Our two study guides focus on Chekhov and Wertenbaker, while top of the pile is a bit of light relief in the form of London's Theatres by Mike Kilburn, which will furnish any would-be tour guide or usher with an armful of information about the design and history of venues to impress listeners. It also has plenty of lavish photos of the interiors and exteriors of the buildings themselves.
On 22 February, the winner of the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography will be announced. The contenders are My Life in Pieces by Simon Callow, The Reluctant Escapologist by Mike Bradwell, Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim and Born Brilliant – The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens. We have reviewed all but the last of these books (an oversight only worth admitting to build up expection for the next round-up when we will be returning to them and highlighting the winner). Our prediction? Simon Callow is the obvious one...
Plays Six by Howard Barker
Although rarely performed in the UK, Howard Barker's work has made a distinctive contribution – in the challenging and controversial sense – to contemporary drama. Often going straight for themes of violence, sexuality and women, the prolific British playwright, born in 1946, is a vocal proponent of tragedy on stage and is known for a reluctance to tie everything neatly together. A House of Correction, set before a war, and Let Me, set during barbarian invasions during Roman times, both included here, are typical examples. The other three plays in this valuable anthology are (Uncle) Vanya, written in 1991, in which Chekhov, the creator, of course, of Uncle Vanya without the parenthesis, confronts his character with contempt; and two twists on biblical stories: Judith and Lot and His God.
The Knowledge by John Donnelly
Even as an English student at Leeds University in the late Nineties, Donnelly made an impact, winning an award for the best new play with (A Short Play About) Sex and Death. It was about football and flatmates, things he knew about. He turns again to familiar territory with The Knowledge, which has received rave reviews in its run at the Bush Theatre (it's on until Feb 19). It's not about football or flatmates, but about a teacher in a secondary school in Essex – and it can be no coincidence that since his student days, Donnelly has been in a classroom (teaching everything from literacy to sex education) in secondary schools and in Essex. The characters and story – the play is about a young vulnerable and flawed female teacher who gets into a compromising sexual situation with a pupil – may be fictional, but Donnelly's knowledge of school-teaching demands from students and colleagues is clear. The plot and dialogue are all the more engaging for their realism and insight.
Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann
Nick Hern, £9.99
Inspired by the story of a friend, Vivienne Franzmann's debut play follows a white teacher wrongly accused of racial harassment after an idea to protect a black student backfires. Franzmann, a teacher, has said she wanted to highlight that teaching in an inner city school is not all doom and gloom, however. 'It can be really funny being a teacher,' she said. 'That's what I wanted in my play. Young people laugh all the time.' Mogadishu is on at the Manchester Royal Exchange until Feb 19, before a London run at the Lyric Hammersmith from March 7 to April 2.
The Painter by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Faber & Faber, £9.99
It seems appropriate that Rebecca Lenkiewicz's surname comes from her stepfather, the late Robert Lenkiewicz, a Plymouth artist. Her new work follows the life of the Romantic landscape painter, Joseph Turner. Lenkiewicz has written history plays before (Her Naked Skin at the National in 2008 was about the suffragetes) and about art (Shoreditch Madonna at the Soho Theatre in 2005) was about the underground art scene in East London today. What really binds her work together, however, is the emotion. 'I can't see the point of writing unless it is emotionally driven,' she's said. 'If it is dry, it is going to erode you.' The Painter is on at the Arcola in East London until Feb 12.
Oh, to Be England by David Pinner
When David Pinner wrote this play in 1973, no one would produce it because of its presentation of political extremism in the UK. Times have changed enough to allow a staging: it made its big splash last month at the Finborough, where it came across as eerily up to date. The play, which follows an arrogant middle-aged man who loses his job and becomes dangerously xenophobic, is supposedly a dark comedy, but as Pinner wrote Ritual, the novel on which the thriller The Wicker Man was based, expect the undercurrent to be seriously coal-black.
Cambridge Introduction to Chekhov by James N. Loehlin
Cambridge University Press, £12.99
For those who know Chekhov through his major plays, it's a surprise to find that his most popular work during his lifetime was his fast-paced vaudeville sketches. Here, James N. Loehlin, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, touches upon 50 of the Russian's stories and 15 of his plays. The four dramas covered in most detail are, predictably, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – and, if you're studying any of them alone, you'll still want further debate. As an overall introduction, though, this guide is clear, cogent and authoritative. One warning: Loehlin is a Chekhovian devotee (he calls Chekhov a 'modern saint'). Brushing aside biographical evidence that the late nineteenth-century naturalist could be 'irritable, vain or selfish', he says whole-heartedly that Chekhov 'was deeply and deservingly loved'. Loehlin makes a convincing case.
Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good by Max Stafford-Clark
and Maeve McKeown
Nick Hern, £8.99
Max Stafford-Clark is well-placed to write this guide to Timberlake Wertenbaker's Olivier award-winning drama, which is ostensibly about prisoners in Sydney in the 18th century and metaphorically about the transformative power of theatre. It was he who commissioned Wertenbaker to write it (it was based on Thomas Kenneally's novel The Playmaker) in 1988 when he was artistic director of the Royal Court, and it was he who directed its 10th anniversary revival at the Young Vic and its subsequent UK tour.
As important as the historical setting is to the play, it seems a shame that Stafford-Clark has spent half of this slim book on it when his unique insight comes from the more practical side of developing the production. Of much more interest are the sections and sentences about his rehearsal methods, and the costumes, set and props he used. There are some nice quotes from a recent conversation with Wertenbaker scattered throughout, but the keen reader might want more: maybe even a Q&A interview as a postscript. There's some material here, but you may well be wanting a couple of extra books to add your study-guide bundle.
London's Theatres by Mike Kilburn
New Holland Publishers, £14.99
At 157 pages, Mike Kilburn's lavishly illustrated book is a cross-between a mini-coffee table book and a travel guide. Using his crucial experience as an English Heritage inspector of historic buildings, Kilburn speeds through just over 50 West End and South Bank venues, from the Adelphi to Windmill Theatre, outlining their origins and design in a manageable-yet-informative two to four pages. There's all the need-to-know information, with handy boxes of dates of the rebuilds, as well as trivia – the name Donmar, for example, comes from the names of the theatre's founders, Donald (Albury) an Margot (Fonteyn). Plus, Zoe Wanamaker provides a ringing endorsement in her foreward. Our advice? Read up on the relevant venue and drop in details to impress/annoy fellow theatregoers during intervals.