WhatsOnStage Logo

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

WhatsOnStage logo
March is a horrific month. Or at least a month of horror, going by recently published scripts. The obvious example is Frankenstein, which has delighted and terrified critics in equal measure. Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch have been alternating roles each night, with our vote going with Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as the Scientist.

The prolific Nick Dear, whose play The Art of Success was nominated for an Olivier Award, has written the script of Mary Shelley’s novel. Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little also has terrifying elements in the brutal alternative reality it creatures: a world where innocent people are stitched up for murder and the public get to vote on whether someone deservers the death penalty. It's surprisingly bold and colourful, too - and not in a gory way.

Yet the featured book this month is not a script, but a script accompaniment. The Well Read Play by Stephen Unwin is a non-didactic guide to the basic elements of tragedies, comedies and histories. It’s no substitute for going to the theatre, of course, but it might help you appreciate the bare bones (in keeping with the horror theme) of productions.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


Thirteen Monologues by Jean Cocteau and Georges Feydeau
Oberon, £9.99

If great British monologues are rare, great French ones are even rarer, or so Peter Meyer claims in the introduction to his translations of monologues written in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Cocteau and Feydeau were unique, he argues, in using them to any effect.

Feydeau, who is better known for his farces, such as A Flea in Her Ear, recently revived at the Old Vic, gives a tongue-in-cheek explanation for this in one of his works in the book, A Man Who Hates Monologues: “I'd forbid them. They're false... An intelligent man doesn't speak all alone. He thinks; then he doesn't speak. That's what distinguishes him from lunatics; they speak, but they don't think.”

Fortunately, realism need not concern us, and on the entertainment stakes they rate highly for their snappy, often absurd wit. Highlights include Cocteau's Duet for One Voice, written for Piaf about her life with the singer Paul Meurisse, and Feydeau's All For Reform, spoken by an arrogant party candidate on the eve of an election. Très droll.

The Heretic by Richard Bean
Oberon, £8.99

Unafraid of a little provocation (this is the playwright behind the successful England People Very Nice about immigrant communities), Richard Bean turns his attention to climate change. But in contrast to Greenland, which preserves the status quo, The Heretic questions it through its main character, a sceptical academic called Dr Diane Cassell.

For his own part, Bean did not see himself as provocative with England People Very Nice (“That idea depresses me because what's controversial about saying what I see?”), so it would be reasonable to assume the same here. He prefers instead to write what he sees, particularly “truths that people don't want to talk about”. Bean was a stand-up comic in the early nineties and it shows: The Heretic is witty. But it's emotionally complex, too: Dr Cassell's daughter is an anorexic Greenpeace activist, while her boss is her former lover. The play has received acclaimed reviews in its first run. Catch it at the Royal Court until 19 March.

Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, by Nick Dear
Faber & Faber, £9.99

Forget what you know about Frankenstein from films; the bolt through his neck, his hunchbacked assistant. Nick Dear was aiming more for “questing intelligence” than “creepy thrills”, in his production, which is now on at the National and directed by Danny Boyle, who is admittedly more well-known for his movies (such as Slumdog Millionaire).

Dear, who is responsible for the tamer BBC version of Jane Austen's Persuasion, has gone back Mary Shelley's novel. He has cut some of it, done away with the letters that frame the narrative and rewritten the dialogue, but he has kept the period, the central story of a creature bent on revenge against his maker and the themes: scientific responsibility, in an age approaching the humanist revolution, and parenthood, particularly in light of Shelley's dead mother. If you can't get a much sought after ticket for a live performance (it's on throughout the spring), you might have luck with a filmed performance. Frankenstein by Dear and Shelley will be shown in cinemas on the 17 and 24 March.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, adapted by Tanya Ronder
Nick Hern, £9.99

If you enjoyed DBC Pierre's fast-paced Booker-prize winning novel, this will be an easy sell. Tanya Ronder, who adapted Peter Pan for the O2, has retained much of the original dialogue and details (from chicken mix to the nutritional value of coleslaw). Fifteen-year-old Vernon comes across as even more endearing in her stage version when he is wrongly accused of being involved in a high-school massacre in Texas. The supporting cast, including the scheming TV presenter, Lally, the perverted psychiatrist, Dr Goosens, and Vernon's love interest/pornographic fantasy Taylor Figueroa, come across as extra-vivid, too, and just the right side of vulgar to make them brashly funny. First staged in 2007, Vernon God Little is now on again at the Young Vic until 12 March. Rufus Norris' bold direction involves a key Americana soundtrack. The alternative to seeing the play (or an addition) would be to listen to the greatest hits of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline as you read.

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan
Nick Hern, £9.99

Brutal and intense, this Bruntwood prize-winning play, about an abandoned boy called Oscar, displays Andrew Sheridan’s bleak but profound influences: Kane, Bond and Pinter. What the story lacks in plot (it’s a little slow in places), it makes up for in hard-hitting passages (best read in the Mancunian dialect in which they were written). Winterlong is on at the Soho Theatre until March 12.

Little Platoons by Steve Waters
Nick Hern, 9.99

A former teacher, Steve Waters takes a largely sceptical look at the Coalition’s free-schools idea: an idea he initially found both “dangerous and appealing”. Here, he admirably tries to combine the political and personal – even if the result is sometimes a little strained – by focusing on an idealistic comprehensive teacher who becomes the head of a free school because she wants the best education for her son. “My parents’ generation tended to be happy to send their children to the nearest school and let them get on with it,” Waters said. “But today, parents are feeling thoroughly responsible for every aspect of their child’s life.” Waters most recent previous drama The Contingency Plan was shortlisted for the 2009 John Whiting Award. Little Platoons was on last month at the Bush Theatre.


Romantic Drama by Frederick Burwick
Cambridge University Press, £26.99

Burwick's lively academic guide delves into what it must have been like to be an actor in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. He is especially thorough in examining shifts in acting style, sieving through actors' own memoirs and diaries to reveal that some players played up their bad acting and made a virtue of it. A professor of English Literature at the University of California, Burwick considers any plays that were written or put on during that period through the actors playing the parts: Sarah Siddons and Anna Storace get several mentions.

The Well Read Play by Stephen Unwin 

Oberon, £14.99

As the theatre director Stephen Unwin notes, reading plays is unnatural: we're meant to watch and listen to them. If you can't get to a theatre or want to engage with plays that are simply not staged near you or at 3am when you have an ounce of free time, scripts are often the only option, but then, of course, you don't have the advantage of the actors' expressions or their intonations or the clues of props or sets or costumes.

Unwin's comprehensive introductory guide outlines the issues worth considering as you read. What genre is a play, is an obvious one, while it may be easy to forget to ask yourself what characters really mean when they talk. Unwin is best at putting plays in their historical context, pinning down his points with examples from Euripides to Beckett, via Moliere and Shakespeare.


Tagged in this Story