Theatre review: A Monster Calls at The Old Vic

I’ve done a lot of crying over this story.

First on a train as I pulled into a local station, red-eyed, having feverishly rushed through the last few, devastating pages of the book on the way home. Then at the London Film Festival, where I can only assume that the last twenty minutes looked as beautiful as the rest because I was viewing it through some sort of blurry waterfall. So I have history with A Monster Calls.

Still, I had to wonder how the the creative team setting up shop at The Old Vic was going to cope with the mixture of mundane school settings and storytelling flights of fancy. Continue reading →

My 2018 Word of the Year

2017 has been… a good year for comedy. Politically, whatever point on the spectrum of opinion you occupy, you’ve probably felt aggrieved. Being in a country that doesn’t know where it’s going or why it’s going there but by God it’ll go there with conviction isn’t necessarily the most inspiring context to live in, but I recognise it takes a massive level of luck to even be concerned with any sort of personal growth. But, you know, you’re on a blog not a news channel, on a post entirely about self-actualisation, so you kind of asked for some self-centered pontificating. Continue reading →

A Christmassy Outing in London: John Williams at The Barbican and a night at the Malmaison

Since our beloved Pickle was born, my husband Ash (he of the fab design) and I have tried to build in a night away over the Christmas period as a little treat; as Christmas is near our mid-December wedding anniversary, it also functions as a late celebration. This year it also coincided with a particular concert I was glad to nab one of the last few pairs of tickets for – this year’s take on a regular celebration of the music of John Williams at the Barbican Centre. So we did a bit of quick searching and nabbed a LastMinute one night bed-and-breakfast deal for £159 at the Malmaison in Clerkenwell, a stone’s throw from the venue.

The concert was great – everything you want at Christmas, from the cheesy dad humour of star conductor Anthony Inglis* (at various points in the evening a Princess Leia wig, fedora and whip and a Superman t-shirt were all employed) to a joyous rundown of the phenomenally prolific film composer’s most famous works. Highlights for me were a stirring Indiana Jones theme to wake us up after the interval, and some great pieces from Harry Potter; I’d never been such a lover of the theme music but I’d also never realised how phenomenally complex the string section is. According to Inglis, rumour has it that the LSO took twelve sessions to really nail it when the original soundtrack was recorded (the London Concert Orchestra seemed to know what they were doing, at least to my uneducated eye / ear).

Amongst the menace of Jaws, drama of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and soaring sprinting of E.T., gentler moments were provided by Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha and the tear-inducing inclusion of the theme from Schindler’s List. The concert as a whole went seriously heavy on Star Wars, but there were no complaints to be heard. At one point they did the Throne Room piece followed by the entire end credit movement; during the former Ash leaned over and did a very quiet Wookiee growl into my ear, setting off the most enormous, silent fit of the crying giggles. I can only hope that, since were in the centre of the front row, it wasn’t too off-putting to the performers.

And yes, Jurassic Park did make an appearance, though sadly not this version…

 

Speaking of the front row, it was quite brilliant for inspiring the imagination (even if it’s possibly not the best place to experience the full richness of the music as you’re a little too close to individual instruments). Luckily for me, as I love them, we were nearest the cellos, so I could spend quite a lot of time admiring their lovely, deep, chocolatey notes and presence. But mostly I just liked picking a different musician or two to observe during each piece and wonder about them. Was that  viola player, faintly reminiscent of David Warner, actually The Doctor? Why did that woman – a blonde Donna Tartt-alike, glacially beautiful in an androgynous black suit – never once smile? Was that cellist going to realise his bow was disintegrating? There was probably enough to write a short story on each of them, without knowing anything other than their appearance and chosen instrument.

Me, caught by husband looking appropriately 60s in the Barbican while waiting to go in to the concert hall.

The venue itself is also beautiful. The Barbican Centre has always been somewhere I’ve been dubious about on the outside but absolutely bloody love on the inside, even if I can’t navigate it to save my life. The concert hall and theatre are both elegant, imposing and very comfortable, with awesome acoustics. And it’s nice just to have a wander about the building before your event starts.

My sister gave me a gift membership for my birthday this year so that we could have a hope in hell of nabbing Cumberhamlet tickets (we did!). It comes up for renewal in March so I’m scouring the listings to see if I can make best use of it… I certainly used the members’ discount on the tickets, and in the lovely Food Hall beforehand for dinner. Although it’s not a budget option, the three hot meal and multiple sandwich and salad choices in the Food Hall are lovely; Ash had a spicy-sweet Thai Red Curry and I had a stupendously filling salmon fishcake, both with generous sides for a (reduced) price of £16.50. We took advantage of the free jugs of tap water provided to make a small saving too.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

After the final bow, it was time to shuttle back to the Malmaison, which took, oh, five minutes. My overall impression of the place is that it’s trying very hard. The decor is dark and sumptuous, with some lovely 60s-inspired furniture in the main entrance. The padded lift ceiling was only mildly disturbing, but for me the entire decorative approach was summed up by having one of the bafflingly overrated Jack Vettriano’s prints (Game On – probably NSFW) in the dining room. Meh.

Anyway, for the deal we got a teeny but very comfortable room with a super soft and cosy cocoon of a bed and quite a sizeable bathroom with a large shower (Ash was a bit disappointed at no tub, but we hadn’t actually specified in our search that we wanted one). A continental buffet breakfast was included in our booking but usually costs £15 per head. This seemed ambitiously priced for what it was; lots of cereals (including brands like Dorset), multiple types of fruit and yogurt and two types of pastry, plus toast was brought fresh to the table to order. Generous and limitless, yes, but I’d have loved to see some more bread options etc. In fairness, there was more on the menu that you could ask to be brought from the kitchen in order to keep it fresh (eg cured meats and cheese – great not to see these out, curling sadly on platters!). Perhaps I’m nitpicking here as it’s hard to point to a specific fault, but it just seems to be that for £30 a couple you could get some really amazing food in the area elsewhere. We chucked in an extra fiver each to get a cooked option and had some tasty Eggs Benedict. Again, though, for £40 a couple… well, you get the picture.

Service was lovely and friendly, and when Ash managed to leave something at the hotel and called later that afternoon to track it down they were extremely helpful. All in all, given its proximity to the theatre, the comfy bed and the nice service, I would consider staying here again for Hambatch – but I’d also want to explore some other options as I wasn’t really blown away (a similar deal at the Threadneedles last year was somehow much more impressive!).

 

*More than a passing resemblance to Denis O’Hare, so we have referred to him as Russell Edgington ever since.

No disclaimer needed, as none of this was paid or provided for review – just me musing about a nice evening out.

I am Squarehead – Simon Frank and Margit Mulder

I am Squarehead book coverIt’s always awkward writing about something created by people you know. For the full record, Simon Frank is someone I’ve known for a fairly long while as part of former third sector agency Beautiful World; furthermore, my graphic designer husband Ashley was employed by them and still works with Simon on occasion at Bats in Belfries.

None of that, however, is why I’m writing this blog post (and I certainly wasn’t asked to). While I admire I am Squarehead greatly, I wouldn’t have decided to put my thoughts out there if my daughter hadn’t recently fallen in love with it after being given a copy by our friend, and Simon’s business partner, the inimitable Rochelle Dancel.

The thing is, it’s actually really difficult to get Ramona to like anything. Sure, parents can influence, show approval or outright ban stuff. But that doesn’t always come to much; both Ash and I absolutely love Jon Klassen’s beautiful and wickedly brilliant I Want My Hat Back but Ramona has gone from being gut-wrenchingly terrified of it to merely being deeply suspicious of it. Also, I swear she can sense enthusiasm and just says no to wind us up sometimes. Some books she has never taken to, or been scared of – Mog in the Fog, Edwina the Emu – others she has loved instantly – all the other Meg and Mog books, Possum Magic, The Day the Crayons Quit . Still others she has suddenly flipped from hating to loving, dependent on God knows what – like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. So for her to so quickly, passionately love a book with a deliberately scary moment in it – albeit one that is quickly turned on its head – is something we always find worthy of note.

See, Ramona is definitely a kid who does some round thinking in a square world – just like Squarehead, who has to leave town and make some friends who also don’t fit the spaces they’re being forced into before coming back to change things for the better for everyone. She’s always been immensely good at dealing with the things that I know often throw kids for a loop – changing nurseries, starting school, moving into a big girl bed – but she can also find some apparently innocuous things very hard. Sometimes this has included introducing new books, where she is very wary of scary moments. School, where she burned through the reading scheme and is now allowed to choose books written for kids two or three years older than her and reads them mostly independently, has really helped with this as her confidence is constantly climbing and she changes books almost daily. Still, she’s one of nature’s overthinkers (can’t imagine where she gets it from).

The thing is that, as Squarehead points out, once you’ve had a thought, you can’t unthink it. But, as Squarehead discovers, you can sometimes be accosted by something you think is utterly terrifying, only for it to turn out to be something you love very much.

I don’t know whether I am Squarehead appeals to Ramona because she sees herself in it at some level, as I do. I don’t know whether she just likes the idea of a story written by someone Mummy and Daddy know (Simon has since signed it, and now she reads the dedication aloud to me). I don’t know if she’s just charmed by Margit Mulder’s deceptively simple illustrations – my personal favourite is the bathtub with square bubbles. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it just seemed so perfect to me that I wanted to record this moment; too soon she’ll abandon this and move on to the next thing. For now, awkwardness aside, this is a snapshot I wanted to keep.

Alex’s Arty #100forChildsi

My first sketch for the #100forChildsi challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

My first sketch for the challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

The short version of this story, without the biographical waffle, is here. It’s the most important bit, and I’d love it if you would read it and consider donating. 

It’s a funny thing, but I didn’t realise until very recently how much I wanted to be an artist.

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s my favourite part of my job, I go to Urban Writers Retreats, I read lots and I think about writing a lot. But, if I’m really honest, other than professionally – and here on this blog – I don’t do that much of it. I find it hard to write except in specific ways and spaces. It’s not something I find easy to do scribbling down a few ideas by hand; I need a laptop, a lack of diversions, a focus.

Writing will always be my first love. But it’s not really the form of creativity I employ most of the time. What I do – what, I’ve only just recently come to realise, I’ve always done – is draw.

As a child, I doodled incessantly. My rough book and homework diary were covered in sketches and lettering, particularly the recurrent themes of skirts and dresses, shoes and boots and mirror writing. I drew a lot of eyes with dense, spiky eyelashes; bottles were another favourite so I could shade in the curves and give them a little bit of three-dimensional depth. My art teacher – ah, wonderful Mrs Aplin – told me it was a shame I didn’t continue on to GCSE art, and I assumed this was because she was kind and tactful. It occurs to me now she might have meant it, but it’s rather too late to ask. When we could choose a number of subjects for free general study at A Level, I was right back in the art room, making theatre masks (one was unspeakably awful, like some sort of horror movie sex doll) and then hastily changing track to ink and watercolour, where I was merely a bit crap, and sometimes okay. I remember once doing quite an involved pencil copy of the cover of a magazine and realising that – albeit in a lumpen, potato-y kind of way – it was recognisably similar to the source material. (The cover shot in question was of Jan de Bont; that stayed with me because of the infamous scalping story). And this really has been the essence of my life in art: everything’s always looked more or less how it was meant to, kind of – but not exactly.

And so gradually, I began to wish that I was “good at drawing”. That I was some miraculous talent who could seamlessly translate what was in my head onto paper. Who could have a gift for a dash of colour here, a smear of white there, which would just so render the shape, lighting or depth I wanted. I was drawn to deceptively simple, cartoonish sketching – since my favourite artists range from Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon to Mary Blair and Oliver Jeffers, I’ve never been about photorealistic, perfect portraiture, but about colourful, sometimes impressionistic, worlds. I wanted to be able to swish a pencil across a page and instantly create an understanding of the form I was going for in someone else’s mind. But, I wasn’t born with the talent, so…

So, yes, for a relatively smart person, I can be pretty stupid, huh? Of course there are natural talents, but as a very smart lady, Stacey Conway of AXES, once reminded me about her own musical abilities, it takes a shitload of hard work to turn the seedling of talent into the blossom of good art. And I wasn’t really doing that hard work. Or at least, I didn’t think I was, except for maybe that time I doodled – while listening! I always listen – through that meeting, and when I bought acrylics and created Moomin pictures for Ramona, and when for several nights in a row Ash would sit with me and challenge me to draw various animals in minute-long pencil sketches, or every single time I mapped out any project, content calendar or presentation in diagrams and sketches, or all those times I said “I can’t explain this, let me draw it for you”. I’d been practising all along. Just not regularly enough or in a focussed enough way to make it really come together.

Late last year, I decided to carry a notebook and some fineliners around with me all the time. At least once a week or so – alright, maybe once a fortnight – I’d sketch something, and while I was on holiday a week or so ago I spent two days at the V&A, one of them mostly devoted to sketching. I’ve become semi-serious about getting better, thinking of characters to develop, and even planning a stop-motion animation that will involve painting and crocheting some sets. But I’m used to having big ideas and then distracting myself away from completing them.

And then, #100forChildsi happened. I was challenged to get sponsorship to fulfil a life’s wish. And I felt pretty embarrassed, because the kinds of life’s wishes that Child’s i grants – well, God it makes my droning about lack of talent extraordinarily pathetic. These are children who for one reason or another have been abandoned, and found themselves in emergency care. And Child’s i works on the principle that children are better off in homes than institutions, and where possible they’re best off with their families. And so it reunites family members and helps children avoid orphanages. Now that’s what I call fulfilling a life’s wish.

Next to that, my lack of commitment to something I enjoy is pretty ridiculous. So I’ve joined the #100forChildsi team to raise £100 by doing a drawing or sketch or painting every day for 100 days and snapping the results for Instagram (or at least bits of them – I reserve the right to edit down the really rubbish stuff!). And I’m asking family, friends or generous strangers to encourage me by helping the extremely deserving charity, which is pretty tiny and punches well above its weight. Your money will be put to good use. My JustGiving page is here, and you can see what the rest of us have pledged to do on the team page. You can also find out more about it there, and maybe join us. Everyone is welcome, bucket list in hand.

Now, best get moving so that I have enough time to do my next sketch tomorrow…

David Bowie at the V&A, and why my sister nicely ruins everything

My sister, in the nicest possible way, ruins everything. Take snow. I used to get excited about snow! And then she pointed out that it was fairly miserable for people with nowhere to shelter from it.

Then there was that time she ruined Together in Electric Dreams by pointing out that if the object of his affection didn’t smile until it was time to go away, then maybe they didn’t like Phil Oakey that much anyway.

Or the time that she snorted at the idea of conditions being remotely ‘normal’ in Enola Gay. I mean, honestly. Am I really supposed to think about things?!

And then she ruined 30-odd years of thinking perfectly nice but faintly indifferent thoughts about David Bowie (except as Jareth, of course, where he is the Best Thing Ever), by asking me to go along to the V&A retrospective about him.

Because actually, as it turns out, his body of work screams pretty much every life lesson worth knowing. The exhibition – lovingly curated and presented beautifully in an enjoyably immersive experience complete with headphones that play a soundtrack triggered by the nearest display – is not very much about David Bowie himself – except as he can be known through his work – but mostly about the art of and around his work. It includes sketches and lyric notes, a piece from the graphic designer about the creation of the cover for The Next Day, videos of collaborators and influences. It’s a massively rich collection, and it’s only a tiny slice of the massive volume that could have been displayed, I’m sure.

We stopped at one point, in the middle, already overwhelmed with the quality of what we’d seen – and before we’d even reached the man’s mid-20s.

“If you just completely commit yourself to it, and keep producing work so prolifically,” she commented, “you’re simply bound to strike gold more than other people.”

I thought about other vastly active artists – the obvious ones for me at this moment are Gaiman and Palmer – who might not always hit the target but whose monolithic archives mean that they are always producing something, and therefore are more likely to produce something excellent. And, besides, practice makes perfect, right?

I’m not suggesting that innate talent isn’t important. But as my former colleague Stacey, bassist for Axes, once said to me: “It pisses me off when people think this kind of thing just comes to you. Sure, I’m musical, but I worked my arse off to get this good.”

And, crucially, it’s not enough to be good on your own. You have to share it with someone else. Perhaps with everyone else. Because then it takes on a separate life of its own, too (here I think of Mark Billingham, author of the Thorne detective novels, who – rightly, in my opinion – figures “a book isn’t a book until it’s read”).

Basically, the brilliant, when it comes to what they are brilliant at, simply don’t do shy, even when it hurts, and they don’t do lazy, because that doesn’t make sense to them.

They also don’t have to do drama. Have you ever noticed? People like working with them, and hiring them, and talking about how easy they are to collaborate with. When you’re reasonably secure in your ability, and totally passionate about and dedicated to the production of whatever it is you produce, you simply don’t have to be an ass about it.

And so, back to Bowie and my sister. My sister, who ruins things by not ruining them. By, in fact, forcing me to think, and reflect, and love her ever so much for it,  even while I resent the nagging feeling that I should set my bar higher, and rise to meet it.

As we were leaving, she said to me, contemplatively:

“You get the impression that the world is just a better place for having had him in it.”

Now what a legacy that is.