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Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Oct 2009

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Leaping on the Strictly Come Dancing bandwagon, it's an all-singing, all-dancing books selection this month. From the quick-witted teenage-angst drama Punk Rock by Simon Stephens, recently on at the Lyric Hammersmith in west London (and now showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange), we hot step to judge Len Goodman's chatty autobiography, Better Late Than Never, which is now out in paperback.

On the way, we cross the outrageous and determined founder of Britain's first ballet company, Marie Rambert, in a warm memoir called Mim, by one of her pupils, and meet the flamboyant Robert Helpmann, who danced opposite Margot Fonteyn in the Royal Ballet in the post-war years, in a highly researched biography by dance critic Kathrine Sorley Walker.

Taking a breather, you can find out what Michael Frayn's work is all about from the playwright himself in Stage Directions, an intelligent and engaging collection of his essays; and learn how to act according to Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright and an esteemed practitioner in his own right, in a workbook by Lenard Petit.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Dance & Musicals

Better Late Than Never by Len Goodman
Ebury, £7.99

With characteristic enthusiasm, Goodman begins his autobiography with the story of how he was chosen to be a judge on Strictly Come Dancing when it started back in 2004. Out of his 40 years in ballroom as a competitor and judge, it sounds like this is his proudest achievement. In a story that sounds like a fairy-tale, Goodman chats about his early years running a fruit and veg barrow in the East End and reveals how his initial hopes to become a professional footballer were dashed when he broke his foot in his late teens. He only begun ballroom dancing to heal the injury - and meet girls. With lots of family and relationship material and plenty of dialogue, this is a colourful story. Len's prose can, however, be a bit over-simplified and pedestrian, and tends to meander. Still, if you find him charming on screen and are looking for an easy, uplifting read, this the bedside book for you.

The Faber Pocket Guide to Musicals by James Inverne
Faber, £8.99

One of the delightfully surprising elements of this well-informed and whirlwind tour of the 100 best and ten worst musicals is that you are likely to have heard of so many. You might not, however, know exactly when and where they premiered, what hits you should listen out for or even, if you were to be shamefully honest, what they are about. All that can be joyously rectified. Combining the essentials with entertaining trivia (the original London production of South Pacific, for example, featured the aspiring actor Sean Connery in the chorus), Inverne whizzes through the background of each show, summarises their plots, notes their key songs and recommends which recordings of each soundtrack you should get hold of. From Annie Get Your Gun to Wicked, from Brigadoon to Show Boat, this is a sweetly satisfying and easily digestible guide for musical lovers and musical haters - they'll soon be converted.

Mim: A Personal Memoir of Marie Rambert by Brigitte Kelly
Dance Books, £10

As one of Rambert's dance pupils, Brigitte Kelly's memoir of her mentor is empathetic and involving. She begins by visiting the late teacher's birthplace in Warsaw, imagining the oppressive atmosphere of the late 19th century when the Poles were under Russian subordination. From here, Rambert remarkably became one of the instigators of English ballet when she moved to London in 1914, via Berlin where she was joined Serge Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes. Rambert the teacher was, says Kelly, 'part inspired amateur and part tough professional'. In 1926, she founded the Ballet Club (now the Rambert Dance Company). It was the first ballet company in Britain. A friend of her mother, Kelly knew several sides to Rambert. She could be perceptive, shrewd, witty, self-obsessed, attention-seeking, outrageous and insensitive, but she was never, Kelly insists, deliberately cruel. Above all, she was determined. It was one of her passions to give opportunities to new choreographers, and she guided Frederick Ashton and Christopher Bruce with dedication. An intimate study of an extraordinary personality.

Robert Helpmann by Kathrine Sorley Walker
Dance Books, £10

During the post-war years, Helpmann was performing the lead characters in Shakespeare plays at Stratford and dancing principal roles opposite Margot Fonteyn with the Vics-Wells Ballet (now Sadler's Wells) in the same week. Flamboyant and versatile, he begun his dynamic career in 1926, joining Anna Pavlova's touring ballet company, and later moved to film, terrifying viewers as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968. In 1983, three years before he died aged 77, he was directing operas at the Sydney Opera House. Rich in detail and laced with comments during his life from theatre critics, this densely researched biography re-ignites the spark of the avant-garde Australian. Walker includes some wonderfully expressive black and white photos, including Helpmann as an ugly sister in the Royal Ballet's Cinderella pantomime in 1948. In his puff-sleeved dress and shoes with huge tinsel pompoms, Helpmann looks ridiculous - and quite the part. His performances must have been astonishing.

Actors and Playwrights

Letting Go by Robert Lindsay
Thorogood, £18.99

Robert Lindsay is as accomplished as he is versatile. He’s won an Olivier award and a Tony for his performance in musicals. He’s played Ibsen, Shakespeare, Osborne and Hare, to critical acclaim. And his incarnation as Ben Harper (‘he’s horrible; he doesn’t like his children, he moans at everything, but the audience love him’, says a somewhat astounded Lindsay in his autobiography) in the BBC sitcom My Family put him up for a Bafta. A highly affable, intelligent and honest narrator, Lindsay reveals the impact of family conflicts and ties, especially with his mother, on his work, and admits to the competing attractions of ‘frothy’ and ‘serious’ acting. Letting Go, which is out on 26 October, makes fascinating and incisive reading. But if you can’t wait that long, you can read our exclusive taster.

Stage Directions by Michael Frayn
Faber, £9.99

In the introduction to this paperback collection of essays about his theatre work, Frayn admits he wants his plays to 'stand on their own two feet, and make their own impact without the need for any preliminaries'. Does this make knowing how they came about or what audiences initially thought of them less valuable? Of course not. Frayn's lucid analysis of his drama about nuclear physics, Copenhagen, and his translations of Chekhov are as illuminating as they are intelligent; and excerpts from his diary about his first dip into professional theatre, in his mid-30s, with The Two of Us in 1970, are frank and witty. On the opening night, a viewer describes it as 'Load of bloody rubbish!' Later works - the farce Noises Off (1982) and the political work Democracy (2003) - were thankfully more successful.

A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd
Vintage, £10.99

Holroyd conveys the sensational lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving with several libraries' worth of scholarly research in this collective biography of the actress, the producer and their families. With the intrigue of a Ruth Rendell novel, it opens in a morgue in 1868, when Terry's father identifies his daughter's body. He was wrong. Terry, aged 21, had run away and was living happily with a 35-year-old architect and stage designer. Radiantly beautiful, Terry was the leading Shakespearean actress in Irving's theatre company for two decades. Flitting in and out of retirement, she had love affairs and illegitimate children, while Irving remained austere and obsessed with his work. Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig, was, like his mother, a successful actor. But scandal was close by: he had 13 children by eight women, including Isadora Duncan, Chekhov's widow. Meanwhile, Terry's daughter, Edy, had set up a theatre group and lesbian community at her mother's home, and one of Irving's sons, Harry, had bought the lease of the Savoy Theatre. At just over 600 pages, this is a terrific tome. A soap opera of book.


Punk Rock by Simon Stephens
Methuen, £8.99

I gulped down the sparky script of Simon Stephens' Punk Rock, which premiered last month at the Lyric Hammersmith in west London, in one sitting. Described by the playwright as 'The History Boys on crack', it follows seven affluent sixth-formers as they prepare for their mock A-levels and face up to the tangles and torments of adolescence. It focuses more on teenage life than Alan Bennett's drama, skipping the teachers, and dealing with bullying, alcohol, friendships and sex. Punk Rock is a guiltily captivating read, even without seeing it performed. It is unnervingly realistic, at least until the end - it's a shame this seems to come out of nowhere. Punchy all the same.

On Power by William Shakespeare
Penguin, £4.99

No 65 in Penguin's Great Ideas series, which covers all kinds of thinkers and their works, from Karl Marx's Revolution and War to Robert Louis Stevenson's An Apology for Idlers, is this slim and stylish-looking paperback comprising short excerpts about power from Shakespearean plays and sonnets. Neatly divided into power in government, in the family, in violence and in love, Rosencrantz from Hamlet, Miranda and Prospero from The Tempest, Brutus from Julius Caesar and Valentine from The Two Gentlemen of Verona all make a welcome appearance.

Theory & Miscellaneous

Secrets From the Casting Couch by Nancy Bishop
Methuen, £12.99

Want to work in film and on TV as well as stage? In this marvellously comprehensive and pro-active book, Emmy-award nominated casting director Nancy Bishop examines the most effective way to get the role you want. A large chunk of the book deals with marketing yourself so that you get invited to an audition in the first place. Bishop, who has worked with Jackie Chan and George Lucas, outlines examples of actor archetypes to play around with and gives simple recommendations for getting the best headshot to send to potential agents. She also suggests what you should and should not say on a show reel. Hundreds of questions are answered in this clearly laid-out guide: from whether an actor should go to university to what a manager really does. A great tricks-of-the-trade book.

Theatremonkey: A Guide to London's West End
Red Squirrel, £9.99

What if seating plans were colour coded not according to price, but according to how good or bad the seats actually were? Would all the seats be confirmed as value for money? Would you compromise an obstructed view for the sake of an extra pound? Could you save a whole heap more by going for a cheaper seat without sacrificing legroom? This catalogue-like guide to more than 50 London theatres consists of seating plans accompanied by helpfully detailed notes about the quality of the seats. At last, no more neck ache from looking up at the stage. No more eyestrain from staring through a pillar. No more stiff legs from being cramped. Based on the popular and independent Theatremonkey.com website, Steve Rich, its creator, has aggregated readers' comments and checked out all you need to know to take the stress out of booking. He can't guarantee what the performance will be like, but you're guaranteed to find this guide, due out on 2 November, indispensable.   


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