The Halloween Tortoise – a tale told darkly!

Johnny was travelling abroad for a month, he had left his beloved tortoise Tonka in the care of his thrifty neighbour Hoagie. Hoagie would do nothing for anybody, he kept old ha’penny bits to put in collection boxes and no piece of clothing was too tattered and torn to be worn again. But Hoagie loved money and Johnny paid him well to keep Tonka in the style to which he was accustomed.

Hoagie had been given a list of food to give to Tonka, but the food was eating away at the cash that Johnny had given to him. He began to scrimp and scrape. The light was left on for seven hours instead of eight, and then six, five and four. Soon it was hardly on at all. He did not go out collecting weeds as instructed or feed succulent salads, he gave him scraps from his old plate. This mangy old tortoise is getting a taste for meat, thought Johnny, he doesn’t want crappy old lettuce.

Tonka was neglected, and grew sad. His beautiful head plopped down onto his cold soil. Hoagie was shocked – if the tortoise died he would not get the extra payment Johnny had promised on his return in two days time!

He went to a reptile shop and said: “I need my tortoise to grow big, strong and happy straight away!” The shopkeeper winked: “We have a special Halloween offer – tort pills, give him two a day – no more – and recite the magic spell! Remember now – no more than two a day!”

Hoagie rushed home, Tonka lay listless. Two a day, he thought, oh no – I need him better by tomorrow! He fed him the whole bottle, desperately wolfed down. In a somber voice Hoagie read the spell given him: “Trot Aknot, Trot Aknot, Worg Gib, Worg Gib!” There was a flash of light, green smoke bellowed, the very walls trembled. Then nothing. ‘Twas Halloween night, children were knocking for sweets and treats. Hoagie was so mean that he switched all lights off and retired to bed. If only that puny reptile could get better, he thought, then I could really fleece Johnny!

Morning broke, he went downstairs – what a sight! Tonka was huge! Ten foot side to side, ceiling scraping! Hoagie screamed but it was too late. You fed me not, cared for me not, you bad man, Tonka thought, now you will feed me! He opened wide his gigantic mouth, his pretty pink tongue wrapped around Hoagie and pulled him inside. Nom, nom, nom – misers sure taste fine, but his ragged old shoes were spat out.

huge_tortoise-wide

The next day Johnny returned. “I love you Tonka, daddy’s home!”, he cried out. Love! Oh love that endures all, that conquers all. Love cures every ill and love destroys evil spells. The word made all good again. Whoomph! Tonka was back to his usual small self. Johnny cuddled him, and gave him special treats. “Where is that miserable Hoagie, his shoes are here but he is not? Ah well – I had brought him a present but now we will share it ourselves.”

Tonka and Johnny were happy together, friends forever. Hoagie had enjoyed his last miserable Halloween darkly alone.

The Winter’s Tale at The Crucible, Sheffield

The dark nights are drawing in and it is thus more than apt that The Winter’s Tale has just opened at Sheffield’s theatre in the round The Crucible.

winterstale

William Shakespeare’s play has, of course, nothing to do with winter. A winter’s tale, as referred to in the title, is simply a dark tale – possibly a scary tale which was told to pass the long wintry evenings. And whilst The Winter’s Tale does have its dark side these are more than made up for by an abundance of fun and joy.

I adore Shakespeare but The Winter’s Tale has always been one of my very favourites from the bardic canon. I liked it so much that I wrote and performed a one man play, Julio Romano, atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square that was about some of the minor characters in the play. Surely you remember that? I’ll never forget it – my papier mache masks blowing every where and the drunken crowd shouting that they couldn’t hear me. Yet despite all that I do still love The Winter’s Tale and Paul Miller’s production at the Crucible shows just how brilliant this play can be when done well.

In reality it is a play in two halves. The first half very dark, brooding and angry. It is a tragedy of jealousy to rival that of Othello. Leontes, King of Sicilia, is driven crazy by false jealousy and destroys all around him leading, so we are led to believe, to the death of his son, his wife and his baby daughter.

But, as is often the case with Shakespeare, things aren’t always as they seem. The second half is a much lighter affair – a roister doistering romp of a comedy in which we find that the daughter has survived after all. Can Leontes be cured of his madness, can King and heir be reunited? This is Shakespeare – what do you think? The second half, the comedy half, also contains lots of song and dance and brilliant set pieces around a topiary sheeps head. It is as beautiful to the eye as the words are to the soul.

The ending itself is incredibly moving – I can never watch it without a manly tear in my eye. It needs to be done subtly, with sympathy or else it could seem pathetic but the Crucible cast strike exactly the right note. I won’t reveal the ending but it is well worth seeing.

The cast are wonderful – especially Daniel Lapaine as a raging Leontes and Kirsty Oswald as a frightfully alluring Perdita. Special praise must go to the multi role performance of Patrick Walshe McBride – the young man has real comic timing and presence, he should go far in such roles.

The Winter’s Tale is sometimes called a ‘problem play’ as it is hard to classify – being part tragedy, part romance and part comedy. But the only problem is if you can’t get a ticket for this spectacular production. It is heart warming, life affirming stuff. If you haven’t loved Shakespeare before then this will change your mind.

It’s been a good season for my theatre jaunts for The Winter’s Tale gets a well deserved five tortoise shell rating! It runs at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 2nd November. Catch it while you can – and don’t forget to watch out for the bear!

Educating Rita at the Lowry, Salford

Educating Rita is the current production by the Manchester Library Theatre at their temporary home in Salford’s wonderful Lowry complex. If you’ve never been to the Lowry then you are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful gentrified location by the historic Salford quayside and next to the sprawling television studios belonging to ITV and the BBC. It’s only spoiled by its proximity to Old Trafford, the theatre of comedy, but that’s another story.

Educating-Rita-pro_3_6827421-6113229

Educating Rita is a play by Willy Russell and is rightly famous from the 1983 film version starring our national treasures Michael Caine and Julie Walters. Those are big shoes to step into but Philip Bretherton and Gillian Kearney do it with aplomb.

The stage version differs from the film in one crucial point – there are only ever two actors on the stage. Bretherton and Kearney have to bring a whole wealth of background characters to life and it is testament to their stage skills, and to the brilliance of Russell’s script, that they carry this off flawlessly.

Bretherton plays Frank, an ageing University lecturer who has signed up, against his better judgement, to teach Open University students. He is a troubled man, with a failed marriage and a penchant for lining up bottles of whiskey behind his dust covered bookshelf. He is a cynic weighed down by his own self loathing and sense of failure as a poet. He teaches English literature yet states that he hates the theatre and never goes.

Kearney plays a character called ‘Rita’ – but is she really Rita at all? I won’t say any more on this matter – see for yourself if you don’t already know the plot. Rita is a hairdresser who dreams of becoming socially mobile. She knows nothing and cares about nothing when we first see her but what she does have is a drive and desire to learn and as the play progresses we see her blossoming intellectually and socially under the guidance of Frank.

It might seem as if Frank would be an unsympathetic character, a morbid and jealous drunk – but not a bit of it. He gains our sympathy with every lurch, every slurred bon mot. Whilst he is undoubtedly pathetic we can’t help but feel sorry for him. He sees Rita change, yet he cannot change. He is emotionally moribund, incapable of expressing his feelings – struggling manfully, yet failing pitifully, to tell Rita that he loves her.

And this, I feel, is the pathos that is central to this brilliant play. At the beginning Frank is the man of importance and Rita is under his spell and insignificant but by the end the roles have completely reversed. Rita has become a success, a social butterfly, a learned woman – but at what cost? Is her life at the end, under the courtship of yet another man who she doesn’t care for, any better than the life with which she started? It seems that Rita will never fit in, she is destined to be a traveller throughout life rather than a settler.

Willy Russell is a brilliant wordsmith, and at its joyous heart is a paeon to the importance of education yet he also seems to say that more important than learning, than certificates is emotion and love itself. And these can so easily be lost in the struggle for the materialistic possessions that modern society deems to be of more importance.

It is a beautiful play and the Lowry give it a triumphant production. There is some great 80s music to accompany the scene changes as well and these brought back some great memories.

Educating Rita is on at the Lowry Theatre, Salford until 12th October. I urge you to see it and have no hesitation in giving it the big, big five tortoise shell rating!

National Poetry Day 2013

Today, October 3rd, is National Poetry Day and in my household that is a cause for celebration! I’m cracking open the cava as we speak (my celebrations are wild).

Poetry has an increasing value in this materialistic age where the arts are under attack from both left and right. Poetry speaks to the soul, it gets into the bloodstream. It is easy to understand, even if you don’t understand. Children love it but somehow it seems to get knocked out of them as they get older. What a shame this is. We should nurture our collective love of poetry because it says ‘here we are – we believe that there is something more important than the latest car and holidays in Dubai. We believe in beauty.’

So here are three of my very favourite poems. Which poem is favourite? Perhaps you have one of your own that you carry around in your mind and that means the world to you? Comment away below and let me know.

dorothy75

Resume by Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

john-keats

Ode On A Grecian Urn by John Keats

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

baudelaire

Destruction by Charles Baudelaire

At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.

Knowing my love of Art, he snares my senses,
Appearing in woman’s most seductive forms,
And, under the sneak’s plausible pretenses,
Lips grow accustomed to his lewd love-charms.

He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue into
The wilderness of Ennui, deserted and broad,

And into my bewildered eyes he throws
Visions of festering wounds and filthy clothes,
And all Destruction’s bloody retinue.

Three very different poems, but each brilliant in their own way. Happy National Poetry Day!

The Lightning Child at The Globe Theatre

I have had a whirlwind few months in which I have become a bona fide bestseller. My thriller novel, The Girl On The Bus, stayed in the UK top 100 bestsellers chart for over nine weeks and is still the number one selling hardboiled thriller on Amazon. And all of that for less than a pound!

Self promotion is great, but sometimes you have to take a break from life as a writer and spend a little ‘me time’. It was with this in mind that I went to the Globe Theatre in London to see ‘The Lightning Child’, a new musical by Che Walker and Arthur Darvill.

lchld

If you have never been to the Globe Theatre then you are missing out. It is an authentic reconstruction of one of the theatres that Shakespeare himself used at the turn of the 17th Century. There is a large open air space for standing spectators and wooden benches arranged in the round. Be warned that umbrellas are strictly forbidden so if you do decide to go and see The Lightning Child (it runs until October 12th) then be prepared to be rained on. The Globe is in London’s Bankside area, just down from the Tate Modern and its uniqueness helps to create a real atmosphere of conviviality and fun.

You may think that The Globe will be a bit stuffy, that it will be Shakespeare-heavy? Well, rest assured that The Lightning Child will prove you wrong. It is loosely based upon the ancient Greek drama ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides (teacher says to her pupils: ‘give me a sentence with Euripides in’, little Johnny replies: ‘Euripides trousers, you pay for dese trousers!’). And the emphasis here is on the word loosely. As in: ‘The Daily Mail is loosely a newspaper’.

How loose is Walker and Darvill’s interpretation? Well it begins, for no apparent reason, with Neil Armstrong arguing with his wife. He dons spacesuit, climbs a ladder and meets the man in the moon who acts as the emcee of the show, or a version of the Greek chorus if you like. This character is called ‘Ladyboy’. There is no subtlety to this show. There is no structure to this show. There is no sense to this show.

Ladyboy himself constantly tells the audience not to try to make sense of what is happening, urging the crowd to ‘figure it out on the train home’. It would have to be a long train ride to figure this one out.

Somewhere amidst the chaos there is a re-telling of The Bacchae – that most bloody of Greek tragedies. Around this tale of Pentheus and his demented pursuit of Dionysus there are several seemingly unrelated strands. No, let’s be fair – they are unrelated. There is nothing to bring them back to the main plot. Two heroin addicts adopt and then kill a dog. A neurotic housemate mutilates the fingers of a concert pianist. Most bizarre of all is a completely out of kilter section about the romance between Billie Holiday and Lester Young. The play as a whole is far from dull but this particular sequence was dull and incongruous. The only possible explanation is that Walker had at one point produced a biopic about Billie Holiday, had it rejected but was determined to resurrect it, or at least part of it, at some point. It should have remained sleeping.

Castor Semenya also makes an appearance. There are lots of references to trans gender issues, and more cross dressing than you can shake a stick at. There is also foul language of the filthiest kind and lashings of blood, sex and graphic torture. It was all most enjoyable. Or do I mean that it was almost enjoyable? You will have to work that one out on the train home.

The cast had a great time, and there were some excellent performances – particularly from Clifford Samuel as a muscle bound Pentheus fighting to contain his feminine side and from Tommy Coleman as a Hendrix like Dionysus.

Be warned, that this is in no way a play for children. Some parts may be too shocking for the more sensitive out there. The scenes where Pentheus is ripped apart by the Bacchae and by his own mother was particularly gruesome – no part is left unwaved. Another bizarre scene follows where a Nigella Lawson like figure makes love with the carcass of a deer. Two people fainted on the night that I was there – one in each half. That will teach me to wear my Hai Karate aftershave. Most of the audience though loved it, hooting and hollering throughout.

And I loved it as well in a special way, because I love chaos. I love boundary pushing. I love unpredictability. Make no mistake that this is a shambles of a show, but what a glorious shambles it is.

So how would I rate The Lightning Child? I can’t give it one rating. If you are a Shakespeare fan it gets a zero tortoise shell rating. If you want to see something modern yet cohesive with a good plot it gets a three tortoise shell rating. If you want to see something completely out there, in a fantastic location that is fabulously bonkers then it gets a five tortoise shell rating.

I’m glad that I saw The Lightning Child and if you aren’t prone to fainting then I think that you would be as well.