Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Helen Dunmore, Jim Crace and a biography of Syd Barrett.

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph describes Helen Dunmore's sequel to The Siege as a "lovely, thoughtful novel", which acts for readers of the novels precursor as chance to discover "the fates of the surviving members of the Levin family - Anna, her husband, Andrei, and younger brother, Kolya". She finds that "Dunmore's lyric gift is at its best when describing the domestic minutiae that seem so unspeakably precious in the absence of security", and that "Only when the horrors become real does Dunmore's power to disturb weaken."

For Lucy Daniel in the Sunday Telegraph, this novel is "not just an impressive, enthralling sequel but part of an ongoing saga of ordinary people struggling against a city's beautiful indifference, and clinging on for dear life", and an exercise in "personalising a collective experience of momentous times". Katy Guest in the Independent on Sunday describes Dunmore's prose as "sensuous, physical and almost synaesthetic ... also sparse and elegant when needs be", while her skill as a novelist is "brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story." For Scarlett Thomas in the Financial Times, "This is such a page-turner, and is in places so gruesome, that reading it becomes more visceral than intellectual".

Jim Crace, All that Follows

Adam Lively in the Sunday Times describes Crace's new novel as "a book that for all its stylistic precision and intelligence is, as a whole, curiously half-hearted and out of kilter". Lively identifies the influence of other writers on this novel about an ageing jazz musician: Hari Kunzru, and "The real spectre that haunts the pages of All That Follows, however, is not a ghost from the past but Philip Roth. His influence is everywhere", so the novel "suffers from the sense of treading well-worn paths." Lively also finds that "the politics and the futuristic setting remain sketchy in the extreme."

By contrast, Giles Foden in the Guardian writes that "Crace has some satirical fun with this invented but not unlikely landscape", but he agrees that the novel is influenced by predecessors: "Crace isn't just nodding at Ian McEwan's Saturday. At other moments it is Don DeLillo who comes to mind, another writer who has been influenced by jazz and who has written about hostage-taking". He concludes that "Part of the book's attraction is its modesty, the way it gets big ideas down to a small domestic canvas on which individual emotions and family dynamics are authentically realised", and that "All That Follows is both thought-provoking and a delight to read." Ian Thomson in the Financial Times praises Crace's "spare but resonant prose", but finds it "more conventional" than his previous efforts.

Rob Chapman, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head

Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times writes that "This is a book of two halves, one memorable, one not"; she elaborates: "It is the second half of the book, about the life of Roger Barrett, that is interesting, because we don't often read the life of a recluse." Barber suggests that this may be because writer "Rob Chapman had full co-operation from Barrett's sister Rosemary and other family members, whereas the Floyds refused to talk."

Sean O'Hagan in the Observer describes the book as a "fitfully illuminating biography", finding that "Chapman has unravelled the skeins of rumour, exaggeration and anecdote that have been wound so tightly around Barrett", although he agrees that the book "inevitably suffers from his absence - and that of Pink Floyd, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the book". He concludes: "If Chapman overstates the case for Barrett's songwriting genius and sometimes writes from the point of view of an obsessive on a mission to rehabilitate his hero, A Very Irregular Head is a consistently illuminating, and often surprising, read."

 

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution