Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island: Reread and Stage Production
Bill Bryson, an American author of humorous travel and popular history or science books, is considered a national treasure in his adopted Great Britain. He is a particular favourite of my husband and in-laws, who got me into his work back in the early to mid-2000s. As I, too, was falling in love with the country, I found much to relate to in his travel-based memoirs of expatriate life and temporary returns to the USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly.
When we heard that Notes from a Small Island (1995), his account of a valedictory tour around Britain before returning to live in the States for the first time in 20 years, had been adapted into a play by Tim Whitnall and would be performed at our local theatre, the Watermill, we thought, huh, it never would have occurred to us to put this particular book on stage. Would it work? we wondered. The answer is yes and no, but it was entertaining and we were glad that we went. We presented tickets as my in-laws’ Christmas present and accompanied them to a mid-February matinee before supper at ours.
A few members of my book club decided to see the show later in the run and suggested we read – or reread, as was the case for several of us – the book in March. I started my reread before attending the play and had gotten through the first 50 pages, which is mostly about his first visit to England in 1973 (including a stay in a Dover boarding-house presided over by the infamously officious “Mrs Smegma”). This was ideal as the first bit contains the funniest stuff and, with the addition of some autobiographical material from later in the book plus his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, made up the entirety of the first act.
Bryson traveled almost exclusively by public transport, so the set had the brick and steel walls of a generic terminal, and a bus shelter and benches were brought into service as the furnishing for most scenes. The problem with frontloading the play with hilarious scenes is that the second act, like the book itself on this reread, became rather a slog of random stops, acerbic observations, finding somewhere to stay and something to eat (often curry), and then doing it all over again.
Mark Hadfield, in the starring role, had the unenviable role of carrying the action and remembering great swathes of text lifted directly from the book. That’s all well and good as a strategy for giving a flavour of the writing style, but the language needed to be simplified; the poor man couldn’t cope and kept fluffing his lines. There were attempts to ease the burden: sections were read out by other characters in the form of announcements, letters or postcards; some reflections were played as if from Bryson’s Dictaphone. It was best, though, when there were scenes rather than monologues against a projected map, because there was an excellent ensemble cast of six who took on the various bit parts and these were often key occasions for humour: hotel-keepers, train-spotters, unintelligible accents in a Glasgow pub.
The trajectory was vaguely southeast to northwest – as far as John O’Groats, then back home to the Yorkshire Dales – but the actual route was erratic, based on whimsy as much as the availability of trains and buses. Bryson sings the praises of places like Salisbury and Durham and the pinnacles of coastal walks, and slates others, including some cities, seaside resorts and tourist traps. Places of personal significance make it onto his itinerary, such as the former mental asylum at Virginia Water, Surrey where he worked and met his wife in the 1970s. (My husband and I lived across the street from it for a year and a half.) He’s grumpy about having to pay admission fees that in today’s money sound minimal – £2.80 for Stonehenge!
The main interest for me in both book and play was the layers of recent history: the nostalgia for the old-fashioned country he discovered at a pivotal time in his own young life in the 1970s; the disappointments but still overall optimism of the 1990s; and the hindsight the reader or viewer brings to the material today. At a time when workers of every type seem to be on strike, it was poignant to read about the protests against Margaret Thatcher and the protracted printers’ strike of the 1980s.
The central message of the book, that Britain has an amazing heritage that it doesn’t adequately appreciate and is rapidly losing to homogenization, still holds. Yet I’m not sure the points about the at-heart goodness and politeness of the happy-with-their-lot British remain true. Is it just me or have general entitlement, frustration, rage and nastiness taken over? Not as notable as in the USA, but social divisions and the polarization of opinions are getting worse here, too. One can’t help but wonder what the picture would have been post-Brexit as well. Bryson wrote a sort-of sequel in 2015, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which the sarcasm and curmudgeonly persona override the warmth and affection of the earlier book.
Indeed, my book club noted that a lot of the jokes were things he couldn’t get away with saying today, and the theatre issued a content warning: “This production includes the use of very strong language, language reflective of historical attitudes around Mental Health, reference to drug use, sexual references, mention of suicide, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, loud sound effect explosions, and haze. This production is most suitable for those aged 12+.”
So, yes, an amusing journey, but a bittersweet one to revisit, and an odd choice for the stage.
A favourite line I’ll leave you with: “To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Original rating (c. 2004):
My rating now:
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson? Are you a fan?
Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (Blog Tour)
Are you having a groovy June yet? If not, I have just the remedy: a juicy coming-of-age novel that drops you directly into the Baltimore summer of 1975. Mary Jane Dillard, 14, lives in the upper-class white neighborhood of Roland Park. Her parents are prim types who attend church every week, belong to a country club, and pray for the (Republican) president’s health before each sit-down family dinner. When Mary Jane starts working as a daytime nanny for five-year-old Izzy, the Cones’ way of life is a revelation to her. They are messy bohemians who think nothing of walking around the house half-naked, shouting up and down the stairs at each other, or leaving a fridge full of groceries to rot and going out for fast food instead.
Dr. Cone is a psychiatrist whose top-secret assignment is helping a rock star to kick his drug addiction. Jimmy and his actress wife, Sheba, move into the Cones’ attic for the summer. If they go out in public, they wear wigs and pretend to be friends visiting from Rhode Island. While the Cones are busy monitoring or trying to imitate their celebrity guests, Mary Jane introduces discipline by cleaning the kitchen, alphabetizing the bookcase, and replicating her mother’s careful weekly menus with food she buys from Eddie’s market. In some ways she seems the most responsible member of the household, but in others she’s painfully naïve, entirely ignorant of sex and unaware that her name is a slang term for marijuana.
Open marriage, sex addiction and group therapy are new concepts that soon become routine for our confiding narrator, as she adopts a ‘What they don’t know can’t hurt them’ stance towards her trusting parents. Blau is the author of four previous YA novels, and while this is geared towards adults, it resonates for how it captures the uncertainty and swirling hormones of the teenage years. Who didn’t share Mary Jane’s desperate curiosity to learn about sex? Who can’t remember a moment of realization that parents aren’t right about everything?
Music runs all through the book, creating and cementing bonds between the characters. Mary Jane sings in the choir and shares her mother’s love of both church music and show tunes. Jimmy and Sheba are always making up little songs on which Mary Jane harmonizes, and a clandestine trip to a record store in an African American part of town forms one of the novel’s pivotal scenes. The relationship between Mary Jane and Izzy, who is precocious and always coming out with malapropisms, is touching, and Blau cleverly inserts references to the casual racism and antisemitism of the 1970s.
I love it when a novel has a limited setting and can evoke a sense of wistfulness for a golden time that will never come again. I highly recommend this for nostalgic summer reading, particularly if you’ve enjoyed work by Curtis Sittenfeld – especially Prep and Rodham.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Mary Jane. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.