Musical Theatre


I’ve never really enjoyed musicals, but then this weekend we took a trip en famille to see… Hamilton. and now I must kneel before those involved and praise their genius.

I’m still struggling to process quite how Lin Manuel Miranda (author) packed so much into 27,000 words in less than three hours, or how Thomas Kail (director) got that onto the stage, or how Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer) made dance seem so natural and integral to the idea of the birth of America or how beautifully Paul Tazewell (costume) dressed the cast. And those were just the obvious arts: Alex Lacamoire’s orchestration, Howell Binkley’s lights and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design meant you felt and saw and heard everyone of those 27,000 words amidst so much else.

Hamilton uses the self-mythologising of Hip-Hop in the same way The Get Down did, but describes not just the birth of hip-hop, but the birth of America. It disregards black or white among its actors, liberally reinterpreting the ethnicity of the original characters, but remains unmistakably an underdog story: from its first words, (‘How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’) this is about the poor and outcast, the disenfranchised and the unwanted rising up: this is the creation of America. As Alexander and John Laurens (maybe? it was moving so fast) intone to one another midway through: ‘Immigrants: we get the job done.’

This is truth being spoken to power, and not shutting up when power doesn’t listen: choosing to act the giddy fool and getting up in The Man’s grill until he scurries away with his tail between his legs (witness the 2016 booing of vice-president-elect Mike Pence by the audience, and his addressing by the cast afterwards as he tried to slink away).

I might one day try to write a more detailed analysis of Hamilton (which will require a second viewing of the show, something I never thought I’d consider for a musical) but in the three hours I sat there with my mouth open, these were some of the standouts [contains SPOILERS]:

  • The line, ‘I’m just like my country – young, scrappy and hungry,’ and the hand gestures accompanying it
  • The endlessly inventive use of the concentric rotating stage – particularly the death of Hamilton scene where two of the cast row the body back across the river (it’s the Hudson, but could just as easily have been the Styx)
  • The Schuyler sisters coming on like Destiny’s child
  • Angelica Schuyler’s song midway through the first half as her sister marries Hamilton while she is in love with him herself; the repetition of the dialogue being utterly transformed as its heard from her perspective (reader, I wept like a child)
  • Jason Pennycooke playing Thomas Jefferson as if he was Cab Calloway or Maurice Day – and Tarrin Callender’s big shouldered back-up as James Madison which reminded me of Radio Raheem
  • The house of congress rap battle (complete with mic drops) at the start of the second half
  • The letters… the constant writing; the scribbling of notes being carried by the performers to their intended recipient and the literal downpour of paper as Hamilton’s despair and endless writing fails to save him and the culmination of that number, where the desk (a board, nothing more) is whirled into position by the dancers as Hamilton sits to write
  • The repetition
  • Michael Jibson’s brilliantly psychopathic tantrum turn as George III
  • The 1940s femme fatale hair and exit lighting of Maria Reynolds
  • The hat-tip to Gilbert & Sullivan (George Washington’s describes himself as, ‘the very model of a modern major general’)
  • And last but not least, the actors. Chief amongst these being Jamal Westman as Hamilton, capturing the growing uncertainty of age in the second half as events start to batter and tarnish his once undentable self-image.

This is a work of genius which transcends its confines to sit alongside the other greatest works of art ever made. Get a ticket and see it if you can – you may have to wait a while, mind, so I should mention friend Lucy, who scored us the tickets at short notice and who gave us beds for the night (and me a proper hangover the next morning xx).




I hadn’t started out with the intention of ‘grading’ the work of other writers, but as I’ve gone on with this, I’ve started to think its useful… but incomplete.

Therefore, in a technique I am unashamedly cribbing from the movie mag (and website)  Little White Lies, I’m going to be refining and expanding the scores (still out of 5) to reflect:

On the shelf
What I’m expecting before opening.

On loan
How did I find it, during?

On reflection
Having put it back on the shelf, how is it in retrospect?

As is implied by these captions, most of the books I’m reading are from the local library. Have I mentioned libraries before? I don’t think I have. Let me fetch my soapbox…

One of the (few, frankly) advantages of living in a town with lots of old people in it is the presence of a library. We have a fairly big collection of books at home which, to be honest, we don’t really need. I know the modern world has invented the Kindle/e-reader, which would handily dispense with the problem of storage, but I’ve just never really liked them: to hold and feel a book in your hands;  its weight and a sense of how far you’ve come with it (and how far you have left to travel) seems ineffably part of the reading experience. Added to which, the cost of books (and my generally jobless state) means spending 8 quid (or so) every time I wanna read something new, or trawling through the grubby ranks of the charity shops in the hope of finding something interesting, is impractical – plus of course authors don’t benefit at all from second hand sales, whereas at least a library loan will net the author some small recompense.

When (not if, when) I finally get something into print, I promise I will start buying books at their cover price (given the six-figure non-recoupable advance I’ll be demanding [JOAK]) and then donate the book to a charity shop (or maybe even the library service – I wonder if that’s possible?)

As it is, 60p to reserve pretty much any book ever printed seems damn reasonable. Support your local library.

Hidden Nature

by Alys Fowler

An interesting read which I thought was genuinely going to be just about nature, when in fact it was just as much about *human* nature.

Alys Fowler moved to Birmingham with her husband and began to navigate the canals of the industrial heartland in a small red boat, but before long, her simmering sense that something wasn’t right revealed not that she hated Birmingham, but that she was… gay! Totally didn’t see it coming (me or her) but the confessional emotional honesty of it was deeply endearing and the idea of rediscovering lost waterways as she navigated her own self, buried beneath the years of learned tarmac felt natural and smart. To begin with.

But in the end, I just got a bit bored. The canal stuff was good, the self-discovery was good, but I stopped reading with about 30 pages to go as the book felt like it was petering out and the round red boat, the coracle she’d chosen to navigate the canals in and struggled to control, had taken hold of the prose.

Having said that, I has stayed with me in a way Everything Under (the other account of waterways I was reading a the same time) hasn’t. It’s the sort of book I can imagine recommending or buying someone who seems unsure of their direction (implying I am, which I am not).


The Last King of Lydia

by Tim Leach

A thoroughly enjoyable book which, as has happened recently with stories about water (The Uninvited, Hidden Nature and Everything Under – the last of which I realise it overlaps with, in being a partial retelling of a classic) spends a goodly while questioning the worshipping of the God(s). This time, the other parallel source is a TV show (The Last Kingdom, available on Netflix) and whereas that is about Vikings, this is about a civilisation which was part of greek mythology. Despite being a thousand years apart in their subjects,  they both focus on the seemingly-indivisible habits of religious faith, suppression of minorities and brutal, brutal violence.

The central character is Croesus, a man who takes his kingship for granted, but who finds himself in slavery. It’s peppered with historic nuggets (Did you know the Lydians are credited as the first to use gold and silver coinage, or that the Babylonians required all the women of the city to offer themselves as prostitutes once in their life – and not in some shady back street either, but in the temple? Me either).

It’s an excellent retelling a tale first told by Herodotus (by TL’s own admission, in the acknowledgements) and I look forward to reading more of the exploits of Croesus in the sequel – The King And The Slave.

4.4 out of 5

UPDATE: not directly to do with the book, but with The Last Kingdom. We were enjoying season one when I wrote this, but that finished and we started season two last night and OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE.
It has become terrible in a way only the start of S2 of The Walking Dead has previously managed (NEWSFLASH: TWL has since committed to being terrible with both feet).  I hope TLK gets back to the quality it showed to begin with. Honestly, ep1&2 os S2 have been so appallingly bad I can’t even.


Everything Under

By Daisy Johnson

I did enjoy this at the time of reading, but to be honest it hasn’t stayed with me; a good example of a review leading me to think it was about one thing (monsters made flesh) … and then, it wasn’t, really. I was also a bit disappointed with how the artfully poetic prose fell away in the second half of the book: it danced on the page to begin, but by the end, sat back and settled for the prosaic. I guess the Oedipal inversion was clever, but the trans themes felt a bit… I dunno – a little bit too much of a curio. (I have no idea if DJ is trans or not) but it felt a bit like it stumbled into a territory it wasn’t really capable of tackling.

2.5 from five.

The Uninvited

A YA mystery thriller by Tim Wynne-Jones that was likeable, well written and engaging.

It concerns a triangle of characters whose histories are deeply (biologically) intertwined and features a convincing scenario in which to discuss forbidden lust. The most evocative passages happen on the water, where someone lurks under the overhanging trees… watching the girl with whom he has become obsessed…

But who is ‘he’? Is it the brother she does not know she has, or is he watching the creepy old guy who’s started hanging around?

There’s no big theme or deeper meaning here, really: it’s a mystery that solves itself within its own pages.

-and is also the first of an accidental series of reads based on water: after this, I’ve turned to Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (review to come) and glanced at Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler which opens with her account of rediscovering Birmingham via its canals. I look forward to reading more of that one soon.






Picnic At Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay

Where better to discuss sex and violence, than on a picnic with young ladies, on St Valentine’s day?

This was always a pictorial story in my mind, with the 1975 film and the recent BBC drama. I shall have to watch the film again, because I didn’t think the TV made a *great* job of tugging (snigger) the subtext, or relating the story’s visceral violence to its pulsating underbelly (oo-er).

This was a dense read which I struggled to care much about to begin with: I’d started reading before the series, wanting to see that after finishing the Joan Lindsay novel, but they ended up overlapping and, well… the TV is just easier, isn’t it?

Following the St Valentine’s day exchange of cards between the girls (in honour of the god of symbolic love, no less) and their subsequent disappearance, the story expands to include a wider cast while focussing for the most part on the male lead, who also found himself on the altar, on the day of the sacrifice: did he perform the act literally? Did he take what he wanted? Is he hero or villain?

The sexual imagery sort of popped into focus for me, around about p100, and it became a much more interesting book. It was suddenly the depiction of the crucible: the anvil on which the young women at the story’s centre were being judged, or called to account, or sacrificed as virgins.

There are five women in all. A teacher, three close friends and an outsider; a girl none of them have much time for. Fundamentally, though, she is a girl: she is not curious of the mystery of the ‘hanging’ ‘ROCK’ (Now… is this maybe just me? Maybe I have an unhealthy imagination, but that pendulous, HARD, transformative visual of the location… just makes me think of a penis? Is seems to fit with the unspoken unmentionability of the girls’ symbolic mounting of the great altar; they are legend-tripping there way into womanhood. Is that just me? Am I weird? Oh god… no, don’t tell me.) Anyway, the girl doesn’t go.

All this (sex) and violence makes a very moral novel. It is also about class and the ultimate triumph of good, when the [SPOILER ALERT] hero is shown to have performed acts of heroism for womankind, and his good influence spreads to his adopted manservant, whose parallel misfortune goes unknown, and who is, in the end, rewarded both financially  (with a big cheque) and spiritually, when he pays it forward, creating the ‘perfect life’ for a young couple.

For the prurient and bible-waving brother and sister meanwhile, there is an horrific death in the fire at their hotel, where they have just plotted their futures with blind, messianic zeal.

The book’s harshest judgement (and most descriptive violence) however, is reserved for the headmistress, whose futile manoeuvring to manage the crisis and clumsy attempts to keep the fee-paying parents in the dark, leads her inexorably back to the rock and her own moment on the altar.

Dense, impressive, subtle and yet blunt.

Penis out of five. Four. I said four.



Ahead of writing this, I did a bit of Wikipedia-ing and discovered there was a final excised chapter, which sounds interesting, amplifying the supernatural sense which skirts the mysterious progress of the rock. I shan’t describe that as I haven’t read it yet, although NOW I KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.



Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

A funny book. Not ‘ha-ha’ funny, as such (although it was a little quaint) but odd in that the idea, the concept at its core has outlived its source and been distorted too (certainly in my perception of it).

Events are viewed from the perspective of Mr Utterson, a lawyer and friend to Dr Jekyll, whose curiosity is piqued when he stumbles across, ‘the loathsome Edward Hyde’ one night on the street. A mutual friend of Utterson and Jekyll is later found dead, with Hyde placed at the scene. Events proceed as all the evidence and laboured explanations of the good Doctor’s butler point with an almost deafening clarity to the only possible answer: that the Doctor has been transformed. This however seems to be beyond the comprehension of Utterson. I don’t know; maybe it’s the benefit of living 130 years after the book’s publication, and it having become so synonymous with the idea at its core, but the signposts seem so clearly laid out, only a fool could not see them.

But here’s the funny thing. My perception of the titular leads was thus: the doctor as an ageing, slight man, whose physical primacy is behind him, and that the monster, Hyde, is a distended ogre; a beast of great presence and physical menace. The book however describes these attributes in reverse: Jekyll is a broad and physically impressive man, a fine specimen. His counterpart, however is small and wiry; a creature that cowers from the light and lurks in corners. It was this shift in moral equivalency, from then to now that took me aback: written today, surely that would be the arrangement? Isn’t that the wider perception? That the monster, the dark half, is an ungovernable rogue, whose ungovernability is described by his strength? That he cannot physically be stopped? Dunno. Tell me different.

The edition I read was paired with an even shorter tale, The Bottle Imp, which I liked much more.

Interesting. Three-and-a-dark-half out of 5.


Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline.

Here is my relationship with this book.

Beta Reader No2 saw a trailer for the movie, then spotted the book on a 2-for-3 deal at a supermarket and grabbed it. She read it quick and said it was ‘really good’.

I meanwhile, a man in my forties (and about whom the book is basically about/for) had read some high-falutin’ articles and analysis of the hub-bub regarding the movie (and its origin book, of which I confess I had not heard) and was expecting several white-male identity-crisis–sized holes in it.

Having now read it (but not yet seen the movie) I find the concerns voiced in the aforementioned high-falutin accounts were not wholly as billed. The one biggest hole (as in the XXL sitting on-his-ass-white-guy-one) was the retreating into the past to avoid the problems we have created in the real world.

To be honest, I thought that was exactly what the book was about: the analyst had spent so much time looking for evidence of his clever opinion to achieve the required word total/score set by his editor, that he sort of missed the wider view: the drive of the story in the real world demonstrated the problem at every turn (and elucidated it explicitly on a couple of occasions). Shown, not told, guy.

The depictions of racial and gender disparity were clunky and clenching so hard to be ‘different!’ And what an eye-roller the ‘big reveal’ was (yawn). The dialogue therein was …yeck. (It stiffens my resolve to add some diaspora lit to my reading list ahead of tackling book no2, tho, so… s’gud fam.)

Final boss: I enjoyed it. It’s a good yarn, well told. The last 30 pages felt a bit perfunctory, the pacing a bit uneven as we raced to the conclusion, but all in all: