Book Review: Open

I've never made any secret of the fact I'm a Liverpool fan, and am developing a growing interest in cricket, but if you asked me to pick a favourite sport I'd have to say tennis. My sisters have always loved it - my mum likes to tell the story of when they were teenagers on study leave they'd study all morning and watch Wimbledon all afternoon, littering the house with tea mugs and toast plates - and I can remember watching them make their banners before they trekked off to SW19. Eventually I joined them, and right from the off the players I liked weren't the cool, calm and collected types, but the ones who wore their hearts on their sleeves and fought for every point like they genuinely cared. I wasn't born when McEnroe and Borg were at the height of their powers, but when I first got into tennis I remember watching matches between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and I always cheered for Andre. So at some point along the line it was inevitable I'd read his autobiography, Open (which seemed to be the book du jour on London's public transport system after the Wimbledon championships) and I must say I didn't so much read it as devour it.

Like most of us, I knew Agassi mainly for his crazy hairstyles, his 'interesting' dress sense, his marriage to Steffi Graf, his awesome returns and the sheer emotional investment he had in the sport. What I didn't know, and which forms a key thread running through the book, is that he always hated tennis and played it due to huge pressure from his father that it was the key to the American Dream. As the youngest of four children, and with three elder siblings who'd all given up the game, all that focus - good and bad - fell on Andre. Consequently, some of the early scenes in the book are heartbreaking; the fear as a nine-year-old Agassi plays a man at the tennis club for his family's savings, the aching loneliness of life at the Bolletieri Tennis Academy where he was sent at just twelve to hone his game. Several times when reading the book I felt tears coming to my eyes as I went through the pain with him (a testament to the excellent writing skills of , who wrote the book with Agassi).

When the book was first published, its big controversy was the apparent relevation that Agassi had dabbled in crystal meth and had lied to the ATP when he failed a drug test for it. Personally, that's not the big drug controversy to me; that's the scene, early on and glossed over, where a young Andre is warned by his elder brother not to take the speed his father will offer him at the next tournament. In fact, the early part of his life is so shocking that by that point you feel like you can't be shocked any more; even his flamboyant on-court style and bad behaviour just seem sad rather than anything to be appalled by.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. The book's other thread is Steffi (or, as we learn she likes to be called, Stefanie) Graf, who Andre silently adores for years, even through his tumultuous relationship with Brooke Shields, and eventually marries. In contrast to the hatred of tennis, Stefanie acts like a glimpse of hope for Andre, the one person who seems to truly understand him. The relationship, although it comes late in the book, seems to be the point at which Agassi feels truly able to be himself, and it utterly transforms his game at a time when many of his contemporaries were retiring as well as making him a much more playful, laid-back person within the relationship and growing to found his school. It almost makes me wish Steffi would write a book, I'd love to hear her side of their story (but then I am obsessed with tennis books). The other constant is Gil, Andre's coach who sticks by him through everything and becomes almost a surrogate father, no matter what else is going on in his life. His constant presence is a reassuring touchstone throughout the book, providing guidance and support but also structured tough love - something you feel Agassi needed more than he let on, although he never comes across as a brat.

Ultimately, this is a coming of age story; Agassi goes from the sixteen-year-old boy forced into a role that his family chose for him, battling his demons on the way to number one, rising and falling and, eventually, rising again as the person he always wanted to be. You'll feel like you've been through the wringer when you read it, but come out the other side feeling uplifted and positive. A great book for anyone who's interested in tennis - although it doesn't touch an awful lot on the various rivalries, the fact it's mapped out in matches lends a sense of urgency and constant uncertain movement to the book - and in human relationships. I highly recommend it. If you want to grab a copy, you can pick one up in all good bookshops or via Amazon.

Theatre Reviews: Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, Much Ado About Nothing and One Man Two Guvnors

Living in London and working where I do, I must walk past a theatre ad several times a day. I read - no, devour - the weekly London Theatre email, scouring it for news of who's performing where and who's directing what, and am constantly planning ahead to the next must-see show. In the past eight days, there have been three of them - Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, Much Ado About Nothing and One Man Two Guvnors. Coincidentally, they were all comedies. Perhaps less coincidentally, they were all wonderful, but for a myriad of different reasons.

To begin at the beginning, then, with Rosencratz and Guildernstern Are Dead. The play, if you've never heard of it before, follows the haphazard path of the minor Hamlet characters Rosencrantz and Guilderstern to the Danish court, then England and (it's not a spoiler if it's in the title, right?) to their demise. It's the second part of Sir Trevor Nunn's four-play season at TRH - he'll direct Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest and Robert Lindsay in The Lion in Winter later this year, both of which are on my to-see list - and stars Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, aka Posner and Scribbs from The History Boys in the title roles, both of whom are utterly brilliant. Barnett's innocent and naive daydreamer Rosencrantz is brilliantly realised, able to inflect even the word 'Heads' with the perfect level of nuance yet adding a curious sadness to the proceedings. By contrast, Parker's Guildernstern makes the perfect foil, conveying exasperation and a kind of strange mania with the ridiculousness of the whole thing, of which he seems much more aware than Rosencrantz.

However, this production belongs to Chris Andrew Mellon's fantastic Player King, like a cross betwen a devilish version of Shakespeare and Jack Sparrow, all red cloak and enunciation. He's utterly hilarious yet always retains the air of the trickster who knows far more than he is letting on, leading our heroes - if such a word can be used - and the audience deeper into this parallel universe, no matter how seemingly ridiculous things get. But the true power in this witty show is in its last half hour, when the bottom falls out of it and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern realise their fate. After an hour and a half of laughing as everyone plays tricks with language and no one understands a word anyone else says, it suddenly takes a very dark turn as the inevitability of death, which overshadows the play from the off, suddenly descends upon the characters and makes you realise that everything that came before was ultimately meaningless. If you like your humour with a side of thinking about the big questions

Sandwiched in the middle was Much Ado About Nothing. David Tennant and Catherine Tate play Benedik and Beatrice, constantly baiting each other with witty reposts, whilst Beatrice's cousin Hero and Benedick's friend Claudio make plans for their marriage. However, events are thrown into disarray when Don John plots to ruin Hero and Claudio's nuptials. As you'd expect if you've seen Tennant and Tate together in Doctor Who, the chemistry between them is utterly brilliant; you truly believe that their mocking of each other could turn to love. Tate in particular is wonderful at conveying the anguish Beatrice feels at her cousin being wronged as well as the despair of a woman in (seemingly) unrequited love. The highlight, however, is a sequence where Tennant's hungover Benedick, clad in Superman T shirt and cut off denim shorts, becomes increasingly paint splattered as he attempts to listen in on his friends' conversation about Beatrice's apparent love for him (with much help from the revolving set). This was probably the most flawed of the three productions, which feels almost sacriligeous to say about Shakespeare - the ending feels rushed and there's no real motivation for Don John other than being a miserable git. But it captures its 1980s Mediterranean setting brilliantly and the cast play the humour - and the drama - incredibly well. Plus, there's a dance sequence!

And finally, there was One Man Two Guvnors, directed by Nicholas Hynter of History Boys fame and every bit as brilliant. It's 1963 and James Corden plays Francis Henshall, a small time gangster who's dispatched to Brighton as a 'minder' for the notorious Roscoe Crabbe. What Francis doesn't know, however, is that Roscoe died three days ago and is being impersonated by his sister Rachel - whose toff boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers, also offers Francis a job, meaning he has to keep the two of them apart. Hilarity ensues, particularly a breathtakingly funny dinner sequence whcih pushes slapstick to the extreme with people falling down stairs, being attacked by doors and, as always, Francis' stomach getting the better of him. The supporting cast is fantastic, particularly Jemima Rooper as Rachel Crabbe and Tom Edden as doddery waiter Alfie. Oh, and if you don't do audience participation, then don't sit on the front - unless you want to carry trunks, get water thrown over you and be doused in squirty cream. Silly but snappy and possibly the most fun you'll have in a theatre all year.

If I could only go back to see one play, I think it'd be a toss-up between Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, just to try and get under the skin of that fantastically tricksy, absurd language, and One Man Two Guvnors for pure belly laughs. That's not to say Much Ado wasn't great, just that it lacked a little bit of the spark I felt from the others, particularly when Tate and Tennant weren't on stage.

If you'd like to try your luck at a ticket for these three, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern is running until 20th August at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Much Ado is playing at Wyndham's Theatre until 3rd September and One Man Two Guvnors will be at the National Theatre until 19th September before touring the UK and returning to the Adelphi Theatre on 8th November.