Books

The Last Piece of My Heart by Paige Toon

The Last Piece of My Heart Paige ToonThe Last Piece of my Heart is the latest novel by Paige Toon, bestselling author of The One We Fell in Love With and Baby Be Mine.

It tells the story of Bridget, a travel journalist who dreams of being an author. To up her profile and get a foot in the publishing door, she starts a relationship blog about reclaiming the missing pieces of her heart, in the hope that with a fully restored heart, she can fully commit to her long-distance boyfriend and secure that elusive book deal at the same time.

Bridget plans to visit each ex love and ask for a piece of her heart back. Consequently, I thought that was going to be the story – Bridget pieces her heart back together as she reconciles each past relationship. However, her journey takes a slightly different path, by way of Cornwall.

When she is offered the chance to ghost-write the sequel to a best-selling novel by Nicole Dupré, Bridget reluctantly accepts. Nicole died suddenly after the release of her first novel, leaving her literary fans wanting more, and a heart-broken husband and baby daughter behind. Bridget relocates to Padstow for the summer, so she can research Nicole’s ideas for the unfinished second novel, while working under the watchful eye of Nicole’s grieving husband Charlie.

Paige Toon is a master of wise and witty literature and The Last Piece of My Heart might just be her best yet. It’s both humorous and honest, exploring meaningful themes of broken relationships, grief, maternity and morality. Life is a puzzle, and an incomplete one at that. Bridget’s journey is very relatable – often what we think we want isn’t actually the thing completes us.

Bridget is immediately likeable – strong, spirited and fun. Initially, I did question why anyone in their right mind would want to meet up with all of their exs, but as mentioned, this wasn’t the heart of the story and only touched on intermittently. It’s clear that once in Cornwall, Bridget’s priorities change.

Her developing friendship with Charlie and baby April is heart-warming, and while we’re on the subject of Charlie – WHERE CAN I FIND ONE LIKE HIM PLEASE?! (minus the sad widower thing, perhaps). Bridget brings fun and light back into Charlie and April’s life and its pure joy to read.

An additional joy was the great sense of location given, capturing the beauty of both Cornwall and Thailand.

Beautifully written, heart-felt and witty, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I pretty much cried from page 313 onwards and had to recover with a strong cup of tea and several biscuits. A must read!

Clare

Published on 18 May 2017

Massive thanks to Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Books

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time Matt HaigHow to Stop Time is the latest novel from Matt Haig, bestselling author of Humans and The Boy Who Saved Christmas.

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

It tells the story of Tom Hazard, whose life is the very opposite of the saying, ‘we’re here for a good time, not a long time’. Tom has been around for a long time, centuries in fact, and mostly, he hasn’t had a very good time. A rare condition means Tom ages dramatically slower than most humans, which isn’t as great as it initially sounds. For him, time is not a gift, it’s a dangerous burden.

From playing the lute for Shakespeare to setting sail on the high seas with Captain Cook, Tom has lived a million lives in his lifetime. Controlled by a secret, sinister society which claims to protect those with the condition, Tom is given a new identity and made to start a new life every eight years in order avoid suspicion.

Falling in love can be a risky business, but in Tom’s case, it can be fatal. Warned by the society not to disclose his secret and still heartbroken from death of the love of his life 400 years ago, Tom is unable to get close to anyone, and is lonely and deeply unhappy. It is only his determination to find his daughter, who he was separated from centuries ago, which keeps him going.

In his latest guise, Tom has become history teacher in a London secondary school, where he meets Camille, a free spirit who slowly encourages him not to fear the future.

A real masterpiece from Haig, How to Stop Time is funny and thought-provoking. It is a captivating cocktail of history, science and the supernatural, exploring the complex nature of humans. Haig’s characters and settings are beautifully defined and his insight into human emotion is heart-rending.

It explores themes of loss, love and pain, highlighting how, as humans, we torture ourselves with the past, letting it define our future. Haig’s message is clear – letting go can set you free.

So good is the premise that the film rights have been snapped up by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, with the Sherlock actor set to star in the film adaptation.

How to Save Time is one of those stories that stays with you long after you have finished reading. Deeply moving, witty and utterly compelling – a must-read.

Clare

Review copy supplied by Netgalley

Published on: 6 July 2017

Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd

Theatre

Sunny Afternoon – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

Originally published on The Reviews Hub 

‘But will they still play it in 30 years’ time?’ asks The Kinks frontman Ray Davies of his song Sunny Afternoon. Indeed, more than 50 years later, the renowned hit is the titular track of a multi-award winning musical, telling the captivating story of the iconic British rock band in a near faultless production.

Boasting an incredible soundtrack including Lola, You Really Got Me, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Dead End Street, the show charts the rise, fall and rise again of four working class boys from North London, who took the 1960s pop charts by storm and helped to shape the most influential era of British music.

Told through the eyes of Ray Davies, the musical vividly recreates the sounds, style and spirit of the sixties. The group’s hit records are seamlessly woven into the narrative or recreated in concert scenes, and by casting actors who are also talented musicians, director Edward Hall has created an energetic and authentic-feeling biopic.

Ryan O’Donnell is superb as Ray, showing both intensity and vulnerability in his voice and characterisation as the genius songwriter. Equally good is Mark Newnham as Ray’s younger brother, Dave ‘the Rave’. Dave enjoys all the trappings of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and often clashes with his more serious brother over his lifestyle and position in the band. Although at times slightly Kevin and Perry-esque, Newnham provides a lot of the laughs as the belligerent loose cannon.

Showing himself to be a terrific drummer, Andrew Gallo is well cast as Mick Avory and Garmon Rhys gives a touching portrayal as reserved bassist Pete Quaife. Praise must also go to Lisa Wright as Ray’s spirited wife Rasa – her duets with O’Donnell and solo performance of the romantic ballad I Go To Sleep are beautiful.

There are many highlights – we see how the raucous guitar riff of You Really Got Me came to be, how the group got themselves banned from America, relive England’s 1966 World Cup victory with Sunny Afternoon, there’s a stunning a cappella rendition of Days and a rousing Lola finale which has the audience up on its feet.

A large set constructed of multiple speakers provides a suitable backdrop, multi-tasking as required to represent a bedroom, concert hall or recording studio. Talking of speakers, at times it feels there is a sound conflict between instruments and vocals, with the latter being slightly drowned out. That said, this is dark and dirty rock ‘n’ roll, and if it isn’t loud, it doesn’t count.

More than just a jolly jukebox musical, Sunny Afternoon packs an emotional punch, exploring the pitfalls of success, battles with management and tensions within the band – particularly the difficult relationship between the two Davies brothers. There is a raw, emotive quality to Ray Davies’ lyrics, reflecting not only his reality but the reality of many, which is perhaps why the music and story of The Kinks have transferred so well to theatre and continues to capture the imagination of audiences.

Vibrantly nostalgic, funny and heartfelt, the current UK tour is due to wrap up in May, be sure to catch it.

Clare

Runs until 22 April 2017 and on tour

Image: Kevin Cummins

Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub

Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong started life as a one-act play, performed in a tiny room above a pub. Back in 2012, LAMDA graduates Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields worked in Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a call centre and behind a bar during the day and performed their play at night. Fast forward five years and the hit comedy has received multiple awards and is currently enjoying successful runs in the West End, on Broadway and in theatres around the UK.

In a good-natured parody of amateur theatre, mayhem ensues when The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to stage 1920s murder mystery Murder at Haversham Manor. The hapless players lurch from one disaster to the next, and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong – there are doors that won’t open, cues that are missed, a leading lady with concussion and a set teetering on the brink of collapse.

Right from the off, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and clear to see why this play-within-a- play has been such a hit. Starting before the audience has even taken their seats, the society’s director Chris Bean (Patrick Warner) runs around the theatre foyer in a blind panic, setting the tone for the hysteria that is to follow.

On stage, there is seriously fast-paced comedy, slapstick and farce. A bit like Mr Bean meets Monty Python, it’s utterly silly but really good fun, and technically, spot on. Expertly choreographed by director Mark Bell, parts of the set collapse and various cast members are knocked out cold but the show must go on, and in true British-style, they soldier on, determined to finish what they started.

The small ensemble cast is incredibly tight, executing perfectly timed slapstick and gags at a ferocious pace. There are no weak links, like a neat puzzle of an abstract picture; each member contributes to the hilarity and in turn, the success of the production. Alastair Kirton’s portrayal of the affable Max Bennett, who plays Cecil Haversham in the murder mystery is particularly fun, as is Katie Bernstein, as the stage manager/come unexpected understudy and Graeme Rooney as the lazy lighting and sound operator Trevor.

At times there is so much physical comedy happening on stage and the laughter from the audience justifiably loud, it’s difficult to catch all of the dialogue and some jokes are missed. However, it takes a lot of skill to make chaos look like chaos, without it actually just looking like a mess, and that is successfully achieved here. Yes, situations overplayed and roles are hammed up to the max, but with tongue firmly in cheek, it is a hilarious and inspired caricature of amateur dramatics.

Some of the jokes are a bit dragged out, and if you are after some sophisticated comedy, this might not be for you. However, it is funny, clever and thoroughly enjoyable and goes down a storm with the audience. The Play That Goes Wrong undoubtedly gets it right.

Clare

Runs until 8 April 2017

Image: Helen Murray

Books

Girl 99 by Andy Jones

Girl 99 is the new novel by Andy Jones, best-selling author of The Two of Us and The Trouble with Henry and Zoe.

51jezmyssml-_sx331_bo1204203200_1After a messy break up with his girlfriend Sadie on Christmas Eve, Tom realises that she wasn’t The One, she was just The One For Now. She was also, he realises, after listing all of his previous relationship/flings/liaisons – girl number 85.

When his best friend El challenges him to bring things to a nice round number and sleep with a 100 women by a certain date, Tom reluctantly agrees – mainly to get El off his back, but also because, well he’s a man and clearly a little slutty. Without really putting much effort into his mission, he ends up sleeping with a colleague, a friend of a friend, a stranger he meets on the tube, the estate agent selling his flat and more besides. Each encounter is meaningless, messy and awkward, and leaves Tom feeling empty and alone. He then meets Verity, who is more than just a number, and is forced to face up to his self-destructive behaviour.

Girl 99 is a perfectly observed tale of relationships in all their guises, dealing with issues of love, loss, morality and degenerative illness. Andy Jones is really good at creating realism, in both his characters and their experiences, while serving it all up with a razor-sharp dose of smart wit.

Tom is an all-round nice guy. He’s popular, has a good career and is touchingly protective over his dad and younger sister following the death of his mother a few years previous, but he is essentially lonely – often, the highlight of his day is drinking tea with his elderly neighbour Doug. He also has commitment issues and a slight tendency to over-analyse. You could almost take a dislike to him and his promiscuous ways, and his selfish disregard for women’s feelings, but deep down Tom is unfulfilled and lost.

I hate to use the ‘J’ word really, but Tom does go on a bit of a ‘journey’ of self-discovery. Relationships are complicated, whether friendship, relationship or relative and mistakes are often made along the way – Tom makes many (like breaking up with a girl over email – really Tom?!). It makes for a charmingly life-affirming and relatable tale.Thoroughly enjoyable.  

Clare

Published by Lake Union Publishing
Review copied supplied by Netgalley

Theatre

Sister Act – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

This review was originally published on The Reviews Hub.

There is much to rejoice about in Sister Act. The musical stage adaptation of the popular 90s film starring Whoopi Goldberg is full of energy and fun – featuring an original score by Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, starring vocal powerhouse Alexandra Burke and including trombone-playing nuns. There’s little not to like.

Burke plays Deloris Van Cartier, a feisty lounge singer who is placed in witness protection for her own safety after witnessing a gangland killing by her mobster-boyfriend. Forced to hide out in a convent under the guise of Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris is horrified by the strict rules she must now abide by. She regularly clashes with Mother Superior over her rebellious attitude, until tasked with leading the abbey’s tone-deaf choir, where she discovers the power of sisterhood, both in the spiritual and friendship-sense.

Directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood, in a departure from the film version, the action takes place in the 1970s, which gives the production its own musical identity, capitalized on by composer Menken, fusing gospel and soul with some good old 70s disco funk.Revel Horwood knows how to fill a stage with interest and movement, cleverly casting actors who are also musicians and making them part of the orchestral ensemble live on stage. Gangsters strum guitars, a prostitute plays the violin and a nun squeezes away on an accordion. It’s an unusual move which at first feels a bit unnatural and clunky but is actually a really clever way of elevating characters and making music the core of this production.

Matthew Wright’s set is a spatial structure with dramatic archways, lending itself to appearing as a nightclub or a church, dressed up or down with disco lights and simple props as required.

Having previously filled the shoes of Whitney Houston in the stage version of The Bodyguard to critical acclaim, Burke takes on the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg with equal success – she’s clearly very good at ‘big’ characters. A class act as wise-cracking diva Deloris, Burke’s portrayal is more playful, sassy and ambitious. At times her dialogue is a little rushed, but she has excellent comic timing, energy and her vocals are, excuse the pun, heaven-sent – emotive, strong and soulful. Her performances of Raise Your Voice and Sister Act are particularly goosebump-inducing.

Deloris’s ex Curtis (Aaron Lee Lambert) and his inept gang, complete with plaid flares and suede jackets, are suitably roguish, but appear more comedic caricature-criminals than menacing mobsters, which makes their portrayal of Class A drug use during one number feel particularly uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Nice guy cop ‘sweaty’ Eddie, played by Joe Vetch is kept light for the laughs, and his disco-inspired solo I Could Be That Guy is a highlight.

The austere role of Mother Superior is brilliantly portrayed by Karen Mann. She has many of the best lines, gives a rousing rendition of Here Within These Walls and has hilariously fierce clashes with Deloris. There is also great characterisation within the core group of nuns – Sisters Mary Patrick, Mary Lazarus and Mary Robert, (Susannah Van Den Berg, Liz Kitchen and Sarah Goggin respectively) as the loud one, the rebel and the shy one who Deloris helps to find her voice.

Sister Act is a vibrant and uplifting production, boasting excellent vocal performances and bursting with good spirited fun. Hallelujah!

4.5 stars ✨ 

Runs until 4 March 2017

Image: Tristram Kenton 

Books

The Good Girlfriend’s Guide To Getting Even by Anna Bell

512vkrgbwbl-_sy346_1It’s true what they say; revenge really is a dish best served cold. When Lexi discovers her sports-mad boyfriend Will pretended to have food poisoning so he could miss her friend’s wedding and secretly go to a football match instead, she’s mad – really mad.

However Lexi then realises a good girlfriend doesn’t get mad, she gets even. Rather than confronting Will, she carries out acts of revenge, which include ‘lost’ tickets, a Sky box ‘accidently’ soaked in wine and a dead car battery – causing him to miss out on his precious fixtures.

While friends have got married and settled down, Lexi and Will, who have been together for seven years, find themselves stuck in a comfortable domestic no man’s land with no sign of an engagement ring, much to her mother’s disappointment. After her discovery of Will’s lie, Lexi is forced to re-evaluate her relationship, and realises that whether its football or Formula 1, she feels like she always takes second place to sport. Lexi uses her ‘getting even’ scheme to reinvigorate their relationship, but starts to wonder if she is flogging something well past its sell by date.

The genius of The Good Girlfriend’s Guide To Getting Even is that it is so relatable, whether you are a cricket/golf/tiddly winks widow or not. At some point we have all been in that relationship which feels a bit stale and neglected.

As the lead character, Lexi is likeable and again, really relatable. The exchanges between Lexi and her sex-mad best friend Cara are hilarious, awkward mealtimes with her parents are cringe-worthy and the connection between Lexi and her handsome work colleague Robin is intriguing – although he probably does the biggest 180 degree character change ever!

It is a charming novel, full of warmth and wit. Anna Bell’s writing style is snappy, conversational and really funny. Yes, some of the scenarios are a little far-fetched and I was amazed Will doesn’t twig what his girlfriend is up to sooner, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good read.

Clare 

Review copy supplied by NetGalley

Published by Zaffre

Ebook available from Amazon