Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Vernon God Little"

Last night, Dave, Tom and I went to see "Vernon God Little" at the Young Vic near Waterloo... and it was smashing. Adapted from the Booker Prize winner by DBC Pierre (which Tom had even read - so he managed to tell us it was a splendid adaptation, but missed a bit out in the second half but nothing too major).

From the website, "It's Friday at the Sheriff's office. Vernon sits in his underpants, staring at his Nikes. His best friend Jesus went and killed all their classmates, then himself. Normal times just ran howling from town." The play really doesn't hide behind it's hands. It starts with a bang and just keeps on going. And considering that it's central topic is the ever controversial one of high school shootings, "Vernon God Little" manages to be very, very funny at the same time.

The use of the stage and props is ingenious (particularly the two cars), but the highlight for me was the inclusion of various cast members bursting into random bursts of accapella, southern-style country songs throughout the show – the best one, by a long shot, being a Mexican interpretation of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire".

"Vernon God Little" has been so well received that the run has been extended by a few weeks, and rightly so. Teenager Colin Morgan is fantastic as Vernon and surely has an amazing career ahead of him? And Mark Lockyer as the detestable but irresistable journalist does an impressive Billy Bob Thornton-style turn. Everything was thoroughly OTT in a heavy-handed media satire kind of way... but if you leave your political correctness at home, you'll really enjoy it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Peep Show"

I know it's taken me a while but it always does because I don't watch enough telly - that's why I got into 'Friends' after about five years, 'Sex And The City' just as it finished, and I do like 'Ugly Betty' but have only seen about five episodes as it's too much commitment remembering to watch it. Consequently, I'm much better at catching up with telly when it comes out on DVD and I can watch it when I want to.

The nice people at LoveFilm sent me the first series of "Peep Show" yesterday (since I've now seen two episodes of series four on normal telly and found it hilarious). And because P was watching the football in the pub, drinking beer like a proper man (grr), I ended up watching the first four episodes of "Peep Show" one after the other like a saddo (in my defence, I watch so little telly that I think I'm allowed to binge once in a while).

It's hilarious. Really funny, basic but clever humour, with a great cast - Mitchell, Webb and Olivia Coleman (who has, quite rightly, been in loads of other stuff, too). I'm sure everyone else knows the premise: two dysfunctional, mis-matched flatmates and their attempts to get girls/lives. But this is no "Men Behaving Badly" insult to the licence-payer. Instead, "Peep Show" is hilariously, stomach-crunchingly painful comedy that makes you squirm with embarassment on behalf of the characters. Brilliant. It might take me a while, but I catch up in the end.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Calamity Jane"

Last night, AB, CG and I went to West Brompton to see NewBestFriendPaul in "Calamity Jane", put on by his am-dram group. And I have to say, it's rather preferable to see a musical like this for £10 than to cough up 350 to sit in some West End theatre and see a bunch of Sylvia Young brats whine out a few chorus numbers.

The venue (London Oratory Theatre) was exceptionally plush, considering it is basically a school theatre (albeit the school where Tony Blair sends his youngest), and the production quality was really high. All of the cast were great, especially the girls playing Katy and Susan... and obviously Paul was marvellous in his role in the chorus. I was bursting with pride! They put on a great show of "Calamity Jane" (complete with singing and dancing middle-aged twin ladies-in-hairpieces - wow!) and if you've got time before Saturday evening, check it out and support burgeoning London talent.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"The Shuttle" - Frances Hodgson Burnett

A few days in Somerset last week gave me ample time to speed through the 500-page 1097 novel "The Shuttle" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published by Persephone with - quite possibly - the nicest Turnbull And Stockdale end-papers I have yet seen in one of their books.

Burnett's "The Making Of A Marchioness" has long been one of my favourite Persephone reprints, and it retreads her familiar path of a down-on-her-luck good soul who suffers at the hands of others before falling into the life she so deserves. And "The Shuttle" is essentially no different – and that's not a complaint. The novel (unfortunately abridged from 700 to 500 pages, which is a huge shame: there is never any need to abridge any book) covers the late 1890s/early 1900s trend for impoverished English aristocrats (who are left with a dilapidated mansion and no funds to maintain it), who shuttle across to New York to marry wealthy heiresses and shuttle them back to England to siphon off their wealth. (A very famous example is Jennie Jerome, who became Winston Churchill's mother.) However, these marriages were often loveless and a disaster, and this is what "The Shuttle" highlights.

Gentle and sweet Rosy is the daughter of multi-millionaire Reuben S Vanderpoel, and thinks it a romantic dream when English aristo Sir Nigel Anstruthers appears and makes her his wife. But the second she steps off American soil onto the boat shuttling her back to England, all her dreams turn to tatters as Sir Nigel turns into a thoroughly wicked rogue who has no interest in Rosy other than manipulating her into signing over her inheritance to him. A catalogue of misfortune spills out, before Rosy's little sister Betty comes of age and finally comes to England in search of her long-forgotten sister and finding out what went wrong... all with the compelling, well-written and touching style you would expect from Burnett.

But I'm aware I've just summed "The Shuttle" up in a way that makes it sound like little more than a dated Barbara Cartland romance. And that's a huge injustice. Because the book also typifies the horrors of these long-forgotten alliances between the new and the old countries. And this, to me, is the beauty of the Persephone reprints: that they allow us to recapture the genuine social situation of the time. Rather than historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier or Sarah Waters researching the past to write about it, Persephone writers actually did live through the times they write about, making the researchers a poor second best.

Coincidentally, the American Museum near Bath is hosting the Dollar Princesses exhibition until October 28, which celebrates exactly these unions. The museum was co-founded by Dallas Pratt, who was the son of a Dollar Princess. Mrs M and I went to see the exhibition last week and it was fascinating. Well worth a look.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Hot Fuzz"

It may have been out since Valentine's Day, but I finally bothered to watch "Hot Fuzz" at the weekend. And after a promising start of tight dialogue, witty one-liners, well-strung montages and a zillion cameos... after 15 minutes, I started watching the clock.

I struggle with Pegg a bit. I mean, yes, he's a funny guy and he's doing a lot for British cinema in the international arena (ooh)... and clearly he's got a lot of luvvy mates... but he's also smug to a degree that must surely hurt internally. The other problem is that I used to share a flat with his sister, so I've met him many times and found him to be two things: 1) smug and 2) determined to be Funny-At-All-Costs, even if it meant drowning out everyone else until they were all listening to him. (I also recall an unintentionally amusing incident when he turned up in Kensal Green in a flashy red sports car... but I won't go in to that now.)

So the problem with Pegg is that he creates these roles for himself where he gets to play an everyday hero who saves the world. Pegg likes to think he's doing it with an ironic sense of parody. But what it really comes across as is a comic-loving geek who struck lucky and is writing himself a wannabe-sexy hero role, who may not get the girl but is still the envy of all the lowly men who populate his false existence. It's very much a boy's own adventure story. (Not to be confused with a Boyzone adventure story).

Oh, and "Hot Fuzz"? A cocky policeman turns up in Somerset, gets bored, watches "Point Break" with fatty Frost, catches a swan and tries to arrest James Bond (the crap Bond mind you, Timothy Dalton). On the plus side, it provides an opportunity for his mates (including, deep breath, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Olivia Colman, Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Bill Baily, Stephen Merchant, Steve Coogan, uncle Jim Broadbent, old Tom Cobley and all) to show their faces. On the downside, I've now lost all respect I ever had for Paddy Considine - previously one of my favourite British actors. Why, Paddy, why?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Week Off... Hurrah!

VE has taken time out of her hectic schedule of study and employment to indulge in a week of fun-filled festivities and merriment. Yes, another one. So here's my self-indulgent diary of events.

On Saturday evening, after a strange lecture about the appropriation of rooms in modernist literature, I headed to Somerset to see Mr and Mrs M, as they'd been a little neglected since Christmas. After absorbing myself in village activities like cycling, walking and baking, I remembered how boring the country becomes when you're there for too long, and promptly read all 500 pages of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Shuttle" in around 48 hours (honestly), but more on that later.

By Tuesday, desperate for conversation, I walked into town and had elevenses with Hannah (who hasn't eaten solid food for nearly 12 months on her doctor's advice - never trust a GP), and lunch with Dave (who has an adopted otter). All of which improved my spirits enough for me to face an evening of wall-to-wall soap operas with my parents. But her from Hear'Say is STILL ruining Corrie. Disgraceful.

On Wednesday, Mrs M and I drove to Bath to see the Dollar Princesses exhibition at the American Museum, as recommended by Persephone on account of how it is extremely relevant to "The Shuttle" (see above), and we thoroughly enjoyed the decadence and glamour. Considering Winston Churchill's ma was a Dollar Princess, there's something more to this than pearls and fancy dresses. Although, lest we forget, behind the fur coats and diamante mirrors, there was a huge degree of misery and lies.

By Wednesday night, I was back in London and feeling culture shock at the people you pass in the street who don't acknowledge you with a doff of their cap and a cheery "'af'noon". By Thursday morning, I was back in the gym and kicking people smaller than me, before attending a baffling lecture about archival systems - led by four people who nod and laugh at each other a lot, while their students sit there in mild bewilderment. Academics, eh? And by Thursday night, I was in a pub in Russell Square quaffing wine with my fellow students and attempting to talk like an academic - however, I don't think anyone was fooled.

So today, I've been back to the gym, back to baking, and I've had PHD Paul round for tea - accompanied by two conversational topics: 1) how weird are academics, and 2) how much do we miss Julia Brogan from Brookie. Tomorrow, Emma is coming to stay and we're going for posh afternoon tea at a fancy hotel. Since I'm reading "The Remains Of The Day", I'm trying to recreate the world of toffy living. This was spoilt somewhat by P informing me he was doing a shoot involving a naked glamour model, a disembodied pig's head, an offensive comedian and a very large knife.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

VE Goes Mad In The Country

Tally ho, dear reader. VE has left the hustle and bustle of the capital to venture down to Mrs M's in Somerset for a few days of country air. And I appear to have turned into one of the Famous Five in the process.

As I sat on the train from Waterloo to The Country on Saturday evening, my eyes lit up with glee as the scenery changed from Vauxhall-based tower blocks to boring Basingstoke to fields filled with rabbits and llamas (really). And as I alighted in Somerset, my lungs were filled with good old country air and lashings of ginger beer (not really).

And Sunday morning saw me embrace the possibilities of the countryside to the hilt. After breakfast, I set of on a cycle ride of the village (once honoured by TS Eliot and now home to the family of Daphne du Marier) and spent a bracing 30 minutes cycling around the country lanes I knew so well as a girl. (Sigh). And after a hearty home-cooked roast lunch, Mrs M and I set off for a brisk walk in the woods before coming home and baking a huge tray of fairy cakes and icing them. Yum. All before, I settled down in front of the fire and began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Shuttle" (you'll never guess who published it). This book is so good that, despite being around 500 pages in length, I have already read around 350 of them. It's simply topping.

Tomorrow evening I have to return to London (via the "Dollar Princess" exhibition at the American Museum in Bath, one of the reasons for my visit) and frankly, dear reader, I don't want to. (Sigh).

Friday, May 04, 2007

Pillow Books

The Guardian's Books website wanted to know what books were by people's beds. This is my offering:

What a nosy insight into other people's minds. This is better than 'Enders!

By the side of my bed is...

"The Best of Smash Hits 1980s" edited by Mark Frith - which I dip in and out of when I'm feeling too tired to handle anything more challenging. Fantastic stuff... and I'm hoping I never run out of things to read in it.

"The Shuttle" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and recently republished by Persephone with beautiful floral endpapers. I can't wait to start reading this, as it's about the early 19th century habit of wealthy English women 'shuttling' across the Atantic to find a wealthy husband in the States.

"Royal Borough" by Rachel Ferguson. An original 1940s ex-library copy of this long out-of-print book by former sufragette and novelist Rachel, who used to write for Punch as well, about her love for Kensington. A glorified history, with so much detail, old maps, original drawings and photos.

"The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff - my mum gave me this for Christmas to encourage me to feel more peaceful towards the world. It's certainly very soothing reading that talks a lot of sense.

"School's Out" by Christophe DuFosse - I've just finished this and felt disappointed. The blurb enticed me that this would be a great modern thriller about psychotic school kids in France picking off their teachers. It was a rambling let down. Very disappointing.

Ben Fogle

Great news! Ben Fogle's official website (see link on the left) now has a 'Ben Pet' that you can download to your desktop (sadly PCs only, so that excludes me - sort it out, Ben!). You have the opportunity to stroke Ben, play with him and feed him. Quite how anyone would also get any work done is beyond me.

Friends of VE will know that Ben Fogle is my number one hero (closely followed by Tony-From-Hollyoaks). Not only does Ben save nature by washing parrots and rhinos at Longleat on BBC2, he also has a lovely posh accent, soft, fluffy hair and seems like a thoroughly topping chap. Now, Ben is urging us to use water more efficiently with a campaign through Waterwise... however, the implications of this on his ability to wash animals at Longleat is something of a worry.

He also looks exactly like P. So much so that, at the latest count, four people have (unprompted) said to me that they think P "has a touch of the Ben Fogles about him". Quite. One friend even posted me a magazine cover featuring Ben with the attached note: "I'm glad to see P is making ends meet by posing for magazine covers".

So I strongly recommend that all Fogle Fans head to and peruse the endless stream of photos of our hero in all manner of hearty pursuits... hugging tiger cubs, jumping on beaches with dogs, baby Ben, Ben's Barn, Ben as an officer... Joy.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Primark - Hell on Marble Arch

I'm working close to the new Primark superstore at Marble Arch... so I ventured in at lunchtime. I could feel my Vivienne Westwood shirt recoiling around me in disgust at the stench of acrylic, polyamide and a multitude of other man-made fibres... all mingling with the body odour entrenched in the garments by the underage Bangaldeshi sweatshop workers who created them (hourly rate varies from 3-5p depending on whether you read the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph. It's quite a difference as 5p is almost double 3p. Genuinely shocking).

Putting on my chav-retardant blinkers, I took a deep breath (and coughed out strands of polyester-mix) and tried to wade through the jumble sale-effect shop: was this part of their design ethic? Primark extends over three floors but I didn't manage to get beyond the ground floor. I flicked through the t-shirts (average price £4), but couldn't find anything smaller than a size 16-18. Further investigations throughout the rest of the floor proved I'd be lucky to find anything at all in a size smaller than a 16-18. Which leads to my next question... why can't you be a size 16 or a size 18? Why do you have to be in the middle? I couldn't find one garment in a definite size. Fortunately I didn't want to try anything on, as the queue for the changing rooms snaked around most of the underwear department (huge, since you asked - and I wouldn't advise striking any matches around there: the place'd go up in a ball of flames, look what happened to New Look last week). Consequently, I didn't want to buy anything - just as well, since the queue for the till snaked around the entire 't-shirt' department (huge, since you asked - also vile). Honestly - can someone tell me what the fuss is? Cheap doesn't equal tasteful.

(Disclaimer: VE is aware she sounds like a snob. That's because she is a snob. Man-made fibres have been a big no-no in her world for a long time. Do you really need to be a walking fire hazard in synthetic fabrics? And they're so unflattering... the way they cling to the wrong places and hang badly. Urgh!)

Depeche Mode

Lately, VE has been having a Depeche Mode renaissance on her iPod (although I feel uncomfortable about them being described as "electro-goth" by the far-from-exhaustative-but-still-fun "Encyclopaedia Of Classic 80s Pop" by Daniel Blythe).

Depeche Mode (or, 'ver Mode' as Smash Hits used to call them, RIP) are one of those rare acts, like U2 and Madonna, that I grew up with. Their early '80s angst-pop soundtracked my school years and family holidays, their stadium rock era populated my college days and their subsequent, post-drugs hell reoccurrs on my stereo. But a sad fact is, due to the fickle nature of the contemporary music business, it is now impossible for any band to have that kind of regenerative longevity. A big shame.

Obviously, "Violator" is the classic album, but there's a great deal to be said for "Music For The Masses" (this morning's walk-to-work accompaniment), and "Songs Of Faith & Devotion" is a corker – try listening to it in its entirety in the dark... on your own. Even 1997's "Ultra" album produced a heart-rending classic in "Home". The two more recent albums are harder work, but I'll get there.

But my personal favourite moment in the history of the Basildon boys-next-door turned LA tattooed-rawk-gods? The 1996 NME headline: "I Shot A Speedball And Turned Green", in reference to Gahan's hideous heroin and cocaine speedball in LA. He eventually survived, it's OK. I saw them at Birmingham NEC in 1999 and he seemed remarkably well... considering he'd been dead three years previously.