Category Archives: Culture

London Culture | The Importance of Being Earnest Theatre Review

The Importance of Being Earnest Theatre Review, Vaudeville Theatre: a dynamic production without a standout performance from Sophie Thompson.

Please note: I was given tickets to ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

At the end of May, my Dad took my Mum and me to see An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville Theatre. We had a wonderful evening, and I enjoyed the production of the play so much that I even interviewed one of the actors, Faith Omole, on Tea & Tattle Podcast (you can listen to the interview here).

I was delighted, then, to be offered tickets to review The Importance of Being Earnest, the latest Oscar Wilde play to be staged at the Vaudeville Theatre, as part of the Dominic Dromgoole and Classic Spring Oscar Wilde seasonThe Importance of Being Earnest is my favourite Wilde play, so I was particularly looking forward to seeing it live, and I took my Mum along to watch it with me.

The Importance of Being Earnest Theatre Review, Vaudeville Theatre: a dynamic production without a standout performance from Sophie Thompson.Fehinti Balogun as Algernon Moncrieff. Image source.

As soon as the curtain went up, I realised that Michel Fentiman’s staging of the play was far from a conventional interpretation. In the opening scene, Algernon Moncrieff (played by Fehinti Balogun) is locked in a close embrace with a young man who rapidly slinks off into the wings, and the stage is dominated by a centrally hung painting depicting two naked men entwined on the floor.

Unlike Wilde’s unrivalled satirical wit, subtlety is not a notable feature of this production. Algernon is overtly bisexual, even kissing his manservant, Lane, on the lips, and the fulfilment of the physical appetites seems to be very much on everyone’s mind: cucumber sandwiches and crumpets are stuffed into mouths; Gwendoline (Pippa Nixon) all but straddles the grand piano when encouraging Jack (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) to propose; and Cecily (Fiona Button) shares a cigarette and flirtatious glances with a gardener that looks like he wandered in from a production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Importance of Being Earnest Theatre Review, Vaudeville Theatre: a dynamic production without a standout performance from Sophie Thompson.Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell. Image source.

It must be a challenge to bring a fresh direction to such a classic play, but I did feel that this ‘sexing up’ of the production was a little too heavy-handed, and occasionally tipped into farce rather than satire.  Despite these reservations, however, I still thoroughly enjoyed the play. It’s hard not to have a wonderful time when seeing something written by Oscar Wilde, and The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde at his very best.

Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell was completely marvellous, and Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd brought a playfulness to their respective roles that added a youthful energy to the production. I’d recently admired Fiona Button’s acting in BBC’s The Split, so it was fun to see her perform live, and she did not disappoint as an exuberant Cicely.

The Importance of Being Earnest Theatre Review, Vaudeville Theatre: a dynamic production without a standout performance from Sophie Thompson.The Importance of Being Earnest. Image source.

For me, there were two standout scenes in this production: the first when Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as John Worthing explains the circumstances surrounding his birth and being found in a handbag in a cloakroom at Victoria Station.  Sophie Thompson’s deliverance of ‘in a handbag!’ is muttered faintly, but still conveys Lady Bracknell’s utter horror of the situation. My other favourite scene was the final denouement when John Worthing’s true parentage is revealed. By this point, the cast have achieved a wonderful degree of tension, and  – despite knowing the story well – I waited in eager anticipation for Miss Prism’s explanation of events.

I chuckled my way through the entire performance, and Mum and I agreed we’d had a brilliant evening. If you’re in the mood for an entertaining, lighthearted night out filled with sparkling wit, then I highly recommend adding The Importance of Being Earnest to your theatre list.

The Importance of Being Earnest is on until 20th October at the Vaudeville Theatre. Tickets may be booked here

London Culture | Kinky Boots Review, Adelphi Theatre

London Culture | Kinky Boots Review, Adelphi Theatre

Please note: I was given tickets to Kinky Boots in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

If you’re looking for an entertaining way to kickstart a summer weekend, then a theatre outing to see the Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre would most definitely tick the box. The theatre is blissfully air-conditioned (tick), the audience enthusiastic (tick) and the whole performance is charged with an energy, sparkle and sense of fun (tick) that guarantees a terrific start to a great night out.

The original Kinky Boots film was released in 2005 and has gained a dedicated cult following. Inspired by a true story, Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price, who inherits his father’s shoe factory in Northampton. Although successful for years, the family business is now floundering, and Charlie sees no way forward apart from closing up and selling, putting the workers he grew up with out of a job. He struggles with guilt and despair, until by chance he meets Lola, a drag queen with a problem: the high heels of regular women’s shoes cannot stand up to the weight of a man and keep snapping. Charlie decides to take a chance and cater to the niche transvestite market, developing dazzling (but sturdy!) boots inspired by Lola’s designs. How Charlie and the people of Northampton rise up to the challenge, not only of creating the boots, but also of accepting others for who they truly are, makes for a feel-good, inspiring story.

London Culture | Kinky Boots Review, Adelphi TheatreKinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre. Image source.

Fans of the Kinky Boots film will not be disappointed by the musical, as it’s very faithful to the original movie. Many of the film’s most memorable lines are cleverly incorporated into the songs and script of the musical, and the set designs brilliantly mimic the Price Shoe Factory of the movie. Kinky Boots is a smart choice for a musical adaptation: the simple, but heartfelt plot is well expressed through song, and the big dance numbers are truly outstanding when performed live with a West End cast. The music and lyrics are by Cyndi Lauper – an inspired choice, although I was a little disappointed that none of the songs quite came up to the ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ standard, but there were still many great tunes.

For me, the star of the show was Momar Diagne, who played Lola and brought impressively high levels of energy to the demanding role. From leading dance routines, to singing solo, Diagne never faltered. Moments of humour or pathos were injected into his performance by a mere flick of the wrist or slump of the shoulders. Oliver Tompsett as Charlie Price was also very strong, combining an authentic earnestness and impeccable slapstick comedy in his performance. The cast as a whole performed many spectacular singing and dancing routines, and by the end the entire audience was on their feet, clapping in time to the finale score.

London Culture | Kinky Boots Review, Adelphi TheatreKinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre. Image source.

Kinky Boots must close Janurary 2019, and as I said I think it would be a great choice as part of a celebratory night out (Hen Dos, Birthdays, Girls’ Night etc). I recommend starting your evening viewing Kinky Boots, then going on for drinks and dancing, as the impressive dance numbers will be sure to make you want to bust a move or two of your own, whether in high heels or not!

Tickets to Kinky Boots may be purchased here

Witness for the Prosecution Theatre Review, London County Hall

Witness for the Prosecution Theatre Review, London County Hall

Please note: I was given tickets to Witness for the Prosecution in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Last week, I took my Mum with me to see Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall, a short walk from Waterloo Station (and within a stone’s throw of the London Eye). We were both so excited to see this play, as we’re huge Golden Age mystery fans, and my Mum gave me my first Agatha Christie book when I was about 10 years old (it was Halloween Party – very appropriate as it features a character called Miranda, and my birthday is in October!).

Witness for the Prosecution Theatre Review, London County HallPhilip Franks as Mr Myers QC in Witness for the Prosecution. Image source.

I’d never seen an Agatha Christie play before (now I want to get to The Mousetrap too!), but I already knew the short story of Witness for the Prosecution, which Christie wrote in the 1920s, but later adapted into a play in 1953. A young man, Leonard Vole, stands accused of murdering an elderly lady whom he’d once helped and who subsequently grew fond of him, treating him like a son (and changing her will to leave him her fortune). The case against Vole seems cut-and-dried, but Vole’s defence counsel becomes convinced of his innocence, especially when the testimony of Vole’s vindictive wife hints at a possible plot to ensure her husband is sentenced…. In typical Christie fashion, there is a brilliant twist to the story at the end, which I certainly shan’t give away here, but prepare to be shocked when you see the play for yourself!

Witness for the Prosecution stands out not only for its devilishly clever storyline, but for its courtroom setting.  Everyone in the audience was clearly delighted by the fantastic way the play has been staged by Lucy Bailey at the now disused debating chamber in London County Hall, which is easy to imagine as the Old Bailey, the play’s predominant setting. A sense of occasion is created as soon you arrive at County Hall and sweep up the grand staircase to take your seat in the rows of large leather cushioned pews.

Witness for the Prosecution Theatre Review, London County HallWitness for the Prosecution at London County Hall. Image Credit: Sheila Burnett

Where politicians once hammered out political debates, Leonard Vole’s trial is staged, with legal counsels for the defence and prosecution arguing whether or not he should be found guilty of murder. The impressive setting lends to the theatricality of the cast’s performance, and the audience is made to feel a part of the play, as though we were all spectators in the gallery of a courtroom. Some seats are even positioned so that twelve members of the audience are used as the jurors, which certainly adds a piquancy to your typical theatre experience!

The cast, though small, was strong. I was especially impressed by Richard Clothier and Philip Franks, who played the part of defending and prosecuting barristers perfectly. Their cross-examinations kept the audience spellbound, and they brought a drama and flourish to their speeches that would have made Rumpole proud. Lucy Phelps played a fiery Romaine Vole, and Harry Reid oozed boyish charm as her husband Leonard.

Witness for the Prosecution is an unforgettable courtroom drama and shows Agatha Christie at her very best. I highly recommend it for a fun, different night out in London!

You can book tickets to see Witness for the Prosecution here.

London Culture | Imperium II: Dictator Theatre Review, Gielgud Theatre

London Culture | Imperium II: Dictator Theatre Review, Gielgud Theatre

Please note: I was given tickets to Imperium II: Dictator in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Last Thursday, I settled into my seat at the Gielgud Theatre to watch one of the Imperium plays that are based on the Cicero trilogy of novels by Robert Harris and have been adapted for theatre by Mike Poulton (who was also responsible for the hugely successful adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies).

Harris’s trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – follow the rise and fall of Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and who served as consul in 63BC.  Mike Poulton has condensed and adapted the trilogy of books in to a two-part play, and each section of the play (Part I: Conspirator and Part II: Dictator) may be viewed separately as a stand alone play, although to get a full understanding of the scope of Cicero’s story, it’s best to get tickets to both if possible.

Photo by Ikin Yum. Image source.

I was given tickets to see Part II: Dictator, and I was concerned that I’d be a little lost, having not seen Part I, but fortunately it was easy to pick up the threads of the story from the beginning, and the second half of the tale is a truly gripping rendition of Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony’s rise to power and Octavian’s scheming ambition, told from the perspectives of Cicero and his faithful servant, Tiro.

It’s the examination of Cicero’s complex personality – a mix of vanity, insecurity, profound intelligence and theatricality – and the focus on the political machinations of Rome that make these plays stand out and provide a fresh outlook on the well trodden path of Rome’s ancient history. Although Cicero’s prose had an incredible impact on the significant writers, thinkers and politicians of the Renaissance, he is a character that has been surprisingly little seen in popular culture. Shakespeare, of course, concentrated on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, giving only a few lines to Cicero, but the Imperium plays show the vital role Cicero enacted within Roman politics.

His is a story that lends itself well to the theatre: Cicero was a brilliant performer, making his orations a spectacle that could draw a remarkable crowd, and the Royal Shakespeare Company has done a tremendous job at bringing to life the intrigues, ambitions and politics of his extraordinary career. The cast was extremely strong, and there were several exemplary performances. Critics have lauded Richard McCabe’s performance as Cicero as ‘career-defining,’ and he gave a magnificent portrayal of Cicero’s complicated character: in one moment the thoughtful philosopher, in the next a pompous and boastful orator.

Richard McCabe as Cicero. Image source.

For all his faults, however, Cicero’s utter conviction in the rule of law and his commitment to the sanctity of free politics and free speech, for which he ultimately sacrificed his life, is undeniably noble and strikes a chord in today’s world of turbulent politics.

If you fancy a memorable night involving great story-telling and remarkable acting, then I highly suggest seeing one or both of the Imperium plays, or tickets to one would make a wonderful gift for any history/politics buffs in your life. I’m now tempted to book tickets to see Part I, even though it means watching the story back to front, as I’m sure it would be wonderful!

You can book tickets to see both the Imperium Plays, Conspirator and Dictator, here.

London Culture | Tartuffe Theatre Review, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Tartuffe Theatre Review

Please note: I was given tickets to Tartuffe in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Last Friday, I went to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to watch Tartuffe, a modern bilingual adaptation of Molière’s famous 17th Century satirical play. Directed by Gérald Garutti and adapted by Christopher Hampton, this version of Tartuffe is set in modern day California. A wealthy Frenchman, Orgon, moves to L.A. with his family and there falls under thrall of Tartuffe, a trickster who uses his dominant personality and professed Christian faith to exercise an alarming power over the bewitched Orgon. Although Orgon and his mother fall entirely under the spell of Tartuffe, the rest of Orgon’s family are dismayed and disgusted by the outsider, and they seek to unmask his true nature to Orgon.

Tartuffe boasts an impressive cast, and there were standout performances from Audrey Fleurot (Elmire) and Paul Anderson (Tartuffe). Audrey Fleurot plays Orgon’s beautiful, intelligent wife Elmire. It is only Elmire that proves a match for Tartuffe, as she uses her physical attractions to trick him into compromising himself and betraying his true character. Audrey Fleurot plays Elmire with a cool aloofness mixed with sly humour; the perfect temptress as she poses artfully in figure-hugging dresses. Anderson brings an edge of menace and narcissism to Tartuffe that belies his cheerful drawl and subdued clothing. He broods over the stage from a slightly raised cube, giving him an omniscient-like presence that is felt even before he first appears.

I thought the bilingual production was the most interesting aspect of this adaptation, although I sometimes found the subtitles distracting, as it was difficult to keep my eyes on both the subtitle screen and the actors. The characters (excepting Tartuffe, who speaks only English), constantly switch between French and English. Orgon’s daughter and son, part of the more Americanised younger generation, prefer speaking English, whereas their mother and father instinctively break into French. It is a further sign of Tartuffe’s hold over Orgon that he always addresses him in English.

The use of French pays homage to the play’s influence in French culture and allows bilingual viewers to appreciate Molière’s rhyming couplets. Language, fittingly, is at the heart of this play: it is Tartuffe’s smooth talking, his ability to disarm his enemies by putting forward persuasive arguments, that makes him so dangerous. This is a play in which language is rarely candid: people constantly say one thing yet mean another. No one better than Tartuffe understands the disingenuousness of people’s words; he cannot trust Elmire’s speeches, but insists she must physically prove to him her love. Ultimately, it is not a slip of the tongue that betrays Tartuffe’s hypocrisy, but his own bodily desires.

The famous final speech by the Officer, originally a suspiciously hyperbolic monologue in praise of King Louis XIV, has been changed to reflect Trumpian America. The speech is a fantastic example of subversive double entendre, drawing wry laughter from the audience.

An evening out seeing Tartuffe at the theatre would make a fantastic start to any weekend, especially if you’re a Francophile like me!

Tartuffe is showing until 28th July at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. You can buy tickets here.

 

London Culture | Theatre Review of Consent by Nina Raine

consent by nina raine

Please note: I was given complimentary tickets for Consent in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

On the day Harvey Weinstein was arrested and charged with rape and several counts of sexual abuse, I sat in the Harold Pinter theatre waiting for the curtain to rise on Consent, a play by Nina Raine. Originally a sellout success at the National Theatre in 2017, Consent is now showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. Since the play’s initial staging in 2017, it is not too dramatic to say that the world has changed, and Raine has reportedly been unsure of the play’s reception in today’s #MeToo era.

Consent is an intelligent, thought-provoking play with laugh-out loud witty dialogue; what makes it more provocative to today’s audience is the ambiguity Raine spins around her characters and their actions. She deliberately delves into the grey area that surrounds ‘he said / she said’ type accusations, casting the audience as judge and jury: who is to be believed? And does justice give way to whoever can spin the most convincing argument?

The play follows a group of upper middle-class barristers and their tangled love lives. At the start of the play, one of the barristers, Jake, is revealed as a serial cheater: his wife Rachel finds out, is devastated, and threatens divorce and sole custody of their child. This domestic upheaval triggers another in the lives of their friends, Kitty and Edward: old wounds resurface, and another marriage falls apart at the seams.

Whilst drama plays out in the barristers’ domestic lives, another takes centre stage in the courtroom: a woman attempts to get her assailant sentenced for rape, but her testimony is torn to shreds, leaving her distraught. Another, more murky, rape accusation is made later in the play, when Kitty accuses her husband of marital rape. Is she telling the truth, or is she motivated by a desire for revenge after his affair?

During the interval, as I leant back in my seat, I overheard a young woman chatting about one of the characters to a friend. ‘I just don’t understand,’ she said, a frown of bewilderment clear in her voice, ‘how there could be any sympathy for someone who cheats on his wife like that. Why would anyone take his side?’ She blatantly thought any signs of sympathy for a serial cheater were wholly unrealistic. Ironically, in the second half of the play, it is serial-cheater Jake who stands up for Kitty and condemns her husband’s actions: ‘if she said no, then it’s rape,’ he states unequivocally. Part of the strength of Consent lies in Raine’s ability to write complicated characters: no one is portrayed as either wholly bad, or wholly good, and sometimes unlikely alliances are formed. Rachel disagrees with Jake and sides with Edward, doubting that Kitty is speaking the full truth.

Indeed, no character in Consent is able to hold the moral high ground for long. In the play, both wives are unfaithful too, but they are motivated by revenge, wishing to wound their philandering husbands. By the end of the play, the women end up back with their spouses, having been begged for forgiveness.

Female forgiveness is a central theme to the play: Edward continually tells Kitty she must forgive him, begging her on his knees, suggesting there is no point to his remorse if forgiveness does not follow. Even the women’s seemingly unselfish forgiveness is questionable, however. Is their pardon freely given, or is their choice to give their marriage another chance born of necessity mixed with convenience? Consent illustrates how the law cannot be relied upon for justice for women. When Kitty seeks the advice of a lawyer over gaining custody of her child, she’s told that any accusation she makes of domestic abuse against herself by her husband will not be taken into account when the court considers custody matters. Her husband, however, plots accusations of mental instability, bringing up her post-natal depression to undermine her parental responisbility.

It is only the men in the play, too, that are shown as successful within their work. Edward and Jake engage in convoluted discussions at which the women roll their eyes or simply observe in silence. The men take over the stage with their linguistic fencing matches, studded with legalese, each clearly intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, and the power he has to win an argument. The women, in contrast, are either ineffectual or absent from their jobs: Kitty is on maternity leave, her friend Zara has trouble landing an acting role, and Rachel gets shushed when she tries to put forward her advice as a barrister. The lack of professional success in the women’s lives also raises the question of how much their ‘forgiveness’ is financially motivated. If they were able to easily support themselves and their children, would they be so willing to take back their erring partners?

In Consent, it is the women who are forced to compromise, whilst the men get away with their behaviour: lying, cheating, even rape. Edward does learn to say ‘I’m sorry,’ by the end (formerly he would only say ‘I apologise,’ thus admitting no personal guilt or liability), but by that point you’re definitely thinking ‘sorry’ doesn’t really cut it.

Consent is an exceptional play; it leaves you questioning your assumptions, probing your understanding of moral grey areas and asking yourself where you would fall on the sides of the arguments put forward. I would have appreciated a more empowering ending for Consent’s female leads, and I would love to see fewer plays about male barristers behaving badly, and more about female lawyers changing the world. It’s plays like Consent, however, that highlight the need for a fairer system in which women can navigate their own lives on an equal footing with men. Although Consent shows women accepting their lot rather than defying the status quo, it will hopefully inspire others to demand their right for freer choices and greater independence in the future.

You can book tickets for Consent here. The play runs until mid August.

 

Book Talk | Three Summer Reading Suggestions

Summer Reading Suggestions

For me, one of summer’s truest delights has always been the additional reading time. Nothing beats a seat in the shade with a tall glass of lemonade (or perhaps something a little stronger…) and a page-turning novel. When I was young, I took enormous pleasure in deciding what stack of books I’d read during my school-free days, and now I teach part-time I still get to take advantage of the summer holidays to knock off as many books from my TBR pile as possible.

Here are some recent reads of mine that I think would make excellent choices for the summer, whether you’re enjoying lazy evenings in the garden or need a good book for a plane.

1/ The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

Described as ‘Sliding Doors set in a bookshop,’ this debut novel by Cynthia Swanson instantly caught my attention. The Bookseller is set in Denver in the 1960s and is told from the perspective of Kitty Miller, a 30-something spinster who runs a bookshop with her best friend from high-school. One night, Kitty goes to sleep and wakes up to find herself in an alternate reality, where she’s living the life she always thought she wanted: married to a caring husband with piercing blue eyes and the mother of three young children. Every time she goes to sleep, Kitty dreams about this new version of herself, who knows how to cook and buys much more expensive (if rather dull) clothes.

Kitty discovers that Lars, the man she married in her dream world, is the same man who stood her up on a blind date several years ago. In real life, she finds out that Lars had died suddenly before meeting her, and her dream life shows her the path she might have taken had he lived. Kitty gets more and more drawn into her imaginary world, only to discover that her seemingly perfect other life may be far less idyllic than first appears….

The Bookseller kept me gripped right to the end, and I enjoyed its satisfying plot twist. I loved the period details, especially the descriptions of the books Kitty enjoys reading and that she stocks in her shop. This book would make an excellent light, entertaining read for a long journey. I’ve now bought a copy of Cynthia Swanson’s recently published second novel, The Glass Forest, and can’t wait to read that too.

2/ An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I talked about An American Marriage on a recent Tea & Tattle Podcast episode, and I highly recommend adding it to your summer reading pile. Jones’ novel describes what happens to a newly wed black American couple, after the husband is arrested and wrongfully imprisoned for rape.

An American Marriage is told from the perspective of three main narrators: husband and wife Roy and Celestial and Celestial’s best friend, Andre, who’s been in love with her for years. The triangular love plot lies at the heart of the story, which deftly examines the themes of racial prejudice, familial ties, professional and creative ambition and the societal expectations of women.

I loved Jones’ full-bodied, finely honed prose  and her tender understanding of people’s struggles, desires and failings. None of her characters are perfect, or indeed wholly likeable, which makes them all the more human and ultimately endearing. It’s easy to see why An American Marriage has been a firm favourite on the New York Times bestseller list, and it would make a great choice for your next holiday read.

3/ The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark apparently thought The Driver’s Seat her best novel, which made me very curious to read it. The book is extremely slim, so I was able to read almost all of it on a long-ish tube journey. The Driver’s Seat is a disturbing story about a character hellbent on one of the most self-destructive holidays ever imagined.

Having burst into a fit of hysteria at work, the book’s protagonist, Lise – neither young nor old, neither pretty nor plain – gets the afternoon off and goes shopping to prepare for her holiday in Italy (the destination is never specifically named, but it’s most likely Rome). She chooses an outfit of wildly clashing colours, the first of many insanity-tinged decisions she makes within the following few hours she remains alive….

In The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark inverts all the traditional elements of a murder mystery. The reader is aware almost from the beginning that Lise will be murdered, but Lise is no ordinary victim. It is hard, indeed, to attach the word ‘victim’ to Lise, and her engineering of events forces the reader to an uncomfortable consideration of the fine line between Lise’s complicity in her end and the horrific victimisation of her death. Reading this book feels rather like experiencing a psychedelic nightmare, but I can assure you it’s a story you’ll never forget.

~

You can keep up with my book recommendations on my books-only Instagram account, @mirandasbookcase

An Interview with Artist Yvonne Coomber (+ An Incredible Giveaway!)

yvonne coomber

An Exciting Art Collaboration

Listeners of Tea & Tattle Podcast may remember that earlier in the spring, the artist Yvonne  Coomber kindly let me pick out a print from her new collection as part of a collaboration with Miranda’s Notebook. I decided to send the print to my podcast co-host, Sophie, as a housewarming gift (I asked Sophie which print she’d like, and she chose this one, which was the one I would have selected for her myself – isn’t it lovely?).

Today, I’m so thrilled to say that Yvonne is giving away one of her new limited edition prints to a Miranda’s Notebook follower (you can enter the giveaway now through my instagram picture, or scroll to the bottom of this post for more details on how to win).

Yvonne Coomber’s Instagram Gathering

Pip Farm, the setting for Yvonne’s fabulous gathering.

Last week, I got the chance to meet Yvonne for the first time at a gathering she hosted near her hometown, Totnes. Yvonne brought together a group of floral loving instagrammers to celebrate her beautiful artwork in an idyllic stone farmhouse nestled deep in the Devonshire countryside. We chatted and laughed and photographed and feasted on cream teas and incredible spreads (whipped up by the fabulous Djamila Vogelsperger) for two days, and it was the most wonderful way to get to know a little more about Yvonne and her gorgeous art.

Pip Farm was filled with Yvonne’s prints, original paintings, cushions and lampshades, and jugs of flowers homegrown by the lovely Holly of Holly-Bee Flowers in Devon were placed on most available surfaces, so the farmhouse was filled with colour and life. It was hard to put my camera down!

An Artist Inspired by Flowers

I first came across Yvonne’s paintings when I stayed at the Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall, which showcased an impressive display of many of Yvonne’s artworks. Yvonne’s pieces are inspired by her love for nature, flowers and colour, so they certainly speak straight to my heart, and I was absolutely thrilled when I was asked to take part in Yvonne’s Instagram retreat.

Yvonne took us around her beautiful home on the outskirts of Totnes, as well as her gallery in the town’s centre, and we also got to see her incredible studio in the heart of the countryside. It was wonderful to see Yvonne’s original canvases up close, as she uses a lot of layered paint and thick strokes, and often a shimmering of glitter, that give her fields of wildflowers an incredible depth and vivacity.

An Interview With Yvonne Coomber

Yvonne Coomber in her studio

I managed to ask Yvonne a few questions about her artwork and creative process, and I was fascinated by her answers. I have a real soft spot for poppies too, so I was delighted when Yvonne mentioned them as her favourite flower!

MN: Would you tell me a little about yourself and your background? What inspired your love for art?

YC: My childhood was steeped in the psychedelia of the sixties and seventies; both fashion and culture were colourful and experimental with an inherent wildness. I think the influences of this period mixed with my rural upbringing between a farm in Berkshire and a cottage in Cork all contributed to my profound love of the untamed rainbow hues which are currently woven into each and every piece I create.

My father had a profound love of nature and my Irish mother has always tended a magnificent country garden. So as a girl my life was frequently saturated in flowers and beautiful places. In addition I have travelled widely in my life and the warmth and discovery of all of my journeys is ever present on my canvas. My five year training in Sussex provided me with an opportunity to master my painting practice.

MN: I love your beautiful florals and seaside landscapes. What do you find particularly inspiring about nature?

VC: I think the thing I find most inspiring about nature is its ability to constantly infuse beauty, whether that be on an uncultivated meadowland fizzing with rainbows of wildflowers in summertime, or a determined solitary flower pushing through gaps in concrete pavements. Also nature is deeply humbling with both its utter powerfulness and its silent peacefulness.

I also love nature as it constantly has the ability to reflect emotional landscapes. There is an unconditional quality in the natural world that allows me to simply be.

MN: We share a mutual passion for flowers, and I’m enjoying using the hashtag you started on Instagram (#wildforflowers). Do you have any favourite flowers to paint? I notice that the flowers in your work are generally always growing wild and free.

YC: I love the innocence, colour and easy harmony of wild meadowlands. The vast selection of native British flowers simply make my heart sing….from the white frothy foam of cow parsley through to the soft powder blue of harebells and the gently nodding purple spikes of foxgloves. The hedgerows and meadows of my home in the South Hams become a perfumed feast of ever-changing loveliness.

However, if asked to choose my favourite flower it would definitely be Poppies. My daughter is named after this fragile, strong crimson bloom and their easy bright beauty is almost always present in my work.

MN: You live in a beautiful part of Devon. What do you love best about your surrounding landscape?

YC: I love contrasts that exists here: the rugged coastline, the vast open moorlands and the kaleidoscopic tumbling hedgerows all deeply nourish my soul. My favourite place of all, however, is my studio which is nestled deep in Devon’s folds. Surrounded by woodland and flower speckled fields, to me it is paradise.

A cream tea in the garden just outside Yvonne’s studio – most definitely paradise!

MN: Would you describe your creative process? How do you go from a blank canvas to a finished artwork?

YC: The process before I even pick up a brush or mix oils is crucial to me. The dreaming of the painting is as important as the mark marking. My practice is a complete love affair and I bring all of me to the canvas. I pour both real and emotional landscapes onto the linen. It is a dance between intended and accidental marks with a desire to create beauty and joy. My practice feels a sacred place and the magic unfolds as I surrender to risk and the unknown. I am fascinated and enthralled by the process.

My work takes many months to create as it is a construction of many layers. The beginning is always quite ethereal and poetic and subsequently the marks become bolder and more defined. I use many different techniques and, like the nature that I paint, there is a harmony between order and chaos.

See Yvonne’s paintings and homeware products in her online shop.

MN: You have a flourishing business. What are your top tips for artists hoping to become commercially successful, as well as creatively fulfilled?

YC: I really do believe that following your heart unwaveringly has a force and power that allows magic to emerge. Believe in your dreams, because they are the gateways to success. That and a lot (!) of hard work. For anything to flourish you simply have to put the hours in with training, practice and dedication.

MN: I so appreciate the delight in colour that shines through your paintings. How do you use colour to communicate particular moods and emotions in your work?

YC: I work incredibly instinctively. I love how colours vibrate against one another and take on another unique quality because of the relationship created between them. The oils I use are my language and I communicate intuitively.

MN: Thank you so much for giving one of my readers the chance to win one of your gorgeous new prints. Would you tell me what inspired your latest collection, and do you have a particular favourite?

YC: My new collection is inspired by a deep desire to communicate happiness. I am aware that these are challenging times, and, whilst I acknowledge this, I also very consciously wanted to create work that celebrates love. I truly believe that love has the ability to transform everything both personally and globally. It is the key. This collection is drenched in love, and I have no favourite as they are all uniquely special.

Thank you so much again to Yvonne for taking the time to answer my questions! I was also so thrilled to receive my very own print,  one out of 10 special editions she did for everyone who came to the retreat in my (very large!) goodie bag. Isn’t it stunning? I love the vibrant colours and joyful strokes (I spy lots of poppies too!), which will always remind me of Yvonne’s incredibly kind, generous spirit and my fantastic stay in Devon.

~ Yvonne Coomber IG GIVEAWAY ~

I’m so delighted that one of my readers will get a chance to win a new unframed print by Yvonne Coomber. I’m hosting the giveaway through my Instagram account, so all you have to do is pop over to Instagram and:

1// Like this picture.

2// Comment by tagging a friend you think would love Yvonne’s work too.

3// Make sure you’re following both myself (@mirandasnotebook) and Yvonne (@yvonnecoomber).

PLEASE NOTE: The giveaway is for UK residents only, and the winner will get to pick any one of the prints marked NEW on Yvonne’s website (print will be given unframed).

The giveaway will END at 10pm (UK time) on Thursday 17th May, and I’ll announce the winner on Instagram on Friday 18th May.

Good luck! I can’t wait to see who the lucky winner is and which print they’ll choose.

~

Find Yvonne on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube

Check out Yvonne’s website at www.yvonnecoomber.com 

Yvonne is taking part in the Dulwich Open Studios in London this weekend (12th-13th May) and next (19th-20th May), so if you’re in the area, do pop along!

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses ‘What She Ate’

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses 'What She Ate'

One of the non-fiction books I’ve most enjoyed lately is What She Ate by Laura Shapiro. As a journalist and culinary historian, Shapiro has long been fascinated by what a person’s appetite says about who they are.

What She Ate explores the food stories of six very different women: Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to her famous brother, William; Rosa Lewis, who cooked for the most distinguished of Edwardian society; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Hitler’s consort, Eva Braun; the British author Barbara Pym and Cosmopolitan editor (and chronic dieter) Helen Gurley Brown. These women were important influencers within the realms of literature, society or politics, but little else connects them, apart from a shared seat at a table. What She Ate highlights the complex relationship women have long held towards their meals, and shows that a person’s food story is rarely straightforward.

As someone with an eager interest in the domestic minutiae of people’s lives, I found What She Ate a compelling read and was delighted when Laura Shapiro agreed to answer some questions about her book.

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses What She AteLaura Shapiro, photographed by Ellen Warner

MN: Would you tell me a little about yourself and your own food story?

LS: My mother was a wonderful cook — she taught herself to cook after she got married, and became so good at it that eventually she started catering. My own cooking is much more haphazard, but what I did inherit was a fascination with food in all forms and at all times.

My favorite food memory from childhood is waking up early, the morning after my mother had catered a party, and going downstairs to find the refrigerator full of leftovers. She loved making hors d’oeuvres, so there were always lots of those packed up and put away — “party rye” with onion, mayonnaise and parmesan, little cream puffs filled with crabmeat, sauteed mushrooms on squares of toast — all cold, of course, and all so delicious. That is still my idea of a perfect breakfast, ideally eaten standing at the open door of the refrigerator in pajamas, picking out just what I wanted from each tidy package.

MN: In your book, you say ‘food talks’ and what a person does or doesn’t eat can say so much about them. In general, though, a person’s culinary history is largely ignored by biographers, even though all other aspects of famous people’s lives are examined under a microscope. Why do you think what people are cooking and eating so often gets left out of their personal histories?

LS: Traditionally, of course, food would not have been considered a dignified subject to include in the biography of a great man — and great men were the ones people wrote biographies about. Food had to do with the body, it came from women’s world or the world of servants, and it couldn’t possibly have any significance beyond nourishment.

And the second reason, which today would now be the first reason, is that there’s so little information out there. Until Instagram and food blogs came along, most people writing about their lives — writing diaries, letters and memoirs, that is — rarely mentioned what they were eating. So even if a historian or biographer is dying to know what someone ate, it’s going to be very hard to find out.

MN: It was reading about Dorothy Wordsworth eating black pudding that first sparked your idea for ‘What She Ate.’ Would you explain why that particular meal interested you so much, and how you came to write your book?

LS: When I stumbled across the mention of black pudding in a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew a little about her, and nothing in that picture even hinted that she would eat such a thing. Her social class, her own cooking as she described it in the Grasmere Journal, her history of colitis — black pudding for dinner would have been an affront to all of that. It was basically a sausage of blood and oatmeal, and although it had a longtime place on upper class breakfast tables, even that was starting to fade by the time this mention came along.

So I started to wonder, and I realized that if I could get a grip on this mystery, maybe I would learn something about Dorothy Wordsworth that I hadn’t known before. Maybe food would give me access to someone’s life in a new way.

MN: I loved a passage in your book when you wrote ‘our food stories…go straight to what’s neediest.’ You chose to examine women who in general had a complicated, and in some cases very insecure, relationship with food. How did you settle on which women to write about? Were you especially drawn towards food stories about women who saw food as troubling, more than delicious?

LS: So much of the food writing that’s appeared in the last ten or twenty years — popular writing, I mean, as opposed to scholarly — is about the same thing: Food is love. Food is emotional support. Food brings us together. Of course all those things are true — I’ve written them myself, many times — but I really wanted to get to something else in this book. I think all kinds of things happen at the dinner table, and plenty of them are not about food-brings-us-together. So I chose women with complicated, hard-to-decode relationships with food, women whose food stories lurked below the surface.

MN: Do you think men and women eat in a very different way? Would men’s food stories be largely different from women’s?

LS: I’m absolutely positive men’s stories would be different — but I have no evidence for it at all. I do think women have an immediate and instinctive relationship with food that comes from a billion years of physical nurturing of babies, so that’s one big difference between women and men, but I would never give myself the imaginative freedom to explore men’s food lives the way I’ve always explored women’s. For me, it would be like writing in a foreign language. There certainly are writers who can imagine other sexes — in fiction and in non-fiction — but for me it’s difficult.

MN: During the majority of the history you wrote about in ‘What She Ate’, a woman’s place was very much considered to be within the domestic sphere, and yet many of the women you wrote about wielded food as a weapon to gain power in worlds beyond their kitchen. I thought it was especially fascinating to read about Rosa Lewis’s incredible career. Would you tell me a little more about how food completely changed her life?

LS: Rosa Lewis was an amazing example of a woman who made food her career for a very specific reason that I don’t think had anything to do with food. She wanted to climb from working class to upper class, and she could see that in Victorian/Edwardian London, cooking would help her up the ladder.

What complicates the picture is that she didn’t really want to change who she was. What she wanted was to be accepted at the top of the ladder as exactly who she was — a former scullery maid named Rosa Lewis who could cook as well as Escoffier. And she succeeded, but only as long as she kept cooking. When she hung up her apron, after World War I, she lost her place on the ladder.

MN: Your book shows that there is a great deal of emotion – both positive and negative – attached to food, and yet Eleanor Roosevelt seemed most comfortable with food during her time at the White House when she could strip meal time from any emotive resonance and think of food as simply fuel for living. Why did she serve such dreadful food at the White House, and why did she seem to enjoy eating so much more later in life?

LS: Eleanor’s story is very much about her marriage to FDR. After his affair with Lucy Mercer, she was devastated, and from then on their marriage was basically a political partnership. She shared his ideals, but what she couldn’t bear was his luxury-loving side, the cocktails and fine meals and enjoyment of life that he had known while growing up and still relished when the workday was over. That was the side of FDR that gave rise to his flirtatious attentions to other women and of course the affair with Lucy Mercer. She didn’t want to feed that side of him — literally, I believe. So she made no effort to change the terrible food served by the mean-spirited housekeeper she had hired. But when she was out of the White House — travelling, or with her own friends, or pursuing her second career after FDR’s death — she was free to eat with pleasure.

MN: Two women in your book seemed to derive the most pleasure from food by simply not eating it at all. Would you tell me more about how a lack of food shaped the stories of Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown?

LS: These were, of course, the two dieters in the book. I hasten to add that they had nothing else in common, but they did share a fixation on staying slim. They felt very competitive with other women, and they desperately wanted to appeal to what neither of them knew yet to call the male gaze.

Helen Gurley Brown’s single-minded focus on eating as little as possible throughout life did quite a bit of damage to her readers, since she was promoting an ideal of the female body that was unnatural and essentially unattainable. Eva Braun’s effect on her moment in history was subtler but more terrible. Sitting at the table with Hitler and his entourage, she was so sweetly and stereotypically feminine that her presence created, in effect, a guilt-free zone for Hitler and his entourage.

MN: In terms of my own attitude towards food, I most identified with Barbara Pym. I liked the unpretentious, but still appreciative, approach she took towards food, both in her books and in real life. Would you tell me more about how the food she wrote about reflected the world around her?

LS: Barbara Pym had a wonderfully healthy relationship with food — she just loved it, and it caused her no problems whatever as far as I can see. When it was delicious, she enjoyed eating it, and when it was awful, she enjoyed thinking about it. When she started on her life as a novelist after World War II, a whole spectrum of food was spread out in front of her — tinned soups and flabby blancmange, and perfectly roasted duck with peas from the garden.

All of it went into the books, which is why it’s possible to read her novels as a revisionist history of British cooking after the war. Pym was no fantasy-writer: her novels emerged from the world around her, and if she saw plenty of good food along with the stereotypically awful food of that time, I think we can believe her.

MN: Finally, Laura, what’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’re able to share at the moment?

LS: I wish I knew! I’m in that nerve-wracking state of testing new ideas, discarding and revising and fiddling and re-discarding and re-revising.

MN: If people would like to keep up with your news, where can they find you online?

LS: My website is laurashapirowriter.com.

~

What She Ate by Laura Shapiro is available on Amazon and all good booksellers.

Find me on instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase

P.S. You may also be interested in my interview with Annie Gray on Queen Victoria’s life in food on Tea & Tattle Podcast. 

London Culture | From Omega to Charleston Exhibition

London Culture | From Omega to Charleston Exhibition

Last weekend, I strolled through the pretty streets of Holland Park (mercifully quiet for a sunny Saturday) to the Piano Nobile Gallery to see their exhibition, From Omega to Charleston. The exhibition explores the creative partnership between Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and shows some of the artwork they created from the years 1910-1934.

Vanessa Bell, sister to Virginia Woolf, was a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group and a talented artist. The painter Duncan Grant was an important influence on her life and work, and they eventually lived together at Charleston, Vanessa’s home in East Sussex.

The Piano Nobile Gallery exhibition has brought together rarely seen works by Grant and Bell held in private collections, some pieces on loan from Charleston and a few items for sale (prices on request). The exhibition ends on Saturday, so I thought I’d share some highlights for those who won’t be able to make it (although if you are in the area, I highly encourage you to go!).

The gem of the show is the incredible display of the Famous Women Dinner Service that Bell and Grant produced in the early 1930s.

A whole wall in the gallery is hung with the 50 plates, depicting  famous women through the ages, such as Queen Victoria, Anna Pavlova, Greta Garbo and Jane Austen. Half of the plates were painted by Bell and half by Grant on Wedgwood creamware blanks.

Here are a few of my favourites:

 From Omega to Charleston

Aren’t they beautiful? The Famous Women Dinner Service was a joint project for Grant  and Bell, which they began in 1932, commissioned by the  director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark. When Clark died, his widow Nolwen de Janzé-Rice took the plates to France. After her death, the collection was sold at auction in Germany, and its whereabouts  remained unknown for years, until the plates were purchased by a private collector and returned to Britain. Now, the plates are available through Piano Nobile and are being publicly shown for the first time.

The collection is priced at a whopping £1million, but there is hope that Charleston will be able to acquire them, as the plates are being held on reserve to give Charleston a chance to raise funds. I do very much hope they will end up somewhere that the public will be able to view them.

Last weekend, I strolled through the pretty streets of Holland Park (mercifully quiet for a sunny Saturday) to the Piano Nobile Gallery to see their exhibition, From Omega to Charleston.

There were also several beautiful paintings by Bell and Grant on display, as well as different ceramics, painted furniture and an embroidered footstool.

I was delighted to get the chance to see this small, but fascinating exhibition, and now I want to plan another trip to Charleston!

~

Get in touch on instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase