The Empire – Michael Ball

The Empire is the story of a theatre, of it’s productions, it’s history, it’s owners and it’s actors and actresses, stage hands, doorman, right down to the man who sells the tickets.

Jack Treadwell has spent the immediate years after the First World War in Paris. Now he returns home. He finds something at The Empire and he is drawn into the world of theatre both from the audience side and behind the stage. A world he never knew existed and could be part of.

Grace Hawkins is the managers assistant, but the manager is rather lacking and it seems a lot of the work falls to Grace. Even more so when she finds herself rewriting the most dreadful production of Macbeth.

Add in Stella the leading lady, Lance the heartthrob, Bill the washed up variety act, Ruby the musician, Evie the fading star and Lady Laisster a former showgirl herself and part owner of The Empire.

Whilst the show must go on, there is much else that is happening within the theatre and the book. The list of characters at the beginning is somewhat daunting (always completely useless I find when reading only kindle) and I waivered about carrying on as it seemed there was too many people and too much to fit in. I didn’t waiver and got consumed by life in the theatre and the romance of working on a production.

Of course it was never going to be easy. Rivalries both family and business do not seem to be resolved and there is an undercurrent of gangsters and the after affects of a war that are still being felt by everyone. With drama and romance comes humour and this is obviously an affectionate look at life in a theatre in age gone past. It was a great look at the past and anything which has a ‘behind the scenes’ element always will hold an interest for me. But too much was packed into this book, and at times it wasn’t clear where the focus was meant to be in terms of plot. That left me feeling a bit seen off when some of the more minor characters could have been fleshed out and added to the main plot line. Perhaps secondary lots could have been left for future books especially when the ending was as spectacular as it was.

This is Michael Ball’s debut novel and I understand we will get to know more about all these characters in a follow up. The cynic in me is never sure when famous (for something other than writing fiction) people start churning out novels. However, I could quite easily forget all that to be absorb in a good story to escape from the reality of everything around us – which is what going to theatre has always done. On that note, it is a job well done.

Thank you to the publisher via netgalley for the opportunity to read this book.

The Empire is out now.

Books · Jottings

A Book, A Play and A Film?

I am sure many of you out there have read the wonderful novel The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Having looked back on Goodreads, I read it in 2009, some 5 years ago. I was rather late to the party with this book and felt then that I was catching up with what I had missed. It was first published in 2003. Now here I am talking about it some 11 years later. Why?


The reason is simple. Since 2012, (so only 2 years late to this party) it was made for the stage. At the National Theatre and starred so recognisable faces in particular, Una Stubbs, Niamh Cusack and Nicola Walker.  For those who might think something rings a bell, it is at one of the performances in late 2013 at The Apollo where the roof collapsed and the current West End production will start a new run in June 2014.

It is also due to tour and will be coming to a local theatre near me in 2015.

However, through the National Theatre there is a wonderful way of being able to see productions without having to negotiate London or pay rather a lot to travel and for a ticket. The NT Live idea is bringing theatre to everyone. I knew of its existence but last year was the first time that I participated and went to see The Audience, earlier this year was War Horse. So here I am again and this time with three friends. The reason being that two of them have children showing similar traits to Christopher the main protagonist in the book and they have never read the book. The original screening was in September 2012 and this was an encore screening. (Fancy word for repeat but who cares? – Not me!)

What we saw was actually quite breathtaking. It was so cleverly done that actually watching it through film, meant we could see much more than perhaps if we had been right there in the theatre. There was very little in stage scenery and a limited amount of props. Conveying the story without words was left to the physicality of the actors and the placing of lights and boxes. It all sounds a bit far out there, but it worked beautifully and why – because you need to focus on the characters and the plot not the set. The set is and was in the background, it just was a vehicle on occasions to tell part of the story.

I have found this clip, that perhaps shows you a glimpse of the performance and where I am coming from in regards to the use of the stage.

All of us were moved by it and because it was a while since two of us had read the book, it brought a completly new dimension to it all. It is well worth a watch. Of course the book is a must read too.

Once home I had to find what I wrote about the book. It has never been featured on this blog as I read it before I started blogging.

This book is so cleverly written that I am not sure where to begin in reviewing it. The layout, the chapter numbers, diagrams and illustrations just add to the ‘cleverness’.

It is narrated by the lead protagonist Christopher Boone who upon discovering Wellington, a neighbour’s dog dead (by method of garden fork driven through him) embarks on finding out who done it in his own murder mystery. However, Christopher has a problem; he has Asperger’s Syndrome and has never been further than the end of his road on his own. How is he meant to solve this mystery if he cannot even do that.

Haddon creates a character and a real feel for Christopher. As readers we see him tackle all the things he cannot cope with; being touched; touching food; the colours yellow and brown; crowds and noise to name a few. A very black and white world suddenly turned upside down and inside out. Added to this Christopher finds out his mother is not dead, and to anyone else that would no doubt come as a shock but to Christopher he has all these other things to deal with. Despite all his fears Christopher sets out to find his mother.

This book is both informative and sad all at the same time. The snippets of insight and knowledge that Christopher uses as his safety are perhaps someone who does not suffer from Asperger’s does not appreciate. Or perhaps as a reader you can relate to some of it. I did, I like order, lists and timetables leaves me feeling safe and structured in a very complicated world. However this does not mean I am devaluing Aspergers as until having read this book I knew very little and probably still do.

Haddon’s portrayal of Christopher in experiencing the London Underground made me feel upset, claustrophobic, frightened as well as a huge sense of achievement once Christopher arrived at his desired destination and all that he had achieved. This was a really important part of the book for me, which is why I have mentioned it in the review.

A book that touches you at so many level that I have found it difficult to review. All I can say to anyone not sure whether to read it or not – you must. It is one of them books that would appear on the countless “books you must read before you die” lists – therefore read it. It is a must!

And as for the film, well you could say that is what I watched, as I had to go to the cinema. However, it has been optioned by a film studio (Warner Bros)  and is being adapted. When we will see it though remains a curious mystery.

Jottings · Witterings

An Audience with The Queen

I have not suddenly come up in the world and been called to answer by our monarch.

But I have had a glimpse into one person’s idea of what goes on in those weekly audiences with the Queen and her current prime minister through the wonderful play The Audience by Peter Morgan. It stars the equally wonderful Helen Mirren, who made her name playing The Queen in the film of the same name, and written also by Peter Morgan. It is obviously a match made in heaven.


For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses.

The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.

We are taken very cleverly through some of these audiences with some of the more popular (and less) prime ministers. Interestingly enough not in chronological order, and not all of them feature, Tony Blair for example is missing. We start with John Major, followed by Churchill, played magnificently by Edward Fox, Harold Wilson who I was not sure of initially when he appeared as he was before my time. Then the dour Scot, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden, the tour de force that is Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and finally James Callaghan.

It also features a young Elizabeth who comes onto the stage as the conscious of the older one. A clever way of seeing how the most famous women in the world might think about what is gone before her and what is to come. There is a lot of tongue in cheek humour and also some very relevant, pertinent and on the money remarks about the state of the government more than the actual royal family itself. It even brings us bang up to date, with references to the death of Margaret Thatcher and also the hospitalisation of the Duke of Edinburgh,and the line replied to John Humphries who asked after him, when she recently opened the new headquarters of the BBC “He’s not ill”.

The staging was very clever, simply two chairs most of the time, and the costume changes were blink and you miss them, a lot of them done on stage as she moves back to a younger queen and forward to an older one.

And all of this I did not have to leave my home city for, as it was broadcast live to a cinema as part of the National Theatre Live programme. The run of the play has now ended, as it was a limited season, but the recording is being shown again in some cinemas as an ‘encore’ performance for those who might have missed it. If you can get along please do.

It was fascinating watching something as a theatre show through the big scree, you could hear all the audience arriving and also then hear the noises from the (yes there were a couple of phones – but no drums) auditorium, but within minutes you forget that you are watching a theatre production as it is all  brought to life. It is something which I would consider going to again and I think it is a brilliant concept and idea of bringing theatre to the masses and also for those who perhaps cannot afford or are able to get to London to see such productions. If it chose to come on tour to either of my two local theatres then I would go and see it again, for the sheer joy and experiencing it a different way!

Can you name the Prime Ministers?


Top Hat

Besides all the other things I love doing, going out to theatre is certainly up there in the top ten! And I have a bit of a thing for musicals as well. My recent outing was to see Top Hat, the first ever stage production of the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film of the same name. I confess to having never seen the film, in fact I cannot recall having seen many ‘Fred & Ginger’ films. However this did not stop me wanting to see such a show – I love the music of Irving Berlin and the main star Tom Chambers wowed many a fan with his dancing prowess on Strictly back in 2008 (yes it was that long ago!)

Summer Strallen as Dale Tremont,Tom Chambers as Jerry Travers.

An American dancer, Jerry Travers comes to London to star in a show produced by the bumbling Horace Hardwick . While practicing a tap dance routine in his hotel bedroom, he awakens Dale Tremont  on the floor below. She storms upstairs to complain, whereupon Jerry falls hopelessly in love with her and proceeds to pursue her all over London.

Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, who is married to her friend Madge. Following the success of Jerry’s opening night in London, Jerry follows Dale to, where she is visiting Madge and modelling/promoting the gowns created by Alberto Beddini, a dandified Italian fashion designer with a penchant for malapropisms.

Jerry proposes to Dale, who is disgusted that her friend’s husband could behave in such a manner and agrees instead to marry Alberto. Fortunately, Bates , Horace’s meddling English valet, disguises himself as a priest and conducts the ceremony; apparently, Horace had sent Bates to keep tabs on Dale.

On a trip in a gondola, Jerry manages to convince Dale and they return to the hotel where the previous confusion is rapidly cleared up. The reconciled couple dance off into the Venetian sunset, to the tune of “The Piccolino”.

The stage adaptation stuck pretty much to this and as I did not know the storyline before  I went in, it was easy to follow and enjoy the humour, the romance and the music and of course the tap dancing. There is something so enthralling and enchanting about tap dancing and seeing it all just look so smooth, sophisticated and classic.

There is so much about it to like, Horace and his butler Bates made me chuckle but then the dancing made me smile and the dresses made me want to cry, so beautifully elegant. A very good adaptation and one I am glad I have seen. The sets were amazing, so many changes and you could not see the join, from hotel lobby, to bedroom suite, to outside and then back in again.

The evening was slightly spoilt as I sat down. The lady sat behind was talking to her neighbour saying she would have a good view if the lady in front (me) did not keep her head in that position, I was talking to my mum at the time. Said lady repeated this, and so I politely turned round and informed her that I would do my best to please her. One suitably embarrassed lady who also got a very large elbow dug in her side from her husband, saying she was rude and too loud!

Sadly the lady next to my mum fell ill during the performance, I think she may have had a heart attack, she seemed to lose consciousness and then was sick. Rather in a fast slow motion if there is such a thing, I elbowed my dad out the way and ran up the aisle to get some assistance. One of the granddaughters of the poorly lady followed me probably thinking no one was helping. I have to say how professional the staff were and I give them ten out of ten with dealing with it. We were moved to other seats, as could not sit where we were, because it needed to be cleaned up and it did smell not very nice.  I continued to enjoy the show right up to the end, but it did frighten me somewhat.

The Mayflower is a very different theatre to the one in Chichester, and it certainly creates a different atmosphere and having only within the last 4 weeks seen Singin’ In The Rain at Chichester, you could tell the difference. However, the sound, lighting and the acoustics were fantastic at Top Hat and despite playing musical chairs you could hear everything clearly. Delightedly I got to see Summer Strallen, who is the sister of Scarlett Strallen who played Kathy Selden in Singin’ In The Rain, very much alike and definitely a family talent! For those who have access to London theatres, Singin’ In The Rain is transferring to the West End from Feb 2012 with the original cast from Chichester, and I highly recommend it.

Nothing theatre wise planned for next month but plenty to look forward to in 2012. There is a couple of films coming up at the cinema soon, and I have yet to share my thoughts on the recent film I saw, Jane Eyre.


Singin’ in the Rain

My most favourite film – ever is Singin’ in the Rain. 1952, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. It tells the story how the talkies came to Hollywood and pokes fun at the industry.

Obviously I never saw the film first time it was released but something in my childhood must have ingrained this film and the music into my head. I was taken at a very early age to see Tommy Steele and Roy Castle at the London Palladium in 1983, I can remember being sat quite high up and was apparently more fascinated with the orchestra and the tube ride there than I was the show. However, something must have stuck as I was bought the video and promptly wore that out. Thank goodness for DVDs.

12 years later in 1995 I got the chance to see it again, this time directed by Tommy Steele and starring Paul Nicholas in the lead role of Don Lockwood.

Some years later I cannot remember the date and I am back at my local theatre The Mayflower, Southampton for another production of my favourite show. As a fan I went to the matinée performance only for the water to cause a short circuit and so I had to go again three days later on Saturday.

The cinema did something marvellous in 2002, celebrating 50 years of the film, got a reprint of the film and I got to see it on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

And still the film/musical is my favourite and whenever it is on the television I will watch it annoying those with me, as I am always preempting what is going to be said and I was conscious of that when I got the chance to go and see it again at my other local theatre Chichester Festival Theatre. I am lucky enough to live 20 minutes from two of the best theatres in the country.

Singin’ in the Rain 2011 style was fantastic. Yes they played a bit fast and loose with the film. A couple of extra songs, one for Don and Kathy when she first meets him and a song for Lina Lamont – why? Cosomo Brown does not run up the wall as he does in the film, which I show below for your pleasure if you wish to partake in making them laugh!

Also as Lina Lamont is exposed at the end of the film, they did not sing Singin’ in The Rain which I was a bit disappointed at, but that was soon forgotten as a whole cast ensemble did the title track again as the rain came down once more! (splashing the audience, some of who were not amused. Do not sit in the front row then!)  They had real fun you could see that and has the three main leads took their bow, the others absolutely soaked them. What a delight!

This was an excellent production, and is worthy of the reviews I have read and the standing ovation it got as well.  It is allegedly going into the West End, and it deserves it if it does. The three main leads, I would say are not that well known, the names might ring a few bells and I had to do a bit of research. Adam Cooper who plays Don Lockwood, was the older Billy in Billy Elliott, the scene at the end with Swan Lake – that was him! Scarlett Strallen who plays Kathy Selden (sister of Summer who I am seeing in Top Hat in a few weeks time) was Mary Poppins, in Mary Poppins on the stage. A show I never got to see and I wish I had because that is my second favourite film. Sandra Dickinson (used to be married to Peter Davison) and Michael Brandon (Demspey and Makepeace) I did recognise.

A lovely afternoon out on a Sunday, a rare occurrence for a theatre, but it was delightful sitting on the grass with a cup of tea in the sunshine, waiting to go in and know that you were going to enjoy the show no matter what! They should prescribe it on the NHS.