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Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Jan 2011

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We're starting 2011 with a shelf load of scripts, including two for major current productions. You can still catch Alan Ayckbourn's acerbic Season's Greetings at the National and Georges Feydeau's playful farce A Flea in Her Ear, directed by Richard Eyre, at the Old Vic for another couple of months.

We've also thrown versions of two classic novels into the mix: Jane Austen's Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. Mark Healy's stage adaptations have just been published. If you're looking for something to perform, these might give you a bit more creative latitude, with Austen popping up in the former.

For fresh, provocative writing, head for this month's anthology, Charged , written by six female writers, including EV Crowe and Chloe Moss. The short serious plays take inventive stances on women and the law – whether they're in prison or are police officers. To finish, we have Lucy Kirkwood's Beauty and the Beast: the script for the recent production at the National. But is it a happy-ever-after ending? With Kirkwood and Katie Mitchell, both known for their darker, more serious dramas, at the helm, you can never quite be sure...

Have a very happy new year!

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


Season’s Greetings by Alan Ayckbourn
Faber & Faber, £9.99

If supermarkets can put up their Christmas decorations early, why shouldn't theatres stage Christmas plays late? Alan Ayckbourn's festive farce, which was first staged 30 years ago to mixed reviews, is on at the National until March 13. The cast, including Catherine Tate as one of the hosts and the director, Marianne Elliott, can take much of the credit for its current success. But the script itself, whatever audiences first thought, is brilliant: the dialogue is crisp and witty; the bickering often shudderingly recognisable; the incidents, involving an indecent Santa, an incompetent doctor and an amateur puppeteer, masterfully extreme. There's full-blown emotional carnage at the Bunker family Christmas. This is a fast read, even though at 150 pages, it's slightly chunkier than your average script.

Joseph K by Tom Basden
Nick Hern, £8.99

A man is arrested at home with no idea what he's done. Yes, it's Frank Kafka's The Trial – or rather a version of it. In Joseph K, Tom Basden, who won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, puts a contemporary spin on the early twentieth-century classic. Here, Joseph K is a young banker (Kafka had him as a bank clerk) who suffers the injustice of his mobile phone and Boots card being mysteriously blocked.

With its naturalistic dialogue and emphasis on comic absurdity, it feels like a play that's been more inspired by Kafka's than a straight update. 'I'm really keen,' said Basden, 'not to suggest that what went on in central Europe in Kafka's time is similar to what we put up with now: applying for resident parking permits, and photocopiers not working. But there is a spirit of powerlessness in the book that persists in our experience today... Its atmosphere is obviously menacing, but it's also incredibly funny. Seeing it in nightmarish terms isn't always useful – and it certainly isn't what's true about it now.' This play is witty and inspired – perfect for those who like their comedy black.

Charged by EV Crowe et al
Nick Hern, £10.99

This thrillingly provocative anthology of plays about women caught up with the law will suit anyone fed up with new year cheer. As you'd expect from six edgy writers, the tone of much of the work is abrasive and the language vernacular, but at about 25 pages per jolt, you can at least take regular breathers. As engaging as they are forthright, the plays explore teenage gangs (in the case of Sam Holcroft, whose play, Pink, was performed as part of the recent Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle) and mothers behind bars (in the case of Chloe Moss, whose first play in 2002 won the Royal Court's Young Writers' Festival). They don't deal with the cosiest of subjects, but they are worthy ones.

The Price of Everything by Fiona Evans
Nick Hern, £8.99

It was her religious studies teacher at school that sparked Fiona Evans's interest in drama. 'She used to get us to act it out and, at the end of the term, usually you had about four or five books worth of information, but with Mrs Green we used to have half a book, but we'd retained all the information because we were interested in it,' she said. The Price of Everything has the sort of moralistic heart that makes religious parables relevant today, sending out a warning about the corruptibility of greed.

Here, Eddie, a self-made businessman, is married to a former beauty queen who loves the designer clothes his money can buy her, as well as their Cheshire mansion. We never see how Eddie makes his money, but we do see its tragic effect, not least on the family's poor dog. The Price of Everything was first staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough at the end of last year. This is a punchy read.

A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau and translated by John Mortimer
Oberon, £8.99

Critics at the time dismissed Georges Feydeau's early nineteenth-century farces as light entertainment hardly worthy of serious discussion. Today, as the recent revival of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic shows, he has a few more fans. Michael Billington, of the Guardian, praised the 'thrift and beauty of his plotting' - although not everyone agreed. 'Part of the problem is that the world of Parisian Belle Epoque adulterers and innocent dupes now seems impossibly remote,' said Charles Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph.

Feydeau's narrative, involving a wife thinking her husband has had an affair, a trick letter and the seedy Hotel Coq d'Or, relies heavily on speech impediments, improbable mistaken identities and comedy foreigners. PC it is not. My own view lies very much with Spencer, compounded with a distaste for the latter. But don't dismiss it just yet. The late John Mortimer, best known for his own novels and plays, including A Voyage Round My Father, has drawn out some witty lines. This is one for debate. * *A Flea in Her Ear, starring Tom Hollander and Lisa Dillon, is on at the Old Vic until March 5.

Jane Austen's Persuasion, adapted for the stage by Mark Healy
Nick Hern, £9.99

Mark Healy writes the eighteenth-century author into his stage version of her Cinderella-like novel, cleverly mixing fact and fiction. He frames the love affair between the characters Anne Elliot and the naval officer Frederick Wentworth, with an imagined story between Austen and a suitor of her own, based on real letters that suggest Austen fell for a clergyman who died before they could have a relationship. For Healy, Persuasion is overwhelmingly about lost and unrequited love. In the introduction, he outlines ideas for staging (his adaptation was first on at Northcott Theatre in Exeter in 1999). They're very brief. The most useful note concerns the cast size. Healy wrote the play for three men and three women, but says you could easily have up to 20 performers, with some actors taking just one or two smaller roles.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, adapted for the stage by Mark Healy
Nick Hern, £9.99 Like his version of Persuasion (see above), Healy's interpretation of Sense and Sensibility is filtered through Austen's life. Here, it is implicit in that he doesn't introduce her directly to the play, but he tells us pointedly in the again short introduction that he is concentrating on the relationship in the story between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in light of Austen's own relationship with her sister Cassandra. It's a widely held theory among Austen scholars that this was the inspiration for her novel. Healy has written this adaptation, which was first staged at Northcott Theatre in Exeter in 2000, for four men and four women, although it could also be played by nine men and seven women. He emphasises subtlety in the characters, rather than caricaturing them for easy laughs.

Beauty and the Beast by Lucy Kirkwood
Nick Hern, £8.99

'You have never really heard a fairytale until you have heard it told by a real fairy,' says the narrator at the start of this play. While Kirkwood's version of the eighteenth-century French classic, aimed at eight to 12 year olds, retains the story's central elements (a beautiful girl, a big hairy animal and a rose), she frames it within a music hall setting.

As you might expect from a writer whose work has included an updated version of Hedda Gabler and episodes of Skins, the script has dark undertones – albeit more playful than nightmarishly sinister – and strong female characters. Beauty loves astronomy and exploring. These strands have made it ideal for avant garde director Katie Mitchell, who has just devised a production of it at the National, complete with fire tricks, an insect orchestra and an elaborate costume for the beast. It was a predictable hit.


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