin is brought in to temper Hector’s anarchic style of teaching. Mr Lintott is the foil to all three of the male teachers, seeing things more clearly and stating things more succinctly. The boys not only have to cope with the pressure of dealing with their futures, but also with everything that comes with being a teenager – they can be loud, raucous, in some cases, discovering their own sexuality, and for at least one, turning to religion to the bemusement of his unseen parents (they were prepared for dealing with drugs, but not for God!)

The beauty of this production was in the script, which was fast paced, humorous and poignant, but also in the casting; whoever was in charge of picking the cast did an outstanding job, as there was not one single weak link in the whole cast.

The boys were played by Thomas Grant as Posner – in love with a fellow student, coming to terms with his homosexuality, but with a sweet sense of humour and a lovely singing voice which he was able to demonstrate on a number of occasions; Jordan Scowen as Dakin, cocksure for the most part but displaying vulnerability too, witty and clever; Frazer Hadfield as Scripps (I adored him), probably the most level headed of the group, sometime narrator to the audience, and an excellent piano player; Joe Wiltshire Smith as the non-academic Rudge with a dry sense of humour; James Schofield as Lockwood; Arun Bassi as Akthar; Dominic Treacy in a very humorous turn as Timms; and Adonis Jenieco as Crowther.

The musical interludes – featuring well known songs from the eighties with video clips of the cast, showing what is going on with the characters outside of what is going on on stage – were ingenious and allowed seamless set changes on stage.

Overall, a truly wonderful production – highly highly recommended.

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Set across two different timelines, this is the story of Henry Lee and the girl he loved and lost…

In 1986, Henry is walking past the Panama Hotel in Seattle when he learns that a large amount of items which had been stashed there by Japanese American families, who were on their way to internment camps during WWII, have been discovered in the basement of the building. As Henry sees a distinctive parasol, he is reminded of Keiko, the Japanese girl who was his first love.

My thoughts

I really expected and wanted to like this book, so I am a bit disappointed to say that I found it…underwhelming. I can’t say that I actively disliked it, but it never really grabbed me. The historical parts – about Japanese residents in the USA being moved to internment camps (supposedly for their own safety, but everyone knows that it was because Japan fought against America in WWII – although most of those put in the camps were as American as anyone else) were fascinating to read about, but I didn’t feel like the characters themselves were ever well enough described for me to invest in them or to care too much about them – there was little characterisation and I never really got to ‘know’ them.

The writing itself felt almost like the wind of writing aimed at a child – simple and never very in-depth. were it not for the subject matter, this almost would feel like it was aimed at children, especially compared to other fiction books written about WWII.

So overall, the story itself gets a thumbs up for me, but the execution of said story….not so much a thumbs down as a thumbs sideways. Ho hum.

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Black Swan Green is a fictional village in Worcestershire where in 1982, 13 year old Jason Taylor lives with his parents and sister. This book, narrated by Jason, tells the story of a year in his life. It’s a tumultuous year – Jason is clearly intelligent and sensitive,  but he’s also a young boy with a stammer, picked on at school and unable to pick up the subtle hints of disharmony in his parents’ marriage.

But Black Swan Green is also a very funny book, in parts anyway. Jason is an engaging narrator and entirely believable. The events he describes are things that we will all be familiar with and take on huge significance in a young mind. It’s less of a flowing story, more joined up snapshots of a year in the life. Each chapter concentrates on a different main event, but they all string together nicely.

I felt for Jason, partly because he was so believable. I wanted him to be able to go to school without fear of what the bullies would do next (and boy did I want those bullies to get their comeuppance). I wanted him to get the girl, to overcome his stutter (or more importantly overcome the misery it caused him). The other characters are beautifully drawn as well – I enjoyed the chapter about his visiting cousin Hugo – handsome, charming and loved by all, but who’s true colours are revealed, to Jason at least.

As someone who was also a teenager in the 1980s, this book resonated with me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for it’s humour, truth and beautiful writing.

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As a teenager, Theo Decker survives a terrorist attack in a museum, which kills his beloved mother. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Theo makes a split second decision and steals a painting which his mother always loved – The Goldfinch. This incident, and indeed the painting itself, sets the course for his life – a life which as a reader, we join him on as he makes friends and enemies, makes bad decisions which reverberate for years, falls in love and in lust, and eventually gets mixed up in the criminal underworld.

Well, this is a brick of a book – coming in at over 850 pages of smallish font – if I’m honest, the size of it put me off reading it for a while, but once I picked it up I was glad I had done so. After reading it, I did what I usually do when finishing a book and went online to read reviews of it. What struck me the most was that it seems to be a very polarising read – people generally loved it or hated it. It certainly seems to be the least well received of all of Donna Tartt’s offerings, and this is good news for me, because if this is the worst she has to offer, then I definitely look forward to reading the best! I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the first two thirds, which cover Theo’s teenage years. It’s fair to say that not all of the characters are particularly likeable (except for Hobie, Theo’s guardian of sorts, who is just adorable), but they are all beautifully drawn and utterly believable.

The writing is elegant and often beautiful – Tartt uses a lot of words to describe the most mundane and ordinary events, and while this can be annoying with some authors (just get to the point!!) here it works really well, because it is just such a pleasure to read lovely prose. The story is told in the first person from Theo’s point of view, which is good because if we had seen Theo from the outside in, I think he would have been much harder to like or understand.

If I’m honest, I did think that the last part of the book paled in comparison to what had gone before, but it still held my attention and at the end, I came away satisfied.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book – don’t be put off by the size…while the story doesn’t always move particularly quickly, the writing does draw you in. I look forward to reading more by Donna Tartt.

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Skunk Cunningham (Eloise Laurence in her debut role) is a young diabetic girl living with her older brother Jed and her single father Archie, in an anonymous city in London. Also living in the house is Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) a babysitter/housekeeper, who has an on again-off again relationship with boyfriend Mike (Cillian Murphy). Their neighbours are the Buckleys (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) and their emotionally handicapped son Rick (Robert Emms) and the Oswalds (widowed father Bob, and his three wayward daughters, Saskia, Susan and Sunrise).

When Skunk witnesses a mindless act of violence, her life starts to change. As the film progresses, the reason for the attack she sees is revealed and events in the little cup-de-sac soon spiral out of control.

Anyone who has seen this film or read the book it is based on, and who has also read/watched To Kill a Mockingbird, will see the comparisons between the two. After watching the film, I found an online interview with Daniel Clay who wrote the book ‘Broken’, where he said that he took the characters of TKAM as a starting point for his novel.

Despite the bleak subject matter (and it only gets more bleak as the story progresses), I really enjoyed this film. Tim Roth is, as ever, excellent and is by far the most likeable adult character in the show – a hard-working solicitor, who is trying his hardest to bring up his children well, while also attempting to resolve the tensions in his road.

However, the whole cast is superb and nobody puts a foot wrong. Rory Kinnear is brilliant as the brutal, impulsive and reckless father of the Oswald girls (who are all, frankly, despicable). Cillian Murphy is an actor who has slipped under my radar until now,  but I enjoyed his performance a lot.

Plaudits have to be given to young Eloise Laurence however, as Skunk, upon whose shoulders the story largely hangs. I loved the easy father-daughter relationship between her and Archie, and her acting was incredibly natural and believable – hard to believe it was her screen debut.

If I had any criticism, it would be that there was perhaps just a little too much going on towards the end – that said, I was completely absorbed in what was unfolding, and did not get bored or restless at any point.

I’m not going to give away the ending, but I will say that while some reviewers didn’t like it, I definitely did. I thought it was beautifully and sensitively done, and there was a definite lump in my throat (actually, I just out and out cried!)

Overall, an excellent acting debut, solid acting from the whole cast, and genuine tension make this a must-see.

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Year of release: 2012

Director: Rufus Norris

Producers: Peter Hampden, Norman Merry, Joe Oppenheimer, Peter Raven, Wendy Bevan-Mogg, Tally Garner, Bill Kenwright, Dixie Linder, Nick Marston

Writers: Daniel Clay (novel), Mark O’Rowe

Main cast: Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth, Rick Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Martha Bryant, Faye Daveney, Clare Burt, Denis Lawson, Bill Milner, Rosalie Kosky, Zana Marjanovic, Cillian Murphy, George Sargeant

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The story is well known – in 1963, young Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, goes on holiday to the Kellerman resorts in the Catskills, with her parents and sister.  There, she falls for dance instructor Johnny Castle, a man who seems totally mis-matched for her in every way.  It’s a classic film, with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze taking the lead roles. (Swayze subsequently became a heartthrob for a whole generation of women.)

In my completely unknowledgeable mind, I imagine that this must be quite a challenge to transfer to stage – but my goodness, they certainly managed it.  This show stays extremely faithful to the film (I imagine there would be hell to pay from the audience if it didn’t), and includes all the classic lines and songs.

Roseanna Frascona was adorable as Baby (and looked for all the world like the twin of Jennifer Grey as she appeared in the film), and Gareth Bailey was a wonderful Johnny Castle – the mainly female audience certainly seemed to appreciate him!  His dancing was mesmerising; I could have watched him dance for hours.  Claire Rogers was terrific as Penny, Johnny’s dance partner – with legs that seemingly go on and on!  The rest of the main cast, and the ensemble dancers were also terrific.

This show is sexy, energetic, funny and sweet – and I even had a tear in my eye at the finale.  At the performance I attended, the whole audience gave an extended standing ovation, and it was well deserved.  I’m already looking to see if I can get tickets for further performances while this show is on tour.  Very highly recommended.

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

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Click here for my review of this production from May 2015.

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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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