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June 7, 2013
Abigail’s Party, New Theatre, Cardiff
LAWRENCE wants to listen to flautist James Galway, Bev wants to dance to Demis Roussos – the musical dissonance is the perfect background noise in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at the New Theatre in Cardiff.
It climaxes with the 1812 Overture and fireworks and frosty exchanges in the living room as Bev and Lawrence’s “little party” for the neighbours becomes sourer and sourer as the fast-flowing alcohol gets stronger and stronger.
Lascivious hostess Bev, played by Hannah Waterman in this production and famously by Alison Steadman in the original 1977 Play for Today, is the bored housewife who uses her smouldering sexuality to lure new neighbour Tony, who once played soccer in Crystal Palace’s first team, away from his wife Ange and into her arms for a lewd dance.
Fifth participant, nervous divorcee Sue, twitchy about the party her 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing over the road, cannot relax and enjoy herself with the two couples at breaking point, making small talk about rotisseries, records and mentioning wife-swapping.
The setting is a hideously kitsch 1970s suburban living room at a time when working class people used “coloured” for black, “handicapped” for disabled and “half-caste” for mixed race and we watched shows like Love thy Neighbour and On the Buses.
Bev failed her driving test three times and is frustrated that Lawrence changes his car too often and she has no say in the choice of make and model.
She waltzes around the stage in a figure-hugging livid green plunging neckline dress topping up drinks aggressively, handing round cigarettes and saying things like “pardon my French”. She manipulates her breasts like two lethal torpedoes locked-on to Tony, enraging a deliciously scatty and air-headed Ange, played superbly by Katie Lightfoot.
Leigh brilliantly captures the way ordinary people speak ordinarily, effortlessly finding the staccato rhythm and boozy breeziness.
The actors in Lindsay Posner’s production played it like a deliciously energetic, perfectly paced tragi-comic dance, link then separate, rise then fall, combine then combat. The play, like much of Leigh’s work, is about distance between people who are geographically very close to each other, two couples who live together.
Hannah Waterman for me doesn’t fully convince as Bev. Her angry restlessness and boredom is very well covered but it is the underlying vulnerability and depth that feels somehow under-revealed in the performance, like a well which is covered up with a piece of wood.
There are laughs galore in the play, however, and some of the vicious repartee between social climbers, snobs and class-obsessed bigots reminded me of the painful reality of life in the 1970s.
On the surface, everything was just tickety-boo, but underneath terrors lurked in suburbia. The times, as Bob Dylan once sang, were definitely a changing.
Abigail’s Party is currently at the New Theatre and after on tour.

Say It With Flowers, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
May 18, 2013
DOROTHY Squires went from sell-out shows at the London Palladium and tea at the Ritz with the showbiz, fashion and literary elite to the ignominy of offers to perform in Welsh valleys Conservative clubs and takeaway fish and chips eaten from the paper wrapper with a local fan in a property offered to her when she was left homeless after her mansion burned down then another home was flooded.
Her squalid and painful demise – ending in a lonely death aged 83 in a Rhondda hospital of lung cancer – is well documented in a moving new musical showcasing her songs, called Say It With Flowers, at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, until May 25, which won the cast a standing ovation on the night I visited.
The memorable advice to always be nice to people on your way up because you never know when you might need them on the way down was never heeded by Dot, who famously sued for libel so often she was eventually branded a vexatious litigant.
Friends, family and lovers – her husband Roger Moore, played by Matt Nalton, is not exactly a Saint in this – all deserted her and it was left to her mystery fan in the Rhondda Valley to come to her aid when the applause and the money dried up.
The musical concentrates on the relationship between the crestfallen, ageing diva, played by Ruth Madoc of Hi-De-Hi fame, and her rescuer and obsessive fan Maise, played by Lynn Hunter.
The broken and old Dorothy sits in her new home back in the Valleys and looks across the stage at her younger self, played superbly by impressive songstress Gillian Kirkpatrick (sashaying sexily in her outrageously over-the-top and kitsch stage costumes), and recalls the highs and lows of a life in the fast lane, wondering if it is too late to mend fences with family, particularly niece Emily, played by Heledd Gwynn in her first professional role.
There are some witty lines (although too many Oscar Wilde quotations) in the play written by Meic Povey and old stager Johnny Tudor, who knew Dot and who performed an impromptu tap dancing routine in the foyer during the interval on the night I visited.
The drama centres on the singer’s relationship with fan Maise, cleverly contrasting two outwardly similar Welsh women – one star-struck, the other star-fucked (the swearing is sometimes deliriously gratuitous in this, so don’t bring the vicar).
Ms Madoc gives a curiously engaging performance – part imperious Evita Peron part garrulous Gladys Pugh – in the crucial role of a broken diva desperately clinging on to her dignity.
The early scenes where she establishes rapport with Maise, played with energetic rhythm by a delightfully comic Lynn Hunter, seemed rushed and nervy and they needed to slow down.
The synchronicity between them increases in the second act, however, and Ms Madoc opens up and relaxes into her role – proving at the end that she can sing, too.
Indeed, all the cast members invite the audience to join them in singing Say It With flowers – I wonder what Dorothy would have made of it?

April 25, 2013
Othello, National Theatre, London
PLANT the seeds of doubt and crippling sexual jealousy in the mind then watch them grow into murder, mayhem and madness – sound familiar?
Nicholas Hytner’s Othello at the National Theatre gives us an added dimension of menace by cleverly bringing Shakespeare’s brilliant tale of deadly deception bang-up-to date, setting it in an Iraq or Camp Bastion-style military outpost complete with mobile latrines, military drinking games, full light khaki desert battle dress and makeshift offices complete with filing cabinets and laptop computers. Helicopters whir over barbed-wire cocooned garrisons and neutral orange perimeter lamps burn through the night in this bleak, washed out and featureless hellhole. I half expected to see Prince Harry make a brief appearance before running off on a helicopter emergency shout.
Elsewhere, the Venetian battle planners and senators are all in Versace suits, moving and shaking like licentious lounge lizards around long tables in modern rectangular boardrooms.
Adrian Lester brings a great deal of depth to the part of Othello – making him by turns virtuous then vulnerable, vainglorious then vanquished. Rory Kinnear, as schemer supreme Iago, excels in his illuminating asides to the audience, explaining to us the full extent of his evil intent towards the man he hates.
The racial angle seems incidental. Othello is just another insecure male – who happens to be black – made unsure of his wife’s fidelity by whispers in his ear from an ensign who tells him just enough to ferment paranoia.
This, of course, is where the play really makes accurate portentous statements on life in the Facebook, Twitter and social networking age today.
Just enough of the wrong information gathered from the wrong people or person – and there are plenty of wicked internet trolls and tyrants like Iago out there in cyberspace, some of them, even, in executive boardrooms like the ones in Venice – can infect the mind and turn blissfully doting and loving people in happy relationships into suspicious, paranoid and eventually guilt-stricken, broken people who take their own lives.
Olivia Vinall gives a wonderfully engaging performance as Desdemona, her innocence and purity finding its ultimate expression in her refusal to name him as her killer on her deathbed.
Lyndsey Marshal, as Emilia, Iago’s wife, brought solid defiance in the deathbed scene, losing her life while challenging the vipers in the despicable nest.
Rory Kinnear has the majority of stage time, masterminding the evil and pernicious plot and unfolding it while masquerading as an innocent abroad, having skilfully sold the lie to Othello of his loyalty and best intentions always.
Kinnear makes the most of his stage time and eloquently enunciates the beautiful language (indeed, clear and crisp enunciation is a welcome feature of this particularly polished production where every word is cherished by the actors).
His clashes with Othello are particularly well choreographed and the heated oral interplay throughout are handled superbly by both actors, displaying strong understanding of their own parts and, crucially, of each other.
The neutral setting and the lucid, crisp language allow us to concentrate on the themes of despicable deception and deceit in the internet age.
Sexual jealousy – that tried and tested old “green-eyed monster” – is the motif used to bring about the madness. I had just finished reading A C Grayling’s book Liberty In The Age of Terror when I went to see Othello in preview last night (Wednesday, April 24).
The message from both is – be careful who and what you believe and be very wary of enemies who present as friends, especially, perhaps, Facebook “friends”.
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Roy Lichtenstein, Tate Modern and Manet at the Royal Academy, London
March 25, 2013
THE startling scale and liberating sweep of pop art star Roy Lichtenstein’s work immediately uplifted me when I saw the Retrospective show at the Tate Modern in London last week – like an hour-long blitz of particularly effective anti-depressants in short, sharp bursts.
I contrasted that with the feeling I got at the Edouard Manet show at the Royal Academy – less euphoric and effective in banishing the unseasonal March winter weather blues but just as powerful and impressive in a radically different way.
How you view shows can sometimes be influenced by how you view the venues where they are exhibited. The Tate Modern seems to me all expanse and freedom and the RA, by contrast, seems all rigidity and control (huge numbers of people were filing through the rooms when I visited as Manet – Portraying Life has been sold out on many days, and it was sometimes difficult to properly view the paintings and the explanatory notes alongside).
Manet’s work is, of course, more about rigidity and control than expanse and freedom – the most obvious difference being in the size of paintings, some of Lichtenstein’s are in the region of 24 feet by 12 feet, whereas Manet’s were more conventional, probably reflecting the fact that he did not have at his disposal a factory-sized studio.
Both painted people, particularly faces, often and were hugely influential in the genre – Manet established himself in Paris as the father of modern art in the 1800s by taking risks and innovating and Lichtenstein in New York set the art world alight with his startling pop art canvases like Whaam! (note the extra “a”) painted in 1963.
Manet’s The Railway, 1873, (viewers and critics at the official Paris Salon of 1874 found its subject baffling, its composition incoherent, and its execution sketchy) with its uniform vertical lines making up the railings being held by the young girl set against an unwavering white backdrop of steam from the train boldly foresees a more expressive and liberated future, witnessed in Lichtenstein’s experiments with uniform lines set against massive monotone backgrounds.
Where Lichtenstein used primary colours cynically and in a controlled fashion in huge mono washes and was inspired by industrial printing processes, Manet blended colours together more subtly on a palette and achieved a grittier, more realistic effect, suggesting substance and depth.
Lichtenstein’s superficial faces are all objects rather than subjects, grounded in advertising poster, picture postcard and cartoon fantasy. The blown-up doll blonde girls are totally blonde, totally perfect, totally naked and totally desirable but their eyes are blank and sardonic. The faces are a reminder of the voyeuristic appeal of perfectly manufactured images in our manipulated, Photo-Shopped and porn-saturated world. Soulless and unemotional, they gaze back like Barbie dolls in a hypnotic and instantly marketable, masturbatory fantasy of female availability and compliance.
Manet’s faces are much more intense, realistic and unglamorous – many of his sitters were friends or family – and his work far more accurately explores the psychology and emotions of a sitter.
The Luncheon, 1868, demonstrates his skill for capturing character and of making the scene subservient to the subjects, like a stage for excellent actors to strut their stuff on.
Lichtenstein, however, rarely emphasises depth and character but instead explores and celebrates artificiality, commercialisation, and the wicked ways of advertising as if all were deeply profound and worthy of study in their own right.
Significantly, both painters were born into urban, upper middle-class families. Manet was the son of a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice and Lichtenstein was the son of a real estate broker. Manet, particularly, mixed with leading Parisian aristocrats of the time and he painted French politicians like Georges Clemenceau and Antonin Proust (both portraits on show at the RA).
Their relatively privileged positions in New York and Paris society enabled them to paint for pleasure rather than for money and their skill and command of the canvas and the very obvious joy derived from their work is very well exhibited in both shows.
Lichtenstein parodies great works of art from Old Masters like Picasso, a major influence, and Matisse and his work constantly refers to and pays homage to the work of others. What sets him apart is his sense of fun, sardonic smirk and sheer exuberance with colour. The depth and profundity in the cartoon caricatures like Look Mickey, 1963, with their uniform Benday dots for skin tones and monotone slabs of vivid yellow (yellow dominates his work), comes in our examination of the way we interact with the images. Are we laughing at them or, ultimately, at ourselves and do we even care?
With Manet, we cannot help but be swept away by the technical brilliance of his work and the confident brio. Dejeuner sur l’herbe, 1863-68, of which a smaller, more loosely painted version of the famous original is on show (the even more scandalous Olympia, 1863, is not on show here), which combines a naked woman with clothed men, caused a scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris.
Manet and Lichtenstein then, might have related well to each other had they been alive at the same time. They might even have been a strange kind-of father and son of modern art.
GarryWGibbs943 words
Lichtenstein – A Retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London until May 27, open daily from 10.00 to 18.00 and late until 22.00 on Friday and Saturday.
Manet – Portraying Life is at the Royal Academy, London, until April 14, open daily and every Friday and Saturday until 23.00.
Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern is on BBC4 television tonight (Monday, March 25) at 23.20.

Book review
By Garry W Gibbs
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Penguin books first published 1813
REVISITING Jane Austen is rather like going back to see irritating old friends who shock and sicken you with their despicably, unashamedly materialistic values in an unfairly privileged setting – brandishing their wealth in palatial piles like gaudy gold tassels on a high-class hooker’s bra – yet entrance you at the same time with their effortless elegance, elan and smartly sardonic wit.
“Superior consequence” is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice in the sense that superiority is only really of any consequence if it is used to enhance a collective rather than an individual. But who really are the superiors? what does consequence mean? And, crucially, who comprises the collective?
Why would anyone care if the people who comprise the collective know the price of everything yet know the value of absolutely zilch? The distorting lens of obscene wealth makes everything and everyone obscene and in desperate need of redemption. Jane Austen’s task, then, is to initially make us like these entertaining grotesques, very probably in spite of ourselves, and then lead us to a pleasing and just redemption which brings hope and optimism for a better meta world in the future.
Elizabeth Bennett seems to be the voice of the author, constantly wondering what the answers to these questions are herself. Dear Eliza (I always have to resist the temptation to ape Austen’s affected yet breathlessly paced and instantly engaging prose style) concentrates her efforts on the aloof and taciturn Mr Darcy, largely because he epitomises superiority in almost everything he says and does.
He would have been superior at that time because he was a man not a woman, he had inherited enormous wealth and was not a poor pauper, and he had breeding, discernment and education and was not the village idiot.
But could he possibly also be a nice guy and could our dear Eliza – whose future happiness, like all the vacuous and decorative single women in the novel (they rate their value based on how many dances eligible bachelors ask them for at the ball rather than how well they dance), seems to rely on making a suitable match – really give her heart to him? The journey from hating him to loving him is tortuous and often contradictory for dear Eliza. She riles against him, finding him offensive and rude, then she finds him attractive and warm, then riles against him, then finds him attractive and warm. She is dizzy with distaste which turns into, whisper it, desire (though film and television versions, of course, overplay the desire – I can find nothing in the novel to even suggest that Fitzwilliam Darcy might strip to swim in a lake and shortly after encounter Miss Bennett).
This makes dear Eliza quite different to many of the other women, who seem to settle on husbands in the way homeless wanderers settle on accommodating, dry doorways in shops. Take Charlotte Lucas, who takes the hand of the odious Mr Collins. “Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”
Dear Eliza, however, admits that “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”. She is a pragmatist, after all, though there is apparently a proven link between the state of a man’s garden and the state of his mind.
I can think of no better summary of an entire novel in the opening paragraph than “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. In many ways, you do not need to read any further.
Pride and Prejudice (today it might be called Superiority and Snobbery), not in my opinion as good as Austen’s Emma, makes me wonder whether Austen was contemptuous of these characters and was engaging in social satire? I also wonder how aware she was of female emancipation?
The novel ends, of course, with a double wedding. I wonder if everyone threw confetti at the two couples. I might have been tempted to throw something far less decorative and fragrant but I’m sure that would have been of no consequence at all.

Book review

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters

Virago 2009

THE idea of a doting doctor who comes out to visit me and who would even offer me the latest trailblazing therapy in the comfort of my own home at no charge predisposed me to like Dr Faraday, the apparently generous GP in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

After all, what are the chances of my GP even setting foot inside my home in these cash-strapped days where you have to be almost literally at death’s door to get an ambulance. I find it almost impossible to book an appointment with my GP now, he’s either on holiday or is permanently fully booked two weeks in advance.

But back in 1947, pre-NHS (never mind NHS reforms) and pre Harold Shipman, local GPs treated patients as customers and, obviously, the richer the patient the better the service (which probably explains why the service I get is so lousy).

So when Faraday arrives at Hundreds Hall, county seat of the decaying but “still big people in the district” Ayres family, to treat their servant Betty for a psychosomatic complaint, he knows this could be the beginning of a new adventure. Quite how terrifying an adventure he doesn’t know – or does he?

Faraday is not a stranger to the house as his mother was a nursemaid there and the visit affords him the opportunity to get acquainted with the “big” family in the big house on a more equal social footing now he has qualified as a medic.

He uncovers a horrendous casebook of psychosomatic phenomena at the hall with poltergeists, terrifying psychic fires and dead of night disturbances in locked up upstairs rooms which literally frighten the life out of the Ayres family. The doctor acts as our narrator and tells the story from his perspective, including the details he thinks important and omitting those he does not, testing out, perhaps in a clever and intriguing way, the theory that we can always trust a doctor with their forensic, practical approach. He offers cold, rational scientific explanations for the irrational occurrences consistently in exactly the way medically-minded people who have an internal locus of control would be expected to to prevent hysterical and melodramatic ravings of the mind taking hold.

All the characters seem either sexually disinterested or repressed (epitomised by Caroline who “can’t” yield to the sexual advances made by the underwhelming and humdrum Faraday) and one of the doctor’s colleagues warns him “the sexual impulse is the darkest of all, and has to emerge somewhere. It’s like an electrical current; it has a tendency, you know, to find its own conductors. But if it goes untapped – well, then it’s a rather dangerous energy.”

This was a time when psychological explanations for sexual energy were mostly Freudian and doctors were still trapped in less permissive, culturally restricted theories around issues like nymphomania and around the libido being mainly male so that women were seen as more passive and less voracious in their appetites generally.

The sex object for Dr Faraday, Caroline Ayres, plays up to this stereotype as she is inexperienced and neutral sexually (she is one of those people who seems genuinely far happier working up a sweat exercising her dog in the open air than working one up indoors in her bedroom). But there is longing and desire in Faraday’s observations of her “nude” eye lids and “thickish” bare legs and ankles and “large, well-shaped and mobile” mouth. He views her consistently in a slightly voyeuristic, coldly functional way, more through the eyes of a faintly lascivious pathologist than a potential lover.

The “little stranger” (the real reason for all the psychic disturbances in Hundreds Hall) is summed up by Faraday thus: “I’d rather there were some physical problem here; it would be easier to treat. But I’m afraid what we’re dealing with is some kind of, well, mental illness.” This diagnosis – whispered discreetly rather than trumpeted loudly because of the eviscerating stigma for a well-bred county family with rich pedigree and well-connected antecedents – enables him to consign Caroline’s brother Roderick to an asylum, treat her mother for delusional impulses and drug them all as well as shape their future in accord with his own wish to social climb and gain a firm foothold in the “county set” by marrying Caroline and become new master of the mansion.

The reader is again invited to trust in the process of diagnosis, to accept that doctor knows best; but there are supernatural forces – a young girl is savaged by an otherwise docile dog, a “presence” is felt in the house and frightening electrical energies, he is a Faraday after all, persist to wreak havoc repeatedly – which the doctor cannot rationalise and he cannot offer a prescription as they seem to defy any conventional medical treatment. An exorcism might be considered appropriate but this is the upper middle class English home-counties where churches are strictly for formal occasions like births, deaths and marriages and there is disdain and contempt for outward shows of faith.

Everybody loses and nobody gains in this unrelenting tale of misery and madness. What makes it so gripping is the taut and logical description of the extraordinary events always from a rational, reasoned and scientific perspective, which reminded me somewhat of Dr Watson’s narration of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. Like Watson, Faraday is an unremarkable man with few special qualities or attributes (both are self-contained, controlled and inclined to be controlling in disposition) describing remarkable events with frightening special qualities and attributes.

Where the novel fails is in its superficial, disappointing analysis of the hugely exciting conflict between faith and reason, between hard, cold, science and the frighteningly illogical supernatural. It leaves the reader feeling that the battle at Hundreds Hall has definitely been lost – there is a lingering feeling of gloom from the beginning which resonates throughout – but the rules of battle were never properly explained and the combatants never properly introduced to each other.

The Little Stranger is the latest book read as part of Cardiff Booktalk

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