Middle England, by Jonathan Coe.


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When Jonathan Coe discussed with his novelist friend, Alice Adams, what should be the subject of his 13th novel he was encouraged to dig up The Trotter family that had appeared in his classic novel, The Rotters Club, and  The Closed Circle and to set them against the context of Brexit.

And so Benjamin Trotter and co are once again with us, living their life from 2010 to September 2018.

Had Coe waited three years to put pen to paper he could probably not have conceived what would happen beyond his already agog writing.

This for example.

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“Sit up man.”

The most despicable symbolic pose by one of the most odious men to have ever stridden the corridors of Eton or Westminster.

Or this?

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The leaders of the free world.  Admittedly slightly playing it for laughs.

Or one of these?

  • The firing of the father of the House
  • the firing of a very recent Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • the firing of Churchill’s grandson
  • a minority government
  • the total reliance of the DUP to try to hold together a majority, and failing
  • the most populist opposition parties in living memory – some would say fascists vs Trotskyites
  • the complete collapse of the Labour party in Scotland

The list goes on and on and on.

Coe sets his story against the background of the unfolding of David (Dave) Cameron’s legacy – the unbelievable outcome that resulted in this mess.

It’s not Coe’s best novel, it starts and ends weakly, slowly.  But in the central 3rd and 4th acts he creates a vivid satire on the outcomes of the political madness that has engulfed, and internationally embarrassed, this once-great nation.

The murder of Jo Cox, the rise of hate crime, the twitching of middle England’s middle class curtains as Tories tut and huff about the way middle England has ‘changed’.  His main platform is one of increasing racial intolerance that may, or may not, be the foundations of this new populist politics and the central reason for the Brexit decision.

“They” are bad.  Europe stinks. and yet his cast holiday “there”, hire “them” as their orderlies, maids, drivers.

When this book is good it’s page-turningly so.  There are many laugh out loud moments.  But when he goes off the boil, it quickly becomes tepid.

Saying that, Coe is one of our great writers and even a decent, rather than great, Coe is better than most writers’ career highlights.

 

The Lehman Trilogy by The National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes


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Thank you NT Live.

I’m not in London so this was never going to make it onto my ticket list and after 45 productions in the Edinburgh Festivals and Fringe last month neither my wallet nor my body could have managed a trip to the big smoke.

So it was a great and lovely surprise when I saw this show pop up as an encore screening at my local Vue Cinema in Edinburgh.  (By the time I took my seat it was sold out.)

NT Live has pro’s and cons.

On the plus side, it gets so close into the action that you can see in extreme close up the power of performance, in this case exceptionally so, by three astounding actors; Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley.

The downside of that is it does have the effect of transposing the experience to cinema rather than theatre and, on this occasion, the negative side of that is that many of Es Devlin and Luke Hall’s simply majestic set (and set pieces) were slightly lost.  I’d like to have seen them as they designed them, in panorama.

At times the monochromatic combination of wardrobe, lighting, set and video makes for some of the most stunning tableaux you will ever see in a theatre.

I’m surprised this show won no Olivier’s (particularly when you see how many the distinctly average Come From Away walked off with) but that is not to diminish this monumental theatrical achievement by Sam Mendes.

Over the course of three and a half hours we see 150 years of the Lehman Brothers’ (and hence industrialised America’s) history presented by the three brothers, their heirs and a supporting cast of dozens of minor characters, all played, largely in third person narrative, by the three actors – apart from their principal roles they cover everything from screaming infants, to coquettish muses to an ageing Rabbi.  It’s remarkable.

The evolving set, whilst intriguing is, at times a little intrusive and this becomes irritating but at other times it’s a work of genius.

The piano music is described as the fourth character and that is so true, played as if in a silent movie throughout, almost completely underscoring the play, by Candida Caldicot.

This is a tour-de-force.  A remarkable production and a must see.  Despite the flaws it comes highly recommended from me.