Headed for the canon: Withnail and I, at the Birmingham Rep, reviewed

After nearly 40 years, Withnail has arrived on stage. Sean Foley directs Bruce Robinson’s adaptation, which starts with a live rock-band thumping out a few 1960s hits. The musicians take cameo roles as maids and coppers. The show needs a larger cast especially for the tea-room scene – ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity’ – which calls for a big crowd of crumbling old crocks. Never mind. The production would have thrilled diehard fans. As for newcomers, they would probably have been better to start with the film. This production of Withnail would have thrilled diehard fans – newcomers less so Robert Sheehan delivers a glitzy, karaoke version

Fools rush in: Mania, by Lionel Shriver, reviewed

Pearson Converse teaches literature at Verlaine University, Pennsylvania. She exists in an alternative universe to our own in which the Mental Parity Movement holds sway.  There is intellectual levelling, and no ‘cognitive discrimination’. This is high satire, exaggerated, crude, inviting ridicule of the social system portrayed, close to the great satirists of the 18th century in tone if not in style.   Yet Lionel Shriver’s Mania is more than just a satire. It is a study of Pearson’s family life and her ‘unbalanced’ relationship with her best friend from childhood, Emory. Pearson has three children: an intellectually gifted girl and boy by a high-IQ sperm donor, and an averagely intelligent

Do we really need this unsubtle and irrelevant play about Covid?

Pandemonium is a new satire about the Covid nightmare that uses the quaint style of the Elizabethan masque. Armando Iannucci’s play opens with Paul Chahidi as Shakespeare introducing a troupe of players who all speak in rhyming couplets. A golden wig descends like a signal from on high and Shakespeare transforms himself into the ‘World King’ or ‘Orbis Rex’. This jocular play reminds spectators with a low IQ that Orbis is an anagram of Boris. The former prime minister, also labelled the ‘globular squire’, is portrayed as a heartless, arrogant schemer driven by ambition and vanity. He retells the main events of the pandemic with the help of an infernal

Fast and furious: America Fantastica, by Tim O’Brien, reviewed

It’s been said again and again but rarely so plainly illustrated: American life is now too berserk for fiction to keep up. Tim O’Brien’s wild, rollercoaster satire America Fantastica is as wacky as its title suggests; but it can’t compete with the daily trainwreck that calls itself the land of the free and the home of the brave. O’Brien tracks with furious contempt the spread of a highly contagious illness: mythomania and delusional conspiracy theories infecting the body politic and poisoning a defenceless citizenry in the dark pre-Covid days of 2019. The name ‘Trump’ is never mentioned in the novel, but the ‘avalanche of oratorical whoppers’ issuing from the White

A satire on the American art world: One Woman Show, by Christine Coulson, reviewed

Christine Coulson worked for more than 25 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she wrote hundreds of wall labels. In One Woman Show, her second novel, she tells the tragicomic life story of a Wasp-ish porcelain girl called Kitty Whitaker almost entirely in the same 75-word format as if she were an artwork. The 20th-century tale is presented as an exhibition, made possible, we’re told on the opening page, by ‘gin, taffeta and stock dividends’. It’s a wonderfully clever concept, and a book that lends itself to being read in a single sitting, during which you’ll feel the corners of your lips curl upwards again

Ugly and humdrum: Brokeback Mountain, at @sohoplace, reviewed

Brokeback Mountain, a play with music, opens in a scruffy bedroom where a snowy-haired tramp finds a lumberjack’s shirt and places it over his nose. Then he inhales. Who is this elderly vagrant? And why is he absorbing the scent of an abandoned garment? Two hours later, at the play’s close, we finally learn that the old man, Ennis, is sniffing a shirt that once belonged to Jack Twist who became his lover while they worked as shepherds in Wyoming. Yes, shepherds. The ‘gay cowboy’ label is a misnomer because the lads are ranching sheep, and their affair belongs to the half-forgotten days of homosexual persecution. The precise year, 1963,

Life’s survivors: The Angel of Rome and Other Stories, by Jess Walter, reviewed

Anyone who has read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins will want to turn straight to ‘The Angel of Rome’, the title story in this second collection by the versatile American author. Like the novel that elevated Walter from an underrated writer of police procedurals and thrillers to one capable of bestsellers, ‘The Angel of Rome’ is set in Italy and features a filmset and glamorous actors. Both are also partly based on real life. In Beautiful Ruins, Walter plays with what happened during the filming of the 1963 epic Cleopatra. Here he bases the story on an episode in the life of Edoardo Ballerini, an actor who read Beautiful Ruins. Walter,

Pure scorn without wit or insight: Triangle of Sadness reviewed

The latest film from Ruben Ostlund received an eight-minute standing ovation after its screening in Cannes and also won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and this has left me entirely baffled: what, the film I’ve just seen? The one where every scene is far too long? The one billed as a ‘satirical black comedy’ even though the targets are easy and it doesn’t say anything and I didn’t laugh once? That film? I should add, it’s not for the emetophobic. One of the scenes that goes on far too long involved so much vomiting that I could only watch the bottom 5 per cent of the screen. Ostlund

P.J. O’Rourke’s death marks the end of a great satirical era

There was something old school about P.J. O’Rourke, who died on Tuesday, something that felt like a leftover echo of the American Revolution. Visiting him in his ancient, low-ceilinged, clapboard farm-house in Sharon, New Hampshire, one half-expected Paul Revere to burst breathlessly into the kitchen warning that the British were coming. Though he was by birth an Ohio boy, New England felt like the tweedy satirist’s natural environment — a pioneer sensibility that combined American impatience with the Old World with a nostalgic yearning for the oak-panelled values and certainties of yesteryear. Never quite a ‘gonzo’ journalist, his departure to the cigar bar in the sky nonetheless marks the end

Scholars and spectres: The Runes Have Been Cast, by Robert Irwin, reviewed

It could be said that the power of a horror story depends on the possibility, however minute, of it being true. This is partly why so many masters of the genre, from Bram Stoker to Robert Louis Stevenson, have given their narratives the semblance of believability by including epistolary passages, ‘found’ documents and the commentaries of ‘editors’ in their books. In The Runes Have Been Cast, Robert Irwin takes the opposite approach, writing in a prologue: Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject of this book, it is only right to urge them most strongly to refrain from being drawn into the practice of

A book trade romp: Sour Grapes, by Dan Rhodes, reviewed

Dan Rhodes’s career might be regarded as an object lesson in How Not to Get Ahead in Publishing. Our man was chosen as one of the Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, but his recent exploits include a spectacular falling out with his one-time sponsors, Messrs Canongate, and the writing of a lampoon about Richard Dawkins which so alarmed the lawyers that it had to be issued privately. Significantly, Sour Grapes — his first novel for seven years — comes courtesy of a small, independent press of which I confess that I had not previously heard. In most hands, these serial misfortunes could be guaranteed to produce a full-frontal

Up there with Succession and Chernobyl: The White Lotus, Sky Atlantic, reviewed

Every now and then, you see a new series — Succession, say, or Chernobyl or To the Lake — which reminds you why you watch TV. The latest such joy is The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic), a darkly comic satirical drama created, written and directed by Mike White. White seems to be a curious and engaging character with lots of hinterland. His father used to be a speechwriter for ‘religious right’ preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (and later came out as gay). He wrote the charming comedy School of Rock because, though not himself a rock fan, his friend Jack Black wanted an excuse to perform all his favourite

A mighty contest from trivial things — the quarrel between Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll

Rapid technological advance, a dark underworld of uncensored publishing, a threatened rupture with Scotland, even fears of a new outbreak of plague. Close scrutiny of the first few decades of the 18th century reveals some startling (and oddly reassuring) parallels with our own trying times. In his new book, Pat Rogers, an expert on the writings of Alexander Pope and much else, resurrects what you might think was an obscure battle over copyright between Pope and the Grub Street bookseller and printer Edmund Curll. Their quarrel, though, becomes a prism through which Rogers captures the upheavals, hubbub and stench but, above all, the wit of that period, when words could

A conciliatory P.J. O’Rourke is not the satirist we know and love

There was an acidic bravura and beauty in P.J. O’Rourke’s early journalism and a gleefulness in the ease with which it raised ire. Hitherto, satirists — and especially American ones — had tended to come from the left, none more so than O’Rourke’s mentor Hunter S. Thompson, who campaigned long and hard for George McGovern in 1972. Not Patrick Jake. He sprung like a jubilant, potty-mouthed leprechaun from a country which had fallen back in love with itself after the self-flagellating miseries of Vietnam, Watergate and Tehran. Under Ronald Reagan, the economy flourished, the Cold War was won and while the left still carped and cavilled, aghast at the demise

Enough plotlines to power several seasons of The West Wing: BBC1’s Roadkill reviewed

Like many a political thriller before it, BBC1’s Roadkill began with a politician emerging into the daylight to face a bank of clicking cameras and bellowing journalists. In this case, the politician was Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie), the Tory minister for transport, who’d just won a libel case against a newspaper that had accused him of using his cabinet position for personal profit. Exactly what he’s supposed to have done, we don’t yet know — although it does seem pretty clear that whatever it was, he did it. Certainly his own lawyer thinks so, as does the journalist who wrote the story but had to retract it in court when

In this instance, greed isn’t good: Greed reviewed

Greed is Michael Winterbottom’s satire on the obscenely rich and, in particular, a billionaire, asset-stripping retail tycoon whose resemblance to any living person is purely intentional. (Hello, Sir Philip Green.) Plenty to work with, you would think. Low-hanging fruit and all that. But as the characters are so feebly sketched and the ‘jokes’ — ‘jokes’ in quotation marks; always a bad sign — are so heavy-handed it drags (and drags) rather than flies. Greed is good, greed works, Gordon Gekko famously said in Wall Street. But in this instance it isn’t. And doesn’t. Greed is good, Gordon Gekko famously said in Wall Street. But in this instance it isn’t It

Dave Eggers’s satire on Trump is somewhat heavy-handed: The Captain and the Glory reviewed

A feckless moron is appointed to the captaincy of a ship, despite having no nautical experience. The Captain has a propensity to grope women and brag about not paying his taxes, and in his younger days he ‘had hidden in the bowels of the ship looking at pornographic magazines’ while his peers went to war. Once in post he fires the entire navigational staff and has the ship’s manuals jettisoned. A mysterious voice in a vent urges him to take ever more drastic measures against the ship’s population, whereupon a number of ‘swarthy’ passengers are thrown overboard to drown. Utilities and basic freedoms are privatised as the Glory descends into

Letters: How to squash a Speaker

No special protection Sir: Rod Liddle’s joke that the election might be held on a date when Muslims cannot vote, thereby reducing support for Labour, has apparently led to outrage. There has been no similar outrage over your front cover (‘A vote is born’), which satirises the Christian nativity by portraying Johnson, Corbyn and Swinson visiting the stable in Bethlehem. It should be a principle of free speech in any free society that all religions are equally subject to satire, criticism and even gentle mockery; there should be no special protection for one set of beliefs over another. In allowing satire about two mainstream religions in the same issue, you have

Satire misfire

Kafka wrote a novella, The Metamorphosis, about a man who finds himself transformed into a beetle. Now Ian McEwan has written one about a beetle that is transformed into a man. He’s not the first writer to have thought of doing this, but he might be the first one who thought it was a good idea. Readers will remember that in Randall Jarrell’s classic comedy of a creative writing faculty, Pictures from an Institution, the heroine has a student called Sylvia Moomaw (‘I had remembered her name but had forgotten her’). One day, she hands in a story ‘about a bug that turns into a man…it’s influenced by Kafka’. The

Here comes the sun

When you see the opening caption ‘4.6 billion years ago’, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re watching a programme presented by Professor Brian Cox. And so it proved again this week, as his latest exploration of the solar system began on BBC2, with an episode about Mercury and Venus. Being an officially designated ‘landmark’ series, The Planets (Tuesday) has many of the features you’d expect: lush music, an impressive CGI budget, a ten-minute behind-the-scenes segment at the end. More surprising is Cox’s willingness to anthropomorphise the planets — and to regard the ones that aren’t lucky enough to be Earth with a touching level of sympathy. After all, it’s