Reflections from my Writing Room August 2023


If you love fiction, my guess is you’ll love stories in every guise and might be a fan of theatre and cinema, too. Live performances are inspiring. After some lean years with minimal theatre visits, during and post-pandemic, I’ve recently been lucky to go to three plays and an opera in the space of a single month.

As an author, I know book reviews are super-important so it occurred to me I ought to post brief thoughts about the plays I’ve seen. Is there an equivalent of Goodreads for theatre? Perhaps a GoodTheatre or GoodPlays website? I’ve not come across one so the only place I can think of to share my thoughts is here on my blog. Wordsworth described poetry as taking its origin from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Reviews, too, are composed after we’ve had time to think about what we’ve seen – a perfect fit for the ‘the reflections from my writing room’ theme of my blog.

So, what plays did I see and should you watch them, too?

First up was a National Theatre production of The Motive and the Cue, starring Johnny Flynn and Mark Gatiss as Richard Burton and John Gielgud respectively. It’s set in 1964, based on a true story, when Gielgud, whose career was in decline, was directing Burton, at the height of his fame and acting powers, in a production of Hamlet on Broadway. At that time, Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (convincingly played by Tuppence Middleton) achieved an almost mythical fame. As a celebrity couple they mixed with royalty, were friends with the likes of Princess Grace and Bobby Kennedy and ‘enjoyed’ the kind of stratospheric status on a par with today’s top celebs but more long-lasting.

In the play, both Gielgud and Burton are grappling with demons that threaten their relationship and the success of the production. Gielgud, once a leading actor of his generation, complains that his great rival, Laurence Olivier, achieved the plaudits while he missed out. The play implies Gielgud’s career was adversely impacted due to his homosexuality, though due to the horrendous punitive anti-gay laws in those dark times he was mostly in the closet. The episode in the play where he discusses his feelings about his sexuality is deeply moving.

Burton’s flaw was alcoholism and comes close to wrecking the production of Hamlet which Gielgud desperately needs to succeed to rebuild his artistic reputation. As each man’s background is uncovered, we’re reminded of Burton’s impoverished, borderline brutalised childhood and can’t help admiring the adversity he overcame to achieve such fame and wealth. Background vignettes of the home life of the Burtons and the ongoing drama in the Hamlet rehearsal room give a rounded picture. I was delighted to learn that this Broadway production of Hamlet was ultimately a triumph and reinvigorated the careers of both men.

Highly recommended – see it if you can. If you can’t get to London, hopefully it will be available in cinemas as one of the National Theatre screenings.

My least favourite of the three plays I saw was The Pillowman, starring singer/songwriter turned actor, Lily Allen in a play from 2003 by Martin McDonagh. The central character is a writer called Katurian, who writes nightmarish short stories about violence, cruelty and death of children. It’s based in a dystopian, totalitarian society in some unspecified future. The play has a ‘theatre of the absurd’ feel to it. Layers of the plot unravel to disclose that much of what Katurian writes about is true. With no fixed point or intriguing character to hold onto, I felt as if I was missing the point of the play. Twenty years ago, when it was first staged, David Tennant was in the leading role of the writer. By flipping the gender of Katurian for this production, we get a heightened focus on misogyny in the sinister landscape of this police state. The play has its moments, and there’s suspense and intrigue to unravel, but it’s not a strong recommendation from me.

My strongest recommendation (but read on for trigger warnings) is A Little Life starring James Norton. (I've used the cast photo to illustrate this blog. Photo credit: ATG/Harold Pinter theatre). For a time, this was the hottest ticket in town. Then the reviews came out and several people, including the friends I’d booked to see it with, decided that themes of abuse, suicide and self-harm were not for them. I totally respect their decision. It’s a tough watch but so enormously worthwhile. I didn’t have to go alone, my son and his girlfriend came with me, and it turned out to be an enthralling theatrical experience. We continued talking non-stop about it over dinner.

The play is adapted from the novel by Hanya Yanigihara. I’d owned the book for years but 700 pages is daunting, so I only tackled it when I’d booked to see the play. For me, it’s hard to disentangle my thoughts about the play compared to the book. Professional critics reviewed the play quite harshly because of the harrowing content. Child abuse, self harm and suicide attempts are explicit along with much nudity and blood. Some members of the audience fainted. A few rows in front of us, someone was physically sick.

In the novel, you get to know the main characters - four young American men of a range of ethnicities, backgrounds and sexual orientations, who meet at high school. It starts as a coming of age story but follows them on, through middle age into later life. Although the author brings New York vibrantly to life, it seemed to me that time was standing still. I’m guessing it’s set in the period she wrote it in the early 2010s. At that time, I was sometimes in New York for work and could recognise the cultural markers and lifestyle. The characters, once professionally established, become wealthy and successful so they do the things wealthy, successful people have done throughout the generations - buy loft apartments, cook posh food and go to upmarket restaurants, travel, indulge in the arts, own paintings and visit galleries, spend holidays in New England.

The play gives us insights into friendship and how thoughtlessness and unintended cruelty challenges the bond between the men, all of whom have burdens laid on them from the past. Most particularly the central character, Jude, who was abandoned as a baby and brought up in a monastery. To show the horrors he went through, the play uses flashbacks narrated from the perspective of Ana, a social worker, who featured in the book, reaching out to the audience and breaking the fourth wall.

There’s great evil in this story but great goodness, too, embodied in the characters of Harold, a law professor, who adopts Jude later in life, and Willem, Jude’s best friend who ultimately becomes much more. The physical toll this gruelling production takes on the actors must be phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an absorbing or visceral piece of theatre. Along with most of the audience, I left the theatre in tears.

This is the first time I’ve experienced people voting with their feet in responding to a review by deciding not to see A Little Life. I’ve also suffered from negativity of book reviewers, often about torn packaging or delivery problems and nothing to do with the book. One of my ‘favourite’ reviews of my novel Façade was: ‘I have not read this book because it would not download onto my Kindle Fire.’ He gave me a one star review! I remember thinking at the time ‘What’s the poor book ever done to you?’   If you fancy reading one of my books, and leaving a review, all my novels are available from Amazon. You’ll find Façade at

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