Sunday, 16 October 2011

Review: A Double Dose of Dickens

‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’, Part 1 and Part 2 at The People's Theatre, Heaton.
Written by David Edgar.
Adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens.

This adaptation of Dickens’ third novel is one of the People’s most ambitious undertakings to date, selected for the theatre’s centenary programme and performed in two separate parts. ‘Nickleby’ contains many key themes present in earlier and later Dickens works: social injustice, families falling on hard times, and the machinations of those who manipulate the institutional apparatus for their own ends. It also contains typical Dickensian humour, and Nicholas’ involvement with Crummles’ acting troupe makes the novel an interesting candidate for dramatic adaptation.

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience were confronted by a stark but effective two-storey set which was then brought to life by subtle lighting, evoking the numerous environments. The directors’ attention to detail led to some nice touches: a handful of dust denoting falling snow, for example, and the tapping of a cane providing the sound of a spinning roulette wheel.

The cast all gave an excellent performance. Pat Haggerty was quite incredible as both the warm-hearted LaCreevy and malevolent Peg, and Michael Short gave a terrifically nuanced performance as Nicholas’ corrupt Uncle Ralph. Sam Hinton worked very hard as Nicholas, injecting humour and warmth into Dickens’ titular focalizer.

Michael Blair was fantastic as the stern but kind-hearted John Browdie, and Sean Burnside was very effective as the downtrodden Smike: his death was a genuinely moving moment of the more sombre second half.

Every Dickens story has its memorable villains, and this production benefitted greatly from Paul Carding and Maggie Childs’ suitably grotesque Mr. and Mrs. Squeers of Dotheboys Hall.

John MacDonald was terrific throughout, contributing trombone and accordion to the musical accompaniment, as well as giving fantastic turns as the covetous Arthur Gride and eccentric Crummles.

Due to the adaptation’s faithfulness to the novel, all of the actors were required to play multiple parts (for example, Jake Wilson Craw played characters as diverse as Belling, Colonel Chowser and Crummles’ horse). Above all, the cast gave an excellent ensemble performance. One highlight was the crowd scene where Nicholas walks the streets of London after learning of Madeline’s engagement to Gride and he joins the oppressed masses in lamentation.

At a combined length of five and a half hours, the play is a challenge for the audience as well as for the cast – but one well worth undertaking. All cast and crew deserve great credit for tackling a play seldom performed by professional companies and for making it so entertaining.

After a break of two days, ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ will run again from Tuesday 18/10 until Saturday 22/10. Part 1 will be performed on Tuesday and Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, whereas Part 2 will be performed on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night. Customers buying tickets for both parts will receive a discount; visit

Monday, 10 October 2011

Tusk Festival, Newcastle, 7th-9th October 2011

I went along to the first two nights of the Tusk Festival at The Cluny this weekend.

The first band I saw on Friday were Pigeons, whose songs veered from more traditional folky structures to free form psychedelic madness - with bells.

Next came Vincent Epplay and Samon Takahashi with their 'ungovernable' synths.

Drawing the biggest crowd on Friday was Grouper. It's a shame that she didn't sing a bit more, but her masterful way of merging performances together with samples and drones was still mesmerising.

The Long Lonesome Go kicked things off on Saturday Night with some inspired improvosition. You can download their music for free from their website.

The last act I caught on Saturday was Pulse Emitter, whose homemade synth wizardry brought the festival to a close for me.

I really enjoyed this festival, and will be keeping an eye out for future Tusk events. The shows were excellent value, and the programme featured an eclectic mix of international acts.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Review: 'Nickel and Dimed' by Barbara Ehrenreich

Author and columnist Barbara Ehrenreich went 'undercover in low-wage USA' to experience firsthand the trials faced by low-paid workers in the United States and to address the question 'How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?'. Editing out large chunks of her CV but otherwise maintaining her status as a 'divorced homemaker', Ehrenreich lived in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, working as a waitress, a house cleaner, a care home worker and a sales assistant at Wal-Mart.

Ehrenreich kept her car for transport and laptop for writing; she gave herself some start-up money, but was otherwise very disciplined at attempting to live on the wages she received. While applying for jobs, she had to take demeaning personality-testing surveys containing questions such as 'Am I more or less likely than other people to get into fistfights?' and 'Are there situations in which dealing cocaine is not a crime?'

In addition, Ehrenreich had to undergo the indignity of urine testing for signs of drug use, a practice that (despite common claims to the contrary) 'does not lower absenteeism, accidents or turnover and... actually lowered productivity - presumably due to its negative effect on employee morale'. Cannabis (which stays in the system much longer than cocaine or heroin) is screened for, while LSD is not. The practice cost the federal government $11.7 million dollars in 1990, with only 153 of 29,000 subjects testing positive. Despite all this emphasis on pre-employment urination, we learn that there was no federally mandated right to toilet breaks until 1998.

During her induction at Wal-Mart, employees are discouraged from 'time theft': 'Doing anything other than working during company time, anything at all'. They are also strongly discouraged from joining unions. Ehrenreich later sees a commercial for the chain on TV while taking a break: 'When a Wal-Mart shows up within a television within a Wal-Mart, you have to question the existence of an outer-world'.

Her shifts and those of her co-workers commonly exceed the official running times, despite the fact that it is illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act not to pay time and a half for working hours exceeding 40 a week. Legal cases in four states have revealed Wal-Mart management's practice of erasing overtime from records and instead offering employees schedule changes or promotions. 'In the same spirit, automobile manufacturers would rather offer their customers cash rebates than reduced prices; the advantage of the rebate is that it seems like a gift and can be withdrawn without explanation'.

Ehrenreich writes with candour and honesty, admitting the bad decisions she made along the way and the fact that she found some tasks genuinely challenging, mentally as well as physically: 'no job, no matter how lowly, is truly "unskilled"'. She befriends some of her co-workers and finds them no less diverse and interesting than members of her normal social circle, although there is little time for socialising: rather, friendship takes the form of consoling and/or covering for colleagues who are unwell and physically unable to complete their work. Ehrenreich herself develops a rash on her arms and legs while working as a cleaner but carries on, rather than facing the prospect of not being paid.

And so what are her conclusions? Well, Ehrenreich draws a parallel with the fact that rats and monkeys forced into subordinate positions within their social systems become withdrawn, anxious, receive less serotonin and 'avoid fighting even in self-defense'. The statement by HUD's Andrew Cuomo that prosperity in America is actually shrinking the stock of affordable housing leads her to conclude: 'The rich and the poor, who are generally thought to live in a state of harmonious interdependence - the one providing cheap labor, the other providing low-wage jobs - can no longer exist'.

Despite the disturbing (if not always surprising) nature of many of Ehrenreich's findings, she is confident that at some point in the future, the poor will tire of their lot and demand a better share of American wealth.