Last week, the theatre came to town – or to our village at any rate. We were delighted to welcome Paddleboat Theatre to our village picnic, and even more delighted when the sun came out especially for them. Their show, According to Arthur, enthralled an audience of all ages and you could have heard a pin drop – no mean achievement with an age range of three to ninety-three and a splendid Northumbrian propensity for chat. After supper, beds for the night, a frighteningly early breakfast, and advice on how to put oil in a car (should you win the lottery this week, you might like to consider buying them a van), we waved them on their way to the Edinburgh Festival where, I am happy to report, they are taking the infant world by storm (so make sure you go and see them if you are in Edinburgh this month).
Once they had gone, we were happy to fall back on some favourite books to indulge our theatrical leanings. Not, on the whole, actors’ biographies and especially not autobiographies, although they can provide a great deal of unintentional humour. There seems to be an immutable law of the universe that dictates that the greater the acting ability, the blanker the canvas upon which it starts. The ‘my thoughts on acting’ genre can also provide some gems: vying for first place for making the NorthernReader household cry with laughter are Anthony Sher’s The Year of the King and Harriet Walters’ Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting. Most enjoyable of all is Nigel Planer’s sharp-eyed spoof, I, an Actor, purportedly by Nicholas Craig. I would quite like to see this as the end-of-term commemorative volume given to every graduate from drama school.
A love of theatre can – should – start when very small and depends upon grown-ups taking every opportunity to ensure that their darlings experience the immersive joy, fear, wonder and awe of live performance. TAKE THEM TO THE THEATRE. The worst thing that can happen is that they, or you, or even they and you, will be bored for a couple of hours; and there is very little better preparation for adult life that some practice in coping with being bored. And if they should learn to sit still, quietly, for the greater good, you will have done your bit to ensure that posterity is a better-mannered place. And, in between the theatre trips, read books. Here are some.
The Swish of the Curtain is now more than seventy years old, but the story of the Blue Door Theatre Company still engages young readers and makes them urge the characters on to success in the drama contest on which so much depends. Do not watch The Apprentice, which is dreary, soulless and predicated entirely upon the bleak worship of money: read this instead. And if you love it, hurray! There are four further books about the same group of young people. Pamela Brown wrote The Swish of the Curtain when she was fourteen, so the book is also a useful reminder to your offspring that they could be making better use of all this spare time in the summer holidays. And we must have Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes on this week’s shelf. Fear not, loathers of ballet and all things pointy and pirouetty: this deservedly classic tale is about determination, striving and achieving your heart’s desire, whatever that might happen to be.
Get in quickly before the school syllabus ‘does’ – what a doom-laden verb – Shakespeare and puts young people off, sometimes for ever. I loved Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, in which our young hero time-travels (so very much more interestingly than the creepy chap with the wife in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel) and finds himself in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We have talked before about how very good I thought Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. If for some unaccountable reason you have not yet taken my advice and read it, now is the time. Morgan pulls off that almost impossible trick of populating his story with famous people without making it feel like a Wikipedia extract with added conversation.
For a taste of a theatrical world that we have now lost, two books: Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure. Smith’s novel, which, like her completely essential I Capture the Castle, is aimed at young adults (and upwards), is mainly set in the small-company theatrical world in the nineteen-twenties: Bainbridge’s, which draws upon her experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse, is set just after the Second World War. Several of Ngaio Marsh’s murder mysteries are set in the world of the theatre as well, and like Smith and Bainbridge, her books now have a period flavour as well as an assured and detailed understanding of the back-stage world. Try Enter a Murderer, Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin (for some reason that completely escapes me, the last two were published in America as Night at the Vulcan and Killer Dolphin, which, while hilarious, does make me wonder whether her American publishers were involved in a bizarre plot to sabotage her career by ensuring no sales at all).
But to end where we (more or less) began, in Edinburgh at the Festival: do not go without reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Oh wait; I could have ended that sentence sooner: go nowhere without reading Kate Atkinson. But One Good Turn is set at the Festival. It also revisits her compelling detective hero, Jackson Brodie. This has two beneficial consequences for you, dear reader: once gripped, you might as well settle down and read the four novels in which he features (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog). And then you could watch the television dramatisations, starring Jason Isaacs. You can thank me later.