Category Archives: Theatre

Hanging out with Shakespeare

Just as I did with Dickens, I have now got to know William Shakespeare a bit better. It’s a funny thing with Shakespeare; we all of us ‘know’ him so well, except we don’t necessarily. We go and see his plays, maybe read a sonnet, and perhaps visit Stratford or The Globe.

As with Dickens my introduction comes via Brita Granström and Mick Manning, who do this so well. Mick, I assume, reads up on the person, and Brita then gets going on illustrating that person’s life. With Shakespeare I imagine it will have been harder, because we don’t actually know all that much.

Part of William Shakespeare, Scenes from the life of the world’s greatest writer, is supposition. Someone has to make an educated guess as to what Will did or where he went and how things happened. But this is good guesswork.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, William Shakespeare

Having seen what Will’s childhood might have been like, and his siblings, and hearing about him – possibly – carving his initials on his school desk, makes him come alive. Learning what he learned at school makes it easier to see where his plays came from.

And speaking of plays, they are here in this book. Not all of them, but many of his best known dramas, complete with summaries of what happens in them, with illustrations.

These books by Brita and Mick are better than any other way I can think of to learn about people. They may be famous, but not so much that we can’t learn more about them. Give me the illustrated childhood of anyone and I’ll feel as if we are old friends.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

YAY! YA+

And they have gone live! I might have whispered about Kirkland Ciccone’s grand YA plans before, but now the website is publicly available and it’s actually got stuff on it. Not too much dust yet, either.

Kirkland Ciccone

We can’t let London have all the fun, and not even Edinburgh or Glasgow. It makes sense to take Scotland’s first YA festival to Cumbernauld. It’s where it’s all happening. (Secretly I’m hoping for Craig Ferguson.)

Keith Charters

But if I can’t have Craig, then Kirkland has put together a lovely list of YA authors from, or living in, Scotland. They are Catherine MacPhail, Linda Strachan, Barry Hutchison, Theresa Breslin, Keith Charters, Matt Cartney, Victoria Campbell, Lari Don, Roy Gill and Alex Nye. As well as Kirkie himself. There could have been more names on the list, and by this I mean that there are more YA authors in Scotland. Many more. Some were busy. And then I gather Kirkie and his Cumbernauld theatre venue ran out of space. (The answer would be a second day… Or a third.)

Theresa Breslin

The day we do have is April 24th and I’m so looking forward to it. I have demanded to revert to being 14 again. If that’s not possible, I’ll have a press pass (which will probably be home made by Kirkie, but hey, as long as it gets me in).

This time round it will be for schools only. It’s a good way to start, and will mean larger audiences than the old-fashioned way with organic ticket-buying individuals. But I would say that if you are of the organic persuasion, I’d pester. Like crazy. Or there is always gate-crashing.

Linda Strachan

I’m quietly hoping this Yay! YA+ will be a success, and that it will grow into something big, and regular. Because, as I said, we have lots more authors were these came from. This year’s list contains lots of my favourites, and erm, no one that I hate, plus a couple of unknowns (to me).

So that’s all pretty good.

Ever younger kettles

Aunt Scarborough introduced the young Offspring to the Singing Kettle about twenty years ago. At that time they were mainly famous in Scotland, but filtered south to England during the period when we adored them the most. They were wonderful. And funny. Good all round entertainers, who took well known tunes and gave them new lyrics, or wrote their own, or simply used traditional songs for children, but in a fun way. Nothing boring about them at all. I would happily have listened to them with no child as an excuse.

Now they are stopping their Singing Kettling. The two main stars retired a while back, and with the audience age plummeting, they no longer have their ideal primary school aged children, but are performing funny songs to children perhaps too young to understand. (See my comments about this below. ‘Little Diddle’ didn’t even know his own name. But he was cute.)

But I simply had to treat Daughter to one more humiliation while she’s home for Christmas, and take her to see the farewell tour. (She enjoyed it, really.) It was good, but I can see that things are not what they were. Lots of things aren’t. The Singing Kettle have provided fun and intelligent songs for many, many children. And judging by comments from various astrophysicists on Daughter’s facebook page, and the fact that Dodo gave Son a Singing Kettle DVD for Christmas, I’d say that those primary age children may have got older, but they never forgot. That’s proof of quality.

Below is CultureWitch’s review of Monday morning’s concert at the Albert Halls.

“There was a slight disadvantage to sitting on row five when they used their large water ‘pistol’ from the stage. It reached. Very well, too. Although I didn’t do what many parents did, which was to hold their children in front of them as shields. Some parents they turned out to be!

The Singing Kettle at Stirling Albert Halls

I – on the other hand – was an exemplary parent and brought my baby girl to what has been advertised as the last tour for The Singing Kettle. She probably hadn’t been since the millennium concert at the Albert Halls in Stirling, which means it had been a 15 year gap. Contrary to what Daughter thought, you can actually go to these shows as an adult. Neither of us fell over, bumped our heads and cried, nor did we require help to go to the toilet.

It was good. Apart – possibly – from the water and the fact that The Singing Kettle will be no more. It was a tonic, on a Monday morning after Christmas, with plenty of grinning and laughing, not to mention singing. I did draw the line at rocking my poor head from left to right and forwards and back, going over the Irish Sea.

The Singing Kettle mug

Despite there being no Artie and Cilla anymore, Kevin and Anya did a great job, ably assisted by the still baby-faced Gary and his purple trombone. Anya is testament to the strength of the brand, having herself been one of the audience participants, being invited onto the stage. (She clearly never left, which was something I did think about as parents blithely let their offspring wander off with these strangers, in order to perform on stage with them. Did they see them again? ‘The tiniest ever’ Diddle in the first half was the smallest, cutest participant I have ever seen. A little confused maybe, but so keen, and later seen trying to return to the stage again.)

We knew some of the songs (because back then we were pros) and some not, as they were possibly using new material as well as recycling old songs forever. Daughter had forgotten Bunny Fou Fou, but not I. And you have to love Music Man (even without Cilla…).

The preparing and cooking (and subsequent burning) of the turkey made an impression on the younger part of the audience, especially cleaning it with a toilet brush. The snowman who sneezed all over and the galloping reindeer, not to mention the adorable yellow ducks (including tiny Diddle) helped make this a very visual show.

But we weren’t allowed to take pictures (if I’d been Diddle’s mother, I’d have taken a photo of him in his duck costume anyway!) so we don’t have much to show you. Daughter did hit the merchandise stall as soon as we arrived, however. It might be her last opportunity.

The Singing Kettle mug

There was some Hokey Cokey at the end, and a fitting finale of pushing Granny off the bus. (As if we would…)

If you’ve never seen The Singing Kettle live, I feel sorry for you. We used to travel across half the country for them, whereas now it was a mere walk away.”

Best of 2014

I was about to say that whereas I had told myself I’d go for fewer books on my best list of the year (best books, not best list) this time, it has proved too hard to do. But then I discovered I managed to slim the list last year, so I have a bit of credit and I can let the list swell. Because I must.

Can’t even offer you a photogenic pile of best books, with most of them still hiding in boxes. Besides, one of the best comes on Kindle, and the Resident IT Consultant’s e-reader isn’t the prettiest of things to take a picture of.

2014 was a good year for series of books coming to an end, be it the two-pack type or the trilogy or the ten-pack. I decided not to put those on The List, but I am happy to mention them.

They are Timothée de Fombelle with Vango 2, Caroline Lawrence with the fourth book about Detective Pinkerton, Derek Landy at the end of his ten book Skulduggery Pleasant marathon, Lucy Hawking and the fourth book about George in space, Gennifer Choldenko and the last Al Capone story, Deborah Ellis about Parvana again, Teri Terry’s dystopia had as satisfying an end as you could hope for, Gillian Philip finally finished her faeries in Icefall, and Che Golden sorted her fairies out too.

Helen Grant and Eoin Colfer did beautifully with their second books from Belgium and time travel London, so there is more to look forward to there.

Two authors are standing shoulder to shoulder on my awards stand this year; Michelle Magorian and Nick Green. Michelle for Impossible! and Nick with his Firebird ebook trilogy.

The runners-up are – in no particular order – Ali Sparkes and Destination Earth, Sally Nicholls and Shadow Girl, Cliff McNish and Going Home, Tanya Landman and Buffalo Soldier, Ellen Renner and Tribute, Simon Mason and Running Girl, Carl Hiaasen and Skink No Surrender, Robin Talley and Lies We tell Ourselves.

Thank you everyone, for hours and hours of good company, and please keep up the good work!