Friday 27 October 2023

Secret Blog: The pandemic plays

In early March 2020, my organisation advised employees to start working from home due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. Along with many other office workers, I stuffed a bag with my laptop, docking station, notebooks, a headset and any smart shoes I kept in the office, none of us knowing how long to expect this measure to last. On my way home, I popped into the library (I work at a university) to take out some play texts. Clearly, my priorities were having some good reading material to keep me occupied during lockdown!

As a student, I often enjoyed using the library to read a wide range of plays even if they weren't the focus of my studies. I had a voracious appetite for reading and was a part of a reading group for a local amateur theatre for a while. Even after graduating, working as a zero-hour agency staff member at a different university, I'd often sit in the library between shifts reading plays I knew about but never had the opportunity to see. That particular university didn't have a Drama course so the plays tended to be classics along with a smaller section of modern plays. The contemporary play texts could probably be held in one hand. I spent many hours not being paid (and in some cases being paid) reading the plays of Tony Kushner, Caryll Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker, David Hare and so on. Many of them hadn't been taken out for years, some were dusty - literally or otherwise!

Since then, I've not had much chance to read plays as often as I'd like but I felt the coming weeks would hold the opportunity to remedy this. On this occasion, the plays were 'Sweet Bird of Youth' and Other Plays by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet: Plays One, and Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard.

September 2023. Three and a half years and 99 automatic renewals later I received an auto-generated email saying I'd reached the maximum number of renewals and needed to return the books. I hadn't even opened them during that time! Lockdown instead had been taken up with WFH, clearing our garden, re-organising a wedding, and immersing ourselves into a Netflix subscription. And reading other things. So without having read the plays I took home in a pre-lockdown world, I was now dusting them off my own bookshelf and returning them to the library. Until the next pandemic, David Mamet: Plays One!

Before I returned them, I read the Stoppard. As I opened it, the spine not yet quite cracked, a slip of paper fell out. On first glance, you'd have thought it was blank the ink was so faded. On closer inspection, I could see it was the receipt from the last time the book had been taken out of the library in 2014. I find these sort of things fascinating. We were recently in a secondhand bookshop in Aberystwyth where my wife bought a copy of Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. Inside it was a makeshift bookmark, a family photograph taken outside a Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, the year 1974 pencilled on the back. Who did this belong to? Did they intend to donate the photograph with the book? Would they like it returned?

I looked at the library receipt from almost a decade ago, pondering how much the world had changed since. I looked closer. It had my name on it. I vaguely recall taking out some Stoppard plays when I was completing my undergraduate degree in the summer of 2014. I recall reading Arcadia but must have returned the others unread. Nine years later, it was back in my possession, still unread and about to be returned to the library once more. What a fittingly Stoppardian trick of time.

Friday 6 October 2023

The Book Thief

 Curve, Leicester

4th October, 2023

It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless

I was sixteen when I first read Markus Zusak’s 2006 novel The Book Thief. It was love at first sight. I was completely enamoured with Zusak’s words and the characters they conjured, as were many fellow readers the world over. As a novel that is so potently about words – their meanings, evocations, the power they can wield – it poses adaptors with a tricky conundrum in how to visualise and animate the written language. The 2013 film adaptation failed to seize the popular consciousness in the manner the book had, so how does the musical (adapted by novelist Jodi Picoult, Timothy Allen McDonald, and composers Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson) fare? First seen at the Octagon Theatre Bolton last year, this production works as a faithful adaptation that harnesses stage craft to create some wonderfully theatrical set pieces.

Famously narrated by Death (an omnipresent and omniscient Obioma Ugoala) we are guided through the suburbs of Nazi Germany, trailing young orphan, Liesel Meminger (played at this performance by Eirini Louskou) as she experiences the horrors of war and the wonderous escapism and heroism of the written word. Fostered by the kindly Hans Hubermann (Jack Lord) and his bristly wife Rosa (Mina Anwar), Liesel quickly grows in confidence and begins to commit small acts of rebellion – first by stealing pages from the charred embers of a Nazi book burning, and then by befriending the young Jewish man hidden in the basement. Fans of the novel will delight in spotting many memorable elements popping up in Picoult and McDonald’s book – from the frequent peppering of dialogue with the German swearwords ‘saumensch’ and ‘arschloch’, to the rich associations drawn between colour, emotion and memory. And, not least, to Death’s concluding thought: ‘I’m haunted by humans’.

Samsel and Anderson’s music is pleasant, and there's a variety of different styles at play, from the Oom-pah-pah-esqe “Late to the Party”, jazzier numbers like “Look at Jesse Owens”, to the more stirring numbers such as “In This Book”. Tom Jackson Greaves’ imaginative choreography translates Zusak’s powerful use of language into movement, capturing the spirit of the piece really elegantly (as did his work in Amélie). There are occasions where the piece feels a little overly choreographed but, overall, the creative team produce some lovely lyrical motifs that draw in the audience. They also provide emotional beacons throughout the piece, most notably in Liesel’s simple lullaby “Hello Stars” and, perhaps my favourite lyric of the night, ‘It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless’. I initially had misgivings around the musicalisation of the story but these gems justify the form alone.

Picoult and McDonald have placed more emphasis on the contemporary links to Zusak’s narrative, which while heavy-handed are sobering nonetheless: ‘Mein Kampf – a best seller in 1930… and again in 2016’. Dramatically, the musical is at its best during Liesel and Max’s fantastical daydreams. The imaginary boxing match between Max and Hitler is neatly choreographed and excellently incorporates Sam Wilde’s puppets into the action. Similarly, “The Word Shaker” sequence is dramatically exciting in director Lotte Wakeham’s hands and the abstract story makes a fine platform for Wilde’s puppets. The rough, ragdoll-like beings are made of screwed up and discarded pages of books, with only basic identifiable features being picked out (Hitler’s moustache; Liesel’s plaits). This creative figurativism is a great theatrical way of demonstrating that language is at once a great leveller and a great weapon.

I also enjoyed the use of Dick Straker’s projections throughout the set. The somewhat crude line drawings are both evocative of Liesel’s inner world, while also creating a sense of reminiscence and unity with the source material (which features some stark yet beautiful illustrations). While the production doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of the novel – I feel the ending is a little rushed in what is otherwise an extremely well-paced show – Wakeham and co. produce some lovely moments which combine music, movement and narrative.

 The Book Thief plays at Curve, Leicester until 14th October. For further information please visit

Daniel Krikler (centre) as Max & the cast of The Book Thief. Credit Pamela Raith