At last, a literary sexy novel: Love Marriage, by Monica Ali, reviewed

At last, and finally: literary sex is back. The Bad Sex Prize has a lot to answer for in British publishing, scaring writers off describing sex in case it gets read out in a sarcastic voice at the In and Out club. (The deathlessly repetitive efforts of E.L. James didn’t do much for British sex writing either, good as they were for the GDP.) I’m not sure Monica Ali would have been the first name to spring to mind if you were to imagine the rebirth of the literary sexy novel, but here we are, and Love Marriage is absolutely terrific. It opens with Yasmin Ghorami, obedient daughter and junior

A cut above TV’s usual #MeToo fare: BBC1’s Rules of the Game reviewed

As you may have noticed, it’s something of a golden age for TV shows about how invisible middle-aged women are — except perhaps, in all those TV shows about how invisible middle-aged women are. At first sight, Rules of the Game — a crime drama set in a northern sportswear company — seemed a fairly standard example. The company in question, Fly Dynamic, has a management style that some might consider a little sleazy, run as it is by a group of men who’ve never met a 16-year-old girl they didn’t want to ply with booze and drugs. Meanwhile their neglected wives amuse themselves as best they can with cheese

Why I love to be hated

I’ve never been keen on the idea of popularity. Courting disapproval has been a large part of my career and I find it bracing, like an early dip in a cold sea. I remember back in 2003 feeling put out because the Most Hated People In Britain list featured me at a mere 85, sandwiched between Damien Hirst and Richard Branson. So imagine my excitement this week on reading that the alleged comedian Stewart Lee had dispatched me into his New Year Pedal Bin, a list of his least-favourite people, alongside such chucklesome types as Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, Graham Linehan, Maureen Lipman and Dave Chappelle. I’ve always fancied myself

It’s too late to save comedy from ‘cancel culture’

Will comedy become the latest victim of ‘cancel culture’? Dame Maureen Lipman fears as much.  ‘Cancel culture, this cancelling, this punishment, it’s everywhere,’ she told the BBC yesterday. She says that the world of comedy is in danger of being ‘wiped out’ because comedians are scared that audiences will take offence, and that they self-censor their material as a precaution. ‘It’s in the balance, whether we’re ever going to be funny again,’ she said. It would be an ironic tragedy if this were true, because in no other field of entertainment as comedy has ‘cancel culture’ been at its most insidious, relentless and blatant. Lipman’s warning is therefore unfounded, superficially

Radio 4’s Moominland Midwinter restores Moomintroll’s innocence

Moomins do not like winter. In one of Tove Jansson’s stories, Moomin’s Winter Follies, young Moomintroll bumps his head when the sea ‘goes hard’, prompting Moominmamma and Moominpappa to hurry the family into hibernation. They attempt to follow the tradition of their ancestors by scoffing pine needles and covering the furniture in dust sheets before bedding down on hay, but Moominpappa, for one, is troubled by the prickliness of all this: ‘Who said I must do like my ancestors?’ They briefly abandon the idea and postpone their sleep to try some winter sports, but Moomins are not really built for skiing. In Moominland Midwinter, which premières on Radio 4 on

Guilt-free hilarity: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Charing Cross Theatre reviewed

World-class sex bomb Janie Dee stars in a fabulously silly revival of the American comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. She plays a movie diva, Masha, who loves to flaunt her wealth in front of her mousy sister and bookish brother. Striding into the family home with her long hair flying and her scarlet lips curling, she narrows her eyes and flings shafts of desire in all directions. Then she arches her neck and tosses back her head to give her bust an extra half-inch of uplift. A stunning display. The show is about three middle-aged siblings whose over-intellectual parents named them after characters in Chekhov plays. Vanya

An affectionate exercise in comic sabotage: Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) reviewed

Let’s be honest. Jane Austen is popular because War and Peace doesn’t fit inside a handbag. Austen’s best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been updated in a fetching new production that treats the sacred text as a screwball comedy. The fun starts before curtain-up with the cast of five girls messing about on stage and struggling with a chandelier that almost shatters but doesn’t. This improv bit is irritatingly predictable. Then the show begins and the girls start to curse, laugh and pontificate their way through the tale. We get a feminist lecture explaining that Mrs Bennet’s predicament owes itself to the laws of bequest that prevented women from inheriting

The unseen Victoria Wood

For a few years now I have been living with Victoria Wood. That sounds all wrong, obviously, and yet no more apt phrase suggests itself. Not long after her death I was invited to write her authorised biography, and in due course a vast collection of documents was delivered to my address. Packed into storage boxes, which I stacked in corners and stuffed under beds, her intellectual legacy became a physical fact. It was in sifting through this remarkable archive that I started to come across work — masses of it — that had never seen the light of day. At its core was a stash of 100 television sketches.

This is how G&S should be staged: ENO’s HMS Pinafore reviewed

Until 1881, HMS Pinafore was the second-longest-running show in West End history. Within a year of its première it had broken America too; at one point there were eight competing productions on Broadway alone. The single most wrongheaded notion that still clings to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas is that they’re somehow low-rent or parochial. They were blockbuster international hits, superbly written, lavishly staged and exported far beyond the Anglosphere. Pinafore was performed in Denmark as Frigate Jutland and in Vienna, Johann Strauss was driven off stage by the runaway success of The Mikado. In the words of the operetta historian Richard Traubner, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations were ‘simply the best

A highly polished exercise in treading water: Season 3 of Succession reviewed

At one point in an early Simpsons, Homer comes across an old issue of TV Guide, and finds the listing for the sitcom Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. ‘Gomer upsets Sergeant Carter,’ he reads — adding with a fond chuckle, ‘I’ll never forget that episode.’ Even for British viewers unfamiliar with the show, the joke is clear: that’s what happens in every episode. Sad to say, this popped into my head while watching the first in the new series of Succession. The acting, script and direction are as brilliant as ever. Nonetheless, once Logan Roy began yet again to dangle the possibility of becoming the next CEO of his media empire before

Lionel Shriver

My advice to Dave Chappelle

I’m accustomed to a sense of urgency in relation to Netflix offerings because the streaming service often buys short-term rights that abruptly run out. But this time, I rushed to see Dave Chappelle’s new stand-up special The Closer lest Netflix’s own disgruntled employees succeed in getting the performance taken down. Strictly speaking, the affronted staff aren’t demanding the show’s withdrawal, but it’s hard to see what else the proposed employee walkout on Wednesday was designed to accomplish. After all, in the olden days if you didn’t like something on television you just didn’t watch it, but in our enlightened times you make damned sure no one else can watch it

Dave Chappelle’s show is a rip-off

Towards what seemed like the halfway point of his show in London last night, Dave Chappelle announced to the crowd he was going to tell us something he was refusing to tell the media.  He wanted us to know, he said while looking sadly at the floor, that his quarrel was not with the gay or the trans communities . No, no. Looking up and raising an index finger, he explained: ‘I’m fighting a corporate agenda that needs to be addressed.’ Thinking we still had another hour of the show to go, we cheered. ‘You fight those corporate vampires, Dave!’ we thought. He then let us know, whenever it was possible,

Jennifer Saunders is brilliant: Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre reviewed

Blithe Spirit is a comedy with the plot of a horror story. Charles, a middle-aged novelist, lives happily with his second wife, Ruth, but he accidentally conjures up the spirit of his first wife, Elvira, during a séance. He becomes the target of a ghostly murder plot. Elvira decides to bump Charles off and enjoy his company in the afterlife. The play was one of Noël Coward’s biggest hits and although the script is 80 years old, this production features intriguing new material. The spiritualist, Madame Arcati, suffers from wind. She refers to her dietary anxieties several times and she mentions her dislike of red meat and roast pigeon. Jennifer

Somewhere between eye-opening and jaw-dropping: Sky’s Hawking – Can You Hear Me? reviewed

It is, of course, not unknown for a man to become famous with the support of his family — and, once he has, to prefer global adulation to being with them, before leaving his wife for a younger woman. What’s rather less common is when the man in question is almost completely paralysed. This was the story told by Hawking: Can You Hear Me? and, in advance, it might have sounded an over-familiar one. After all, not only was Stephen Hawking one of the few physicists to become a tabloid staple, but he was also played to Oscar-winning effect by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. As it transpired,

Sexist, classist and pro-global warming: Frozen, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, reviewed

Frozen the musical declares war on woke politics. The 2013 Disney movie has been turned into a song-and-dance show that openly celebrates sexism, classism and misogyny. Plus, it salutes the joys of global warming. It’s set in a Scandinavian realm ruled by a kindly monarch who lives in a castle attended by fawning servants. No sign of social mobility here. An impetuous young princess, Anna, falls in love with an eligible duke, Hans, but their betrothal annoys Anna’s sister, Princess Elsa. This is dangerous because Elsa has magical powers that she can’t control. She accidentally casts a spell on Anna, who falls to the ground with a terrible illness. Things

The political power of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown

There is a rather sweet moment in the middle of each Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown show where, after some magnificently obscene one-liner, he addresses the howling audience. ‘I love you people,’ he says. ‘Just like me, you’re rough.’ The audience laughs and applauds at this observation of itself. The wall is broken and the performer and audience are as one. This is ‘rough’ used primarily in its north-east of England context, meaning not so much violent or abrasive (although both are also possible), but cheap and low-down and a little bit ugly. Roy’s now 76 and has been knocking them dead for 40 years, packed houses wherever he goes. But you

How we killed comedy theatre: Nigel Planer interviewed

Nigel Planer is on a mission to bring farce back to the West End. ‘There’s a lot of snobbery in comedy,’ he tells me when we meet at a hotel bar near the Old Vic. ‘People say, “Oh that’s comedy. It can’t have any meaning”.’ The actor and writer is still best known for playing Neil the hippie in the 1980s sitcom The Young Ones and he can recall a time when farce was a staple of London theatre. ‘I remember going along and really enjoying myself, you know, a nice big cast, actors falling over, characters treating someone differently because they think it’s someone else. All that stuff simply

Returning to stand-up is no laughing matter

In a recent preview of this year’s diet Edinburgh Fringe a local reporter wondered aloud why so many stand-ups were doing shows as a work in progress. I, along with numerous comics, let him have it, self-righteously pointing out that most of our gigs since March 2020 have been staring at a Macbook. Or outdoors shouting punchlines to someone ten metres away asleep on a deckchair. It takes a while to get your confidence back when you have flashbacks of gigging downstairs in your house to a webcam with a make-shift mic-stand and knock-off lighting. A low point came when a neighbour walked past my window and momentarily locked eyes

Sinatra, Bacon and a YouTube star: Edinburgh Fringe Festival round-up

Sinatra: Raw (Pleasance, until 15 August) takes us inside the mind of the 20th century’s greatest crooner. The performer, Richard Shelton, catches Sinatra in confessional mode in the 1970s as he looks back on his chequered career. In the early days, a promoter suggested the stage name ‘Frankie Satin’ but his tough-minded mother, Dolly, vetoed the idea. The show’s best sections investigate the harrowing details of his tangled and doomed romance with Ava Gardener. Fame and wealth never sweetened Sinatra’s prickly character. ‘Drink is my worst enemy,’ he quips, necking whisky from a tumbler. ‘But, like the Bible says, you’ve got to love your enemies.’ This show packs a surprising

Why do I find sketch shows – even the better ones – so embarrassing and charmless?

On sketch shows, the wisdom once was that you needed a punchline. That is, a slightly hammy, summative sign-off to let people know that they had come to the end of any given bit, to help the audience keep its bearings. The rules changed when the team behind Monty Python, who hated writing that mugging final joke, discovered that you could simply cut to Graham Chapman wearing a dress in a field and saying in a stern voice: ‘And now for something completely different’ — and it turned out that this was not only just as good, it was actually quite a lot better. This is the problem with sketch