Friday, 27 July 2012

Great Expectations at Keswick Theatre

IT is Charles Dickens' 200th birthday this year so it's fitting that Theatre by the Lake at Keswick marks the event.
They've chosen to do so with a fresh and exciting adaptation of Great Expectations. Neil Bartlett is the contemporary writer who takes this much-loved book  and shows that it still has the ability to shock, amaze and entertain.
From the start, the audience is made aware this is going to be no poor photocopy of either the book or the David Lean film. A dramatic set consisting of seemingly endless doors fills the stage and a 'Greek chorus' of actors follow Pip (George Banks) on his adventures.
We begin, of course, with Pip's childhood encounter with escaped convict Magwitch - played magnificently by James Duke. And the other 'star' of the story is jilted bride, Miss Havisham - given a sharp portrayal by Maggie Tagney.
And throughout the rest of Pip's journey we renew our acquaintance with some of Dickens' most curious and most colourful characters.
Zoe Mills pitches the complex Estella just right and Chris Hannon (Joe Gargery), Nicholas Goode (Herbert Pocket) and Adrian Metcalfe (Pumblechook) ground the Dickensian cavalcade in enough realism to bring the characters back to life.
The script is also dusted off and made presentable for today's audiences. At times undeniably Dickens in sentiment and humour but also strikingly modern; some scenes are almost entirely acted out in the third person.
Minimalist lighting and staging courtesy of director Ian Forrest and lighting designer Nick Beadle leave the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
Theatre needs to challenge and this richly-coloured tale lends itself to being presented in many different ways. God forbid theatre simply re-tells the story without looking at the subject matter anew. This is a top-class production and a definite must-see for lovers of both Dickens and good theatre.
Great Expectations runs at Keswick's Theatre by The Lake until November 10. Box office: 017687 74411.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fairies left homeless by floods

One of the fairy houses at Gelt Woods
 - the sign says 'Home Sweet Home'
THE latest victims of this year's summer floods are the fairies of Gelt Woods. The woods near Brampton in Cumbria have been home to the fairies for at least four years when their houses were first spotted in the roots of trees and along the river bank (The precise location is kept secret to avoid human neighbours being disturbed by thousands of fairy-loving tourists). Each summer since 2009 the fairies have returned and this year was no exception. However, following the torrential rain of June the River Gelt burst its banks and has washed away at least two of the fairy houses. It's not believed any fairies lost their lives in the tragedy. Fairies, it seems, like to live by water but some just built their homes perilously close to the Gelt. Wiser fairies built further up the hillside and one enterprising fairy built her home in a tree.

There are some people - cynical unromantic humans - who suggest it is a local artist who puts the fairy houses there each summer. And removes them in the winter for fear of frost damaging them. Children and fairy lovers know better.

A fairy door to a fairy house
Whoever or whatever is responsible, they provide some simple pleasure to children (and adults) in an age where most children rely on TVs, Wiis, video games and other technology for their fun. Grandparents in particular are known to dare to turn off computers and take their grandchildren for a walk through the woods. And just as the kids are crying out 'Boring' or 'Can we go home now', have pointed out some brightly-coloured object in the distance. The children then discover for themselves the strange, mystical world of the Gelt Woods fairies.

There can be a dozen or more fairy houses in the woods but, to be honest, it's difficult to count because some of them are remarkably well camouflaged. Some of the houses have signs such as 'Home Sweet Home' above the door. And others have fairy boots placed on the doorstep. It's also possible to find tiny wheelbarrows, garden seats, baskets and other fairy furniture beside the houses.

Remarkably, the doors are never stolen or even damaged - even though they are visible all summer. Indeed, when a mischievous Jack Frost has broken off a door handle or letterbox, it's placed carefully beside the door for the fairies to find and hopefully repair.

Children have been known to leave gifts for the fairies: sweets, flowers and gold-paper stars seem to be the most well-received presents. And some children have even left letters for the fairies - though I'm not aware of anyone yet receiving a reply.

Hiker Lesley Park finds one fairy sensibly built her house
high up in a tree and so avoided the floods
Cumbria has always been a popular haunt for the little folk. In Coniston, the fairies helped the copper miners with their work. In Whitehaven, fairies lived on a rocky outcrop just south of the coastal town and danced at annual fair at Fleswick Bay. Fairies were also known to live beside Bassenthwaite Lake but their homes were sadly lost with the building of the A66. In Little Langdale the fairies have been happy to share the cottages owned by local people and pay their 'rent' by performing little duties around the house, or leaving fairy butter in the woods nearby. It's a county where humans and fairies have lived happily alongside each other for centuries so the news of the flooding is likely to be a cause of much concern. It's hoped the fairies soon rebuild their homes - but a little further away from the river this time.

  • Quick plug: My hand-bound book, Fairies of Cumbria, covers the Gelt Woods fairies and many other Cumbrian fairy legends. It is available for £4.99 as a 'real' book or £2.04 as an ebook (yes, sorry about that odd 4p - I'm not sure why that appeared!). See my online bookstore for more information.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

How to write a bloody amazing book review

The perfect review: A smile that tells you all you need to
know about the book
THE question of how to write a book review arose after I saw some advice on the internet. Advice that was followed by messages from many people who had obviously found the guidance useful. It consisted of such things as:
  • Sometimes you will need to include background to enable reader(s) to place the book into a specific context. For example, you might want to describe the general problem the book addresses or earlier work the author or others have done. 
  • For a nonfiction book, provide an overview, including paraphrases and quotations, of the book's thesis and primary supporting points.
  • For a work of fiction, briefly review the story line for readers, being careful not to give away anything that would lessen the suspense for readers. 
  • Describe the book: Is it interesting, memorable, entertaining, instructive? Why?
  • Respond to the author's opinions: What do you agree with? And why? What do you disagree with? And why?
And by this point I had nodded off. It struck me as tedious and as dull as the book reviews that would inevitably be produced by following such advice. So it got me thinking: How do you write a good book review and what's the purpose of a review anyway?

Bob Monkhouse's autobiography was reviewed in the East Anglian Daily Times in just four words: "Poor choice of subject".
"To tell people what you think of the book" I hear you say. But since most critics are unknown - and their opinion therefore worthless - that can't be a complete answer.

"To tell me briefly what the book is about so I can decide if I might buy it". But a synopsis (and now sample pages) are available on Amazon or the back cover of the book. 

So it still leaves that basic question unanswered: What is the point of a book review? It may remain unanswered for the moment but I'd suggest the review is more than just summarising the book and giving your views on it. For many critics a review is a 'clothes peg' on which personal views and thoughts can be hung - and for that reason knowing something about the critic and his background can be helpful.

Then I discovered - an American website with some radical book reviews. A breath of fresh air in a world full of mind-numbingly, boring book reviews. And they included their own advice on writing a review - advice which should be shared with a wider audience. Enjoy...

  • The text of the review should be written with simplicity and dignity, using the King's English. Avoid dangling participles, pretentious sentences, and show-off words. Be insightful, witty, reasoned, literate, and pithy. In all cases do not, repeat, do not put the editors to sleep with your words.
  • We cannot tell you how long to make your review...that has to be a matter between you and the page, if not god.
  • Our take on most book reviewers --- especially experienced ones --- is that they don't realize that the Standard, Reasoned, Thoughtful, Careful Book Review isn't worth reading; much less posting for the world to read.
  • We want reviews that expose pomposity and arrogance and foolish pride, that expose the lack of grand writing and great plotting. We want our writers to scorn predictability and ridicule the turgid and the bombastic.
  • At the same time, this is not a mere seek-and-destroy mission. We want reviews that praise the true artist --- lauding the known and the unknown with equal fervor. We want our reviewers to search out honest, rich and insightful literature --- to describe it with words that are, in themselves, art.
  • To see how not to write, study the book review sections of most U. S. dailies. After some time, you will see that their reviewers are scared of something: perhaps, of being original, or alive, or funny...or, at best, being smart-ass.
Amen to all that.