Whatsonstage.com is excited to introduce its newest monthly feature, a round-up of reviews of the best recent theatre books, featuring everything from actor memoirs and director handbooks to essays, scripts, stage notes and lots more besides.

This month we're featuring two autobiographies: Diana Quick's A Tug on the Thread and Antony Sher's Beside Myself, reissued for the actor's 60th birthday; plus, two richly refreshing approaches to Shakespeare: one delving into his psychology, the other unlocking codes in his language (perfect for anyone feeling that the Bard is a bit dated - a sacrilege, I know).

We're also reviewing a couple of scripts, including Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling, now on at the Almeida, which combines emotionally-wrought family drama with global warming; and reveal playwright David Edgar's tips on how you, too, can write that award-winning play.

And, finally, a treat! Ibell's Theatreland about London's West End is guaranteed to provide sensational interval conversation. Has anyone, for instance, ever met William Terriss? Former star of melodramas at the Adelphi in the late nineteenth century, he now hangs around Covent Garden station - as a ghost - because there used to be a good patisserie nearby!

So that it's easy to find the type of book you're looking for (for patisserie guides you'll have to look elsewhere), we've labelled them by category. This month: history, memoirs, scripts, Shakespeare and theory.

If you have a comment about a book reviewed below, do post your thoughts - or email me if you'd like me to feature more on a particular topic or have ideas.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


History

Theatreland by Paul Ibell
Continuum Books, £25

In this warmly witty and informative tour-guide of a book, Ibell weaves together colourful titbits about the London stage: its theatres, its key performers, even its ghosts. There are fascinating chapters on Americans in the capital and West End women, as well as charming anecdotes recalling, for example, how the late Sheridan Morley often fell asleep during the plays he was reviewing and how Rudolf Nureyev insisted on taking endless curtain calls. A great present.


Memoirs

A Tug on the Thread: from the British Raj to the British Stage by Diana Quick
Virago, £17.99

In an intriguing but shockingly true story of secrets, prejudice and emotional crisis, the Brideshead Revisited actress (born in Kent) traces her paternal heritage to India. Nine years of painstaking research uncovers the stigma her father faced being born overseas under colonial rule and reveals how her great-grandmother was almost murdered during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Could what she has learned consciously and subconsciously about her family have helped her understand the many characters she has played who have been in denial about their real identities? Quick thinks so. Hear Diana speak at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland (0844 357 1060; www.bordersbookfestival.org) on June 21.

Beside Myself by Antony Sher
Nick Hern Books, £10.99

One of the most intensely personal, honest and heart-warmingly funny actor memoirs, this paperback - out in hardcover in 2001 - has been reissued for Sher's 60th birthday. A gay, white, Jewish South African, Sher reveals how years of insecurity, self-loathing and his search for his father's love led to an almost fatal cocaine habit. The caveat is that additional material promised by this edition is disappointing. Sher's follow-up is an oil painting. The Audience, a giant montage of 142 figures who have influenced him, may well be impressive (it's at the National Theatre until June 27), but the colour photo of it in the book can have only limited impact. Still, if you missed this book the first time around, seek it out. (National Theatre: 020 7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)


Scripts

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and Zinnie Harris
Faber and Faber, £9.99

Having caused outrage for its style and topic when staged initially in 1879, this new version of Ibsen's domestic drama (starring former X Files star Gillian Anderson) is equally controversial. Harris has shifted the play on 30 years to 1909, moving it from small-town Norway to London. Torvald Helmer is now Thomas Vaughan: a cabinet minister not a bank manager. While the cast of the run at the Donmar, on until July 14, have been praised for focusing on political careerism and cowardice rather than domestic misogyny, the changes, it is argued, weaken the play's impact. Yet the new theme of professional and personal scandal is terrifically topical. Maybe the original was just too good.

Orwell: A Celebration by Dominic Cavendish
Oberon Modern Plays, £8.99

From page to stage and back again, this is the text of four works currently on together at the Trafalgar Studios until July 4. This slim collection, which is especially valuable if, like me, all you've read of Orwell are his most well-known novels, begins with Cavendish's monologue adaptation of the political writer's Coming up for Air, which premiered at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. It also includes two of Orwell's essays, Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging; and finishes with an extract from Nineteen Eighty-Four (the book was first published 60 years ago this month). As bracingly powerful as ever, bringing out Orwell's biting wit and insight, and suggesting the influence of theatre on his writing, as well as highlighting his own theatrical legacy. (You can also read our Interview with Cavendish.)

When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell
Nick Hern Books, £8.99

Hauntingly poetic, this sensitive drama from Australian playwright Andrew Bovell charts the eerily inter-linked and estranged lives of four generations. Darting between times and places, ranging form London in 1959 to Alice Springs in 2039, it's an intriguing tale of family traits, disturbed couples, lost loved ones, error, redemption and climate change. Sometimes surreal (a fish falls from the sky at the start), this is a powerful, moving and, ultimately, hopeful play, making for a speedy, gripping read. The European premiere is on at the Almeida until July 4, with a talk by cast members on June 22.


Shakespeare

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal
Icon Books, £7.99

"Reading Shakespeare is like following the clues in a Sherlock Holmes novel," insists actor and linguist Ben Crystal in this digestible and informative how-to guide. The Bard's plays, he explains, are manuals for Elizabethan actors on how to perform the most engrossing of soap operas, with blood, murder, lust and love aplenty. You just have to learn to decipher them. By analysing Shakespeare's language (from his use of pronouns to his choice of insults), Crystal's explanations fizz and sparkle with educated clarity and infectious enthusiasm. One for all ages. Hear Crystal at the Globe on June 22, the Way With Words festival in Devon on July 15 and at Camp Bestival, Dorset on July 25. (See www.shakespeareontoast.com)

Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
Penguin, £9.99

Equally refreshing but more of a challenge, this compelling and discursive biography by the editor of Shakepeare's Complete Works for the RSC sets the playwright both in and apart from his social and political context. Taking his cue from Jacque's "seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It, Bate arranges a wealth of historical research and literary critique around Shakespeare as an infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, lawyer, a wise old fool, until his death. It's a scholarly and engaging read, even if a lack of hard evidence means the Bard is still elusive. Now out in paperback.


Theory

Essays by Wallace Shawn
Haymarket Books, £14.99

Topping off the Royal Court's energetic festival of plays by Wallace Shawn - whose screenwriting and acting credits include Clueless, Toy Story and Woody Allen's Manhattan - comes this captivatingly candid set of musings. With reflective insight and innovative brilliance, Shawn examines why he writes at all, as well as why he is apparently obsessed with writing about power and love. I particularly enjoyed his enlightening, if initially bizarre, parallel between following the invasion of Iraq on the news and playing pin the tail on the donkey, and his confession in the final chapter about why he still finds sex shocking... Fascinating. 

How Plays Work by David Edgar
Nick Hern Books, £10.99

Arguing that even the most apparently disparate plays share an underlying architecture, the political playwright, whose Black Tulips about Afghanistan has just been on at the Tricycle, delivers an indispensable set of essays on basic dramatic theory. With an outstanding range of examples from work by Oedipus to Beckett, Edgar outlines the difference between story and plot, shows how characters are developed, explains how structure can convey meaning and looks at the use of dialogue. Based on academic workshops he devised for playwrights, this is an easily accessible yet informative book for all, student or not.

Theatre &... Series edited by Dan Rebellato and Jen Harvie
Palgrave Macmillan, £4.99 each

A handy set of eight slim and affordable introductions for students, examining theatre and... audience, the body, the city, education, ethics, globalisation, human rights and politics. Theatre & Audience draws on examples from Brecht to The Blue Man Group, highlighting the value of emotional and intellectual engagement with performances; while the volume on politics uses a startlingly wide range of examples from Plato to Debbie Tucker Green. For 20% off orders before July 31, call 01256 302 866 or visit www.palgrave.com/theatre and quote: WHEATRE2009a.