Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My second book review for this new blog is another debut novel that I have just read after it was recommended to me. First published in 2011 and longlisted for the Orange Prize For Fiction in 2012, The Night Circus is a fantastic novel, which mixes fantasy and reality to create an intriguing and imaginative novel that, like the magic in the story itself, puts a spell over its readers, making you believe you are really there!

It’s hard to talk about the plot without giving too much away. In summary, the novel tells the story of “Le Cirque de Rệves” (The Circus of Dreams) through the lives and experiences of the individuals, who create it, live and work in it or visit it.

The mysterious circus of black and white tents appears at locations throughout the world as if by magic and without warning. However this is no ordinary circus, as this one is only open at night – opening at nightfall and closing at dawn. It could remain in one place a month or a day. Nothing is certain and not everything is quite as it seems, even to those who are a part of the world of the circus.

Within this world, the story centres around two individuals who from childhood have been linked to each other through an age old rivalry between two illusionists, who have lived their lives testing which of them has the superior skills. To demonstrate this, a challenge is set, requiring an apprentice of each man to take part in a game that neither really understands and through this game their masters will decide on a winner. However this latest challenge involves another element – what happens when the two apprentices fall in love?

As a reader, you can’t fail to be enchanted by the magical world created by Erin Morgenstern in this novel, which I think is a remarkable debut. It reminded me of how I felt as a child reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then I wanted to the factory to be real. Now, as an adult, I wished the Night Circus could be a reality. The atmosphere of the world comes to life so vividly that you could think you were dreaming, with all the wondrous smells, tastes and sounds staying with you. All this is down to the wonderful writing, which not only creates this world but also the variety of characters, who are so central to the story, whether they are the performers at the circus, those who help build it (I especially loved the clockmaker and would love one of his clocks to be possible!) or the group of people, known as reveurs, who make it part of their lives to follow the circus wherever it goes, identifying each other through the clothes they wear on their visits to the circus (black and white only with a dash of red).

A lot of novels these days remind me of something I have read before, whether it be the plot or a character. The Night Circus however was something new and imaginative and is the type of novel I’d love to write one day. It is definitely a novel I would recommend to anyone. The only downside is that the circus still isn’t real when you finish it!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is available from all the usual book retailers.

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Book Review – The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

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First published in 2009, this beautiful debut novel by Jamie Ford is one of the most moving and heartwarming books I have ever read.

The story is told throughout from the perspective of Henry Lee, a recently widowed Chinese man who has lived all his life in Seattle. It begins at The Panama Hotel, which once was the gateway to the city’s Japantown (and indeed still stands today), where the new owner has made an astonishing discovery in the basement of the premises – boxes upon boxes of possessions belonging to Japanese families, hidden there when they were forced to leave the city during World War II and sent to internment camps.

As the crowd gathers, including Henry, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple gesture transports Henry (and us with him) back to 1940s Seattle when, as a young boy sent to the exclusive elementary school at which he is one of the few non-White students, he meets a young Japanese girl called Keiko Okabe and a strong bond of friendship is formed. This wonderful novel takes us in to their lives at a time when such a friendship with anyone Japanese would be seen as a risk, particularly by traditional Chinese families like Henry’s family and his father in particular, whose life is consumed with the defeat of the Japanese.

As their story progresses, we move seamlessly between 1940’s Seattle and the present day, where Henry’s childhood story fascinates his own grown up son and helps him to learn more about and grow closer to his father, whilst providing the reader with a captivating story of love, loyalty and friendship.

I don’t want to give any more of the plot away as this book should be read without too much knowledge of the path the story takes. The writing by Jamie Ford is superb, bringing to life the worlds inhabited by the characters over the different time periods so clearly, that you cannot help but fall under the spell of the story of Henry and Keiko’s childhood bond. It is also an incredibly moving book, which gave me a far greater awareness of how Japanese families were treated in America during World War II. It is frightening that such actions occurred not too long ago.

Very few books have moved me quite so much as this one and I was incredibly sad when I reached the end and had to leave the world I had become a part of behind. It is now a novel I recommend to family and friends and have kept myself, so that one day I can enjoy its beauty all over again.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet by Jamie Ford is available from all the usual book retailers.

Doctor Who At 50 – 10th Doctor Screening & Panel Event – 29 September 2013

Photo by vickster51

Photo by vickster51

As any Doctor Who fan will know, the BFI has over the course of 2013 held monthly screenings celebrating each Doctor. Due to actor availability, September’s event centred around the 10th Doctor’s era on the show, with a screening of the climactic end to series 4 The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End, which sees the Doctor reunited with all his companions to save the universe as well as the Earth and say farewell to the wonderful Donna Noble, played superbly by Catherine Tate. It had been quite a while since I have watched this two-parter and I had forgotten just how impressive they are, in terms of ambition and scope. The visuals of the Dalek invasion are fantastic and the whole episode looked wonderful on the cinema screen, accompanied by Murray Gold’s stirring score. Yes, some of the plot is a bit silly and I still feel unsatisfied at Rose’s end on the beach, but these episodes have an emotional centre that I personally think has been somewhat lacking in more recent series and it was wonderful to share Sunday’s viewing experience with a group of fans, laughing and enjoying the event together.

During a brief break between the two episodes, casting director Andy Pryor was asked about working on Doctor Who. He mentioned how many actors and agents contact him to say they would love to be involved with the show and that it’s unique in that you often can’t give too much information to someone as to who / what they’ll be playing. He also spoke of the importance of the leading actor on set and that everyone had always wanted to work with David and how welcoming the set was.

Once Journey’s End was over and the monthly competition DVDs were awarded through a quick quiz, the panel arrived on stage. This month’s panel was the 10th Doctor himself David Tennant, Catherine Tate (the star of the Q&A for her hilarious answers!), producer from 2005-2008 Phil Collinson and director Graeme Harper. The Q&A was hosted by the BFI’s Justin Johnson. Also in the audience were Mark Gatiss, Sophie Aldred, Anneke Wills, director Alan Parker and Frank Skinner.

Sadly Russell T Davies was unable to attend as he was presenting Julie Gardner with her award at the Welsh BAFTAs that evening but a message was read out from him which began in true Russell style with “Dear faithful viewer!”

On taking their seats the audience was asked after a few minutes to stop taking photos with flash. David said he intended not to move for the entire panel and so the photos would all be the same. He did do this for a few minutes which was very funny!

On to the questions asked. 

I would add that the BFI are brilliant at adding these panels to their You Tube channel and that anyone wanting to see the panel for themselves should keep an eye on You Tube, as it is well worth it. I have done my best to include as much as I can remember from the panel to give a flavour and insight for those unable to be there.

1. Your hair David?! It had to be dealt with first! David, who was sporting a long ponytail, jokingly said he was playing Limahl in an upcoming Kajagoogoo biopic! (Of course the extensions are in actual fact for his role as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production, which starts previews from 10th October in Stratford-Upon-Avon, before transferring to London in December).

2. The return of so many actors – The panel discussed the logistics for the episodes, needing to schedule all the actors to be able to come back but Phil Collinson remarked how much everyone wanted to be a part of it. Graeme Harper also remarked on how ill RTD was during writing the episode and how he couldn’t write for a while, which made everything slightly late.

3. David’s memories of being offered the role – David was asked to recall being asked to play the part, which he did, referring to going to RTD’s house to watch rough cuts of Rose and Dalek, for which he assumed they wanted to gauge reaction from a fan due to the scrutiny under which they watched him as he watched the footage! He also remarked how he had mentioned during the filming of Casanova (in which both Julie Gardner and RTD were involved) that he would love a part in Doctor Who, but that any part would have been enough for him.

He spoke of it being out of the blue being asked by Russell and Julie whether he would consider the role as they would be looking for a new Doctor if the series was a success and was renewed for a second series. He remembered how crazy it seemed as he had no idea Chris wouldn’t be staying. To the amusement of the audience he also said he wondered what would happen if it wasn’t renewed and he was the Doctor that appeared for 30 seconds at the end of the finale! He pondered whether if that had happened he would have had his own Big Finish audio series by now!

4. Public recognition – Both David and Catherine talked about what the recognition for Doctor Who is like and David agreed that nothing can prepare you for it and that it is very surreal to be unknown one day and known the next. Catherine said, on joining for the Christmas special, she was already known for her own show but that it was very different for Doctor Who, in that people come up to you to be positive about it, whereas people tend to tell her which bits of her comedy shows / characters they don’t like! They both agreed that the fans are protective of the characters in Doctor Who.

5. Catherine’s memories of being offered the role (twice!) – Catherine recalled being asked to do the Christmas special by phone and thinking it would be great fun. The conversation to return took place in person when she went to lunch with Julie Gardner and thought the discussion was to be about another project. She never expected to be asked back! David spoke of how all the crew didn’t think for a moment that she would say yes as she seemed already so busy with her own projects. “Clearly not now though love” (or something like that) was the jokey follow up comment from David!

6. The impact of media on the filming experience – The panel also talked about how filming Doctor Who now in a world of media and internet must be very different to previous eras. Catherine recalled a journalist approaching her at the start of filming for series four to ask her what she thought of the reaction on the internet, to which she’d said she didn’t read it. The individual went on to tell her how there was uproar about how she was going to ruin the show! She said it hit home how people were already talking about a role she had yet to even start filming, let alone be something anyone had seen on air! She said previous companions in other eras didn’t have to deal with that!

7. Best kisser?! A young boy cheekily asked David who was the best kisser on Doctor Who, to which he answered after much amusement…..Phil Collinson! (see link below for my short video of this response)

8. Photo please?! Another young boy, dressed as the 10th Doctor asked if he could have a photo with David. David said of course and the boy came to the front and was lifted on to the stage by David for the photo. He then said that the boy was the only one getting a photo!

9. Peter Capaldi’s accent! Another hilarious question was asked to David, which was how did he feel about Peter Capaldi potentially playing the Doctor with a Scottish accent?! David playfully said in a deadpan voice that he thought it was “just lazy!” (see link below for my short video of this response)

10. What’s this Big Finish you’re talking about?! David and Catherine were also asked if they would consider doing a Big Finish audio book together in the future. Catherine had no idea what Big Finish was and said it sounded like something from musical theatre with jazz hands! She then seriously asked what everyone was talking about and said it also sounded like something you’d see on a card in a phone box card and that that would cost extra! This made the audience and panel crack up into hysterics, even more so when she then said she’d still do it before she even knew what it was! David and Phil explained what it was with the help of the audience, comparing it to a radio play and she said she’d do it. David said he would if Catherine would! Come on Big Finish make this happen for the fans! (see link below for my short video of this response)

11. Reaction to Capaldi announcement! Catherine told a brilliant story about being in America at a BBC building after the announcement of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor and that there had been a bomb threat in the area, requiring an evacuation of the building. She said how she, in all seriousness, thought the bomb had been left at the BBC by enraged fans unhappy with Capaldi’s casting! She said she even considered suggesting she go out to try and speak to them, as she thought she was quite popular with the fans! David thought this was hilarious and asked if she had intended to do an Eva Peron and go out on to the balcony to speak to the people?! In reality, the suspect package was a few blocks away and the area needed to be secured because the President was in town! 

12. Catherine’s “Sultana” confusion! At the insistence of Phil C, Catherine spoke of how she thought the “sultanas” (David attempted to explain it was Sontarans!) were powered by electricity! David and Phil thought this was hilarious and recalled her spending a whole day filming with them without realising a human being was playing the part. Catherine jokingly said she was probably leaning on them all day and David said in jest that he was sure she tried to plug her phone in to them too! 

13. Returning for the 50th David spoke about returning for the 50th and that of course he had been dimly aware of the anniversary coming up so it wasn’t a total surprise to be asked to return. He said of course there are worries, such as whether it’ll be the same now you have moved on and whether you’ll enjoy it or get on with Matt, but that Matt had been very up for it and they had got on well.

14. Would Catherine have stayed? Catherine confirmed she would have stayed for another series if David had been staying, to which he jokingly said “she didn’t want to work with you Matt” whilst pulling a face at the giant picture of Matt behind them! In response Catherine made a comment about how had she known it was to be Matt she would of course have done it (the comment was far funnier than this, which you’ll see when it’s uploaded by the BFI).

15. Secret Doomsday filming – Catherine told a hilarious story about the filming of the Doomsday ending, which was done under great secrecy. She recalled that she had a room at the Travelodge in Newport which had been booked for her under a different name to maintain secrecy and that on arrival at the hotel she couldn’t remember the name! She told the audience how she had said to the receptionist that she had a room booked but couldn’t remember the name it was booked under. The receptionist’s reply had been “Would it be Catherine Tate?” to which she replied “Definitely Not!” The room was in actual fact booked under Tracie Simpson’s name!

16. Favourite scenes? On being asked about their favourite scenes filmed together David said he’d forgotten how funny the Donna / 10.5 TARDIS scene was to do and also how sad the final scene in the TARDIS was. I can’t remember what other scenes were mentioned.

17. Green screen acting – They were asked about whether it was hard acting to green screen for some of the monsters and David said he didn’t think that that was as hard as some of the more emotional scenes.

18. Favourite episodes – On being asked their favourite episodes CT said hers was her first episode The Runaway Bride. Graeme Harper chose Blink and Phil C chose The Caves of Androzani, which DT agreed with, whilst also mentioning The Deadly Assassin.

19. Favourite Doctors? Catherine said hers was of course David and David said his was his father-in-law Peter Davison!

That’s about all I can remember but it was a fantastic day and I would definitely recommend watching the full panel when it is uploaded by the BFI. A link to their You Tube page is:

https://www.youtube.com/user/BFIEvents?feature=hovercard

My three very brief videos from the Q&A (to the three questions that on being asked I thought may receive a funny response) can be found at my You Tube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/vickster5001/videos

The BFI do many wonderful events throughout the year so do check their website for information at: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp

Events for November include the preview of An Adventure In Time & Space by Mark Gatiss!

National Theatre at 50 – National Histories with Nancy Carroll & Alex Jennings – 1 October 2013

Photo courtesy of National Theatre website
Photo courtesy of National Theatre website
The first of a series of National Theatre platform events entitled National Histories saw two superb actors; Nancy Carroll and Alex Jennings share their memories of the National Theatre, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The format for this series of platforms is simple – each actor is asked to consider the same ten questions, which are then shared with the audience during the event. I would note that this event did run out of time so only nine questions seem to have been discussed. 

A strong contender for my favourite actress, Nancy Carroll’s acting career at the National began with Howard Davies’ The Talking Cure in 2003 and since then has seen her take roles in The False Servant, The Voysey Inheritance Man of Mode, The Enchantment, After The Dance and most recently, The Magistrate.

Alex Jennings’s lengthy career with the National Theatre includes Collaborators, The Habit of Art, Present Laughter, The Alchemist, Stuff Happens, His Girl Friday, The Winter’s Tale, The Relapse, Albert Speer, Ghetto, The Recruiting Officer, My Fair Lady (West End) and most recently Cocktail Sticks and Hymn by Alan Bennett, which also transferred to the West End’s Duchess Theatre under the title Untold Stories. 

Question 1 & 2 – What were your first memories of the National Theatre and your first National Theatre production? 

Nancy’s early memories of the theatre are seeing it as a child when her family drove over the bridges of the Thames and being drawn to it. She spoke of wanting to be on the stage from an early age. Alex’s first memories are of the theatre’s early days at the Old Vic, before its own Southbank home was built. 

The first production Nancy saw at the National Theatre was Guys & Dolls, starring Bob Hoskins in 1982. She spoke of the “mesmeric” quality of the production and how before she had mainly seen more commercial theatre. For her, it captured the magic of theatre. Alex was unsure which production had been his first but believes it was during 1972-1973 and was one of Jumpers (with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg), The Misanthrope or Equus. He spoke fondly of Michael Hordern in Jumpers standing on a tortoise (anyone care to clarify this comment for me?!) and his hero Paul Schofield in Equus. 

Question 3 – Who is/are your unsung heroes of the National Theatre? 

Nancy’s answer was all encompassing, crediting everyone who works there who isn’t an actor! Everyone from the costume department, to crew, stage management, ushers etc were mentioned and described as being “the best of the best” by a very grateful Nancy. With regards to the stage management team she said how important it is for an actor that the people standing with you in the dark before you enter the stage are calm and steady and make you believe you can do it. Alex agreed with Nancy and spoke of stage management’s key role in the rehearsal room where they have to deal with people’s sometimes volatile egos! Alex also spoke of the crucial role played by Linda on the stage door, who has been at the National a long time and makes it feel like a home away from home, as well as the team of dressers, particularly Ralph. 

Question 4 – Which individual performance at the National Theatre has left a lasting impression on you? 

For Nancy there were two – for its seamless ensemble she named Howard Davies’ 1997 production of Chips With Everything and as an individual she chose Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Sir Fopling Flutter in 2007’s The Man of Mode (in which she also starred) and shared with the audience that during every show she used to watch from the wings the scene in which Rory performed a version of a Coldplay song on the piano. 

Alex’s choices were Ralph Richardson (whom he said was a “magician”) in Peter Hall’s production of John Gabriel Borkman at the Old Vic and National Theatre in 1975-1976, which he thought was superb. He also referred to Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in No Man’s Land as very special. 

Question 5 – What was the most fulfilling National Theatre production you have been a part of? 

Each actor gave two productions in their response. For Nancy it was The Voysey Inheritance, which she described as a happy company, in which she played a strong character. She also spoke of the play introducing her to Harley Granville-Barker’s work. Her second production was Thea Sharrock’s 2010 production of After The Dance (also starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Scarborough and John Heffernen). The fact it was one of Rattigan’s lesser known plays meant it was thrilling to see the audience go through the different emotions of the play, believing they knew what to expect from the happy beginning before it turns in to a far darker story by the end of the first Act. The success of the production itself was also a reason given by Nancy, as she referred to the atmosphere in the theatre, knowing the audience was excited to be there and wanted to see it. This again was also a happy company and she spoke of how special it is for an actor when there is a spark of chemistry that works, develops and which helps the whole piece catch fire. I was thrilled she chose this production, as it was my first experience of the National Theatre and remains one my top two favourite theatre experiences, in no small part due to Nancy’s performance. 

Alex’s choices were 2001’s The Winter’s Tale and he spoke of how much he loved the ideas for the staging as well as the wonderful language from Shakespeare. His second choice was, although not at the Southbank building, the 2002 West End transfer of My Fair Lady, for which he took over from Jonathan Pryce in the role of Henry Higgins. His musical theatre debut was he said absolutely terrifying but was a role he could play forever. 

Question 6 – Which production do you most regret missing at the National Theatre? 

Nancy’s regrets included The Loft Season, Ghetto (in which Alex starred and had been brought to life for Nancy by her husband Jo Stone-Fewings telling her about it) and finally anything starring Olivier! Alex’s regret was never seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Olivier. 

Question 7 – Which of your National Theatre costumes would you choose for a fancy dress party? 

Nancy chose her canary yellow dress from The Voysey Experience and Alex chose one of his wonderful costumes from The Relapse (which was green and pink and covered in three-dimensional roses).  Alex firmly believed all the wonderful costumes from the production should be in a museum. 

Question 8 – Where is your secret / special spot in the building? 

Both chose The Quad and spoke fondly of the tradition that has developed for all performers from all three theatres to bang on the walls looking outwards on the first and last night of each production – an experience which they agreed was very special for any actor performing at the National Theatre. 

Question 9 – What would be your fantasy programming for a day at the National Theatre? 

Alex’s morning production would be Noel Coward’s 1964 production of Hayfever, followed by a matinee of Olivier’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and finally Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel in the evening. 

Nancy’s day would start with her first NT production Guys & Dolls, followed by the poignant 1989 production of Hamlet with Ian Charleson in the title role (which he took on to replace Daniel Day-Lewis at a time when he was very ill and near the end of his own life) and ending with Shadow of a Boy from The Loft Season, which starred her husband as a Welsh spaceman! 

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to such wonderful actors share their insights and memories of the National Theatre and would encourage anyone interested in theatre to pop along to one of the other scheduled National Histories events. Details can be found on the National Theatre’s website: 

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/whats-on/platforms

 

The Light Princess – National Theatre (28 September 2013)

Photo by Jason Bell
Photo by Jason Bell

The much anticipated new musical The Light Princess has finally arrived at the National Theatre in London. As this is a new blog, a new musical seemed to be a good place to start. I should begin by saying that as this production is still in previews, there are likely to be further changes before opening night on 9 October.

Buidling on the story suggested in the 1864 fairy-tale by George Macdonald, The Light Princess tells the tale of two rival warring kingdoms – Sealand, home of the Royal fleet and rulers of the waves and Lagobel, the inland desert kingdom. Each desires something from the other, Sealand’s water resources and Lagobel’s gold, but they are separated by The Wilderness, home to dragons and other beasts.

The story (with book and lyrics by Samuel Adamson), centres around Princess Althea of Lagobel – the Light Princess of the title – who lost her mother as a child and has literally floated through life since to escape her grief, and Prince Digby of Sealand, who has been so weighed down by grief at his own mother’s death, he has been unable to find true happiness. Each also has a strained relationship with their father and the expectations they have for them. The parallels drawn, in fairy-tale tradition it is clear the two are destined to fall in love.

The staging of the show is impressive and clearly a great deal of work has been done. The sets (by talented designer Rae Smith, whose set for This House I adored) are wonderful and a joy to look at, depicting the two kingdoms and the glorious wilderness perfectly (Althea’s tower home and the wilderness stood out for me). The costumes are also fantastic.

Much of the excitement and anticipation for this production was surrounding the involvement of Tori Amos and, as someone unfamiliar in any detail with her work, I was curious as to what to expect. For me, although the music and lyrics are entertaining and enjoyable (Althea in particular has some fantastic lyrics throughout, which are both witty and heartfelt), I didn’t feel that there was a clear flow from piece of music to the next. Also, unlike Tim Minchin’s efforts for Matilda, I didn’t find any of the music or lyrics particularly memorable and thought some refrains were slightly repetitive.

I also thought that, at 2hours 45 minutes, the production is too long and will benefit from being trimmed down during the previews. The use of the talented acrobats/gymnasts in black to lift Althea in to her various floating positions is impressive from a gymnastic perspective. However I did at times find it distracted me from the actual scene and overall I thought the effect worked far better once Rosalie Craig was on wires.

As for the acting itself, the cast do an excellent job, with a strong ensemble (always important for any production) and superb supporting roles in particular by Amy Booth-Steel as Althea’s loyal friend and Kane Oliver Parry as Digby’s brother (whose vocals are both very good indeed). Nick Hendrix, building on each new role since his West End debut last year in What The Butler Saw, does a fantastic job in the role of Digby, proving to be a very strong leading man, both vocally and in terms of acting. The star of the production however is Rosalie Craig as Althea, fresh from her recent role in the Manchester International Festival’s Macbeth. This is an incredibly physical role and often requires her to deliver strong vocals whilst being manoeuvred in to various positions, something she makes seem effortless. Althea’s fighting spirit and sense of rebellious mischief are also brilliantly conveyed. It is certainly a role that Craig is perfect for and will no doubt bring her much deserved acclaim. The direction by Marianne Elliott (whose recent NT successes are War Horse and the glorious The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and choreography by Steven Hoggett are also very good, in particular the opening scene of Act 2 between Digby and Althea in the woods, which must have required a great deal of work by all involved.

Although personally I was a little disappointed by the music, overall this is a fun, entertaining new production and it’s fantastic to see the National Theatre invest in new work of this kind. I will definitely return once the show has opened to see how it has developed.

The Light Princess continues in previews at the National Theatre until it opens on 9th October.

Photo image of Rosalie Craig by Jason Bell