Monday, August 3, 2015

Theatre review: The Who's Tommy at Greenwich Theatre

©Claire Bilyard

Based on the 1969 concept album by legendary British rock band The Who, Tommy tells the tale of a young boy who is so traumatised by an event he witnesses, and his mother's reaction to it, that he becomes deaf, dumb and blind. Understandably it's hard for him to function normally after that and matters are made worse by family members who take advantage of him. However, despite his severe limitations, there is one thing that he is incredibly good at: playing pinball. Even if you're not familiar with the musical or the album it's based on, you undoubtedly know the track Pinball Wizard, which is about Tommy's rise to fame and was sung by Elton John in the movie adaptation of the show in the 1970s.

The production at Greenwich Theatre is a stripped-down version, which still retains its futuristic feel through the spot-on direction by Michael Strassen, a funky-looking design by Nik Corrall and the iconic sound created by The Who. The minimalist set both added to the innovative feel of the musical, as with something as simple as a rope they portrayed a house and an actual door to walk through, and it rightfully so put the actors' mesmerising stage presence in the spotlight – especially Ashley Birchall, who was phenomenal in the titular role.

Tommy is an unlikely protagonist with limited capabilities to express his thoughts and feelings to the audience and in the wrong hands he could have easily been a weak and confusing character to focus on, however Birchall's understated performance was both powerful and immensely moving. There were other stand-outs in the cast too, such as Giovanni Spano as bully cousin Kevin and John Barr as the repulsive Uncle Ernie, who were particularly fantastic during their creepily cheerful duet Eyesight to the Blind, but this was really Birchall's show – and rightfully so.

It was also a surprisingly physical performance from all involved with an exceptionally exciting and sometimes unexpected choreography by Mark Smith, which made the cast of 10 look far bigger than they truly were. However, for someone like myself who was not yet familiar with Tommy in any shape or form, the psychedelic show – which certainly matched the revolutionary time period it was created in – was sometimes a little hard to follow. Though due to the incredible performances, choreography, design and music, it  looked and sounded so incredibly cool that I was sat watching in awe rather than continuously trying to figure out what was going on. It's very much a musical where you have to suspend disbelief and go with it, and if you are able to do that you'll be rewarded with an experience unlike any other you'll find in a London theatre.

From Pinball Wizard right down to the reprise of See Me, Feel Me, this show is, simply put, a sensation. The Who's songwriter Pete Townshend certainly hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following lyrics (sung by Tommy in response to discovering his talent for playing pinball, but very applicable to the musical too):

You'll feel me coming
A new vibration
From afar you'll see me
I'm a sensation.

I'll leave you with the below video from the 1975 film and the urge to not be deaf, dumb or blind, but go to the fantastic production at Greenwich Theatre before it closes later this month.

The Who's Tommy is running at Greenwich Theatre until 23 August 2015. You can book tickets here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Book review: The Great Village Show by Alexandra Brown

My edition: Paperback, published on 30 July 2015 by Harper, 371 pages.

Description: Tindledale is in a titter. The Village Show competition is coming around again and after last year’s spectacular failure, the villagers are determined to win. Meg, teacher at the local school, is keen to help and to impose some much-needed order.

After a terse encounter with a newcomer to the village, Meg discovers that it is celebrity chef and culinary bad boy, Dan Wright. Meg thinks he is arrogant and rude but rumour has it that Dan is opening a new restaurant in the village which could really put Tindledale on the map!

As things come together, villagers old and new all start to come out of the woodwork, including new arrival Jessie, who seems to have it all. But first impressions can be deceptive and Meg discovers that when it comes to Tindledale – and Dan – nothing is ever quite as it seems…


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cover reveal: The Day of Second Chances by Julie Cohen

Today I'm SUPER excited to be sharing the beautiful cover of Julie Cohen's new novel with you! It's not out until January, but let's all drool over the stunning design while we impatiently wait for publication date, shall we? 

Blurb: Can you imagine keeping a secret so devastating, you couldn’t even tell the people you love?

Honor’s secret threatens to rob her of the independence she’s guarded ferociously for eighty years.

Jo’s secret could smash apart the ‘normal’ family life she’s fought so hard to build.

Lydia’s secret could bring her love - or the loss of everything that matters to her.

One summer’s day, grandmother, mother and daughter’s secrets will collide in a single dramatic moment. Is it too late for second chances?

The Day of Second Chances will be published on 28th January 2016, so get your pre-order in now from Amazon or your own preferred retailer!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Theatre review: Songs for a New World at St. James Theatre

©Darren Bell

Acclaimed for musicals Parade, The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years – the latter made its cinematic debut earlier this year with Broadway's Jeremy Jordan and screen musical darling Anna Kendrick – American playwright and composer Jason Robert Brown's first staged show, Songs for a New World, is more a revue than a traditional piece of musical theatre, but it has the same distinct lyrical voice which has made the aforementioned shows much-loved among theatre lovers.

Portrayed by just four actors, who are on stage for the duration of the 90-minute piece, at first glance there doesn't seem to be a coherent storyline as the actors portray different characters throughout and for the most part they are solitary performances. Yet the longing for a better life and the hope that perhaps this dream can become a reality in the 'new world' was the consistent theme linking them all together, which created a heartfelt piece that through its surprising mixture of styles – from blues and gospel to pop and the more classic musical theatre tone – went straight to the heart.

Staged at the intimate St James Theatre in London's Victoria, the closeness to the audience and the very basic set and costume designs meant there was nowhere to hide for the actors; they were in the spotlight at all times. It's a risky direction to take, but one that paid off with the immensely talented cast gathered for this 20th anniversary production.

Cynthia Erivo and Damian Humbley first took the stage and provided a mesmerising opening, setting the bar high for the rest of the evening. They were complemented by Jenna Russell, who stole the show during the comedic Surabaya Santa, which tells the frustrated story of Mrs Claus; and Dean John-Wilson, who as the least experienced cast member was the weakest performer but still did an admirable job, and with a hint of boy band to his voice at times his portrayal reminded me of Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz

From the opening bars I was enthralled by the stunning vocal performance of Erivo echoing through the auditorium and I continued to be compelled as it was followed by one fantastic musical number after another, which included several funny pieces by Russell and moving ones by Humbley and Erivo. However, after the previously mentioned Surabaya Santa about two-thirds through, the show lost its stride somewhat and never regained that initial momentum. As it was a relatively short piece, this mean that it was only the last 20 minutes that felt slightly subpar to the previous hour though.

Had the songs been more powerful towards those final moments this would've been a flawless show, as it is it's a solid 4 stars and with this phenomenal cast this is a production that can absolutely not be missed.

Songs for a New World is running at St James Theatre until 8 August 2015. You can book tickets here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review of London-based theatre website SeatPlan

This post is a little bit different as it's neither a review of a theatre show or a stagey event, but it does tie into my tips for London theatre-goers, such as my post Cheap London: How to see West End theatre for less!

is a theatre website that aims to provide a helpful service to those attending shows in and around London, similar to what Theatre Monkey has been doing for quite some years. SeatPlan joined the London theatre game a few years ago as a website where punters can leave their genuine reviews of seats they've sat in to inform fellow theatre-goers of which spots are good value for money and which are better to be avoided.

I joined the site when it was initially set up, though admittedly I haven't used it much since. However, in recent months they have spurred into action somewhat and through their partnership with Official Theatre it has been put back onto my radar, so as soon as time allows I will dig through my box of ticket stubs to add some more reviews to my account that will hopefully be helpful to other people attending those theatres.

To become the go-to website for seating information of London's West End theatres and beyond, the guys behind the site have asked for honest feedback from some regular theatre-goers so they can optimise what they're doing and genuinely provide a service us stagey people want to come back to again and again before booking our tickets.

The 'Book of Mormon' (the most amazing book site)
  • First things first, I love what these guys are aiming to do. Especially when on a budget it can be an agonising job to figure out what seats are affordable but don't induce vertigo or mean having a pillar right in front obstructing 95% of the stage.  

  • They allow uploading of photos from seats to enhance reviews, which elevates them above the service currently provided by Theatre Monkey.

  • The home page is clean and clear to navigate with both a list of popular theatres and recent reviews, targeting new users and frequent visitors respectively.

  • They also provide incentives such as theatre vouchers for frequent seat review uploaders and regular giveaways for 'best reviews' and those who were most active in a particular month.

The 'Bend it Like Beckham' (needs improvement)
  • The site is reasonably new and so the reviews on there are not yet as comprehensive as on Theatre Monkey. I also miss the overview of colour-coded seats which shows good value vs bad value in one quick glance.

  • While there is a search function in the top navigation for theatre or shows, there should really be a menu accessible from all pages to browse theatres and productions too, rather than just the home page.

  • This is not a bad thing per se but I think it'd be great if the site allows for a larger community feel by letting it easily browse other people's profiles and view their reviews (again, a main menu item would be helpful here). This is particularly useful if you found someone who has similar opinions on seats. It is of course very subjective, but once you've found a like-minded person it's easier to trust their opinion than someone who is perhaps 6ft tall and has a great view from most spots anyway.

The 'Viva Forever' (the one that made me wish I'd left at the interval)
  • When I signed up I had been to see a particular show (*cough* Rock of Ages *cough*) A LOT. So much in fact that I thought I could just add my uh 20 or so seat reviews to the site in one go. No such luck. After going through the effort of finding all my ticket stubs so I could review the correct seats and adding them all to the site, they were then deleted as I was believed to not be a genuine user. I can understand the initial suspicion, but a warning would've been nice or even listening to me when I explained. This didn't happen, hence me getting annoyed and not using the site for the consequent years. 

  • The home page proudly displays "Earn £10 of theatre vouchers by writing 10 reviews". I've so far added 18 reviews (according to the site, there were a lot more before the delete spree) and not received any vouchers, this is misleading and disappointing.

  • A lot of theatres are still missing. So many in fact that for my last 10 or so trips I was unable to add reviews for them (for example: Trafalgar Studios, Greenwich Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre).

There is a huge amount of potential for a well-organised and frequently updated site such as SeatPlan. As it is, I use them alongside Theatre Monkey because they don't have all the information I want listed yet (though I'm sure that will come over time). From a perspective of a seat reviewer I'd like it to become more user-friendly (main menu items, pop-out menus and a sitemap are a navigation's best friend!), and deliver on their promise of £10 of theatre vouchers by writing 10 reviews.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book review: The Little Flower Shop by the Sea by Ali McNamara

My edition: Paperback, to be published on 30 July 2015 by Sphere, 387 pages.

Description: Poppy Carmichael, 30, certainly never intended to own a florist.

But when she inherits her grandmother's beloved flower shop on the beautiful Cornish coast, Poppy has no choice but to return to the pretty harbour town of St Felix where she spent much of her childhood.

Returning to St Felix brings back sad memories for Poppy. But when she makes new friends such as local flower grower Jake, a young widowed father of two teenagers, Poppy begins to overcome her fears, and discover for herself what's so special about this little flower shop by the sea.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Matt Haig in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles

My bookish Twitter timeline, who have EXCELLENT taste in great reads by the way, have been showering Cathy Rentzenbrink and her memoir, The Last Act of Love, with nothing but love. Recounting her younger brother being hit by a car, the 8-year-long aftermath and how this devastating event affected both her parents and herself, the novel is understandably a tearjerker, yet many of the reviews I've read also point out that it is a surprisingly uplifting read – similar to Cathy's author event at Foyles Charing Cross Road last week, which was at times moving and at others very funny as she and fellow author Matt Haig, who moderated the Q&A, joked with one another.

Some insightful comments from their conversation:
  • The Last Act of Love is weirdly nourishing, strengthening and therapeutic, considering its subject matter, which is all due to how Cathy has written it, Matt Haig said. He also called it a "brave book".

  • Cathy normally processes things by reading books about it; after reading about something it makes sense in her head. As no-one has written a book about what her brother, parents and she have gone through she felt an obligation to write it herself.

  • The art of memoir writing is that you have to simplify it, which means leaving people out. Despite omitting a lot of people, Cathy has had a lot of old friends and acquaintances get back in touch with her, which she found very nice.

  • A sad book should be short, Cathy said.

  • She was told frequently that time would heal, which is a myth. She feels that her life before and after the accident are in different universes.

  • Matt joked that The Last Act of Love is "one of the most emotional darts memoirs of the year" (spoiler alert: it is not about darts).

  • If the apocalypse happens (which Cathy has thought about) and she'd be left with nothing but pen and paper she still wouldn't have written her memoir; she first and foremost wrote it to communicate (and after an apocalypse there wouldn't be anyone left to communicate with).

  • Cathy's memories of her brother were tainted by the accident and the way he was after, however with the book she wrote herself towards how he used to be.
Summarising some memorable moments from the event really doesn't do the amazing conversation between Cathy and Matt justice; it was fascinating, moving, funny and most of all a beautiful evening.

I ♥ Foyles. Every time I visit – especially for author events – I really do feel like I'm with friends. Thanks for another fabulous bookish evening!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book review: The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

My edition: Paperback (proof), published on 18 June 2015 by Galley Beggar Press, 260 pages.

Description: Steven Strauss is just where he doesn’t want to be: on a ‘business trip’ to India with his boss Raymond Ess, the charismatic and chaotic founder of Resolute Aviation. Lately the company has fallen on hard times – indeed Steven and his fellow employees have accepted that Resolute is dead and they’re all going to lose their jobs. But not Raymond Ess. Ess is determined to save his beloved company, and to this end he’s devised an audacious rescue plan. He claims that during his recent travels he has come across a man, a recluse of the Indian wilds, who is willing to sell his remarkable invention: an antigravity machine. Now, with Steven in tow, Ess has returned to India planning to buy the machine, to bring it to market and thereby right all wrongs, recover all losses, restore all reputations.

Steven knows it is madness. He knows antigravity machines don’t exist. He knows also that last year Raymond Ess had a spectacular mental breakdown. However in India, Steven will find there is much that he doesn’t know. Who is this reclusive inventor, this Tarik Kundra, and does he even exist? Who is this guide who will take them to find him in the country’s most remote wilderness, Asha Jarwal? And who is this bumbling, soft-spoken elderly American, Harry Altman, and why is he suddenly everywhere Ess and Steven go?


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book review: Frank Derrick's Holiday of a Lifetime by J.B. Morrison

My edition: Paperback, published on 4 June 2015 by Pan, 352 pages.

Description: Frank Derrick is eighty-two. And apparently that makes him old. But he just doesn't feel old. Sure, his limbs ache, he can't sleep more than a few hours a night and it takes him a while to get going in the morning. But he's still Frank. A dad, a granddad, a friend to Bill the cat.

So when he receives a phone call from Los Angelos with news that his grown-up daughter's life is falling apart, his natural instinct is to drop everything to be with her. Unfortunately for Frank, that means using his life savings and putting himself in danger of losing his home. But then, Frank's never been one for long-term plans. He can sort out where he and Bill the cat will live when he's back.

And so Frank gets on a plane for the first time in his life. He was never much good at helping his daughter through crises when she was growing up. He left all that to his wife Sheila, who died nearly ten years ago. Now it's time to step up to his role of father to Beth. Joining forces with his determined granddaughter Laura, they begin The Reunion Project in an attempt to bring some happiness back into Beth's life and to bring the family back together again for one happy family holiday.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Book review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

My edition: Paperback (proof), published on 16 July 2015 by Orion, 304 pages.

Description: Lois and Carly-May are just twelve years old when they’re abducted and imprisoned for two months.

That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they form a bond which will never be broken…

Decades later, both Lois and Carly-May have built new lives and identities for themselves.

Lois and Carly-May are drawn together again to face the truth of their beautiful, terrible story.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award

The lovely Jody at Spoonful of Happy Endings has nominated me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Awards, which is very exciting!

The rules are simple...

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you, linking back to their site.
2. Put the Award logo on your blog.
3. Answer the ten questions sent to you.
4. Make up ten new questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Nominate ten blogs (so scroll down to see if you're listed!).

Questions for me...

1. What are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading the scrumptious The Chocolate Apothecary by Jospehine Moon, which I'm reviewing for Novelicious.

2. If you could be any character in one of your favourite books who would it be and why? 

Hermione, because who hasn't waited for their Hogwarts acceptance letter?! Hermione is a character I was always able to identify with because she was bookish and awkward so as a kid I wanted to be her (and let's face it, I still do).

3. Choose a superpower and why you want that power?

Teleportation, without a doubt. I live in the UK, but my family is in the Netherlands and while it doesn't sound too far, the journey to the north of the country (where they are) is always very long and tiring - not to mention that visiting them takes up most of my holiday allocation, not leaving me much to use on an actual holiday away! And some of my best friends live all over the world and I'd love to be able to see them more frequently than once every few years.

4. Favourite setting for a book? 

A magical library.
5. Name five books you want to read but keep putting off.

I'm not putting off picking up these per se, but there are always more urgent books to read (for review) and so ones I bought or have been gifted always move to the bottom of my massive to-read pile :(
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey 
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tart 
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton 
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
6. What genre is your favourite and why?

Literary fiction. Books within this (very large) genre are incredibly diverse and interesting, they're well-written (I'm often envious of the beautiful way with words the authors have), provide a lot of food for thought and a wealth of opportunities for discussion.

7. What do you have planned for summer? 

Nothing too exciting, sadly. I started a new job this year and have less holiday days than if I'd worked there for a full year so I'm saving them up to go home for Christmas. It'll mostly be working, working, working, with the occasional weekend day-trip to get away from London. I'm going to Manchester in September and am hoping to book some journeys back to Brighton and somewhere new as well. Plus I recently moved house so I'm also using my weekends to explore the new area in North London. I purchased a bike so I'm ready to hit the local parks!

8. Favourite TV shows? 

Agent Carter, Chuck, Dawson's Creek, Galavant, Gilmore Girls, Graceland, Pushing Daisies, Revenge, The Big Bang Theory, The Flash, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, White Collar, and so many more *TV junkie*

9. What's your opinion on ebooks?

They're great when travelling because it means I will have actual space for clothes in my suitcase, but I still much prefer holding a book to read. And for reviewing purposes I can't read ebooks as it's difficult to quickly flip through them when looking for a name or quote when writing the review.

10. Snog, Marry, Avoid? Harry Potter, Neville Longbottom, Draco Malfoy.

Snog: Harry Potter. Marry: Neville Longbottom (because have you seen what he looks like nowadays?! *swoons*). Avoid: Draco Malfoy.

After finishing answering the questions I realised I copied the wrong ones across, oops! So sorry, Jody *blushes*

Questions for you...

01. How did you get into book blogging?
02. If you could invite three authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would you choose and why?
03. What is your favourite place to read? (Bonus points for a picture.)
04. Do you dog-ear the pages of your books? (The correct answer is: no.)
05. Which novel(s) did you wish you'd not struggled on with until the bitter end?
06. Favourite non-fiction book?
07. What book cover are you currently in love with?
08. Favourite fictional villain?
09. Which 5 classics have you never read even though you keep telling yourself that you should?
10. Favourite book of all time and why?

I tag...

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book review: The Heavenly Italian Ice Cream Shop by Abby Clements

My edition: Paperback, published on 2 July 2015 by Simon & Schuster, 400 pages.

Description: Anna and her husband Matteo are preparing to embark on a delicious Italian adventure. After a year and a half running their ice cream shop on Brighton beach and raising their baby Isabella, Matteo is starting to miss Italy.

A shared passion for ices means it's easy to settle on a new business idea - they'll open a sorbet shop on the town's cobbled square, a short walk from the sparkling blue sea. For a while, life is sweet; but then Matteo's overbearing family get involved…

Anna's younger sister Imogen has settled in Brighton running Vivien's Ice Cream Shop with boyfriend Finn, and for the first time in her life, she's enjoying putting down some roots. But then, late in the summer, things start to change and her willpower is put to the test…


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Theatre review: Constellations at Trafalgar Studios

©Helen Maybanks

The stars were aligned for Constellations to return to its inception home town. After opening at the Royal Court Theatre more than three years ago, the play continued on to take first the West End and then Broadway by storm, before finally making a welcome return to the capital via a nationwide tour. For a mere 70-minute long two-hander about quantum physics this is no mean feat, and has earned playwright Nick Payne rightfully so the Evening Standard Award for Best Play.

Do you believe in the possibility of infinite universes,
each choice you make creating a new path and possible future?

Marianne (Sherlock's Louise Brealey), a quantum physicist, and Roland (Robin Hood's Joe Amstrong), an urban beekeeper, first meet on a rainy day at a barbecue. Again. And again. And again. On some occasions he is married and at other times he is just not interested in pursuing a relationship, but then there are the realities where despite Marianne's awkward attempt at flirting and her nearly incoherent bumbling about the improbability of a person licking their own elbows (unless they are immortal) the two strangers click and their story gets a continuation beyond that chance meeting.

Over the course of their relationship simple choices such as sleeping together on their first date, a weakening willpower leading to infidelity, or going for a drink after not having seen each other for a while, create an infinite range of possible futures; some in which Marianne and Roland stick together until the bitter end, others where their relationship runs its course far sooner due to a combination of different paths they take along the way. There is only one consistency in their story and that is that there is none.

For a play visualising the complicated topic of string theory it was surprisingly simple and straight-forward. The idea of the infinite realities could have easily been lost on the audience, particularly as there was just a little over an hour to get the message across in, yet Nick Payne managed to simplify the subject matter into a relatable and completely engaging piece of theatre that felt far more like a heart-rendering insight into a relationship between two people than it did one of the most difficult particles of physics.

In fact, the entire production was defined by a subtle simplicity, with the only change in set design being the dimming of the light to indicate a move from one reality to the next. The ethereal staging, comprised of little more than a ceiling covered in white balloons, added to the effectiveness of the play as it created a sole focus on the actors' capability to quite literally snap from one extreme emotion to another with the flick of a light switch. Stripping away any and all possible distractions it left a pure theatre masterclass by Brealey and Armstrong – and one that was a sheer delight to experience.

Constellations is running at Trafalgar Studios until 1 August 2015. You can book tickets here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book review: Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton

My edition: Paperback (proof), published on 2 July 2015 by Harper, 438 pages.

Description: Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama.

Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette's desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever.

When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book review: How to Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle and Sarah Mlynowski

My edition: Paperback, published on 4 June 2015 by Hot Key Books, 325 pages.

Description: Jesse, Vicks and Mel couldn't be more different. Jesse, a righteous Southern gal who's as thoughtful as she is uptight, is keeping a secret that she knows will change her life forever. Vicks is a wild child: seemingly cool, calm and collected on the outside, but inside she's furious at herself for being so anxious about her neglectful boyfriend. And Mel is the new girl in town. She's already been dismissed as just another rich kid, but all she wants is to get over some of her fears and find some true friends.

But for all their differences, the girls discover they've got one thing in common - they're desperate to escape. Desperate to get the heck out of Niceville and discover their true 'badass' selves! Even if it's just for the weekend ... One 'borrowed' car later, it's time to hit the road and head for Miami. Hearts will be broken, friendships will be tested, and a ridiculously hot stranger could change the course of everything.