Wednesday 29 March 2023

Reviewing for The Reviews Hub


Since January I’ve been writing theatre reviews for The Reviews Hub. A friend of mine from the Dr Johnson Reading Circle was already writing for them and got me in and I’ve had a lot of fun. 

My biggest challenge has been the short turnaround period between seeing the performance and handing in the review. The deadline is midday the next day and as I get to work at 8:15, I don’t have time in the day to write it, meaning I have to write the reviews as soon as I get in. This hasn’t been a problem for short productions in easy to reach places but can be a struggle if I have to get back from a far-flung place in London or if the performance starts late, some have been as late as 9:45. Then I have to force myself to write decent copy at double-quick time before going to bed and getting up for work the next day. It’s been a taste of the real Grub Street writers, forcing themselves to their writing out of necessity but has probably been pretty good for me overall.

I’ve seen a whole range of things, surprisingly few plays. I’ve reviewed mime-cabaret featuring dancers with learning difficulties, a whole range of drag, a number of one man/woman/other shows and even a puppet show on a barge. Whatever the performance and whatever the venue, there’s always a thrill when the house lights go down. I often find myself grinning like a loon, not a professional critical expression at all.

Much of my short time as a critic has coincided with the VAULT festival, which has featured 800 shows in two months. From a practical viewpoint, I like these shows as they are never more than an hour long and the VAULT venues in Waterloo are an easy journey. They are underneath Waterloo Station and trains rumble through each performance, often adding to the atmosphere of them. I do hate the smell though. There’s something about sitting in the VAULT that feels unhealthy, with the thick miasma allowing one performance to include striking lighting effects normally needed by a smoke machine.

I’ve reviewed other productions in more standard theatres, the swankiest being Sadler’s Wells where I reviewed a ballet called Creature. It was a press night and I was invited to hob and nob with the other guests, where I got talking to a film-maker. I’ve rarely felt so out of place, dressed rather scruffily and with no knowledge of the ballet world, but I met some other out-of-place reviewers and we formed a temporary gang. The most magical place was the Puppet Theatre Barge, currently moored in little Venice. It’s a cramped, pokey place with retired puppets hanging from every cranny and raked seating pointing at a miniature stage.

So far, I’ve only given one middling review and a number of good to great ones. Perhaps I am too happy to be experiencing all the strangeness to be discerning but I genuinely feel it comes from being very lucky in the things I’ve seen. There’s also the interesting fact that the reviews are intended to be as objective as possible. While reviewing for this blog, my approach is all about my own personal reactions to the books, plays &c I encounter, relating them to past experiences and other texts. When writing for The Reviews Hub I have to attempt to write for a generalised theatre-goer. The test I make is, what did the performance appear to be trying to do, and how successful is it in fulfilling that. As a result, I gave one piece I went to see a very positive review despite not having enjoyed it that much because I realised my lack of enjoyment was more due to my own tiredness and the fact that I went on a night filled with the performer’s friends, which made it feel in-jokey. When I went over my feelings and notes as I got home, however, I realised the piece intended to be knock-about silly fun and succeeded at exactly that.

I hope to carry on writing for The Reviews Hub over the next year, despite that fact it’s slowed my reading down somewhat.

Here are links to my reviews:

Thick and Tight by Tits and Teeth

I Fucked You in My Spaceship

David Copperfield

Home X

Healing King Herod

Caligula and the Sea


The Blue Pool of Questions

How To Be a Pirate

The Black Cat


Sasha Ellen: Character Building Experience

With hopefully many more to come.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Review: 'Female Husbands' by Jen Manion

 A female husband is someone born female who lived as a man and took a wife, we tend to know their stories because something the exposed them to the public. As such, female husbands are at an interesting crossroads of gender, sexuality and sociological expectations and the book, Female Husbands by Jen Manion examines these clearly, with detail and nuance.

I was first introduced to the notion of female husbands due to the Fielding piece of the same title, this piece set a template for a form of newspaper story that would be popular in the UK until 1800 and the US after. What’s interesting, is that the tropes of these stories may have then led other people to attempt being female husbands for themselves.

The book introduces us to a number of female husbands, taking them at chronological order and examining what each case reveals about female husbandary in general, the people involved in specific and about the way they were seen and treated reveals about the societies they lived in. These ranged from the ‘well known’ story of Deborah Sampson (well known in America I suppose) to Adolph Guelph (who pretended to be a nobleman forced to live as a woman sometimes), Joseph Lobdell (who lived as a woodsman) and James Allen (outed by a workplace accident). While there are certain patterns to the female husband story, partly arising from conventions in how such stories were reported, the individuals and their stories are well told, interesting and different.

It did feel a little strange sometimes to have these people described as they/them, as it seemed clear that many would have preferred he/him and some comfortable as she/her. In fact, the only pronouns none of the subjects would have used for themselves was they/them, as understanding and language beyond a gender binary wouldn’t have been known to them. However, I did see the purpose of they/them pronouns in being a way to easily talk about the totality of their lives, both when they lived as men and as women in a tidy way.

I’m British, aka a resident of TERF-island and even as a person who’d rather tuck myself into a nice book, I’ve not been able to escape all the think pieces about ‘the gender debate’. One feature of this debate is that it’s almost always about transwomen, transmen are either infantalised as women who’ve fallen off the noble path or ignored completely. The question always seems to be ‘what is a woman?’ but this novel raises the question ‘what is a man?’ - or at the very least, ‘what does is mean to be a husband?’. For many of the female husbands in this book, being a husband was, in the eyes of the community, sufficient proof of manhood.

I found this particularly interesting in the case of James Allen. Married for over twenty years, he (and I’m sticking with he for this person) was a hard-worker who not only fulfilled his role as husband but also took part as a good man in his community. It wasn’t until a workplace accident left him dead that a coroner’s inquest found him to be biologically female. However, the coroner declared him a man on his death certificate as he had been married by law and so was legally male, whatever his biology said. In his case, being a man was a result of successfully (and even admirably, according to his neighbours) embodying the role of man. 

I found it interesting that most of the female husbands in this book were working class. It does highlight the economic aspect of living as a man. Men had more freedom to roam and more access to better paid jobs. However, this doesn’t mean that living as a man was purely pragmatic, had it been, more women would have done it. I suppose there was also greater restrictions for upper class women, especially those whose womanhood (and ability to have children) are tied to the passing on of great estates. There’s also an interesting economic element of marriage, that while these marriages may have been emotionally and sexually fulfilling (and some may not of course) there was economic sense in marrying and pooling resources - a function of marriage beyond sex and gender.

One very interesting aspect in the relationship was the greater position of power of the wife in such a marriage. While a cis-marriage gave all the power to the husband, the wife to a female-husband could pull the plug on the marriage and cite the ‘true’ sex of their spouse at any time. The examples from the papers show that society is ready to believe a wife who says she was tricked, however unlikely that seems, in order to restore ‘normal’ function. At the same time, if a marriage was outed by accident, like in James Allen’s case, the wife would have a lot of difficult questions to answer. 

As time went on, the problem people had with female husbandry seemed to lie less in the taking on of a masculine gender, especially as women were securing more rights, but in the notion of a same sex marriage. This is when the phrase female husband was replaced by woman husband. I found it very interesting how this change in nomenclature changes the nature of the relationship from a female (sex) husband (gender) to a woman (gender) husband (gender). Which aside from anything else helped me understand the difference between the terms female and woman and also helped me understand why misogynist weirdoes always use the word female where woman would fit more comfortably.

I enjoyed this book, it presented a difficult and complex topic with admirable clarity, gave me a lot to think about and had me wondering a few things also. One wonder I couldn’t shake off was, ‘what about the female husbands who were never discovered?’ Did they exist or was it inevitable that they would be found out? I also thought a discussion of Charlotte Charke might have been interesting, they’re mentioned briefly but dismissed, despite living as a husband with a woman for a number of years. What’s interesting about them is that they were famous before living as a man and only did so when that fame had dimmed, despite that fame being based on playing male parts - often as parodies of her own acting family. I just thought her story may have something to give.

I have used a lot of parentheses in this review, I think it’s because it’s a knotty and delicate topic and I’ve tried to be nuanced, even if that isn’t my greatest strength.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

Penelope Corfield's 'The Georgians' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met at the house on the 7th of March to discuss Penelope Corfield’s The Georgians, a broad sweep through the long eighteenth century, taking in literature, politics, economics and a whole host of other disciplines.

There was a little joking at the length of this eighteenth-century, which sometimes went back as far as the 1660s and as far forward as the 1840s but Corfield noted that her desire in the book was to follow themes throughout the period, examining the constant tension between continuity and change. In taking this step back, the book seeks to ask questions about the nature of the society that produced such a distinctive moment in British (and world) history. There was also an interest in comparing what people now make of the Georgians to what they made of themselves with one of the starting places of the book being a collection of statements people living at the time made about what was happening around them. 

The responses of the Georgians picked up on a number of different themes, from Johnson talking of ‘an age of innovation’ to the personal letters of private people talking about ‘an age of politeness’. However, all these ‘ages’ can be broadly categorised as optimist or pessimist. Corfield comes right out and declares her optimism and did so again in the meeting, possibly a brave thing to say in an age of doomscrolling but one backed up by the fact that certain advancements of the Georgian era, from increased literacy to widening forms of democracy are still with us today. 

Fitting for a book which draws a picture of trends, the discussion of literacy involved lots of different areas. We spoke about the habits of reading out-loud as a public good, with workshops delegating someone to read to people as they were working, not too dissimilar to many modern uses of audiobooks. We also discussed the role Britain’s protestant and mercantile traditions in creating a desire for literacy from the bottom up, a state pushed literacy not being in place until 1870 (and too late for even this book’s reach). Corfield even includes a section on the less discussed rise in numeracy, pointing out the fiendish mathematical puzzles posed in The Lady magazine, answered in following weeks by skilled amateur mathematicians.

The Georgians is a refreshingly democratic piece of history, while it happily uses comment and anecdote from famous names, its conception of change (and continuity) are treated as broad, sociological functions. There’s a striking chapter about the change in lower-class consciousness, from being ‘the poor’ to ‘the working class’ and a discussion of the formation of early trade unions called combinations. As such, it’s a history that includes everybody without apportioning blame or glory.

We had a spirited discussion on social mobility, talking how people like the son of a penniless bookseller could become a leading intellectual figure. With a growth in urbanisation, wider platforms of discussion and a decline in court favour could lead to plutocrats sitting at the same tables of aristocrats. This could also lead to those who felt they hadn’t received their own fair shares, with characters like Richard Savage believing his (alleged) noble birth and his (pretty genuine) talents should have given him a better deal. This is not to say the Georgian era was a meritocracy (and is any age?) but there was a notion that talent and merit could bring a person further in life than ever before. 

The book, and the evening, started with Corfield saying that what drew her towards the eighteenth-century is that it was terra incognita, barely touched by a-level or even undergraduate history. This means it’s still an era with lots to give and lots to say and where fledgling academics still have space to make a name. She told us an anecdote about one of her students who was searching the letters captured from Spanish ships and held, often unopened, in British archives. This student not only got to open many of these letters for the first time but discovered the earliest written records of the Basque language - a discovery that made him something of an academic celebrity in his home town. 

A distinctive feature of The Georgians are the elements at the end of each chapter called ‘Time Shifts’. These take a theme from the chapter and pull it forward into the modern day, either encouraging the reader to visit a museum or landmark, read a particular short text or watch a film. Corfield conceived of these as a teaching-aid, bringing the time up to date.

There are times where The Georgians could be described as a comprehensive skim through the era, with many intriguing aspects which want filling out a little. It’s very possible these were filled out in the original draft of the book, which had been twice as long. Fuelled by enjoyment and a surfeit of material, she had handed in a whopper of a manuscript and was told to cut it in half or void the contract - whether this feeds into the potential sequel, is yet to be decided.

After a dense conversation that could probably have lasted twice as long, the meeting was called to an end, with the now traditional wander for some pizza. There Penelope Corfield asked us all if we were optimists ourselves… much like the book itself, it was a good prompt for discussion.

Wednesday 8 March 2023

Review: Moonraker by Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse

Moonraker is an adventure novel written by an author with the wonderful name of Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse. Published in 1927 it wished to capture the same spirit as Treasure Island and the similarly named Moonfleet. It’s a short novel that covers a lot of material, from pirates, to women’s liberation and the betrayal of Toussaint L’Overture. 

It’s framed as a yarn being told by an old salt, with the first few chapters being a peculiar mix of purple prose and seaman’s slang. Our hero, Jacky Jacka, not only has a girl’s name but is often described as being particularly feminine in his beauty with his long golden hair, rosy cheeks and ‘eyes of the greenish-blue of the deep water near the rocks.’ Not much is done with his prettiness, which is surprising given the twist towards the end of the book. He’s also sensitive and saves a witch from being stoned. She lets him glimpse his future and he sees images he’ll then encounter in the course of the book.

He sets sail on the Picksie, a ship whose captain has a deep relationship with. The ship is attacked by pirates on board the Moonraker, and rather than build up any tension, the ship is attacked and exploded within a paragraph. Jacky is then forced to live among the pirates where he develops a fixation with their captain, Lovel. He is also sick to the stomach to now be a pirate, though when the pirate attacks a French ship, he ‘could not but enjoy it’, which is described as ‘a thing not to be wondered at’. They capture a young French man called Raoul, whose presence changes Captain Lovel and sets them on a course to Santa Domingo and not the nearby island of Tortuga, where the pirates planned to search for Kidd’s treasure. 

Santa Domingo is in a place of relative peace, having fought a number of slave uprisings and slave-owner backlashes, the country is now stable under Toussaint L’Overture and even building forward-looking architecture celebrating the now free island. However, Napoleon has sent a fleet with the instructions to lure and capture the ‘rebel’ leaders and bring the country back under the thumb of the French.

The next part of the book follows Jacky as he follows L’Overture in his last fights. He’s doing well but his generals are lured over to the French and he is eventually tricked into captivity. The events themselves, the military to-ing and fro-ing, the ambushes and battles, are all rushed through as quickly as possible in order to spend time with Jacky’s point of view of L’Overture and his struggle. He’s portrayed as the wisest and most authentic man Jacky has ever met, yet Jacky is constantly surprised to be admiring a black man. He regards L’Overture as ugly, brutish and compares him to an ape yet also recognises wells of humanity, goodness and even a shadow of divinity in him. It’s a strange mix and reads oddly ninety-odd years after the novel was published. A modern reader finds themself wondering if the surprise and recognising a ‘great’ person who is also black is supposed to be one encountered by the 1790s figure of Jacky, or if it’s a surprise expected in the 1920’s reader. Suffice to say there are also n-words thrown about the text by both characters and narrator.

There’s a lot of potential in the Toussaint L’Overture section, as there was in the forced piracy section but the book moves too quickly to properly develop them, a fault with much of the book. There are some wonderful sections, particularly when L’Overture compares Raoul’s political and idealistic conception with freedom with the genuine struggle for bodily freedom he has had to fight. It’s a good point and well made, but a slower, more fleshed out version of this book could have developed those points and differences far better (though maybe to the detriment of the book’s nippiness).

Raoul’s original plan was to evacuate L’Overture and his fancy-bit on the Moonraker and take them to America but with L’Overture captured, it’s just Jacky, Raoul, fancy-bit and fancy-bit’s friend who board the ship. Captain Lovel is acting even stranger, refusing to attack legitimate targets and seeming to risk everyone’s life on board the ship to take Raoul back to France. In a tense dinner scene, the captain invites the main characters to a dinner where Jacky is the waiter. The Captain enters wearing an elaborate frock and fancy-bit thinks he’s having a laugh and cross-dressing, declaring that as handsome a man as he is, he’s a really ugly woman. This is when it’s revealed that Captain Lovel is actually a woman called Sophy. 

It’s a really striking scene, because Sophy/Lovel had picked the dress as the prettiest they’d ever seen and was hoping it could be a wedding dress - in a wedding with Raoul. There’s something so cruel in the description of her ugliness in it, the opposite of a romantic movie glow-up. Then the crew mutiny and all see the truth of their captain. She fights, bare-breasted, the dress stripped down to the waist, skewering numerous mutinous pirates. When a stale-mate ensures, she loads the named characters on a longboat and explodes the Moonraker…

…Jacky lives his life, becomes a captain himself and marries but he’s always haunted by the two realest people he’s ever known, Toussaint L’Overture and Sophy Lovel, who make his wife seem as insubstantial as smoke in comparison. When he feels this, he kisses his wife, who’s pleased by the act of affection but doesn’t understand why. It’s a surprisingly moving and sombre ending to an oddly perfunctory story. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if this book would have been better if it had been expanded and deepened, there were so many interesting stories of freedom vs constraint in the lives of Jacky, Sophy and L’Overture that could have been compared. There was the whole element of Jacky’s prettiness, how he as a born male would have passed as a woman better than Sophy could. There was the whole tragedy of L’Overture and his betrayal, as well as the hidden love of Sophy for Raoul. If the book was bulked out, it would have lost its adventure story bracket, and perhaps Tennyson Jesse wrote it for a quick buck, but I couldn’t help but feel that this book could have been more. It was good, but there are seeds of great in it.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Review: Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk was one of my favourite books of a few years ago, I loved how she took folk and fairytales and plaited them together to create the island of Neverness. I also loved how textured the world was, with plenty of description of smell, taste and touch. My only disconnect with the book was how the non-existent Scottish island felt walled off and detached from the real world. In Mischief Acts, Gilbert spins a similar web of folktale and myth but grounds it more fully into a real place and shows it affected by time. Even more fun for me, it’s a place a know fairly well.

Mischief Acts is the story of Herne the Hunter. A mythological man of the forest with a crown of stag antlers, he was first mentioned by Shakespeare but later written about by arrange of other authors including one of my favourites, William Harrison Ainsworth, who did his thing and rejuvenated the myth for a few more years. Gilbert creates an origin story, Herne is the king’s favoured hunter but that causes envy among the other courtiers. They wish harm on him and he is killed when a stag rushes for the king and he steps in the way. The wizard Bearman brings him back to life by placing the antlers on his head but also taking away his hunting skill. Ostracised from his peers, he hangs himself but returns as the spirit of The Great North Wood.

The book then tracks the fate of this wood and it’s guardian spirit through the course of history and into the future. Often there is a form of Bearman, existing as his antagonist. Herne’s form, name and presence changes as the forest does but whenever he does appear, some form of mischief will follow. As such, the mischief is tied into the unpredictability of nature and is compared to the desire for order and control inherent in man (in these stories a variation of Bearman). 

One of the best elements of this book is how the tone, genre and structure of the book completely fit the theme. Each story is set in a specific time period and the species of writing matches it. The origin story is told as a ballad/prose poem, there’s a renaissance set story which takes advantage of the eras dabbling in dryads, nymphs and other Arcadian visions, there’s a gardener’s almanac, a scientist’s notebook, a modern relationship drama. The stories set in the future try and evoke futuristic slang, probably the closest element to a misfire, but I loved the intent.

As nature is understood and the wood is built on, Herne himself becomes implied rather then seen. He becomes a concussion vision, an acid trip vision and the last thoughts of a dying (and decomposing) man. I loved how, as the enchantment of nature diminished in popular understanding, so the enchantment of the book is diminished - I also loved the positive notions of the ending, where a re-wilding and re-enchantment can take place. The book argues how a connection with the mischief of mother nature is also a connection with magic and our natural, animalistic selves. This magic is also threaded through the books by the songs between each story and the charms immediately before them.

What’s more, these are good stories. I loved the sweetness and strangeness of the lesbian acid-trip story where the word nymph plays two roles. I enjoyed the farce of the scientist’s story, balloon-trip accident and all. As a child who grew up among trees downed by the 1987 hurricane, I loved how it was described as Herne’s howl of pain and anger. I also enjoyed the use of historical personages and events, from Edward Alleyn to the scandalous eighteenth century actress Ann Catley. Did you know it was Herne who burnt down the Crystal Palace? I’m glad he left the dinosaurs though.

While I loved Folk, Mischief Acts is a definite improvement, tying the myths into the landscape and more importantly into how the landscape changed over time (and the guess at what might happen to it next). Herne himself is never particularly knowable as a character, he exists as a force but the characters he does affect are well developed. The threads that link the stories stop the book feeling fractured but the different tones and genres re-engage each time. I really loved this book and am eager to see what Zoe Gilbert writes next.