The Opposite Bastard by Simon Packham

published 2008

Opposite bastard

[section narrated by Michael, who is playing Hamlet]

I’m totally loving this. I still think Shakespeare is one seriously overrated dude, but you’ve got to admit he had a way with words. The soliloquies are best; just me and the audience. For the first time in my life, I feel as if I’m in control. I’m the matador for once, not the bloody bull; it’s me leading them, not some idiot in a white coat sticking tubes into me, or Pastor Reg telling me how grateful I should feel. OK, they might have all come here for a good laugh, but just you watch how I send them away crying…

Soft you now, the fair Ophelia….’

The scenes with Ophelia are a real kick in the face. When Anna steps out from behind the blocks [spelling out] ARRAS she looks so beautiful I think I’m going to cry. Hamlet must be a total headcase to dump a bird like that.

‘Are you honest?’
‘My lord.’
‘Are you fair?’

When we’re on stage it feels so real – the boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. I mean, I believe in us as a couple, you know? That’s why it does my head in… I want to believe in it, I really do, but like that all-loving, all-powerful God who was supposed to make me walk again, sometimes it all seems too good to be true. ‘Get thee to a nunnery…’

observations: I don’t know where or why I picked this book up: the author is a comedian and actor, and he’s very good on theatre. The very odd story concerns a failed older actor working as a carer for a quadriplegic student at Oxford University. The younger man gets inveigled into taking part in a performance of Hamlet – plainly a publicity stunt on the part of an unpleasant student director - and strikes up a friendship with a rather clueless young woman playing Ophelia. An ambitious TV producer then decides to make a documentary about the show.

The story is narrated in turns by the actor, the quadriplegic and the woman, and doesn’t pull any punches: the carer and the student are extremely rude about each other, and there are a lot of crude jokes. It is very funny, in a wince-making way. The story somewhat loses its momentum in the second half, and I didn’t think the ending quite worked. It read like a late draft of a novel, needing one more go, or else a proposal for a BBC Radio 4 comedy – you could hear it in your head being acted out at 6.30 pm after the news, with a studio audience laughing way too much.

But it was a good read, very sharp and very entertaining, and better than many other first novels that get considerable acclaim. The theatrical content was very well done and convincing, as you would expect.

Apparently Packham has gone on to write a series of YA novels.

By the end of the book I was none the wiser as to why it was called Opposite Bastard, and the only help I have had is from a Wikipedia entry on areas of the stage:
Stage left and right, at least in British and North American theatre, refer to the actor's left and right facing the audience. Because this is sometimes misunderstood, the terms prompt (actor's or stage left) and bastard/opposite prompt (actor's or stage right) are also used.
--- which is interesting, but doesn’t quite answer my question.

The beautiful picture is a photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the pioneers of photography, and is from the George Eastman House collection. It’s called Ophelia Study No 2. A different Cameron photo was used for this entry on a Georgette Heyer detective story.


  1. Interesting premise for a book, Moira, even if the end result wasn't quite there. I wonder how often people and their carers get rude about each other; after all, they spend so much time together it's hard to miss the little foibles and flaws that we all have. That in itself is really interesting to think about. Glad you found this one worth finishing.

    1. Definitely worth my time, and definitely different. As you say, it's an interesting relationship to look at.

  2. Hmm...... people being rude and crude has its attractions.....another book on the pile - maybe not!

    1. It was bracingly and refreshingly harsh, but very funny at the same time. Sure I can't tempt you?

    2. Wanted to call it The Actor, The Virgin and The Quadriplegic, but over-ruled. Thanks for the review though. (Simon P - sadly Googling himself in fit of post election depression)

    3. Oh that is a great title. I did enjoy the book, and it was memorable: there was a gap between my reading it and this blogpost going up, and I realized I have thought about it a fair bit since then, it was really unusual and original. Thanks for dropping by, I share your depression over the election.

    4. Thank you. It was nice to hear that someone was still reading it. Best Simon.

  3. Moira: Let me rant for a moment. I am weary of "dude". Every time I read "dude" I get sick. I think of it as the worst cliché of current writing. I do not know any "dudes". I have no desire to know any "dudes". It is time for another word to identify the hip and cool. Thanks. I feel better.

    1. Glad you had space to vent Bill! To be fair, I think the author in this case was trying to show something about the character using the word. But you made me laugh anyway....


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