Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Theatre Review: The Borrowers at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Mary Norton’s magical 1950s tale of the tiny people who might be living under our floorboards is reimagined in a Bristolian setting by award-winning writer Bea Roberts. A message of inclusiveness - about the need to cherish our environment and show kindness to strangers however different they may be - is threaded through this captivating family Christmas show that fizzes with exuberance, inventiveness and fun.

The story is framed in the reminiscences of kindly Eddie from Merseyside, revisiting the house where he stayed as a 10-year-old boy. Beneath the boards at 23 Myrtle Avenue lived the minuscule Clock family, teenager Arrietty and her parents Homily and Pod.

Initially apprehensive but excited at the thought of sharing the house with some new ‘human beans’, the family’s contained existence is soon thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Eddie’s cleaning-obsessed Aunty Val, determined to update the inconveniently Victorian property in custard yellow and scour its every surface free of accumulated dust.

Quirky and buoyant original music composed by David Ridley, who also takes on the role of young Eddie, lifts the early pace of Nik Partridge’s direction, occasionally slowed by the amount of narration required from Simon Armstrong as the older, wiser Eddie. Once the context is established, the ever-present musicians weave in and out of the story, adding to its sense of whimsical enchantment. In the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre, there’s great fun to be had with differing scales. The Borrowers grapple with an array of oversized props, from a cotton bud wielded as a weapon to the protective shelter of an empty sardine tin, its lid half peeled away.

As Arrietty becomes emboldened in venturing above the boards, Rosanna Vize’s versatile set comes into its own. Clambering along horizontally suspended ladders and sliding down ropes, Arrietty meets Eddie and the pair form an unlikely and frowned-upon friendship, their size difference simply but ingeniously contrasted and alternating in perspective.

Jessica Hayles’s brave and curious Arrietty finds her longing to explore the larger world is fulfilled at a cost, but her sense of wonder as she runs through blades of grass far taller than her head is irresistible. Craig Edwards makes the most of his role as the risk-averse protocol-obsessed Pod and there’s a lovely lightness to Peta Maurice’s adventurous and worldly Homily.

Lucy Tuck, veteran of Tobacco Factory Theatre Christmas productions, steals the show with her every appearance as obnoxious Liverpudlian Aunty Val. She’s a one-woman whirlwind of tacky redecoration, vacuuming and barking at Eddie (and the audience) for cluttering up the place; her musical number as she single-handedly takes on a bevy of oversized dust balls is a riot.

When Aunty Val closes in on the perceived threat within her walls and musician Ellie Showering performs an uproarious cameo as pest-controlling Sheila, can Eddie do enough to save the Clock family from their fate?

Danger may come from unexpected sources but so does the prospect of a new beginning. The timeless story of The Borrowers shows us how it’s possible to be little yet still overcome great adversity with courage. This beautifully judged show in both performance and tone will surely bring a sprinkling of magic to people of all shapes and sizes this Christmas.

Runs until 20 January 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Monday, 3 December 2018

Theatre Review: Rocky Shock Horror at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Wardrobe Theatre’s alternatively adult Christmas comedies have become something of a Bristolian institution over recent years, splicing together two popular genres with unlikely but hilarious results. They’ve previously bestowed Muppits Die Hard and Goldilock, Stock and Three Smoking Bears on an unsuspecting world.

Now, with Oedipuss in Boots about to open in their home venue, director Tom Brennan has revived 2016’s hit Rocky Shock Horror with a new cast and a tour of the south of England, kicking off in the Tobacco Factory. This madcap musical charting the increasingly surreal exploits of Rocky Featherboa is about to reach a whole new audience.

The clue, as always, is in the title; the 1976 film starring Sylvester Stallone about a small-time boxer who takes on the fight of his life collides with Richard O’Brien’s cult sci-fi parody The Rocky Horror Show. Down on his luck and low on self-esteem, Rocky’s life is going nowhere. Even his coach Mickey berates him and his relationship with Adrian, the shy girl he loves, is faltering thanks to some Trump-style locker room advice about what girls like from best friend Paulie.

The touring four-strong cast may not have had a hand in the script’s original devising, but they capture its spirit from the first; deliberately clunky and repetitive dialogue is tackled with comic overacting, dodgy Philadelphian accents and multi-rolling, gender-swapping verve.

There’s plenty of potential for chaos, but the show is elevated by its constant flow of clever, exposition-filled songs, split-second timing and smart choreography. There’s a riotous attempt at Thanksgiving, grappling with an over-sized turkey and an ingenious yet oddly poignant ice-dancing date in an abandoned skating rink. And when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed materialises in flamboyantly unlikely boxing gear to issue his challenge, the storyline takes off into delightfully bonkers and risqué territory. For it’s not only the fight of Rocky’s life, but he must also take on a quest to save the whole of humanity…

Caitlin Campbell does an admirable job in the central role of Rocky, a gutsy but none-too-bright straight man with a good heart and a bad wig. Daniel Norford swerves between macho posturing (albeit in high heels) as Mickey and increasingly assertive femininity as Adrian, a heroine for the #MeToo generation. This is a woman in touch with her sexuality, taking what she wants when she wants it, once her coy veneer has been stripped away.

Kim Heron is a blur of dextrous physicality in the roles of Paulie and Riff-Raff, presiding over much of the action on roller skates. Meanwhile, Alex Roberts as Creed steals every millimetre of limelight whenever he appears; strutting about the stage and flirting with the audience, he’s the outrageously over-the-top brazen drag-queen of boxing.

Maybe in the second half the storyline becomes too bizarre and unresolved, but it doesn’t really matter, because the belly laughs keep on rolling. Rocky Shock Horror is the perfect antidote to traditional Christmas fare; a hugely enjoyable and audacious flashback to the seventies, with enough contemporary edge to keep its audience hooked.

Reviewed on 13 November 2018 | Images: Paul Blakemore

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Theatre Review: The Duke at The Spielman Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Rather than taking on an alter ego, Hoipolloi’s Shôn Dale-Jones is keen to emphasise he’s being himself in The Duke. And indeed, his hour of one-man storytelling feels very personal: a funny, heart-warming and poignant blend of real and imaginary events.

It’s a deceptively complex and contemporary tale that belies the fluency of its recounting to gnaw away at the relative values we ascribe to life and art, not only in financial but emotional terms as well. It’s also perfectly suited to the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory’s newly opened Spielman Theatre.

Shôn’s central thread is of a family heirloom, a Royal Worcester porcelain statue of the Duke of Wellington that his Dad bought as an investment in 1974 and kept under his bed, wrapped in sponge, to gradually increase in worth. After her husband’s death, while Shôn is working on a breakthrough film script, his mum calls him in disarray from Anglesey, to tell him that she’s accidentally broken The Duke.

Pushing aside a fast-approaching deadline for revisions that will tear the soul out of his script but mean his work might get financed, Shôn embarks on a mission to track down a replacement statue. But current events keep intruding into his consciousness; taking in the charity shops of his home town of Cambridge, he and his mother meet a refugee family—a mother of two young children whose husband has been left behind.

Seated at a desk, choreographing his own music and sound effects from his laptop, Shôn weaves these disparate strands together into a fantastical road trip to Anglesey. His mother, his film script and the refugee crisis all vie for his attention. You may never quite know how far real events are overtaken by inventiveness, but there’s a playful sense of which way the scales are tipping.

Though Shôn’s been touring this show since August 2016, he wasn’t the same man he was a year ago or will be in a year’s time, he says. He has the knack of drawing the world closer; alongside family, the political becomes personal, too. Sadly, the refugee crisis remains as pertinent as ever, but rather than dwell in guilt, he’s been doing something about it. Since he began, The Duke has raised nearly £50,000 for child refugees.

The Duke is an antidote to our divided times, emphasising connection and kindness. Told with charismatic wit and warmth it delivers an enduring message with the lightest of touches, that even if you can’t solve everything for everybody, it’s still possible to give what you can.
Reviewed on 30 October 2018 | Image: Brian Roberts

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Opera Review: WNO's La Cenerentola at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

WNO brings two heroines of diverging fortunes to Bristol this season; the tragic decline seen at the core of Verdi’s La traviata in stark contrast to the lighter-hearted triumph of virtue over greed in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

First staged in Rome in 1817, this dramma giocoso of the Cinderella story may be missing the now familiar pumpkins and glass slippers but has a refreshingly assertive heroine who knows her own mind.

At the ball, Rossini’s Cinderella rejects the advances of the man she believes to be Prince in favour of the valet she has loved from the first. Rather than capitulate when his identity is revealed, she challenges her lover to recognise and still want her when she is dressed once again in rags. And, reflecting on her own good fortune, she generously forgives the selfish shortcomings of others who have shown her nothing but scorn.

It’s an essentially moral tale that combines the romantic arias of love at first sight with larger than life characters and a rousing male ensemble. WNO’s revival of Joan Font’s production, initially performed in 2007 and here directed by Xevi Dorca, plays it for full pantomime appeal. Designer Joan Guillén’s inventively visual spectacle is awash with primary colours: characters are robed in extravagantly lofty wigs and exaggerated silhouettes while dancing mice scuttle around the stage, a cross between teasing Greek chorus and scenery shifters. Though they have the potential to irritate, by the final curtain these velveteen rodents prove more endearing than distracting.

While there may be little subtlety in the setting, Tara Erraught’s central performance is full of confident nuance. A beguiling Angelina, she is as strong and fiery as she is loving and kind. Her mezzo is clear and controlled, mastering the difficult libretto with warm and silky tones. This Angelina endures the knocks of domestic servitude, but still dares to dream. Yet, while she takes a girlish delight in her transformation from rags to riches, her feet remain firmly on the ground. Happily-ever-after only comes to fruition here on Cinderella’s terms.

Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe combine strong vocal fluency with comic acting verve to form a magnificently vile double act as Clorinda and Tisbe, Cinderella’s self-regarding ugly sisters. Fabio Capitanucci as her indolent and gluttonous step-father Don Magnifico completes the despicable trio. These two-dimensional characters take such cartoonish delight in advancing their own cause that you could begin to boo them from the audience.

Matteo Macchioni brings a romantic dash to the role of Don Ramiro, rich and tender in his first act duet with Angelina. Yet at times he is in danger of being upstaged and over-sung by Giorgio Caoduro’s animated Dandini, the valet who relishes his role as the stand-in Prince a little too much.

Though the tempo is inclined to be fast-paced in some of the more reflective moments, Tomáš Hanus conducts with a flamboyance attuned to the greater part of the work, and WNO’s orchestra is as assured as ever. When the chorus of the Prince’s male attendants fills the stage, whether with pomp and ceremony or drinking revelry, it breathes life and exuberance into the scene.

It’s the apogee of a production that may lack some of the structural light and shade required by Rossini purists but is always full of sparkle.

Reviewed on 26 October 2018 | Image: Jane Hobson

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Book Review: Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

There was so much to enjoy in Snare, Lilja Sigurdardottir's first novel in the Reykjavik Noir trilogy to be translated into English. I loved her crisp prose, tense twisty storytelling and the moral ambivalence of an empathetic cast of characters doing all the wrong things for the right reasons. You can read my review here.

Now Orenda Books has published the second in the series, translated once again by Quentin Bates. Trap picks up where Snare left off, with Sonja having fled to a Florida trailer park with her young son Tomas, escaping a life of cocaine smuggling that was closing in around her.

When Tomas is snatched by strangers, Sonja follows in desperation, only to find herself back in Iceland with her original problems compounded. Her estranged husband Adam is in charge again, cutting off access to Tomas and forcing her back to the life of a drugs mule. Meanwhile, her lover Agla is caught up in an international web of financial misconduct stemming from the Icelandic banking crash and involving ever greater, more convoluted risks.

You don't need to have read Snare to understand Trap, but it will enrich your enjoyment - because you are returning to old friends. The sort of friends who may have an unwavering instinct for self-preservation and make questionable choices, but do so from the best of motives. Whatever they've done in the past, you still want to hang out with them and get to know them better - such is the deftness of Sigurdardottir's characterisation and emotional pull of her multi-faceted viewpoint.

Sonja is nothing if not a fighter, and she devises an audacious plan that could end her predicament, with a little help from her former adversary, customs officer Bragi. Sonja wishes for nothing more than an ordinary life, working and caring for her son. But, as her attempts to break out of her trap spiral into new and more disturbing realms, her goal seems further away than ever.

Many issues are resolved in Trap and hope is on the horizon, but there are deep psychological wounds that will not easily be healed. It's darkly messy and disturbing yet simultaneously multi-layered and satisfying - a second instalment that plants the seeds of struggles to come in the final novel of the trilogy.

Trap is published by in the UK by Orenda Books, many thanks to them for my review copy.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Wils Wilson takes the gender confusion at the heart of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to new levels in her direction of this flamboyant new co-production for Bristol Old Vic and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s flowing costumes of flowery kaftans, shimmering flares and platform shoes set us somewhere in the summer of love. Framed within a psychedelic house-party in a run-down country pile, casting is apparently spontaneous. Shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian are both played by women who look nothing alike. In Elizabethan times, Viola was a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man; now Jade Ogugua’s androgynous incarnation becomes a woman disguised as a man, while Joanne Thomson’s crisp Sebastian is a man played by a woman.

Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Tobi and Duke Orsino a trouser role. Shakespeare’s original conceit for a riotous Epiphany celebration is compounded, but it only adds to the enjoyment of this exuberantly entertaining interpretation. The additional layers bring even greater fluidity to the central love triangle between Viola, Colette Dalal Tchantcho’s swaggeringly theatrical Orsino and Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s lovelorn but fiery Olivia.

There’s no shortage of bumptious physical comedy, particularly whenever Dawn Sievewright as hard-drinking Lady Tobi and Guy Hughes as her ungainly sidekick Andrew Aguecheek crawl out of the stage’s various orifices or descend from the balcony by way of a fireman’s pole.

In a play that celebrates music as the food of love, Meilyr Jones’s compositions infuse the play. With live performances melding old and new, they reset the mood in an instant, from Lady Tobi’s strutting punk to nimble Feste’s (Dylan Read) dreamy traditional melodies and the wistful longing that underlies Aguecheek’s hilarious yet poignant ballad proclaiming the most fleeting of loves.

Spirits may be playful, involving the audience in high-jinks, but the pain and desperation of unrequited passion is still in evidence. Christopher Green portrays Malvolio as a bowler-hatted, tightly buttoned bureaucrat whose transformation into a yellow-stockinged rock icon takes the concept of cross-gartering to new extremes. Yet, for all his outrageous posturing, Malvolio’s heartfelt suffering at the hands of those who trick him lends sympathy for a man who will always be out of step, casting his deceivers in a cruel light.

Some performances are inevitably bigger than others. Yet, there is such joy in the detailing: the pantomime ting of a bell every time a coin is slipped to Feste for his services, the over-the-top eavesdropping in the letter-reading scene and a wind machine fanning Malvolio’s newly released golden locks to their full power ballad glory. On occasion, it’s overworked but still gives the impression that Wilson has mined every aspect of the play’s landscape for potential.

The set-piece ending is warmly appreciated in the auditorium, as Sebastian lands on the island of Illyria causing further consternation and double-takes before true identities are revealed. With an alternative version currently running at London’s Young Vic, other Twelfth Nights may be available, but this production more than holds its own, one sublime house-party you wouldn’t want to miss.

Runs until 17 November 2018 | Images: Mihaela Bodlovic

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Book Review: Little by Edward Carey

Madame Tussaud's waxworks may be world-renowned and her name synonymous with lifelike images of the famous, but her own story remains much less familiar. Edward Carey's latest novel Little reveals the woman behind the models, in a quirky chronicle that blends a captivatingly original first-person narrative voice with a catalogue of detailed illustrations.

The tale begins in 1761 with the birth in a remote Alsatian village of Anne Marie Grosholtz, the girl who would one day become Madame Tussaud. More commonly known as Marie or simply - because of her stature - Little, she and her mother move to Berne when she is six years old, following the untimely death of her father. Here she becomes part of the eccentric household of Doctor Curtius, a man who initially models human body parts for the local hospital but progresses to making wax replicas of living human heads.

Fleeing insolvency, Curtius moves to Paris with Marie as his assistant. In this walled, wooden city, they find lodgings with tailor's widow Charlotte Picot and her son and embark upon an existence that will span an era of historical upheaval - from the closeted opulence of the court of Versailles to the grisly and vengeful bloodlust of the French Revolution.

In Little, Carey creates a remarkable heroine, never conventionally attractive in society's terms but quick-witted, resourceful and courageous. Life is always precarious for Marie and love in any form hard-won, but she takes crumbs of comfort where she can, clinging to her few precious objects and enduring her many reversals with pragmatism and a total lack of self-pity.

Despite being reduced to little more than a servant girl by Widow Picot and suffering years of her disdain, the business of wax heads prospers. Marie defies her station in life to brush shoulders with the great and the good, securing the position of sculpting teacher to Princess Élisabeth and meeting King Louis XVI. Unrest grows among the Parisian mob and she encounters more than her fair share of violent criminality, from domestic serial killers to the murderous architects of revolution. As Marie's fate is touched by history, she unfailingly records its ghoulish outcome in pencil and wax, her subjects more often dead now than living.

Despite scope and detail of epic proportions, the research behind this precise but pacy and entertaining novel is lightly worn. Little is a unique and beguiling fictionalised account of a woman small in stature but immense in achievement; a life that could stand alongside any of those that the eventual Madame Tussaud came to capture in wax.

Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books, many thanks to them for my review copy. You can read an extract from the book, catch up on an author interview, other reviews and more by clicking here