Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – My Cat Yugoslavia

Posted by lucypopescu on December 23, 2017

Pajtim Statovci’s remarkable debut novel is a poignant examination of the migrant-refugee experience spanning two generations. In 1980, Emine, a young Kosovan woman, is married off to Bajram a handsome, educated and wealthy man. Too late she realizes he is controllin and abusive. After her wedding, Emine accepts that her choices are limited and resigns herself to serving her husband and bringing up their children. Neither bring her joy and their home situation worsens when war breaks out and the family is forced to flee to Finland.

Running parallel to Emine’s story is that of her adult son, Bekim, a gay man, looking for love and direction. Mother and son are alienated by choices outside their control and struggle to assimilate in their adopted country. Statovci writes perceptively of the exile’s overwhelming desire to fit in and be accepted. Bekim’s bitterness and sense of worthlessness are directly inherited from his father, who tells him that “Immigrants have to grow a thick skin if they want to do something more than wait hand and foot on the Finns . . . one day you’ll see that if you try and become their equal, they’ll despise you all the more . . . never try to be better than them”.

Bekim distances himself from both mother and father, moving to his own apartment as soon as he starts university, but even there he remains friendless. He is ashamed of his parents and uncomfortable with his homosexuality. As a child he had been tormented by nightmares about snakes. Now he buys a boa constrictor and keeps it as a pet. But it is not until he meets a talking cat in a gay bar that he is jolted out of his apathy. The cat moves in with Bekim and they enjoy a brief happiness together. It is some measure of Statovci’s skill that this magical realist element is integrated so seamlessly.

When they all fall out, after his snake almost murders the cat, Bekim sets out on a journey to discover his roots and his parents’ past. Emine, meanwhile, finds the strength to leave her loveless marriage and begins to fend for herself. Enchanting and disturbing, My Cat Yugoslavia serves as a stark reminder of the reverberating effects of dislocation. Despite their different levels of integration, mother and son remain outsiders who, Statovci suggests, risk becoming alienated from themselves.

Originally published in the TLS


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Book review – REFUGEE TALES Volume II

Posted by lucypopescu on October 23, 2017

The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe to indefinitely detain asylum seekers. A person seeking refuge here can be incarcerated for months or even years. Refugee Tales II seeks to make this shocking fact more widely known through sharing the stories of those who have been victims of this inhumane treatment. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, twelve writers listen to and retell refugees’ stories, preserving their anonymity.

One of the most moving accounts in the collection is “The Abandoned Person’s Tale” as told to Olivia Laing. A student protester from an unnamed country arrives in England in the
1990s. He unwittingly buys a stolen plasma television from an acquaintance, is then arrested for receiving stolen goods and imprisoned. On his release, he is threatened with deportation.
Years go by in which he is living in limbo – he is not allowed to work – and his case goes to trial seventeen times. Two-and-a-half decades are stolen from this man: “That is what detention is: a thief of talent, of energy, of time”.

Some of the stories explore the “hostile environment” created in 2012 by Theresa May to counter “illegal migration”. Often, asylum seekers have no option but to enter the country with a false passport, in a freezer truck or under the belly of a lorry, in order to reach safety. In “The Mother’s Tale” as told to Marina Warner, a priest muses on what a “hostile environment”
really means and concludes: “It means sweeping up all kinds of people, branding them with the same stigma, regardless of their contribution, their humanity”. The mother in the story lives in constant fear of her partner being deported and does not go out alone any more: “I am afraid”, she says, “all the time.”

The Immigration Act of 2016 forces more and more desperate people into destitution. As Rachel Holmes perceptively observes in “The Barristers Tale”, “Waiting indefinitely to be removed imminently. It’s like Beckett and Orwell met for a bender on Bloomsday in the Kafka’s Head”. Read and weep for the plights of these people who have fled one hell to find themselves in another. All profits from the book go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugees Help.

Originally published by the TLS

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Film Review – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Posted by lucypopescu on October 20, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a big hearted tale of a dysfunctional family and features a star-studded cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson.

Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) a once famous sculptor-artist, is a domineering and cantankerous patriarch. He is begrudging in his affection towards his children and prone to egotistical tantrums. Siblings Danny (Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and their half-brother Matthew (Stiller) all harbour varying degrees of resentment towards Harold and each other. It soon becomes clear that their various neuroses are a direct result of their father’s self-absorption and negative parenting. His only commitment, it seems, was to his art, and there is some doubt as to whether he was actually ever that great. Harold is on his fourth marriage to Maureen (Emma Thompson). While he rages at the lack of recognition for his work, she copes with his moods by hitting the bottle.

Danny is a musician and house-husband in the process of separating from his wife. He has never pursued a musical career and thinks of himself as a failure. He is keenly aware that his father always appears proudest of Matthew, now a successful wealth manager living in LA, and even named one of his sculptures after him. However, Matthew hates being the object of Harold’s favouritism and has physically removed himself from his father’s orbit. Mousy Jean says little but nurses are own heartache from the past. The only Meyerowitz who appears unscathed is Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She embraces Harold’s reputation in the art world and follows in his footsteps making provocatively erotic films at the college where he once taught.

Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early films, the family’s various stories are revealed through an engaging series of vignettes. Baumbach’s opening of each chapter with captions, together with the film’s extended title, seem rather redundant, but his attention to detail pays off elsewhere. Status and recognition, or the lack of it, are major themes. In one scene, Danny and Harold turn up at an exhibition opening at MoMA in hired tuxedos while everyone else (including Sigourney Weaver) are dressed casually. In another, Harold ruins lunch out with Matthew because he is driven to paroxysms of rage by a fellow diner’s inconsiderate behaviour. Harold erroneously accuses him of taking his jacket, much to Matthew’s exasperation, and father and son end up going hungry.

Harold is hospitalised and the siblings reunite in New York City. Inevitably, childhood rivalries threaten to fatally rupture an already fragile rapprochement. Baumbach blends humour and pathos to terrific effect. The siblings’ obsession over which nurse will be responsible for Harold’s care is poignant while their farcical response to the end of life counselling that they receive over their dad’s hospital bed is priceless. There are strong performances from all. Hoffman and Thompson, in particular, are a delight. Although less focus is given to Jean’s story, Marvel’s understated performance shines through and there are two memorable cameos from Candice Bergman and Adam Driver.



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Theatre review – Thebes Land

Posted by lucypopescu on September 15, 2017

THIS terrific meta-theatrical play by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco memorably opens the 10th CASA Latin American Theatre Festival.

Superbly translated by Rob Cavazos, adapted and directed by Daniel Goldman, Thebes Land succeeds on many levels. I’d love to see more by this playwright.
T (Trevor White), wants to write and stage a play about Martin (Alex Austin), who is serving a life sentence for a brutal patricide. T begins visiting Martin in prison in an attempt to understand his motivations for stabbing his father 21 times with a fork. Initially, the “Ministry of Justice” tells T that Martin can play himself in his Arcola production.

Then this is deemed too dangerous, they reverse their decision and, T has to employ an actor to play the role. RADA student, Freddie (Austin) is auditioned and cast and he begins to makes his own suggestions as to how the play and his character should develop.

Jemima Robinson’s imposing giant cage, complete with CCTV, dominates the stage. This serves as Martin’s prison, the basketball court where he meets T and the rehearsal space.

T enjoys referencing classic texts, art and music from Sophocles’ Theban plays, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to Franz Kafka and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C major. These references mean nothing to Martin and therein lies much of Blanco’s humour – how stories are constructed and interpreted to meet our own needs.

The play is also semi-autobiographical – as T and Freddie add their own creative ideas to the production, elements of Austin and White’s personal backgrounds are cleverly exploited.

The end result is funny, caustic, poignant and profound. Don’t miss.

020 7503 1646

Originally published by Camden New Journal

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Theatre Review – Against

Posted by lucypopescu on September 15, 2017


In Chris Shinn’s multi-layered play, chameleon actor Ben Wishaw plays Luke, a brilliant Silicon Valley billionaire who believes God wants him to “go where there’s violence” and effect change.

Luke meets a diverse group of Americans from the parents of a boy who has carried out a High-School massacre to a pair of drug-addicts. Shinn also covers an array of subjects including gun crime, political correctness, bullying and the exploitation of workers in a food-packing company.

Luke becomes a messianic figure with a genuine desire to help, who is loved and vilified in equal measure. It’s fairly obvious early on what his fate will be but Shinn raises some interesting questions along the way.

Running through the play is Luke’s on-off relationship with his assistant and confidante Sheila (Amanda Hale), who is clearly in love with him. In a remarkable performance, Wishaw perfectly conveys Luke’s infuriating mix of charm, smugness, confidence and indecision.

It’s all played out on ULTZ’s pared back set. Shinn’s play is clearly FOR love, AGAINST hate and this is highlighted by the large double bed that appears out of the stage’s belly every so often, and is finally utlilised by Luke and Sheila in one passionate scene.

It is a delight to see Wishaw supported by such a talented and diverse ensemble. Particularly memorable are the interactions between co-packers Tracey (Adelle Leonce) and Melvyn (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), creative writing student Anna (Emma D’Arcy) and her pompous professor (Kevin Harvey) and Naomi Wirthner in two roles.  Ian Rickson directs with his usual panache.

Almeida Theatre

Running until 30 September

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Theatre review – Knives in Hens

Posted by lucypopescu on August 31, 2017

David Harrower’s visceral play opens with a raw act of passion and ends on a note of defiance. Set in a medieval rural backwater, we follow the fortunes of a young, god-fearing woman (Judith Roddy), married to a ploughman, Pony William (Christian Cooke).

It’s a simple existence, verging on the bestial, in which the nameless woman serves her husband and the land: “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow.” She intones to herself as she sets about her work. She yearns to describe everything she sees around her and to articulate her feelings.

The villagers are bound by their superstition and prejudices and outsiders are rarely tolerated. But when the woman meets the local miller, Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), recently widowed and vilified by the community for his love of books, another world suddenly opens up to her.

William and Gilbert are physically similar. What differentiates them is the quill pen that the miller offers the woman. In writing about herself she gains self-awareness and with that comes power. But her new knowledge swiftly becomes tainted by violence.

First staged to great acclaim in 1995, Harrower’s multi-layered drama is full of surprises. We realise it is not love that the woman desires, she rejects any possibility of being defined by a man, but a role for herself. With that comes a name and advancement.

Flawless performances, Yael Farber’s terrific staging, Soutra Gilmour’s magnificent set – mud, a small pond, hints of cobbles, dominated by a giant millstone – and Tim Lutkin’s atmospheric lighting make this a memorable evening.

Donmar Warehouse UNTIL OCTOBER 7
Box Office 020 3282 3808

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film Review – Hotel Salvation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 31, 2017

Set in Varanasi, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s remarkably assured debut feature, starring Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, has already won plaudits and awards on the festival circuit. Shot when he was just 23, Hotel Salvation is a bittersweet meditation on life, death and salvation, focusing on a father-son relationship.  Haunted by a recurring dream, seventy-seven-year old Daya (Behl) is convinced it is time to die. Following tradition, he donates a cow to the temple, before persuading his stressed, overworked son Rajiv (Hussain), to accompany him to the holy city of Varanasi. Hindus believe that people who die there, after bathing in the River Ganges, escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth and achieve salvation. The pair check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’ (Hotel Salvation) where residents are offered just two weeks accommodation. At first Rajiv is beset by work calls and is desperate to return to the city. It is only his sense of filial duty to his father that keeps him there. While Daya accepts his impending death almost gleefully, Rajiv is torn between feelings of impotence, guilt and impatience. Slowly, though, father and son reconnect and begin to enjoy each other’s company.

Daya embraces his new environment and makes friends with the other residents, in particular Vimla (Navnindra Behi) a kindly widow who has been there for years – the hotel manager changes the name in the register of any resident who lasts longer than a fortnight. The inhabitants live in simple rooms, complete with peeling walls and mice. They watch their favourite TV series, sing hymns together and freely discuss death and the best way to go. When one of their number passes away, they all participate in the funeral rituals, reciting mantras, shrouding and garlanding the corpse and finally cremating the deceased on the River Ganges.

Rajiv is clearly out of touch with his emotions, his country’s spiritual heritage and changing mores. Rajiv and his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) want their daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) to marry a man of their choice and settle down. But Sunita is happy with her work and doesn’t want to give up her independence. Certain traditions, Bhutiani suggests, are outdated. Michael Mcsweeney and David Huwiler’s terrific camerawork emphasises the stark divide between Rajiv’s hectic working life and the more measured pace in Varanasi; the transcendent over the corporal.  Rajiv’s restrictive domestic sphere is conveyed through shots of cramped, shadowed rooms, contrasted with stunning tableaux of the Ganges, Varanasi’s ghats and temples.

As Rajiv resolves his differences with his father he recognises his own suppressed desires and the sacrifices he has made for his work. Towards the end of Hotel Salvation we suspect it has been more about Rajiv’s liberation than Daya’s. Rajiv’s spiritual side (his love of writing poetry) has been reawakened and he has learned the importance of accepting his family’s different needs. Bhutaini demonstrates an impressive maturity in his snapshots of life’s joys, pains and sorrows, order and chaos and allows us to see what Daya has understood all along – with death comes peace. For its UK release, Hotel Salvation is prefaced by the BFI’s 90 second film of Varanasi’s ghats by the River Ganges (1899), believed to be the earliest footage of India. It serves to illustrate the city’s timelessness and beautifully complements Bhutaini’s feature.


Originally published by




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Theatre Review – Road

Posted by lucypopescu on August 17, 2017

Jim Cartwright’s seminal play about the disenfrachised working class living in Thatcherite Britain in an unnamed Lancashire town has lost none of its power. Loneliness and poverty are the play’s pervasive themes and many of the characters use alcohol and sex as crutches to stave off despair.

Road was first produced at the Royal Court in 1986 and the reasons for its revival are clear in John Tiffany’s imaginative production – there is much that resonates with Austerity and post- Brexit Britain.

Lemn Sissay, as the wily Scullery, is a charismatic narrator who over the course of one night leads us down his local street to meet the various residents. Cartwright combines just the right measure of anarchic humour with more thoughtful scenes and the cast rise to the occasion.

Some of the action takes place in a transparent glass box which rises up from the belly of the stage. This emphasises that we are privileged outsiders looking in at others’ lives, but then the lighting changes and mirrored doors reflect the audience, reminding us of our shared humanity.

Many of the characters numb the frustration of their lonely existence with binge-drinking and casual sex. One of the most memorable scenes in the play is when a tanked up, middle-aged women, (Michelle Fairley), attempts to seduce a soldier (Mike Noble), much younger than herself, who is so drunk he is sick in his chips.

Road evidently helped pave the way for the in-yer-face theatre of the 1990s and TV series like Shameless. It’s great to see a large cast outside the West End and this is a joyful and timely revival.

Originally published by The Camden Review

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Film Review – Land of Mine

Posted by lucypopescu on August 4, 2017


Inspired by real events in 1945, Martin Zandvliet’s powerful film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners demonstrates that war’s aftermath can be just as brutal as the conflict itself. Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s Western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 Convention relating to the treatment of PoW.  Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen.

Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.  Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German solider and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off. Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you. Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.

The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and compassion aids the healing process.

Originally published by



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Book Review Checkpoint

Posted by lucypopescu on August 2, 2017

There is a filmic quality to Jean-Christophe Rufin’s literary thriller, expertly rendered by translator Alison Anderson. Set during the Bosnian War in 1995, Checkpoint follows the fortunes of five French aid workers. The youngest, 21-year-old Maud, the lone female in the group, has cut her hair short and wears shapeless clothes, in an attempt to be taken seriously and to repel any unwanted advances. Lionel, the leader of the mission, lacks confidence and smokes weed from morning to night. Former soldiers, Alex and Marc, recruited because convoy drivers are in short supply, have their own secret agendas. Vauthier is the most sinister and repugnant member, hired for his skill as a mechanic, who the others suspect of being a spy: “He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him.”

The tensions between Vauthier and the two soldiers threaten to derail the mission and reach crisis point, when it transpires that Alex has spiked the load with construction explosives for extracting coal. His objective is to help a group of refugees hiding in a mine – the explosives will stop the tunnels from flooding and help preserve their industry. It is Maud who manages to persuade the other volunteers that it is a worthwhile endeavor, and “the most useful thing we can give these people.” But there are further revelations to come. The soldiers at each checkpoint become increasingly menacing, and they are all shocked to witness the aftermath of a brutal massacre of women and children:

On the damp earth there were fifty bodies or more, lying in grotesque positions. Their arms and legs were twisted, their heads lay at a painful angle from their necks, some had their faces in the mud. On the gray mass of bodies, most of which were clothed in dull, drab garments, the only color was that of blood. 

The frequent plot twists keep the reader guessing until the end, but this is at the expense of robust characterization. Vauthier, in particularly, remains a shadowy figure whose visceral hatred for Marc is never fully explained. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining the mission are revealed through passages of clunky exposition: We learn that Maud is a risk-taker, when she recalls a childhood memory of jumping off the adult diving board and fracturing her vertebra. Alex’s feelings of alienation are a result of his mixed race background and the reason why he falls for a young Bosnian refugee ostracized because of her ethnicity. Marc’s tough exterior is down to being a “war orphan” and bullied at school. At times, Rufin’s characters feel too simplistic, their motivations implausible, and this makes it difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of them.

In the novel’s second half, the pace never lets up and Rufin raises some interesting questions about the limitations of humanitarian aid. As a founder of Doctors Without Borders, Rufin clearly wants to lift the lid on this world. He understands the futility of taking chocolate and clothing through a war scorched land when another form of international intervention is desperately needed to halt the bloodshed. The Bosnian War may be long over, but Rufin’s concerns remain just as relevant today.

A longer version of this review is published on

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