Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: December 2012

‘Valentine’ by the City Varieties Youth Theatre at the Howard Assembly Room, Grand Theatre, Leeds, 10 December 2012.

The Howard Assembly Room is an intimate venue with a sound desk at the back, movable seating covering most of the floor, a low stage at the front, and galleries with seating on both sides. For this performance, the galleries were used by members of the numerous cast when they were not on stage.

The production was directed by Dick Bonham, Lizi Patch and Jamie Fletcher. Jamie Fletcher was sitting behind an upright piano and surrounded by his other instruments when the show started. He was a one-man orchestra. The musical accompaniment was just right for the show, with piano, an instrument that looked like a ukulele but had more strings, and electric guitar all used to convey a wide range of moods, as well as being part of the entertainment in themselves.

The cast seemed to number about 40 or 50, and ranged from little children in school uniforms to tall and intimidating teenagers. 18 of the teenagers took to the stage first, and the background to the story was told in a mildly comic style, with a single microphone on a long flex being laboriously handed from one player to another and back again, like the acoustic equivalent of pass-the-parcel, with seething resentment manifested on the face of whoever lost the mic.

The story was a weaving-together of the history of variety and ventriloquism in Leeds, two lovers, and a vengeful curse manifested by a pair of ventriloquist dummies. The dummies themselves are found in an old trunk in the catacombs under the Grand Theatre, and then the story is told in retrospect, forwards, starting in Victorian times. The female dummy reminded me instantly of Barbara Cartland.

The narration was taken over by the younger members of the cast, one of whom needed a prompt, but valiantly kept going.

The staging featured no scenery, just an Elizabethan-style bare stage; little in the way of make-up (other than two false Zapata moustaches, both worn by girls), but plenty of costumes. Two of these which caught my eye around this point in the performance were a tall kid in a tail-coat, dress trousers, and trainers, and a small, mischievously enthusiastic boy playing a stagehand in a very fetching brown overall.

After the lovers’ misunderstanding and start of the curse in the Victorian era, the action moved to the 1940s, where the dummies which now manifested the curse were found and adopted by an act called Rupert and Becca (played by two girls, one with one of the moustaches I mentioned). The first half finished with a kind of play within a play, which was a portrayal of a 1940s radio play, complete with voices speaking in received pronunciation and sound effects (achieved mechanically, not by means of electronic samples). I also noticed Lizi Patch moving about at the back of the stage, marshalling her troops in the face of some minor dislocation, and making duck and chicken noises.

The second part of the show featured the older players, the younger ones having taken their seats in the gallery. Young, moustachioed Rupert (played by a girl) was replaced by a suave young man in a zoot-suit (and with shoes, not trainers). He and Becca danced to Glen Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’. I was not the only member of the audience who was moved by this. Rupert and Becca are re-united after a long separation caused by another misunderstanding. Rupert’s mysterious reappearance is met by agonising conflict in Becca’s mind, which was portrayed in the manner of a Greek tragedy, with competing angel and devil choruses on each side of the stage. After their reconciliation, the couple dance again and, when they kissed, it brought the house down.

A comic interval before the final chapter of the tragedy arrived in the form of a teenage boy in drag who was supposed to represent Mrs Thatcher (to convey the 1980s). This was certainly comic, but the hair was completely the wrong colour.

A magician called The Great Carter, the current owner of the ventriloquist dummies, was about to perform the Bullet-catch trick, with himself as the target. Becca and Rupert arrive just as the show is about to start. The curse works its evil magic again. Becca ends up as the “volunteer” who will try to catch the bullet, but it is Rupert who gets hit, in slow motion, portrayed very convincingly without any special effects: the bullet was simply carried across the stage by a member of the cast in black clothes, and a tossed handful of red rose petals served – in a surprisingly macabre fashion – for Rupert’s blood.

The Great Carter has an attack of guilt and denial. A fight between him and Mrs Tranny Thatcher ensues, with Thatch, true to her reputation, laying-in brutally with the handbag. The play descended briefly into meta-fiction, with actors accusing each other of not sticking to the script, in a way that was obviously scripted. Finally, the source of the curse is removed, and everybody lives happily ever after, except the two dummies, whose state of animation and century-long reign of evil comes to an abrupt end.

It was a memorable, entertaining and surprisingly-varied production, with music, singing, and dance as well as acting. It contained comedy, pathos, tragedy, fear, anguish, and joy. There were several members of the cast whom I expect to see in further productions. As a piece of theatre in itself, I would give it 9 out of 10. As a means of engaging young people with live theatre, and showing them a range of the techniques it uses and effects that it can produce – without synthesisers or digital animation – I would give it 10 out of 10.

Review: Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ at Sheffield Motorpoint Arena, 9 December 2012.

Before it started, I was not aware of ever having heard the music. ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ to me was a large cardboard display which caused an obstruction in the record shop.

I have read most of H. G. Wells’s novel on which the production is based. The reason I started to read it is because of having read another book, a work of non-fiction by Niall Ferguson, called ‘The War of the World’. This is an attempt to explain why the 20th century was so full of wars and ethnic violence. Ferguson explains that Wells’s novel was allegorical. The descriptions of the devastating effects of the Martian heat ray were really an attempt to predict what would happen, both to combatants and civilians, once large-scale war broke out between industrialised societies. Wells’s predictions were terrifyingly accurate, of course, and came true in both world wars and numerous other conflicts.

This allegorical interpretation seemed completely lacking in Jeff Wayne’s production. In other words, we were encouraged to believe that the Martians were simply Martians. Encouragement was provided mostly in the form of a 20-foot tall, three-legged model of a Martian fighting machine, complete with pyrotechnic heat-ray, and a special effect which made the stage look like Yorkshire’s largest living-flame gas-fire. By the time this model descended, the stage was buzzing with activity. Liam Neeson appeared as the narrator on two screens: a larger-than-life portrait view to the left, and a life-size full height view in the middle. The rock band was also to the left of the illuminated walkway in the middle, with the classical orchestra on the right, in front of which was Jeff Wayne himself, conducting. The sung parts of the narration were delivered by Marti Pellow (ex ‘Wet Wet Wet’). Above the stage was a cinema screen.

The first of the actors to appear were a man wearing a steam punk outfit, and a woman in a black and white striped dress and a miniature hat. They mingled with the audience, pretended to be using an antique, brass telescope, and then appeared as astronomers at the beginning of the show, witnessing what they failed to recognise as the launch of the invasion force. Liam Neeson’s narration started shortly afterwards.

None of the characters was convincing. One strand of the story is that the narrator travels from a provincial town to London, to look for his fiancé, but she has already fled by boat. This relationship was portrayed on the cinema screen. The portrayal to me seemed very dilute. Neither the narrator nor his fiancé had any details portrayed about them, and so we did not know who they were or why we should think they were important.

None of the characters was convincing until the Artilleryman came on to sing his solo part. He was bearded, spattered with blood, and dishevelled. His appearance marked the first part of the show which I recognised. When he sang the lines, ‘With just a handful of men / we’ll start all over again’ I recalled that I had heard David Essex singing this is the late 70s. The character of the Artilleryman was manic and convincing. The singer’s voice was certainly equal to the task of conveying this. ‘This chap should be the front man for a band,’ I thought, ‘He can really sing.’ I found out later that it was Ricky Wilson, front man of The Kaiser Chiefs. This was the high point of the show.

In case you have not read the book or seen the production, I will not tell you the ending, but I will warn you that it is poor.

As a feat of technical and musical direction, the production was spectacular and accomplished. Its drawback was that it lacked emotional impact, because we did not really know who any of the characters were, and the narrative was not strong enough to compensate for the lack of characterisation.

The music, too, lacked emotional impact. I did not find the mixture of a rock band with a classical ensemble added to either. To me, it was the musical equivalent of Bailey’s Irish Cream, to which my rejoinder would be, ‘Can I have the whiskey and the cream in separate containers, please?’ The guitar soloist was obviously very talented, but this was not rock ‘n’ roll. There was something stifling, almost formal, about the arrangement which pushed rock ‘n’ roll to one side. Rock music has to be pent-up and to at least look as if it is about to go out of control. This was rehearsed and controlled and, therefore, rather bland.

Review: ‘Killing Daniel’ by Sarah Dobbs

ISBN 978-0-9564223-8-5
Unthank Books http://www.unthankbooks.com

The form (but not the quality) of ‘Killing Daniel’ is what I would describe as a “train crash”. The story starts with two disparate characters, living in the same time, but separated by gulfs of distance and society. These characters are an English woman called Fleur and a Japanese woman called Chinatsu. Having met in adolescence, they think about one another and look forward to a nebulous idea of reunion. The plot advances in opposing directions, one starting in Salford and the other in Japan.

The characterisation of both Fleur and Chinatsu is detailed and fascinating. This is a profoundly female book. As some-one who is learning how to write novels, I devoured the passages which deal with Fleur and Chinatsu because I am trying to be more accurate and consistent in the depiction of female characters. Because they come from such different societies and social classes, I learnt a great deal just from reading this one novel.

Some of this depiction is portrayed in the distance and antagonism between the two women and their various male counterparts and adversaries. Despite the darkness and occasional violence of the intertwining stories, I think men come off rather lightly in this novel. I repeat that this is a female book, but I would not consider it to be a feminist one. It is a novel which simply happens to be told from the points of view of two women.
The narrative (third person, limited omniscience) contains quite a few rhetorical questions. I thought these had been banned by an international treaty in the 1970s. A few of them irritated me, but they all served the useful purpose of showing the self-doubt, guilt about the past and anxiety about the future felt by the main characters.

The men in the book, with the exception of Chinatsu’s husband, are shallow in comparison to the women, but this is also handled in a controlled manner. One of the subtlest and most finely-worked aspects of the story is the relationship between Chinatsu and Tao, her Chinese paramour. This relationship, and its misunderstandings and miscommunications, infuriated me in a way that made for compelling reading.

The settings, as well as the characters, are completely convincing. I have never been to Japan. Most of what I know about Japan is derived from studying the economic and military history of the twentieth century, but all the Japanese details seemed consistent. I also appreciated that they were introduced in order to flesh out character and bring scenes to life, and definitely not to boast, “I’ve been to Japan”.

If I had been born female and capable of having written this book, the ending would have been very different, but I will leave you to decide about that for yourself.

‘Crying Just Like Anybody’

The new collection from The Fiction Desk is called ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ and is out now, in Kindle format as well as a paperback:


If you want it in book form, it is better and cheaper to order it directly from the publisher:


My story is called ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’

My thanks go to Rob Redman, editor at The Fiction Desk, for agreeing to publish my story and for being a very efficient and easy person to work with.