WhatsOnStage Logo

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

WhatsOnStage logo
Would it be biased to recommend Michael Coveney's Ken Campbell biography as our pick of the month, given that Coveney is our chief theatre critic? Of course it would. That doesn't mean we're not going to do it. Both Coveney and Jonathan Croall, who has written a doorstop biography of Sir John Gielgud, have been rifling through many of their subjects' unpublished letters to form detailed portraits of their characters and careers.

There's an undercurrent of violence running through the script department, with Neil LaBute's new thriller, In a Forest Dark and Deep, and a focus on Mark O'Rowe with his text for Terminus and an anthology of five more of his plays. The funniest element in all the May scripts can be found in Pinter's Moonlight, a play about a dying man and his dysfunctional family, which says a lot about how dark the others are. It's the sparky language that creates the humour, of course, rather than the subject matter.

For any lightness, you'll have to turn to that biography of Ken Campbell, a man known for his theatrical japes (who else would come up with an idea for a Royal Dickens Company and try to make it happen?). Did we mention that the book is by one of our critics?

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney
Nick Hern, £14.99

Ken Campbell was the sort of writer, actor, comic and director who specialised in pranks, or as Coveney puts it “licensed anarchy”. One of his best was writing to directors after the Royal Shakespeare Company had put on Nicholas Nickleby to say they would be changing their name to the Royal Dickens Company and to ask if they'd like to put on a production (David Copperfield, perhaps). He signed the letters, 'Trev' (Trevor Nunn). Campbell was also well-known for his long plays, including his staging of Neil Oram's 22-hour The Warp, the longest play in the world. Coveneny, now Whatsonstage.com's chief theatre critic, was allowed to see all Campbell's letters, notebooks and original scripts in composing this biography, and gives a warm, entertaining account of a much-loved maverick.

John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star by Jonathan Croall
Bloomsbury, £30

Jonathan Croall's tome of a biography at 700 pages has stirred up controversy in claiming that Sir John Gielgud tried to contact the theatre producer Hugh Beaumont to ward off the press during the gay sex scandal that almost ruined him. Croall, who wrote his first biography of the celebrated actor, director and producer in 2000, spoke to more than 100 people, including Kenneth Branagh and Alex Guinness,  in researching this latest book and looked through hundreds of unpublished letters to and from Gielgud with figures such as Noel Coward and Siegfried Sassoon. There's as much here about Gielgud's relationships as there is about his professional performances (including the truth about his rivalry with Sir Laurence Olivier), making this an entertaining as well as an authoritative read.


In a Forest, Dark and Deep by Neil LaBute
Faber & Faber, £9.99

The critical verdict on the world premiere of Neil LaBute's new play on at the Vaudeville until June 4 is that it is darker than it is deep. And so it might be. The script, however, is still entertaining, and is full of biting (and often funny) insults between two siblings: Bobby, a carpenter and his sister, Betty, the dean of a liberal arts college. You'll have to imagine the typical thriller setting: a woodland cabin on a dark and stormy night, which Betty is clearing out after the departure of her student tenant. The typical LaBute marks (see Fat Pig and the Tony-nominated Reasons to be Pretty) are here, including brutal characters, sexual politics, masulinity, an undercurrent of violence and colloquial language. But this play is really a lesson in why you should never trust appearances.

Plays: One by Mark O'Rowe
Nick Hern, £14.99

Tieing in nicely with Terminus (see below) is this anthology of five works by Dublin playwright Mark O'Rowe, including Howie the Rookie, his breakthrough play (it won the George Devine Award in 1999). O'Rowe introduces his dark, often quite violent and upfront work in a warm, chatty foreword, revealing that he almost stopped writing just before he created Howie the Rookie because he couldn't face more rejection. He also talks a lot about his poetic soul talking to other poetic souls (readers). The selection here includes O'Rowe's first play, The Aspidistra Code, which he describes as “a light, funny piece... a kitchen-sink-crime-comedy-drama” (it's about two people in debt and a loan shark), and Crestfall, which he re-wrote for this collection because he found the language “too spare, too humourless, and almost wilfully contradictory in its lack of flow or rhymth”. You'll be pleased to know he has tried to improve it.

Terminus by Mark O'Rowe
Nick Hern, £8.99

Three occasionally intersecting rhyming monologues make up this dark and, yet again, violent play by the Dublin playwright, which is on at Citizens in Glasgow until May 21. A is a teacher and mother looking for revenge, B is a lonely young woman looking for love and C is a serial killer. Each character speaks in rotation three times. The sin and redemption imagery is vivid, and the passages rhythmic and full of brutality, desperation and life.

Moonlight by Harold Pinter
Faber & Faber, £9.99

Pinter's short play is about a miserable man whose wife sits by his deathbed recounting her affair with his mistress. His daughter is present only as a ghost, while his two sons won't visit him. The sharp dialogue is still incredibly witty, with Pinter subverting and playing with idioms and cliches, even in the bleaker moments. The two sons are fantastic at parodying their father's world in the civil service taking on exaggerated characters, while the husband and wife exchange brilliantly sarcastic taunts. Moonlight is on at the Donmar until May 28.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, adapted by Patrick Sandford
Nick Hern, £8.99

Nick Dear's stage adaptation of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle at the National, has been one of the most talked about productions of the past few years – and deservedly so. Both Dear and Sandford, whose version was staged at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton in 2004, go back to Mary Shelley's novel to redress the distortion of the book by films. Dear gives the Creature much more of a voice than he is allowed in popular culture, treating him sympathetically. Sandford provides another take: all the dialogue in his adaptation can be found in the original novel, even some of the stage directions are Shelley's words.

Wastwater and T5 by Simon Stephens
Methuen, £9.99

It's another absorbing, read-in-one-sitting drama from the Punk Rock playwright.  Wastwater, set on the edges of Heathrow (which is where the T5, standing for Terminal 5, comes from) consists of three playlets, linked by theme and the odd character detail. The clue to the former comes from the first part of the title. Wastwater is the deepest lake in England, its calm surface masking a hidden menace – dead bodies are said to lie at the bottom. The three parts to this play follow an overly caring fostermother and her awkward son, a couple about to embark on an affair and a man about to buy a child from traffikers. There were mixed reviews of this play's first staging at the Royal Court earlier this month, but the only real criticism was that it was too bleak. As writing that disturbs – sometimes gently, sometimes with a jolt – it's faultless.


Tagged in this Story