Ruby Wax – How to be Human

Last night (7th November), I went to the Lyric Theatre to see Ruby Wax, as part of her How to be Human Tour. I’ve never seen Ruby live and my knowledge of her only extends to her being a very small but loud American woman who is known for her 25 plus year career as a stand up comic and writer for several of her own comedy shows, as well as editing Absolutely Fabulous. I confess I have never read any of her books, despite being very interested in the research and treatment of Mental Health conditions such as Depression and Anxiety. Ruby’s award-winning work campaigning for mental health charities as well as her own frank experiences of her personal struggles, has meant she has been on my radar for awhile. So when the chance came for tickets at one of my local Theatre’s, I took it.

I entered the Theatre, not knowing what to expect. Having not ready any of her books, including the book on which the Tour is based, I had no preconceptions. The only thing I gathered, was that it would be funny, and very honest. So when the stage lights went up and Ruby appeared on stage, all bets were off. This would be interesting.

After an initial ‘warm up’ to get the audience chucking and on her side, Wax explained the journey that had lead her to this tour. With a throwaway joke that ‘everyone is mentally ill these days’ following her work and several books on the subject, she noted that she realised she had to move in a new direction, and this would be to explore the ideas behind what makes us human. This would be done firstly with the guidance of her research and notes on the human make up and development from Evolution through to modern day, focusing on Thoughts, emotions, the body, compassion, forgiveness, sex and relationships. Then, she noted, she would be introducing a Monk and a Neuroscientist for their input.

Oh, and they couldn’t afford the projection of handy visual images on a screen, which she’d planned. So she’d point the ‘clicker’ at the screen for effect only. Whether this was a fault on the night at this particular venue, and not actually a budget issue, we’ll never know. Yet the audience just laughed and joined in on the joke.

What proceeded was a rather bizarre mix of a lecture/seminar style presentation of her findings, with facts and figures that she noted playfully, may or may not be true. For someone who lives to learn and for factual information, this proved rather difficult and often distracting.  This was interjected with personal asides and stories about her own relation to topics such as our thoughts, emotions and relationships. Many of these were fascinating but I struggled to keep up and link together her points.

Some interesting facts came up, if they are true facts. Wax noted that once, billions of years ago, we were all the same colour, and it was simply the direction in which our ancestors chose to walk which resulted in the way we look today. If true, fascinating. Although a call by Wax, for any bigots disappointed by this, particularly Ku Klux Klan members, to stand up, felt a little uncomfortable. Is this just an example of her oddball, often satirical humour?

Also, Wax’s visual description of the way the brain is formatted, to allow for information to pass through, with a hilarious metaphor of a Maserati pushing down on a toy tractor, to allow us to make choices that are often contradictory. To the rather beautiful visual description of thoughts being processed like bees in a hive, worker bees working in different areas of the brain to make us make choices, such as to buy a particular coffee, from activity in the sensory area of the brain to conjure physical images, to those manufacturing the smell of coffee in the smell area of the brain, to the more physical movement bees that makes us walk to the nearest coffee shop.

Wax’s passion and enthusiasm often made up for periods of audience confusion or lack of clarity on points linking together. After all, if you want a stream lined lecture on psychology, you’d go elsewhere. That, was not what Wax was doing.

The first act of her show was funny, at times touching, as she spoke of her own bouts of depression, and asked the audience to turn to the person either side of them and take a good look, and smile. ‘Because they might look normal on the outside, but underneath that, they’re just as much of a f**k up as you are.’ Brutal but true.

After the interval Wax returned with Buddhist Monk, Gelong Thubten. The neuroscientist unfortunately was too ill to take part. This did disappoint slightly as the show then seemed rather one sided, although Wax did try to speak for the empty seat and gave her solo guest more than a challenge.

This half of the show was more serious and I felt the audience turn a little. Thubten talked of his experience of being a monk for over 25 years, what lead him to that place and how he saw the modern world. He made some particularly valid points about finding happiness and peace in ourselves, rather than searching outside for it and constantly looking to others and external sources to make us happy. As Ruby agreed, we are yet to figure out what makes us happy and we’re hard wired to think that being busy means we’re happy.

Thubten also noted that the way we view ourselves is changing, that we now constantly question who we are and what we like, as we are endlessly seeking approval from other people via social media, likes and thumbs up or down are taking control over the way we live our lives and present ourselves to the world.  I found this part of the show, far more interesting, although the comedy aspect seemed to drain away. The discussion even getting quite heated at times, as Wax interrupted Thubten mid flow.

The show ended with Wax doing an odd dance with a ribbon streamer, perhaps a homage to her dashed desire to be a cheerleader in high school, which she performed for a few minutes before she and the monk bowed and then left the stage.

I can honestly say it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, but I enjoyed it, I learnt a lot. I listened and I laughed too. Wax has a strange kind of magnetic power that draws you in. I felt this in person when I met her in the foyer and she signed my new copy of How to be Human.

If you get a chance, it’s worth seeing this tour, just for the pure experience. There’s nothing else out there like it, I guarantee you!

Plus, her observation that we all need a monk to travel with us, was more than accurate. A calming, insightful influence would go a long way in my life!

 

 

 

 

Time for doubts?

So, last week I had a bit of a meltdown. I reached the end of my tether, the point of no return, the edge of the abyss. Not to be dramatic, but I lost my creative mojo. I had been working on a project, a collaboration with a friend and colleague. The project allowed for me to ease back into freelancing and for her to advertise her new business. Just write a good article, I thought, then send it in to local press, easy. I knew my writing was good, I knew the article was good and the subject was great. A graduate starting a new business in her home County? A business which is original and dynamic and eco-friendly.  A producer of beautifully handmade leisure wear and knitwear for all markets?

The little detail I forgot, was how difficult it had been to get freelance work a few years ago, how much has changed in the world of freelance since. Then a hint of success, a confirmation of publication with a newspaper I had worked for previously, ended in disaster. The same day it was due for print, the paper folded. A depressing example of the decline of print media, the effects of economic and political uncertainty on businesses and funding for those businesses. In short, we were both disappointed.

Yet the project would continue. With new targets and a rewrite on the cards, hopefully success is just around the corner. I took it well, we both took it well. Being past the meltdown stage, lifted slightly by a rearrangement of my work area and this – at first – exciting news of imminent publication. I’ve come to learn, maybe not accept, that this is part of the job of being a writer. You have to take the rough with the smooth, you have to take the knocks with the successes. As a good friend advised, ‘you have to have a thick skin for this business’. And boy is she right.

I’d spent the early part of the week dwelling on the fact that I’d written 2 books, and was now working on a third, with no suggestion of publication. That, despite being shortlisted and long-listed for competitions, I had never won any. Having written many articles, short stories and poems, I had only had a handful published. That my freelance work for a local paper, had come to an end after just 18 months or so, and it was proving difficult to find more work. My job in a local Theatre, although great, is customer service based and not contributory towards the creative side of the business. But more painful to digest, was the fact that there was no other option for me. To write was all that I wanted. To write and write successfully. Something which a friend and colleague pointed out (the beauty of my working environment, is friends with similar creative ambitions), can be defined as many different things.

I asked myself… what do I class as success? If it’s to be a writer, then I’ve succeeded. If it’s to write a book, then I’ve succeeded.. twice. If it’s to get something published, then I’ve succeeded in that too.  Everyone counts success as different things. What might be seen as success for me, could be different to another person. It’s extremely subjective and some people are extremely tough on themselves. Yes, that’s me. When this was pointed out to me, by several different people, I began to realise, that just because I felt like I was failing to achieve my goal, that I hadn’t actually done much at all in my life, that isn’t how others see it. To an outsider, a friend or a stranger even, it might look like I had achieved a lot of things.

This extract from Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet particularly registers with me:

You will be happy to write. You will be happy to be published. You will be happy to be published again. You will be happy to have a bestseller. You will be happy to have a number one bestseller. You will be happy when they turn your book into a movie. You will be happy when they turn it into a great movie. You will be happy when you are JK Rowling…..

His point is, when does it end? We are never happy with what we have or what we achieve. Do we ever really stop to celebrate it? Or are we on to the next thing, constantly searching for happiness and approval? Never really feeling happy at all.

I’ve just googled the average age of an Author, and it came back as 36. Curtis Brown, a leading Publishing Agency, published an article on this a few years ago, suggesting the average age of a first time Author on first publication was 36.

That is my current age. Although many Authors that are currently in the bestseller list, or Authors that I read, are above that, I’d say the average Author age of books I currently read is at least 40 plus. Of course there are younger Authors, Mary Shelley was just 19 when she wrote Frankenstein. Christopher Paolini started writing his best selling novel Eragon at 15 and had it published at the age of 19. Catherine Webb had 4 YA novels published by the age of 20! But generally, first time Authors are in the 36+ bracket. So maybe I am right where I need to be.

Yet, when you have had a dream since you were 10 years old, surely it’s excusable to get a little lost and frustrated at times? The 10 year old me, with the wonderful imagination and passion for books and writing, had no idea that this dream would take so long to come into fruition. Or that it might take many forms, on varying levels of success. She just wanted to create stories, to enter that imaginary world and be happy. So when I return to my writing desk, I need to remember that little girl and try and see the world through her eyes again. After all, she brought me to where I am today. I’ve no doubt that she will continue to fight for that dream, whatever shape it takes in the future. Maybe her dream is already in fruition. Every day of my life I have the option to write and to create. I have the tools, the space, the imagination. Maybe not always time and energy, but the basics are there. I’m doing it now, I’m succeeding now. There has to be value in that.

My new writing idol

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is my current writing idol. Creator of one woman stage show, Fleabag, which has just completed a gripping second series for the BBC, as well as screenwriter for the breathtaking Killing Eve, Waller Bridge is the one to watch.

Fresh out of Drama School, and unable to find female roles that she desired to play or even felt she could play, Waller Bridge decided to write something for herself. In Fleabag, which is her own family nickname,she created a fictional character who is sexually promiscuous, brash and deeply tormented, yet also incredibly funny and relatable. Waller-Bridge is great at creating gripping characters, particularly women, who are often unapologetic about their actions, their sexuality or their connections in life. Women who are strong and confident, while also unashamed to admit their fears and desires, without needing to explain themselves or their positions as women in society.

Fleabag is complicated. She struggles to come to terms with traumatic past events, which leads to addictions to alcohol and sex, and several amusing verbal outbursts, often as added asides to camera where her feelings cannot be contained. Her family is completely dysfunctional. Her Sister, while attempting to untangle herself from any family associations, is incredibly similar to Fleabag in her reactions to events, and together Fleabag and Claire (Sian Clifford) have a connection that pulls them back to each other, particularly in times of trouble. They are vicious and unforgiving to each other, but they stand up for, and even lie to protect, each other. In the second series, Fleabag’s ‘little miscarriage’ outburst at a family meal, brings all kinds of trouble.

Olivia Coleman is brilliant as Fleabag’s new step mum. Former Godmother to Fleabag and Claire, it seems she has slipped into the family unit quite comfortably. Her sly and snide comments to Fleabag and irritating ways make for comedy gold. Yet she is narcissistic and self obsessed, threatened by her new husband’s family. It’s heartbreaking how Fleabag’s Father (played to great effect by Bill Paterson) seems to ignore his future Wife’s behaviour. When he sees her slap his daughter across the face, then try and hide what she’d done by straightening the coats on the coat rack, he does nothing. Fleabag seems unsurprised by this and it’s never brought up again. From comments made by her Father, we gather that Fleabag is much like her Mother. Suggesting her Father was rather passive in the relationship. Paterson’s character is likeable yet also frustrating. He is often awkward, uncomfortable and unsure of himself. He dislikes confrontation and avoids any form of debate, yet clearly loves his daughters. Scenes from season 2, where Fleabag physically helps him down the aisle to marry her hated step mother, are quite moving.

While Fleabag has been labelled as shocking and controversial by some when it first appeared on our screens, in 2016, probably due to the nature of it’s themes, it has been received with great love and admiration by the masses. It’s heavy on the sex, swearing and even bringing female masturbation into the fore. (One scene featuring a news report of Obama is particularly shocking). As series one develops, we begin to learn more about this sex obsessed, drinking, smoking, swearing woman. She is much like anyone else, in that she is trying to cover the pain of loss and regret, to connect with her dysfunctional family and to find some form of happiness in modern existence. In Fleabag, Waller-Bridge has created a representation for the modern woman, or man even. she celebrates the broken people, the struggling, the dysfunctional, the average. Fleabag is unapologetic, she stands up for what she believes in, for what is right, for her family and friends. Her Brother-in-Law, Martin (played by American Brett Gelman) is a horrible person, who doesn’t appreciate his wife at all. She despises him, much as we do as an audience, encouraging her sister to chase the happiness she deserves with a fellow colleague, whose name, ironically, is Klare.

Her friend Boo is funny and outrageous, much like Fleabag, as well as being sweet and affectionate and the loss of her, as well as events around it, have deeply affected our heroine.

Fleabag holds regret in her heart and feels pain for any wrongdoing. She is ultimately a good person. Her asides to camera, act like little confessions to the audience, and make us feel part of her world. Her mischievous streak is thrilling, from stealing a small, priceless statue from her step mother, to purchasing a vibrator for her sister, and even falling for the (very) wrong man.

Season 2, is arguably stronger than the first, as we see more depth to Fleabag, and we are introduced to one of the most magnetic characters in TV since Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy. Andrew Scott breaths new life into the series, as the priest who is set to marry Fleabag’s Father and God Mother.

Scott has excelled in any role that I’ve seen him in. The most memorable as Moriarty in the BBC series of Sherlock (by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss). More recently he portrayed a struggling widower who had a grievance against a social media giant in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror for Netflix.

In Fleabag, Scott is a dedicated new Vicar (who also happens to drink and swear!) who becomes involved with the family while helping to arrange the wedding. He takes pity on Fleabag when a family dinner turns into a punch up, and she reveals falsely that she had ‘a little miscarriage’ while covering for her sister. From there, their friendship grows and Fleabag is clearly attracted to him. The chemistry between them both is incredible, so when they finally get together, we are ecstatic. Yet the constant reference to God, including some striking choral music, leaves us uneasy. The musical score was actually created by Isobel Waller-Bridge, and sharing the family’s comedic gene, many of Greek or Latin words used in the score are words for Male and Female private parts.

The idea of God making a painting fall from the wall of the church as a warning for the Priests behaviour, is brilliant, and shows Waller- Bridge at her writing best. Some of Boo’s lines are also funny and heart warming, particularly when she is talking about erasers on pencils.

‘That’s why they have them, because people make mistakes.’

This line of Boo’s seems to sum up Fleabag’s character and mindset. She is forever paying for her mistakes.

The Priest’s ultimate reasons to why he can’t be with Fleabag, are heartbreaking. The way the series ends suggest another may be in sight, yet Waller- Bridge has made speculations that she wants to leave the series at this point. The West End show, on which the series was originally based, is currently in the West End and being screened live in cinemas next month, which should surely stir up appetite for more?

Strong female leads on the big and small screen

I love a good netflix series as much as the next person and some of my recent discoveries have been a pleasant surprise, offering some strong female roles as well as being written and produced by women too. I recently became painfully aware of how few women are at the top of their game in film and TV in comparison with their male counterparts. Not just in pay and roles offered, but also in terms of directing and producing. Although I was pleasantly surprised to see in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago, a fair selection of female Authors climbing the best seller list.

Good Girls was the first Netflix series that highlighted this surge in female empowerment on the big screen. An American show that follows 3 women, (two who are sisters with very different lives) who decide to take responsibilities for the financial struggles in their lives by robbing a supermarket store. Annie, a single mum with money troubles and a fear of losing her son to her rich ex and his snobby wife, works at the store and has inside info which helps to get them in.

Beth, Annie’s big sister, is the brains behind the operation, planning everything to the letter, with a kick ass attitude to boot. As a mother of four, the promise of a better life for her children leads her into the darker side of suburban life, a world of crime, guns and gangsters who threaten her life.

Ruby, their friend, has a sick daughter who she longs to help with a pioneering medical trial, which comes at a great cost. Beyond what her and her husband can afford.

Good girls has the perfect mix of crime, humour and strong female attitude which packs a punch when the chips are down. It’s creator, Jenna Bans has sited the creation of the show as a kind of reaction to the Trump election. How she began to think about the idea that you follow all the rules and do everything right and you expect things should turn out right for you, but what happens if they don’t? How do you come back from that? Good girls, and the actions of the 3 main characters is her response to this question. She pitched the original idea for the pilot to a room full of female executives, and they loved it. Bans also says she wanted her story to come from a very real place, of how real people might react in such surreal situations and this is definitely where the connection comes in.

As we follow the story of Good Girls, we become connected to each character and their lives. They aren’t bad people, they’re just in bad situations and financially this was the only way out for them. While it’s funny, it’s also rather dark. With threats of death, guns, gangsters and moments so close to being uncovered. Plus some very unsettling scenes such as Annie’s situation with her lewd boss, who uncovers her secret and attempts to use it to get what he wants. But these women are smart and the overall message is that they’re taking back their power, whatever the consequences. They’re not relying on anyone else for help or support. It’s a woman’s world and women run it.

Following from this, came recent Netflix series Dead to me, starring Christina Applegate as a grieving widower who vows to find the person who hit her husband with their car and left him for dead. Quirky, dark and humorous all at the same time, this series is so different from Good girls. It’s slower in pace and goes to a lot darker places but there are so many twists and turns that you can’t see coming. Linda Cardellini plays Judy Hale, who meets Jen at a grief support group and quickly becomes a close friend. But there is much more to Judy’s story and the delicious plot that unfolds will keep you guessing and gasping until the end of the series. Applegate and Cardellini are a great team and the chemistry between them is amazing. This show also, more than Good girls, seems to have a focus on female fashion, with the outfits of the women drawing the eye on more than one occasion. Don’t get me wrong, the writing and acting is brilliant, this isn’t just a gimmick to steer away from a bad plot. The fashion just adds to the visual experience. The characters are owning their lives, while wearing some fabulous clothes. Lets face it there’s nothing more powerful than a good outfit.

The scenery is also appealing as is the original choice of music in places. Both female leads come across as really likeable despite their many flaws and as a viewer, we become drawn into their world to such an extent that we want them to succeed, and we also want the strong friendship, the bond between them, to continue, much as we do with the characters of Good Girls too.

In terms of female leads in British TV at the moment, the obvious front runner is Killing Eve. A dark and seductive tale of the obsessive relationship between two women,  one a lethal assassin, fantastically named, Vilanelle (played chillingly by Jody Comer), the other, Eve Polastri (played by Sandra Oh, of Grey’s Anatomy fame), a M15 Security Officer who will stop at nothing to catch the relentless criminal. Of course we’ve seen the twisted relationships between villains and their hunters before, throughout crime genre history – the most famous that of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, but Killing Eve cleverly brings a fresh perspective on the theme. Vilanelle and Eve are two fiercely intelligent women that are not just obsessed with each other, their emotions and actions flipping at the flick of a switch, so we never know where we stand, until the very end (series one had one of the most intense climaxes in the final episode, that I’ve ever seen in British Television). They are joined to one another, connected by some unknown force, unable to let each other go, yet they are both two powerful women as they stand alone, not needing anything or anyone else, including a man to love and protect them. They are both fiercely capable of acts beyond normal human comprehension. The only thing that separates them is their morals, their reaction to such events. And as we see the story move into series 2, disturbingly, we see Eve begin to almost act like her assassin. We look on as she gorges on sweets, moments after stabbing Vilanelle and running from a Parisian Builidng down a beautiful staircase and out onto the street. Moments later she wipes a knife blade clean of Vilanelle’s blood and hides it in a sanitary bin in the ladies toilets of the airport.

Writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is also known for her female led, dark comedy, Fleabag, which has gained great praise from critics.  Waller-Bridge has a wonderful insight into the human mind and a beautifully dark way of presenting women to the world, in all their imperfect glory. Like other programmes and films in this new, emerging, powerful female genre, Killing Eve also has a killer soundtrack, incorporating many foreign language songs as well as a focus on female fashion, beautiful clothes that are worn by women taking control and running with dark situations.

If we focus on film over the past year or so, we’ve seen a rise of female actors taking the lead in high grossing films. Olivia Coleman, an actress previously known for TV series and small parts in film, took on the lead role as Queen Anne in dark comedy, The Favourite, a challenging role which earned her a golden globe and saw one of the most humbling speeches every seen at an awards ceremony. The role presented a woman in power, as someone very human, very touched by emotion, exploring her sexuality and often disturbed and pained by her surroundings, giving a very raw and real account of her time on the throne. In other less thought provoking films, such as Avengers: Captain Marvel (Brie Larson as the lead superhero) and the recent instalment of the Men in Black franchise (where we see Emma Thompson as the head of the organisation – airing her frustration of the sexist name MIB), we see women at the core of the story. Not just for aesthetics but in powerful positions, being shown as smart and funny, while being wholly capable of achieving things with or without assistance.

In this new age of women taking back power, in the light of the #metoo movement and more opportunities presenting themselves for women, it’s great to see these women being represented on screen. Not in some unbelievable, tacky, unrealistic model of what  a women should be, but a real representation of a women. Whatever size, race, sexual orientation, moral values… These women are real, they are hardcore villains, crime fighting execs, hard working mums, seeking moral justice or just economic stability. Yet underneath it all, they are women, they are strong women, not reliant on men or anyone else to reach their goals. They are also vulnerable and they mess up and they let things get the better of them. This has to be a positive message for the future generations, and a nod towards a positive space for more female writers, directors, producers and actors within the media.

 

 

Re-discovering the joy of reading

I’ve always been an avid reader. From a young age I discovered Roald Dahl’s books, the magical worlds he created, the 3 dimensional characters, the funny but poignant tales, took me somewhere far away and inspired me to write my own tales too. As I grew up, I continued to read. From the teenage Goosebumps and point horror stories of the 90’s, to the as undiscovered classics revealed during A level classes and then my English and Creative writing degree which paired reading alongside writing in all genres. Nowadays I try not to stick to favourite authors (Dorothy Koomson, Mark Haddon, Anita Shreve, Jon Mcgregor, Jojo Moyes…) and to find new and exciting authors, to explore literature set in different countries, time zones, eras and genres. Friends and family help with suggesting books too.

Yet as I’ve got older and life has become busier, reading has taken a very small back seat in my priorities. Working full time as well as writing (freelance and working on a second and now third novel) and socialising with friends and loved ones, has made the window for that past love, become much smaller. What literature lover does not daydream about sitting in the window, a worn paperback in hand, letting the hours slip away as they immerse themselves in a world far away from theirs. It’s the idyll. Like reading while the ocean provides the background noise, your bare toes tucked into the warm sand. This idyllic image and the need to provide the perfect space for ‘reading’ seems to have become even more necessary now that I’m older. When the reality is usually fifteen minutes of reading at bedtime, before my tiredness admits defeat and I switch out the bedroom light.  It’s almost as if reading has become such a rare luxury that a special moment must be created to enjoy it – to allow it, to not feel guilty about it. How ridiculous!

This past month, I’ve vowed to get to bed early; to make room in my day and evening, wherever I can for reading. To fully commit and dissolve into my latest book. Just like I used to.  Aswell as the pleasure of reading, the stillness of just being on my own, in the quiet, sometimes accompanied with a cup of tea, a breakfast pastry or just a bar of chocolate and a few cookies, I would revel in the fulfilment of finishing something. And, once the dust has settled, that spark of joy that comes afterwards, when picking a new adventure, from one of my many populated bookshelves. Whether it be an adventure that I’ve chosen, an old friend like Thomas Hardy or Daphne Du Maurier, or the face of someone new, like my current read, loaned by a friend. Barbara Erskine’s ‘Sleepers Castle’ is set around the book town of Hay on Wye and one of my favourite places in the world. Eskine combines a modern day protagonist with a medieval tale in a location haunted by the ghosts of past and present. The book delves into the real Welsh History of Owain Glyndwr and his revolt against English rule and has taught me a lot about local history while colourfully bringing to life very real characters who are re-imagined in that era. My friends vivid description of the ending bringing her to tears, immediately made me want to read it. For it’s every Author’s dream to write work with such a profound effect and every reader’s to become immersed with such passion.

I’ve found that my desire to finish my day and return to my current literary world has returned. I’ve found myself going to bed early and staying up late, although this time there is no need for my childhood torch, I get to decide when my light goes off. When the last chapter is read, before it gets pushed onto its place on my bedside table, on top of the pile of awaiting friends. I’ve become fully invested again. I’ve made proper time for reading. I’ve fought against the many distractions and won. For now, anyway.

And it’s exciting. It reminds me why I picked up that first book, why I bought my first copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles, why I spend as much spare time as I can writing my own books. To read is to live, to experience, to explore. To learn, to grow, to value, to evolve. It is important, it’s not selfish or unnecessary, to me it’s inspiring and empowering. Everyone has a story to tell, and there are so many stories out there to experience. We’re lucky we’ve got a wide access to them, we shouldn’t waste it. So I’m off to finish a few more chapters. See you on the next page…

Dirty Protest’s ‘How to be Brave’ at the Torch Theatre.

Last night I went to see Theatre Company Dirty Protest’s latest offering, How to be Brave, at the Torch Theatre. Working at the Theatre gives me all kinds of access to local and touring productions and this was a company which I’d heard lots about, but not seen before. What I’d heard was that they were very much community based, with hard-hitting performances of work by Welsh writers that aimed to leave audiences thinking. This is certainly what I got.

I took my seat in the round. An unusual stage setting that I had not seen before. The audience were sat in a circle, surrounding a very small stage on the level. This had me wondering how professional it would be, how effective, the limitations on movement, props, lighting and so on. Yet what it could also bring, I soon realised, was a very intimate experience, an involvement in the story, a closeness to the lead character, every expression on her face, every movement, every moment of being trapped, caged in by her own memories and her fear for the future and her daughter, fully realised by the audience.

Dirty Protest are an award-winning Theatre Company who lead the development  promotion and production of new writing for Performance. They have worked with more than 200 new Welsh writers, staging new sell-out plays in Theatres and alternative venues from clubs and pubs, to a Kebab shop and even a forest! They were also Winner of 2013 Best Production Wales Critics Choice at the Theatre Critics of Wales awards for the premiere of Katherine Chandler’s Parallel Lines.

How to be Brave was written by Sian Owen, and is based around her own experiences of growing up and Living in Newport, the city that ‘made her’. Owen is a Graduate of the MA Writing for Performance programme at Goldsmiths College. She has gained recognition for her work including BBC Radio 4 drama Pieces and her play Restoration which won the Oxford Playhouse Writing competition. She is currently under commission with Box of Tricks Theatre Company.

In 60 minutes, Laura Dalgleish (as Katie) manages to convey Owens story with passion, humour, fear, sadness and great humility, making us believe it is not only her story but our story too. There was no need for props, only basic lighting, to denote a movement from the past to present, or outbursts of anger and emotion, and sound clips of voices from the past to add authenticity to the production. The mention of Newport, the buildings, the streets, the people, the changes it’s gone through from the War torn past of her Nan’s age and the steel building which she sites are in her very essence, bring the production to life, make it more real and accessible. It is remarkable how beautifully Owen can write about the ordinary and make it quite beautiful.

One of the funniest moments comes when Katie running and cycling (on a child’s BMX bike) scared through the streets of Newport, finds the clock that cursed her as a teenager in her failure to perform a dance act alongside her peers, leaving her humiliated and with the nickname Iceland, ‘because I froze.’ Exhausted and fearful for the future and her sick little girl, she performs the rap by herself, as a 35-year-old adult, much to the dismay of those around her.

The heart of the story, is of course Katie’s love for her little girl. ‘Little one’ as she calls her, is struggling to find her place in the world, knocked down by a little boy’s comment that girls ‘can’t be superheros because they’re not brave’. This and an illness that leads to an operation, throws Katie into a panic and sends her on her journey through the streets of the city she grew up in, searching for the answers she didn’t have then and answers she longs for now. Do we get less brave as we get older?

Dalgleish is commendable, with smooth direction from Catherine Paskell, keeping the audience engrossed throughout the 60 minute show. She is funny, passionate, emotional, angry, interacting with everything and everyone around her. It was hard to remember it was a show, and not an intimate conversation with a close friend or a sudden revelation by a stranger on the street. We could easily have been one of the passers by.

Owen, Dalgleish and the team behind Dirty Protest should be proud of this production. They bring to life humanity on stage, what it is to be human, to be an adult, a mother, a woman in today’s society, to struggle, to doubt, to question. How to be Brave is an immersive drama, with humour passion and emotion, which everyone should see. It is, as it was meant to be, a manual for growing up, for choosing the life you want and for facing your fears in an ever-changing world.

Screenwriter Andrew Davies brings authentic version of Les Mis to the BBC

I think, by now, it’s fairly well known that there’s no one that does period drama quite like the BBC.  While ITV have had a fair stab at it, particularly with their recent success of a modernised, sexed up Vanity Fayre, and Channel 4 have brought a raw edge to their  period dramas such as The Mill (2013), based on real life stories of mill workers during the industrial revolution, the BBC seem to get it right every time.

Maybe that’s because they have Andrew Davies, Welsh Screenwriter of many popular period drama adaptations, most notably the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring Colin Firth as popular cultures most memorable Mr Darcy. This Winters adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of love and loss in a war-torn 19th century France is BBC period drama at its very best. With a talented cast including Dominic West as criminal on the run Jean valjean, Lilly Collins as tragic fated Fantine and Olivia Coleman as wicked innkeeper Thenardia’s wife. Davies’ adaptation, shown as a mini series over 6 weeks, strips out any musical distractions and focuses on the bare bones of Hugo’s story, offering us complex characters that grip us from the very beginning. Tom Shankland directs with great flair and colour, providing a truly vivid and harrowing experience which is on a par with the 2012 film and West End production, while standing strong as a  commendable project in its own right.

At the crux of the story are Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as Javert. A prisoner, persecuted for stealing a loaf of bread and the police chief who will stop at nothing to see his prisoner suffer and to find him and bring him back to justice when he escapes. Both actors are impressive in their roles, commanding the screen and drawing the viewer in to their intense relationship. For one cannot seem to survive without the other, and their lives are forever interconnected, ruling each others tragic fate. They blame their misfortunes and bad judgement on each other, unable to cut the tie that binds them until a tragic decision finally frees them from each other and their own demons. Never have two characters been so gripping to watch, and Davies seems to bring each man into the light, to explore and lay bare their flaws and vulnerabilities. While Jean Val Jean is a thief, who lies and steals, even from a child, we see that he feels remorse and seeks redemption, by the fact that he carries the candle sticks he took from the vicar who saved him, everywhere he goes. He also makes his way in the world and becomes the head of a factory, where he meets the lost and fragile Fantine. He is later haunted by his decision to cast her out when he hears she has a daughter and is unmarried, and tries to save her. When it’s too late he later saves her daughter from the same tragic fate. Jean Val Jean is forever haunted by his past, and too by Javert, who seeks as a constant reminder of the man he was and the man he could still be.

Javert, first appears as a stern, law protecting policeman, who thinks little of the prisoners he overrules. We see him shouting and beating them, ordering them around and in one powerful scene, standing at the top of a cliff looking down on them as they work in a pit below. As the story moves forward, Javert rises through the ranks to become chief of Police in Paris, but he is obsessed with one thing. Finding the escaped criminal Jean Valjean. For he is his one weakness, his one mistake, his one vulnerability. Something about Valjean gets under Javert’s skin. He becomes rich and dizzy with power and he sees nothing but the one man he has devoted his life to, even connecting the French revolutionary movements with Valjean as its leader. As time moves on and Valjean seems to forever slip through his grasp, a chance encounter, and an unexpected act by Valjean, throws Javert’s existence into jeopardy. In the final scenes of the series,   Oyelowo shows Javert at his most vulnerable and conflicted. Like Valjean, he too is a changed man, but he cannot accept his fate as easily and his path to redemption is brief and tragic.

Olivia Coleman is brilliantly funny as Madama Thenardier, alongside  Adeel Akhtar as Thenardier, innkeeper to whom she is married. Together they provide the humour of the story, which would be extremely dark and depressing without them. They hatch plans to make money in any way they can, taking in wayward children to do their dirty work at the inn, including poor Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, when she must leave the area to find work. Coleman has received praise worldwide lately for her work in several media outlets, including the award-winning film, The favourite. She is fabulous in Les Mis, as is Adeel Akhtar who spurs her on to join in his wicked ways while mistreating her if she steps out of line and using their children as bait for unsuspecting passers by. Thenardier goes around telling people he saved a colonel in the war, when really he inadvertently saved him while stealing his wallet. A giant painting accompanies him later on, which supposedly tells of his valiant efforts, much to the amusement of the viewer.

When Thenardier pops up in the sewer under the streets of Paris, with a key, to let Valjean free when he’s escaping the French soldiers during the unrest, for a price of course, it’s one of the most bizarre scenes in television. But it’s not an illusion by the failing Valjean or the man he rescues (Marius Pontmercy, Cosette’s suitor) which adds to the humour of this dark story and the absurd nature of Thenardier’s characters and his desperate efforts to get whatever he can from the streets that he believes have short-changed him.

Lilly Collins takes a fabulous turn as troubled Fantine, whose story is perhaps the most tragic and enduring. Young and naive, earning a modest living, the orphan girl soon catches the attention of a rich student. We see her being seduced and falling in love with this man, before being left abandoned, with a crying baby in her arms. This is only the beginning of Fantine’s tragic story. From here she fights desperately to protect her child and find a job, falling prey to Thenardier’s money-making schemes when she leaves her daughter at his inn to be looked after while she earns a living. Jean Valjean’s actions when discovering her lies, set her on the downward spiral to her ultimate death. After watching Anne Hathaway’s performance in the 2012 film of Les Mis, I did not think a more powerful rendition of Fantine’s suffering could be realised. Yet Collins’ portrayal of the young girl who in desperation to protect her child, turns to a street vendor who cuts off her beautiful long hair and pulls her teeth out with pliers, is harrowing and surreal. Expecting this scene at some point during the programme, I still had to turn my head away for the sheer brutality of the moment. In these scenes Hugo’s heart breaking story and desperately tragic are brought to life.

We then suffer the pain of watching Cosette grow up with the Thenardier’s, beaten, scolded and treated as a slave. They travel from place to place scheming and lying to get whatever they can. Until Jean Valjean comes to gain redemption and save the child, whose Mother he failed. As the world moves on, and the revolution gains power, we see Cosette grow and change, curious for a world outside of her shelter, a world were temptation and danger exists. Jean Valjean fights to protect her, whatever the cost, at the same time trying to escape the clutches of the man who claimed his past and desperately wants to take his future.

In just six episodes, Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland manage to portray Hugo’s story with passion, drama and some much-needed humour, taking the viewer on a powerful journey through the lives of some very real characters at a poignant point in French history. The cast and crew should be proud of such an adaptation, which stands alone as a modern TV series focusing on the pure heart of Hugo’s story, with no need for music, big special effects or embellishments. The big stars add something special, but the writing and filming make it a winner.