The diary of a dying man: Graham Caveney’s poignant cancer memoir

Reading this third memoir by Graham Caveney, a knot in my chest tightened. It wasn’t only because it’s a cancer memoir; it was because the unfolding of history so often shows that abuse begets self-destructive behaviour. To parody Auden: I and the public knowWhat all healthcare staff learnThose to whom evil is doneDestroy themselves in turn. Caveney’s two previous memoirs, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness and Agoraphobia, outlined his working-class childhood in Accrington, Lancashire, and his winning of a place at a Catholic grammar school. But where the school succeeded in helping him achieve his aim of becoming a writer, it also screwed with his head, because he was

This crisis could be the catalyst for a golden age of British theatre

The arts are in a state of crisis. How often have you heard that before? Well, this time around it happens to be true. In the age of coronavirus, it’s clear that the old way of doing things won’t work any more. Theatres, in particular, have been quick to grasp the bleeding obvious: cramming lots of people into crowded spaces has suddenly become extremely difficult. How do you fill a theatre in an era of social distancing? Short answer: you can’t. The response from theatre practitioners has been fairly predictable. What the theatre needs, they tell us, is more public cash. West End producer Sonia Friedman says that 70 per

Minority Report is superficial pap – why on earth stage it?

Minority Report is a plodding bit of sci-fi based on a Steven Spielberg movie made more than two decades ago. The setting is London, 2050, and every citizen has been implanted with an undetectably tiny neuroscanner which informs the cops about crimes before they’ve been committed. However, as the first scene reveals, the undetectably tiny neuroscanner can be removed from the flesh with a corkscrew. The character who gouges out her tag is a computer geek, Julia, who invented the surveillance method in the first place. She stands accused of planning a murder and she goes on the run to clear her name. The actors appear to be trapped inside

Scherzinger is superb but why’s the set so dark and ugly? Sunset Boulevard, at the Savoy Theatre, reviewed

Sunset Boulevard is a re-telling of the Oedipus story set in the cut-throat world of Hollywood. Pick a side in this tortured yarn. There’s Norma, a burned-out sex-goddess, who wants to make a comeback as a teenage ballerina in a dance epic. Or there’s Joe, a penniless scribbler, who becomes Norma’s reluctant toyboy while he works on her doomed screenplay (which stands for a stillborn child). Clinging to Joe is Betty, a drippy girlfriend who represents escape and artistic integrity. The final piece in the jigsaw is Norma’s discarded husband, Max, who stands for sadistic and destructive obsession. Each day he sends Norma a new batch of counterfeit love letters

A cherry orchard, three sisters and a summer romance: Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett, reviewed

Two plays guide the reader through Tom Lake, Ann Patchett’s ninth novel: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the story of ordinary lives in a small New Hampshire community in the early years of the 20th century, which, with its radically stripped-back staging, sets time and place in the context of all time and place, and enjoins its audience to ponder what is truly valuable in human life; and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the story of the battle for an estate that throbs with conflict, violence and, ultimately, destruction. Patchett’s mind is on the twin forces of preservation and entropy: our desperate attempts to cling to the local and the familiar

Helpless human puppets: Liberation Day, by George Saunders, reviewed

George Saunders’s handbook published last year, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, gave masterclasses on seven short stories by four Russian masters of the form: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. His critical observations can be taken as the manifesto for his own work. (The winner of the 2017 Man Booker prize with his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he is still best known as a short story writer.) It’s fair, then, to apply his stated rules to the pieces in his new collection. The last story, ‘My House’, although briefer, holds up well against Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’. The title immediately contains a twist, because it’s not

Hytner hits the bull’s eye: The Southbury Child, at the Bridge Theatre, reviewed

The Southbury Child is a comedy drama set in east Devon featuring a distressed vicar, Fr David, with a complex addiction history. Alex Jennings stars with his habitual urbane charm. Is there perhaps a credibility gap there? Jennings seems far too decent, clever and friendly to be a problem drinker who likes nothing better than a fling with a randy wench. And, more crucially, he doesn’t face the fallout from his days of boozing and bedhopping. His dramatic task is unconnected to his personal flaws. A little girl has died in controversial circumstances and her parents want balloons at her funeral. No way, says the vicar. The family fight back.

Satire misfires: Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart, reviewed

It is, as you’ve possibly noticed, a tricky time for old-school American liberals, now caught between increasingly extreme versions of their traditional right-wing adversaries and the new Puritans on the left. In Our Country Friends, Gary Shteyngart sets out to explore their resulting confusion — but ends up inadvertently exemplifying it. Like his creator, the protagonist is a Russian Jew, born in Leningrad in 1972, who as a boy moved to America with his parents and later made his name writing satirical novels about people from the same background. Unlike Shteyngart, though, Sasha Senderovsky is now facing a stalled career, having abandoned literature in an ill-advised bid for success in

Keeping yourself angry, the Hare way: We Travelled, by David Hare, reviewed

A character in David Hare’s Skylight claims she has at last found contentment by no longer opening newspapers or watching television. ‘Well,’ says her astounded interlocutor, ‘you’re missing what’s happening. You’re missing reality.’ Hare himself can never be accused of missing (or missing out on) the reality of what is happening. He has already even mounted his response to ‘what it was like to experience Covid-19’ in Beat the Devil, starring Ralph Fiennes. His instinct has always been to tackle current affairs, sometimes with surreal consequences. When I saw Pravda, which was about Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen, the stalls were filled with Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen — art

This fabulous play is like a Chekhov classic: The One Day in the Year reviewed

The One Day In the Year is an Australian drama about the annual commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. It was written in 1958 but it could have been dashed off last week. What makes it thrillingly topical is that the personality of Churchill and the truth about Britain’s colonial past are central to the story. The main character, Alf, is a veteran of the second world war who works as a lift operator. He detests the new Australia and he calls the younger generation a ‘stink lot of imitation Yanks’. For him, Churchill is the greatest Englishman in history. But his rebellious son, Hughie, describes Britain’s wartime prime

The art of the short story: what we can learn from the Russians

This is such a superb idea that it’s a wonder a book like this has not cropped up before. Here we have a critically acclaimed, best-selling novelist, who also happens to be a highly sought-after creative writing teacher, setting out the curriculum of his over-subscribed ‘How to Write’ class in a way that is accessible to anyone… and the book reproduces the texts under discussion. Wow. This has to be the best York Notes ever, flawlessly designed for the exam we all sit without realising: life. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain you get all Saunders’s commentary (which is both charming and addictive) and the original (translated)

Short stories to enjoy in lockdown

In these circumstances there’s a temptation to reach for the longest novel imaginable. If you’re not going to read Proust now, as the days stretch ahead and the horizons shrink to an hour’s walk a day, when is it going to happen? But it seems much more likely that reading is going to contract, and the most you’ll realistically manage is a short story a day. Fortunately, some of the greatest literature of the last couple of centuries has come in the shape of the short story. Here are nine long-standing favourites of mine that manage to repay repeated re-reading — the definition of a classic. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is