My edition: Paperback, published on 23 October 2014 by Sphere, 448 pages.
Description: Movie addict Scarlett O'Brien is finally living the jet-setting life she's dreamed of, but it all hangs by a shiny, golden thread. Flying between London and New York, running two businesses, and planning her wedding to handsome fiance Sean along with her best friends Oscar and Maddie--life couldn't be better.
Then Scarlett meets paparazzi darling Gabriella Romero, and life suddenly becomes even more extravagant and glamourous. But as she begins to experience the other side of being rich and famous, it's not only Scarlett's perfect wedding that's put in jeopardy, but her whole world.
Brits of all ages will be familiar with the story of The Railway Children, which was initially published at the beginning of the 20th century. There have been adaptations in various shapes since - radio, television and film, to name but a few - but none are quite as immersive as the theatrical version, which manages to transport its audience to bygone days in the English countryside as soon as they set foot in the purpose-built theatre at King's Cross Station.
Actors dressed in period clothing guide audience members through dark tunnels first to a themed refreshment area, all classic wood paneling and battered leather suitcases to emanate the time the story is set, and then to the correct 'platform' for departure. Upon entering the auditorium you instantly feel like you're inside a real railway station as tracks run down the middle of the stage, with staggered seating on both sides.
The story centres on three children, Bobby, Peter and Phyllis, who are forced to leave their privileged London life behind with their mother after their father is arrested on suspicion of espionage. For an adult used to the spoils and entertainment of a big city, the English countryside would soon become a bore but for these three children it means endless adventures; from waving to the trains that come through the station, to making friends with the locals and people passing through.
From an audience perspective the sentiment will be very similar, what may seem rather insipid to the adults in the audience, was visibly magical to the younger children watching the story unfold in the auditorium. They were perched on the edges of their seats as they followed the adventures of the three siblings, from their ingenious plan to stop a train heading for disaster, to their kind-hearted attempt at helping one of the villagers.
The highlight of the production, for young and old, was no doubt the impressive staging. All throughout, the 'tracks' running through the middle of the stage were utilised to emanate movement and change to the setting, and when in a hazy cloud of smoke a real-life steam train drove into the theatre as the impressive interval show-stopper, it received gasps of awe and a well-deserved round of applause.
The story is perhaps not quite as gripping for adults as it is for younger children, but the atmospheric, immersive approach to theatre and the show-stealing train at the heart of the production, make this a great family outing.
The Railway Children is running at the King's Cross Theatre and is currently taking bookings until 6 September 2015. Buy tickets here.
My edition: Hardcover, to be published on 19 February 2015 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 309 pages.
Description: Welcome to London, but not as you know it.
Oxford Street burned for three weeks
The British Museum is squatted by ragtag survivors
The Regent's Park camps have been bombed
The Nazareth Act has come into force. If you can't produce your identity card, you will be shot.
Lalla, 16, has grown up sheltered from the new reality by her visionary father, Michael Paul. But now the chaos has reached their doorstep. Michael has promised Lalla and her mother that they will escape. Escape is a ship big enough to save 500 people. But only the worthy will be chosen.
Once on board, as day follows identical day, Lalla's unease grows. Where are they going? What does her father really want?
As a perpetual book lover I have of course always known about the magic hidden within the pages of a really good read and it seems the rest of the world has finally caught up and discovered their fabulousness too. There have been more page-to-screen adaptations in recent years than ever before – high-profile ones include the likes of Harry Potter, The Kite Runner, The Fault in Our Stars, Life of Pi, The Hunger Games and Gone Girl– with many more in the pipeline for this year; Me Before You, Fifty Shades of Gray, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, to name but a few, and of course Still Alice, adapted from the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova (Simon & Schuster, 2012), for which leading lady Julianne Moore has been nominated for a prestigious Oscar for Best Actress.
The film has not yet been released in the UK, so I was really excited when I was invited to an advance screening at the lush Soho Hotel by publishers Simon & Schuster. It was lovely to see the team before the screening and they did not only have copies of the novels on hand for attendees but even gave me some tissues because, I was told, I was going to need them. Now that is what I call an excellent service.
I admit I knew little about the film before going in (I had not even read the book yet, shame on me) other than it would be focus on a relatively young woman being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This meant that other than Julianne Moore starring as titular character Alice I didn't even know who else would be in the cast. So when Kristen Stewart made her first appearance on screen as one of Alice's children, I inwardly sighed and rolled my eyes as I don't think she's the strongest of performers and I worried she would bring down the quality of the film. I needn't have worried, as she was really rather excellent as the youngest of three siblings trying to cope with the rapid decline in the mental state of their mother and the person they knew her as.
While seeing the struggles of each of the siblings, as well as Alice's husband (Alec Baldwin), created an engaging palette for the audience to connect to the story, it was Julianne Moore's mesmerising performance which carried the film and made it such an exceptionally moving story. Of course the subject matter is harrowing in its own right, but without the right person taking on the role it would never have been such a poignant experience. I was completely gripped from start to finish and when the title screen appeared I was actually taken aback that the story had already come to a conclusion. In just an hour and a half I felt like I'd become incredibly close to Alice and her family and I was not yet ready to let go.
The sniffling and tissue-rustling all around me in the cinema confirmed that it was a definite tearjerker of a film, but it was also incredibly beautiful and thoughtful; well worth a trip to the cinema.
Still Alice will open in cinemas across the UK on 6 March 2015.
Last year I visited The King's Head Theatre, London's oldest surviving theatre pub, for the first time for Neil LaBute's Autobahn. Up until that point I'd always been wary of a 'theatre above a pub' (or at the back of the pub, as is the case for this one) as I'd been spoiled by years of visiting the grand, ornate theatres that fill the West End. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that the auditorium was a completely soundproof and separate part of the establishment, with reasonably comfy seats and an excellent view of the stage from all angles. The quality of the production too was much better than I'd expected, so when I received an invite to press night of The Diary of a Nobody at the same theatre, I didn't have to think twice before accepting.
Adapted from the classic serial by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody does what it says on the tin; it chronicles the every day life of an ordinary London clerk by the name of Charles Pooter in the late 19th century. Not an awful lot of exciting things happen to him, so the 'highlights' of his days include regular visits from his friends Gowing and Cummings, and watching the growth of the plants in his garden. It sounds like these events would make for a rather dull 90 minutes of theatre, but Pooter's musings are portrayed in such a humorous, farcical way that this play is an absolute delight to watch.
As soon as we walked into the theatre space we knew we were in for a unique experience; the set, props and even the costumes were all resembling two-dimensional pencil drawings, almost as if they'd come straight out of a sketchbook or a diary, of course. It was a very quirky and fun way to represent different places and items, while simultaneously ensuring that the focus of the play was on the actors and their extra-ordinary ability to transform the stage and themselves with the simple addition of a headpiece and a different accent.
And transform they did. The four actors portrayed an astonishing 45 characters during the play, sometimes switching from one character to the other within just seconds. It's a gimmicky approach to theatre and one that I have seen before, most notably in The 39 Steps, but that didn't make it any less joyful or impressive. It completely worked for this production and even when set pieces suffered from the speed with which the actors moved on stage (I'm still not sure whether some parts were supposed to come down or not!), it fit the over-the-top silliness the play was doused in and which made this such an utter joy to watch.
True to its name, The Diary of a Nobody didn't have a hugely original or even remotely exciting story to tell. However, the mundane life of Charles Pooter became a delightful piece of theatre because of a clever design, well-timed slapstick comedy and the astonishing ability of the four cast members to switch characters within the blink of an eye. The end result was 90 minutes of non-stop silliness that had me, and the rest of the audience, in a near continuous fit of giggles.
At first glance Pooter's story may not have been worth telling, but theatre company Rough Haired Pointer has transformed it into a production worth seeing.
The Diary of a Nobody is playing at the King's Head Theatre in London (Islington) until 14 February 2015. You can buy tickets here.
My edition: paperback, published on 23 June 2014 by Lion Fiction, 320 pages.
Description: She had been looking for somewhere to stay, but instead Marion Miller finds herself on the wrong side of the reception desk at the Peace and Pigs campground and, despite her horrible shyness, promptly lands herself a job.
Marion came to Nottinghamshire--home of Sherwood Forest--to discover her father's mysterious past, but all she has to go on is a picture of her father dressed up, it would seem, as Robin Hood.
Life on a busy campground challenges Marion's formerly controlled life--the pigs roam free, the resident chickens seem determined to thwart her, and an unfortunate incident with a runaway bike throws her into the arms of the beautiful, but deeply unimpressed, Reuben.
Yet, Marion's would-be boyfriend Jake, and Reuben's stunning fiancee Erica, conspire to leave little room for Marion to daydream about the twinkling eyes of her rescuer . . . Will Marion ever find peace, and perhaps even love, among the pigs?
Set in Madrid in the late 1980s, the disco-coloured, pop-infused black comedy centres on Peppa (Tamsin Greig, starring in her first musical theatre role), a middle-aged actress who at the start of the story is dumped by her long-time boyfriend Ivan which, you guessed it, brings her to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Throw in a delusional ex-wife, a hysterical best friend and a whole load of valium, and you've got the ingredients for this mad play with songs that at times resembles a good, old-fashioned farce.
I would define this as a play with songs, rather than the musical it's billed as, as I feel that would more accurately describe this theatrical adaptation of the Oscar-nominated film of the same name by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Yes, there are plenty of catchy tunes filling the auditorium of the Playhouse Theatre on the edge of London's West End, but they feel like a narrator to the piece more so than that the actual driving force of the show, which is more often the case with classic musicals.
While Greig's singing chops were surprisingly adequate – from the very first notes her voice crackles with emotion and she holds her own in the upbeat, fast-paced numbers that follow as well – it's her powerful performance as an actress which really makes her stand out from the rest of the cast. In the first act in particular she was hugely compelling to watch and I was completely enthralled by her presence on stage.
That's not to say that the rest of the cast doesn't get a chance to shine, because they do; Haydn Gwynne was delightfully crazy as Ivan's ex-wife, demanding that he give her back the past 20 years of her life; Anna Skellern put the 'drama' in drama queen as Peppa's hyperactive, ditzy best friend Candela; and, in smaller but not any less memorable roles, Haydn Oakley and Willemijn Verkaik elated the audience with some truly impressive musical theatre voices.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a laugh-out-loud funny portrayal of what can happen when some, perhaps already mentally unstable, women are faced with unrequited love and the inevitable heartbreak that follows. Heightening their emotions and actions into the absurd, it portrays the lengths these women are willing to go to when driven by sheer passion in a hilarious, clever and, most of all, hugely memorable way.
The first thing I noticed when walking into Browns Covent Garden was how swanky and sophisticated it looked; with a dark wooden bar area, followed by a more spacious but still classic restaurant section. And spacious it was, especially for the prime property location smack-down in London's West End, neighbouring the prestigious the Noël Coward Theatre no less.
My edition: Paperback (proof), to be published on 3 February 2015 by Headline, 206 pages.
Description: Elsie Bovary is a cow and a pretty happy one at that. Until one night, Elsie sneaks out of the pasture and finds herself drawn to the farmhouse. Through the window, she sees the farmer's family gathered around a bright Box God - and what the Box God reveals about something called an 'industrial meat farm' shakes Elsie's understanding of her world to its core.
The only solution? To escape to a better, safer world. And so a motley crew is formed: Elsie; Shalom, a grumpy pig who's recently converted to Judaism; and Tom, a suave turkey who can't fly, but can work an iPhone with his beak. Toting stolen passports and slapdash human disguises, they head for the airport ...
My edition: ebook, published on 7 October 2014 by Ballantine Books, 353 pages.
Description: Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.
Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in.
As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
After spending quality down-time with friends and family over the Christmas period, getting back into the swing at work of what is already a gloomy-looking January was a big readjustment.
And with so many pleasures already cut out of our day-to-day activities during January as everyone is dieting and exercising to rid themselves of the extra Christmas pounds, it's the little things that can really make a difference. Especially when you're looking for something to relax with after a stressful day at work, which was no doubt followed by a work-out session at the gym and a meagre salad for dinner.
Botanicals' lavender and tea tree calming body lotion does exactly what it says on the tin, erm... bottle. Infused with a heavy dose of organic lavender - on top of organic aloe vera, shea butter, calendula extract and tea tree - this lotion does not only work a charm, but the heavenly scent is soothing as well. Just what I needed after a hectic day.
The company markets the product as the calming relief to skin after shaving, waxing or the use of depilatory products, but I found it worked perfectly fine as a nourishing body lotion on its own as well. A pleasant consistency and easy to apply, the cream hydrated my dry skin for hours - even when the weather got very testy.
During these colder winter months, when moisturising just once daily may not be sufficient for my skin, this is a perfect accompaniment to my evening beauty regime as the gentle lavender fragrance will help me relax and prepare me for a restful night of sleep.
My edition: hardback (proof), to be published on 15 January 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton, 323 pages.
Description: This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It's about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it's about love. Finding love - in any of its forms - and nurturing it. Miss Hayes has a new theory. She thinks my condition's caused by some traumatic incident from my past I keep deep-rooted in my mind. As soon as I come clean I'll flood out all these tears and it'll all be ok and I won't be scared of Them anymore.
The truth is I can't think of any single traumatic childhood incident to tell her. I mean, there are plenty of bad memories - Herb's death, or the time I bit the hole in my
tongue, or Finners Island, out on the boat with Sarah - but none of these are what caused the phobia. I've always had it.
It's Them. I'm just scared of Them. It's that simple.
As a lover of both screen and stage entertainment, combining the two into one has always appealed tremendously to my inner musical theatre geek. Adapting a stage production for cinema viewing doesn't always work – after all, you lose the intimate connection with the actors which makes going to the theatre such a special experience – but when it does, it can be glorious musical perfection (see Les Misérables).
So when I learned that Disney (something else I'm already not so secretly geeky about) was turning the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapin magical musical Into the Woods into a movie, starring some of my favourite actors nonetheless, I was sold before the first teaser to the teaser trailer had even hit the web. And after many months of anticipation, racking up the view count to the official trailer on YouTube by several dozen in the last week alone, seeing the wondrous story unfold on the big screen did not disappoint.
First things first, I should admit that while normally I'm an advocate for reading a book before seeing the film, and so seeing the theatre production before seeing the cinematic adaptation, despite my best efforts I've never actually seen Into the Woods on stage. So I can't compare the film to the source material; I don't know how well the original version translated to the screen or what – if anything – has been changed to cater to a different and more global audience. All I can say is that I hope that the book and music have stayed true to the original, because from what I've seen on the big screen it is phenomenal, and I can only imagine how impressive it would be to see this being performed live on stage.
Into the Woods tells the story of a whole slew of famous fairytale characters, who keep running into each other in the woods until eventually their individual tales cleverly entangle into one wondrous adventure.
The main focus is on the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), who due to a curse from the Witch-Next-Door (Meryl Streep) can't have a baby. Lucky for them, the witch is willing to reverse the curse if the baker and his wife will just collect four magical items for her before the blue moon, which is to appear in three midnights. The fantastical scavenger hunt leads them to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) for a golden slipper, Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford) for her red cape, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) for a bit of her hair as yellow as corn, and Jack from the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) for his milky white cow.
Despite the large cast of characters (there are even more main ones than mentioned above), each of the leads had plenty of chance to shine. And shine they did. There wasn't a single person I was most impressed by, but I did particularly love Emily Blunt, who knew she could sing and so beautifully at that?; Anna Kendrick, getting back to her Broadway roots with some fantastic solo numbers; James Corden, whose performance was both the comedic highlight and at times immensely moving; Meryl Streep, who has come leaps and bounds as a singer since Mama Mia!; and Chris Pine, who was effortlessly charming (though not sincere) and swoon-worthy in his turn as one of the two princes roaming around the woods.
I also want to give a special mention to young Lilla Crawford who was simply sensational in her solos. I was fortunate enough to catch her in the titular role of Annie on Broadway and I still remember her stunning rendition of Tomorrow. She was breathtaking then and she's only gotten better since.
The excellent cast aside, Sondheim can be an acquired taste at the best of times but the music to Into the Woods is catchy, whimsical and absolutely magical. Particular highlights were the Prologue, which instantly transported me to the fairytale land while cleverly introducing all the characters in a single song; On The Steps of the Palace, a beautifully shot sequence in which Anna Kendrick really shows off her singing chops; and Agony, a hugely amusing scene featuring the two princes showing off their charms – and abs. There wasn't a weak piece of music in the film, but these three really stood out to me.
Simply put, Into the Woods was magical, unexpected and so very wonderful. The new year has only just begun but I do believe I have already seen one of my top films of 2015, which is a promising way to kick off a fresh year of new cinematic and theatrical experiences.
Into the Woods is playing in cinemas across the UK from 9 January 2015.
Many thanks to Laughing Buddha and Disney for tickets to an advanced screening of the film in exchange for an honest review.
My edition: paperback, published on 1 January 2015 by Pan Macmillan, 454 pages.
Description: It's New Year's Eve, and Gemma and Spencer Bailey are throwing a house party. There's music, dancing, champagne and all their best friends under one roof. It's going to be a night to remember.
Also at the party is Caitlin, who has returned to the village to pack up her much-missed mum's house and to figure out what to do with her life; and Saffron, a PR executive who's keeping a secret which no amount of spin can change. The three women bond over Gemma's dodgy cocktails and fortune cookies, and vow to make this year their best one yet.
But as the following months unfold, Gemma, Saffron and Caitlin find themselves tested to their limits by shocking new developments. Family, love, work, home - all the things they've taken for granted - are thrown into disarray. Under pressure, they are each forced to rethink their lives and start over. But dare they take a chance on something new?
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to review The Scottsboro Boys in London's West End, which tells the harrowing piece of American history in which nine African American boys were accused of raping two white women and were in the first instance sentenced to death without much of a trial or even proof of the allegations.
The musical received 12 Tony Award nomination on Broadway before making its way across the pond and playing a sell-out run at the Young Vic Theatre earlier this year. The show has now returned to London and is playing at the Garrick Theatre in the West End until 21 February 2015.
Catherine Schreiber and Paula Marie Black are the two women producers behind the production and I spoke to them for Woman's World (which is where this interview first appeared) about their involvement with the show and the challenges of bringing it to the UK.
How did you became involved with The Scottsboro Boys?
Catherine Schreiber (CS): "I met with Jacki Florin, a lead producer on The Scottsboro Boys. I read the script on a Friday, flew to Minneapolis (where it was playing pre-Broadway) the following Wednesday to see it. It was one of the most emotional, life-changing and powerful experiences I have had in theatre. And that was it. I had to become involved in the show."
Paula Marie Black (PMB): "I was very aware of The Scottsboro Boys on the New York City theatre landscape but hadn't experienced the production. The Scottsboro Boys never left me, it whispered in my ear and then centered directly in my heart and this has never happened to me before as a producer.
"I simply sensed brilliance and knew how meaningful and life-changing it would be for myself and all of us on this production. I had no doubt that my destiny and The Scottsboro Boys had intersected and I had an important role to play as a lead producer."
What was the most challenging part of bringing this moving story to the stage? And the most rewarding?
CS: "The most challenging part was finding support for the musical, which despite being nominated for 12 Tonys, closed early on Broadway for a variety of reasons.
"Some were skeptical about doing a musical in London, particularly a show about one of the greatest travesties of justice in American history, but I was convinced (as were the other producers who joined me) that the sophisticated London audience would appreciate this brilliant masterpiece by Kander and Ebb and I am thrilled that they have.
"And I must add, what has been also deeply rewarding was getting involved in the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Alabama. I became a founder to support the great work being done there by Shelia Washingon, so that the story of the Scottsboro Boys is not forgotten. It was deeply gratifying to be a part of history, to be honoured with the key to the city of Scottsboro and to be honoured to give the key note address in Alabama when the Governor of Alabama signed the Scottsboro Boys Act April 19th, 2013, exonerating the boys. This show has helped change history. I am very deeply proud to be part of this."
PMB: "I was very focused as a lead producer to protect and lift this production. I did not let its past history of a short run on Broadway of just 49 performances, and ultimately 12 Tony Award nominations, affect me. I simply said and believed my positive affirmation out loud that was then and this is now."
Can you tell us about the journey of bringing the musical from New York to London? Were there particular challenges to promoting it to a British audience?
CS: "When the show closed on Broadway, I was determined that it find a new life and we always thought London would be the place to go. I was honoured to get the rights from the John Kander, David Thompson and Susan Stroman to do the show and I believe this was because of my passion and commitment to the project.
"We were blessed that David Lan and the Young Vic embraced the show. It was the perfect theatre to co-produce with. I also knew I didn’t want to produce it without some of the original brilliant cast members and we were able to bring six American actors to the Young Vic.
"One of the challenges we faced in London was that we were presenting part of American history few Londoners, indeed not many Americans, knew about. But the themes in the show are universal and The Scottsboro Boys has touched the hearts of those who see it."
PMB: "I deeply and simply felt that London's theatre community would have the distance and ability to accept the brilliant creative concepts and message of this production.
"I believe The Scottsboro Boys is a both a timeless and contemporary piece of American musical theatre that at the same time makes the audience face square on injustices, questioning their own perspectives and in doing so leaving the performance potentially changed as injustices continue around the world."
Besides The Scottsboro Boys, what other projects are you currently working on?
CS: "I have been working full-time on The Scottsboro Boys for the past few years, but I am working on bringing a new play by an American playwright to the Chichester and thrilled at the opportunity to work with Jonathan Church.
"I’m a supporter of Matilda and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in New York, and also a producer on The King’s Speech. I hope to have some time now to fully consider the wonderful projects being offered to me, besides getting my own film scripts into production and yes, return to acting and my own writing for a bit. And I would love to do another production with the Young Vic."
PMB: "I am executive producer of the cast album of The Scottsboro Boys and looking very much to preserving John Kander and Freb Ebb's lyrics and composition with the cast and orchestra at the iconic Abbey Road Studio Two later this month.
"I am also a co-producer on Made in Dagenham, honouring all women in the UK and around the world who stand up for change; a Tony Award winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and co-producer for On The Town, also currently running on Broadway.
"My future musical productions headed for Broadway, and each one lifting the works of a woman director and/or playwright, are Fun Home, The Great Comet of 1812, Black Orpheus and Unchain My Heart…the Ray Charles Musical."