Friday, 23 August 2013

Review: The Secret Wives of Andy Williams

I have to admit I didn’t have a clue who the eponymous hero was. Apparently he's a crooner from yesteryear, recently deceased; despite not knowing who he was the show was still laugh out loud funny. 

(Andy Williams)

Caitlin is a naughty nun, she loves another man more than Jesus. In a bid for purity, and to escape her father, Caitlin becomes a novice at the craziest and kindest nunnery I have ever seen. Accompanied by a brood of crack-pot orphans and strict yet kind nuns, Caitlin battles with some deep issues; life, death, love, other people’s expectations (especially the dead ones) and the true adoration of Andy Williams. Whilst this play confronts serious topics Hasler’s excellent script accompanied by Mayhew’s direction, and the sterling efforts of the entire cast, meant the only time I cried it was with laughter! 

The show really is funny and this is partly down to style. A cast of four deliver at least 10 roles between them; Mitchell for example playing a Scottish nun, an orphan with imaginary siblings including a sister called Nietzsche, a cockney bloke, and a French romancer by turns was both impressive and simultaneously hilarious. I think the hair clips reinforced the reality of a bloke playing a nun in plain sight and enhanced the comedic effect. Similar contrasting roles such as Platt’s novice nun to drunken royal, and Hasler’s strict nun to west-country orphan, keep the play dynamic and entertaining. 

Being a show mainly concerned with death and comedy, black humour played its part; a bell-ringer with no hands, a deceased saint with her boobs on a platter, and a nun with a tv-signal clarifying brain tumour all feature. That said Hasler is also unafraid of confronting death, religion and love head-on. There are plenty of references to philosophy in the piece (come on, the imaginary sibling is called Nietzche!) but not in a way which is exclusive to the less academically minded. 

Hasler has rendered the religious characters in the play with great gentleness; the nuns are kind-hearted women, sheltered from the world by prayer times and a blanket of khaki Battenberg cake! Even God, or the ‘bugger upstairs’ as one character calls him, is depicted as a benevolent parent who just wants His children to have fun. The show was funny without being offensive, crude or irreverent – I was impressed that Hasler credits the audience with enough maturity not to go for the easy laughs about the frigidity of nuns! 

Not all the inhabitants of the nunnery are naive, and their reasons for being nuns are as varied as the counties they were reared in. Just like the average audience member the characters have true depth. One of the stand-out features of this show is the fact the characters are laugh out loud funny without being one-dimensional slap-stick comedy props.

Adults playing children and men playing women has been the recipe for laughter for centuries; but the way in which Hasler has used these methods to discuss philosophy make this an altogether different performance to the standard ‘comedy about nuns’ show you might be expecting. 

The show is part of the Camden Fringe Festival with a running time of 1 hour dead. It runs til Saturday 24th at the CamdenPeople’s Theatre. They are touring this Autumn, so catch them if you can!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The White Queen: On paper and TV

The recent unveiling of The White Queen television series prompted me to read Gregory’s book. Herewith my analysis of both.

The White Queen: On paper

As you know I do enjoy Gregory’s historical novels. I always enjoy the way women are at the centre of her narrative; providing a fresh perspective to historical events where women are portrayed as agents of change in a traditionally male context. This is particularly the case in The White Queen which takes place at the courts of the fifteenth century York kings. 

We return to a familiar cast for this novel; Mary Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville, and to familiar themes; the role of fate, the secret agency of women, and the power of gossip in the courts of kings. It was really interesting to read accounts of common events from all three novels, such as the Battles of Towton and Barnet through a second character’s eyes, having already read the narrative from Anne Neville’s perspective (The Kingmaker's Daughter).

(Elizabeth Woodville discusses the situation with King Edward, image: BBC)

Variation from previous Gregory novels I have read include the use of folklore as a counterpoint to the main narrative. Gregory borrows extensively from the story of Melusina water-goddess with magic powers, said to be the ancestor of the Burgundians, to illustrate the experience of the Woodville family and Elizabeth Woodville specifically, from a second angle;

‘She [Melusina] knew that being a mortal woman is hard on the heart and hard on the feet…He promised her that he would give her everything she wanted, as men in love always do. And she trusted him despite herself, as women in love always do’

Use of the Melusina narrative also enabled Gregory to explore the perception of Woodville as witch; medieval philosophy credited witches with real power to change situations with their craft, enabled only through contracts with the devil. Throughout the novel Woodville uses witchcraft at key moments in an attempt to change the progress of events. 

I had some frustrations with this novel. The White Queen, whilst interacting first-hand with the popular story of the princes in the tower was otherwise plot-light; and not as rewarding as say, The Kingmaker’s Daughter. The story of Elizabeth Woodville involves plenty of time in sanctuary waiting for men to succeed or fail in battle, revolt or be suppressed. As a result the majority of the action in the novel happens on its periphery or through the eyes of men in battle. There were several times I was tempted to quit on this novel before the end; reading yet another chapter of Woodville in sanctuary got boring! 

The White Queen: On TV

With the recent ‘discovery of Richard III’ (I’m a sceptic) a TV drama surrounding the controversy of the princes in the tower is a no-brainer for the BBC. Stretched over ten episodes, as opposed to the traditional 6-part series, The White Queen attempts to synthesise three of Gregory’s novels into a single series.

There are several successes to this series; there is plenty of sex, violence and period costumes, all of these sell! Similarly, as I just mentioned, if there were ever to be a time when the general public were interested in Richard III it would be now. In addition, I have stuck with the series since episode 1 (despite a sensationally weak opening episodes) so something must be keeping my interest; perhaps it was the unique decision to portray male monarchy through female eyes…

That said, there are several weaknesses to representing this period of British monarchy on TV. Firstly, everyone has the same name regardless of which side they are on (and let’s face it lots of them swap!) which makes the plot tricky to follow.

This situation is made all the more complicated by a decision to blend three of Gregory’s novels into one series from multiple perspectives. I can see that this might create added drama, and that creating three series from three different perspectives would be dry. There are, however, reasons why Gregory writes from one perspective at a time; I think one of these might be character loyalty. From page one in Gregory’s novels we watch events through one person’s eyes; the drama of Warwick’s defeat at Barnet is uniquely painful through the eyes of his daughter Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter) or the departure of the princes from sanctuary through Elizabeth Woodville’s (The White Queen). The strength of feeling is definitely lost when the perspective on common events is shared between the three women. I found very little compassion or interest for Mary Beaufort (mother of Henry VII), for example, who is one of the three women who feature in the series. I wonder if this is because, unlike the other two main characters, I haven’t read the narrative from her perspective (The Red Queen) rather than because she is an intrinsically unlikable character…

(Mary Beaufort as depicted in the series. Image: BBC)

In sum, I’d give the book maybe 6.5/10 (not as strong as The Kingmaker's Daughter) and the TV series 7/10 (with at least one of those points dedicated to retaining my interest for 10 episodes!). 

Catch The White Queen series and other related content on BBC iPlayer this week.

I’ve read another really exciting book recently, Ann Veronica by H G Wells; keep your eyes peeled for that!