Monday, 11 March 2013

Matilda the Musical

Despite the many accolades and critical acclaim it has garnered, Matilda the Musical had never quite convinced me. I had this niggling doubt that it would just be really silly, a judgement that probably came from Tim Minchin's wild hair more than anything else. It certainly wasn't based on empirical evidence: I'd never even checked out any of the songs from it on YouTube. Luckily for me, my lovely friend Zoe decided to counter my obstinacy with a surprise trip to the show last night (5 Feb). She was right, I loved it.

Of course I loved it, how could I not? For a start, it's a classic heart-warming tale of good triumphing over evil that I, like so many other children, grew up with. Matilda is such an endearing character, it's impossible not to get caught up in her story and wish her well. No-one tells a story like Roald Dahl, from his distinctive language packed with silly sounds to his gift for creating memorable characters like the dastardly Miss Trunchball. This flair for storytelling is a characteristic that lives on in the Matilda of this stage version.

At the same time, it's an actual musical with songs written specifically to tell the story, which, as I've mentioned before, is a rare treat in this age of jukebox musicals. Many songs are really funny, which is unsurprising as that is what Tim Minchin is famous for after all, while others are genuinely moving. The whole score is brimming with influences from musical theatre history, making a musical geek like me happy, especially 'Pathetic' - where Miss Honey urges herself to find some inner strength - which feels like classic Sondheim. I was also captivated by the set design, filled with glowing letters and books that magically turned into a living room one minute, a playground the next. 

Boodles of Olivier Awards
Matilda will make you smile, laugh, cry (at least if you're sentimental like me), and sing showtunes on your way home before settling down with a good book. What more could you want from a night at the theatre?

Matilda the Musical is at Cambridge Theatre, London - and now Broadway too! You can buy tickets for London here.

Coalition @ Pleasance Theatre

Having voted Lib Dem at the last election, I have a tiny share in the responsibility for the coalition that is torn to shreds in Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky's new comedy play, which finished its run at the Pleasance Theatre this weekend. Whatever your thoughts on the coalition politically, there's no denying its comic potential.

The first term of the coalition is drawing to an end, and somehow they've made it through. Before the next general election, Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matt Cooper (Thom Tuck) - Nick Clegg in all but name - is determined to get himself out from the Prime Minister's shadow and assert his authority. The result, through increasingly complicated layers of bartering and betrayal - of people and of principles - is a rapid downward spiral of defections and defeats.

Thom Tuck as Lib Dem Leader and Deputy PM Matt Cooper
Weaving together the political (particularly criticism of the Liberal Democrat's supposed sacrifice of everything they believe in for power) and the comedic, Coalition takes us through the nightmare of constituency surgeries, appeasing back-benchers, fielding incompetent candidates in by-elections and facing the constant glare of public opinion (as compiled and analysed by a blithering PR geek). 

An unnerving Phil Jupitus as Sir Francis Whitford
While the coalition power plays are inherently funny, it's the cast who really make the play. Thom Tuck displays great physical humour as a man on the edge, all fists pumping and eyes bulging. As Sir Francis Whitford, whose only role in cabinet seems to be turning up mysteriously and messing with Liberal Democrat minds, Phil Jupitus was really quite unnerving.  He played everything so drily, recalling real life politicians who don't realise how unwittingly funny they are. Jupitus was not the only famous comedian on stage; equally dry-witted Jo Caulfield played Chief Whip Angela Hornby, who wasn't nearly as dominatrix-y as her job title would suggest, and a little unconvincing as someone in such a position of power, but still amusing.

Jo Caulfield as Lib Dem Chief Whip Angela Hornby
Although Coalition's primary purpose is to make you laugh, the play does prompt questioning of contemporary politics, and we all left discussing how the coalition will really end. My lasting impression of Coalition was that the exercise of power is far more trouble than its worth... but I guess that's why I'm not in politics!

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Art of Parodies

From political cartoons to YouTube tributes, we are constantly surrounded by parodies. But what do they do? Are they a sign of derision or affection? On Friday 1 March, LSE's 'Branching Out' Literary Festival brought together three experts with very different attitudes to discuss these questions: biographer, critic and novelist D J Taylor, cartoonist Martin Rowson and author Ewan Morrison. The result was a very lively and thought-provoking debate. Here are some of the main points from each speaker:

D J Taylor
David Taylor began his presentation reading from a short literary parody of his own, gently mocking the tropes of A S Byatt's work, to insist that parody is not disparaging.He insisted he was a big fan of Byatt, proving the old adage 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'. For him, parody is a kind of authentication as it means at least someone has taken an interest in your work. It is also a vehicle for literary criticism, allowing critics to highlight key stylistic aspects of texts while having fun at the same time.

Read more of DJ Taylor's thoughts on parody and his top 10 literary parodies in this Guardian article.

Martin Rowson
Named 'Cartoon Laureate' by Ken Livingston, Martin Rowson is one of Britain's most successful political cartoonists. His presentation described political cartoons as both a parody of people and of iconic images to create the humour we need to help us survive. Starting with a musing on scatological humour, Martin claimed "If we didn't laugh, we would go mad at the horror at the stuff that falls out of our bodies on a daily basis". It's the same for politics, he adds, we need humour to cope with the ineptitude of politicians. 
Politicians too turn themselves into parodies of themselves in order to become recognisable. Martin has many stories of politicians and other notables (such as Charles Saatchi) who relish the attention of cartoonists as they ensure that they remain in the public eye. In contrast to David's assertion that parody is flattery, Martin uses parody as explicit criticism. Outside of politics, Martin has published a few graphic novel adaptations of classic works, notably T S Elliott's The Wasteland, which he calls a "truly terrible poem". One panel features Eeyore's corpse being pulled out of the river to 'celebrate' Winnie the Pooh (published around the same time as The Wasteland and Ulysses) as "the third pillar of modernism".

Ewan Morrison
Opening with a horrible Star Wars/Somebody That I Used to Know YouTube clip, one of the many thousands that appear when you search for 'parody', author Ewan Morrison set out to convince us that parody has gone too far in the digital age and lost any power it had ever had. "Parody is an overly familiar form and no longer effective". The problem, as he sees it, is that "everybody has an abundance of spare time". People take to the Internet to create mash-ups or fan-fic rather than interacting constructively with the rest of the world, and as a result "mass media is just talking to itself", like Twilight breading Fifty Shades of Grey. Where parody may once have combined the humour and political drive that Martin Rowson suggests, today they have "fallen away". 

"We are becoming a world of domestic parodists, spending our vital forces parodying and not doing anything in the real world".

From political cartoons to South Park, if we laugh at everything indiscriminantly then parody becomes obsolete, no longer a political tool but mere entertainment. Citing David Foster Wallace, Ewan insisted that we must "go back to being sincere". "We should stop thinking politics is funny. It's not. The cathartic function of parody is a problem". 

As you can imagine, David and Martin were quick to defend the types of parodies they work with, but there was unanimous agreement that this "domestic parodying" is unproductive and, often, frankly terrible. This left all sorts of questions discussed but unresolved: should parody be judged on its aesthetic quality? Its ability to make us laugh? Its political effect? Is there any point to parody any more? 

The event should hopefully be released as a podcast. Stay tuned to LSE's podcast page.

Friday, 1 March 2013


February may be the shortest month but it felt like the longest to me. I started the month recovering from my Rituximab infusions, which left me a brain-dead zombie. Then with the sudden sale of our house came endless packing, trips to the dump and charity shops, a table-top sale and lots of smashing things, followed by unpacking, stripping wallpaper, buying appliances, painting and more smashing things. At the same time, at uni there was the fantastic Narratives of Migration and Exile conference organised by the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies department, which involved writing a 20 minute paper, plus going to class, starting another paper for 7 March, writing for the Arts and Humanities Life Blog, and taking part in a research project for the King's Learning Institute. In the midst of that, I somehow found time to see the Les Misérables film twice, Matilda the Musical, Port at the National Theatre and Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic. Still it upsets me that a whole month has passed with not a single post here. I'll be rectifying that now!