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4.1 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 13 November 2003
Beryl Bainbridge is such a perfectionist that, according to a recent article in Mslexia, she is still trying to formulate the title of her present work in progress. Such consummate professionalism is clearly present in this mind-blowingly good novel.
Set in 1950, An Awfully Big Adventure chronicles the life of troubled Stella Bradshaw, an aspiring young actress making her first hesitant steps onto the professional stage. She rapidly becomes infatuated with Meridith, the company director, and, when he spurns her advances, she turns to O’Hara (stand-in for Hook in their production of Peter Pan), in an effort to make him jealous. This attempt badly misfires, however, as the quite brilliant ending proves (every bit as shocking in its way as that of Sixth Sense) and we are left to reflect on the perils of unrequited love, dark, powerful family secrets, and the crippling effect of war.
That Bainbridge achieves such multilayered depth in such a slim novel is nothing short of remarkable. An Awfully Big Adventure is beautifully crafted, tightly plotted – with absolutely no loose ends. She brings it to its awful denouement with devastating logic. And it is very subtly done: Bainbridge emphatically shows and studiously avoids telling. We are meant to infer her message from the drama of the narrative. She, as with other great novelists, allows the reader time and space to think – hence the exquisitely spare prose. I shall have to stop now, for fear of writing page after page of compliments. Suffice it to say, therefore, that An Awfully Big Adventure is wonderful in every way – character development, style and plot execution are all flawless. Truly, this is the perfect novel.
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on 10 November 2013
Working in rep in Liverpool in the early 1950s, Stella is a young girl, still in her teens, living with her Aunt Lily and Uncle Vernon, of whom she is sometimes callously ashamed. She has a tiny part in the play Bill of Divorcement and then goes on to make a success of a part in Anthony and Cleopatra as a young royal boy. The other characters are deftly described: "... there was nothing wrong with Dawn Allenby apart from her love of beauty, an affliction she was ill-equipped to fight." And: "Desmond Fairchild, a sadist in a trilby hat worn with the brim turned up all the way round like a vaudeville comic."

This novel sparks and flashes with humour at every turn, sometimes darkly, sometimes with the beautifully abrupt wit all her novels are known for: "Uncle Vernon had waited up for her. He'd wanted to escort her home but she had threatened to commit arson if he came within a quarter of a mile of the theatre. He'd kept her supper warm in a pot in the oven."

I can't recommend this book highly enough - just splendid. Though it's not quite a laugh a minute, and there are some very sad secrets, one in particular that is never properly brought out, but which caused me some puzzlement until I worked it out. Beryl Bainbridge died in 2010, but there will probably never be a better writer to lose out on the Booker Prize. I would particularly recommend a somewhat more serious book of hers, The Birthday Boys, which is about Scott's attempt to reach the North Pole, but anything she wrote is well worth reading - she never wrote a duff book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 January 2013
The Good Companions is a lovely, warm, fuzzy, well written book (a favourite of mine) about the trials, tribulations, triumphs and tragedies of a small travelling music hall company in the 1920s

Jump forwards 30 years to the setting of Bainbridge's book about the trials, tribulations, triumphs (very few) and tragedies (quite a lot) of a Liverpool repertory company. Originally published in 1989, Bainbridge draws upon some of her own experiences as an actor around that time.

Gone is Priestley's enjoyable, rather sentimental approach. Instead, we have a blackly, bleakly funny and unholy mixture of sex, love, death and religion, all wrapped up in an atmosphere of lower middle-class prurience and and things which are not quite nice and musn't be mentioned (Orton's territory)

This is the story of Stella, an awkward, difficult, naive and impressionable mid-teens. She is also adept at wearing a don't tangle with me mask, making her appear much more hard-boiled and insensitive than she really is. Strings are pulled to get her a job as an ASM in the rep company, as her imaginative, rather histrionic abilities at play-acting her way through her life, suggest to those around her that she may have a theatrical gift.

Bainbridge structures her book beautifully, setting something up at the start, which is only finally revealed at the end, when she collapses, one by one, her house of cards, with a selection of hinted at revelations which are simultaneously as bleak, horribly funny, and shocking as Orton. There is as much going on here as there are in some of the major themes of Greek tragedy, except Bainbridge does the great trick of wrapping the tragedy with absurd, comedic touches.

I'm working through re-reading Bainbridge, following my reading of the wonderful Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend which connects her life, her writing and her art, and this was a wonderful re-read.
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on 22 February 2005
She writes beautifully and sparingly. You are straight into the story no messing about. The book is full of humour, skillfully drawn characters that you grasp within a few sentences but the narrative is always going somewhere. The clues are always there. The trick is not to get carried away and read it too fast. It ought to be savoured.
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on 9 February 2017
The title refers to the first year or so (?) that Stella Bradshaw, an aspiring actress spends with a Liverpool repertory company in the immediate aftermath of WW2 . Stella is the daughter of a telephonist operator (mostly female) who entered a competition to find those with the best speaking voice. Her mother comes out top and has to move to London and (because she expects to find fame and fortune) decides to stay there persuading her sister Lily and husband Vernon to 'adopt' Stella (perhaps because they had no children of there own?). She is naturally inquisitive of course about her mother and is finally given a telephone number to ring.

When the story opens Stella is about 15/16 keen to start in repertory with dreams of romance in the profession. She is given the title of 'assistant stage manager'. At first she falls for Mr Meredith the company director who is probably 40 (?) years older. When, many months later she eventually realises he is quite beyond her reach she lets herself be seduced by O'Hara a minor celebrity who has been hired to play Hook in the company's performance of Peter Pan.

Stella is pretty disillusioned by then and when he mentions that he is married, saying do you mind? she replied "why should I?, most men your age usually are". "You're sure you like doing this are you?". She replied that nobody made her do anything she didn't want. O'Hara feels slightly shocked. He feels he is corrupting her.

Later he is found drowned in the Albert Dock. This incident is described in some detail and appears to be a genuine accident, the result of a foolish attempt to enter some blitzed warehouses, where he wanted to 'howl like a dog and hear it echo all around him', trying to get rid of the image of 'Stella holding a baby in her arms'. Clearly Stella had pissed him off.
I can only surmise the author wanted it to be mistaken for suicide.

Later Stella telephones her mother. The 'conversation' can be found on the very LAST PAGE of the book.
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Stella lives with her aunt and uncle who find a role for her in the local repertory theatre in the 1950s. She starts off as an assistant stage manager and then has a few parts in their productions. This is not a glamorous world and Stella is at a time in her life when she is beginning to explore sexual matters. In consequence she flirts with one member of the production and when that is unsuccessful with another. Around her are characters with sordid secrets and mixed motives and as she becomes embroiled in the affairs of the cast what is sad and slightly grubby becomes something else entirely.

This is a slim volume but crammed with atmosphere. The immediate post war world is conjured up and so too is the whole theatrical life in all its lack of glory. The author develops characters very quickly but these people are real especially her Uncle Vernon who starts things off and who worries continually and demonstrates it in telephone conversations with the local hardware shop owner. It is obvious that he means well and wants what is good for Stella but his kind actions will lead to tragedy.

This is a clever and beautifully written book. Its characterisations are intelligent and the plot is sadly plausible. At times there is a grim and wry humour but you are aware from the beginning that this is not going to end well and the author doesn't let you down.
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on 15 November 2016
This understated novel might not have much relevance for readers who have no recollection of the dreary atmosphere of Britain in the years following the second world war, but for those who still have memories of growing up in the midst of bomb sites and the general hardship of the 1950s, this evocative account of a young woman finding her way as an aspiring actress in the Liverpool theatre scene of the time has a certain appeal.
There’s a convincing sense of the seediness of the city in particular and of life in general, sordid sex and covert homosexuality, told with a lovely dark humour. It’s also a reminder of the importance of theatre in the days before television had infiltrated everyone’s lives, how the stars of the stage were the forerunners of movie stars.
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on 9 May 2010
Set in the threadbare background of a Liverpool theatre shortly after the war, this is an unusual coming of age tale where Stella tries to find her own way in the world. Mortified by her aunt and uncle who look after her due to her mother disappearing many years ago, Stella is a catalyst for bringing down the entire theatre as she struggles to come to terms with her background. Memorably filmed by Mike Figgis and shortlisted for he Booker, this is a novel that benefits from reading again and again.
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on 11 August 2014
Seems rather dated now and one cannot imagine a young person being so ingenious these days .I am sure that if you were familiar with Liverpool there would be an extra interest. The humour is gentle but funny .
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on 29 January 2017
The book was in v good condition. Both funny and tragic, it follows Stella into the seedy theatrical world in Liverpool some time after WW11. But half our book club could not get on with it at all.
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