Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Theatre Review: Henry V at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide 

"Here was a royal fellowship of death". In the battle of Agincourt, the powerful die alongside the powerless, dukes are slain as well as luggage boys. Shakespeare’s Henry V provides an explosive reminder that there are no winners in war, only a bloodied and diminished survival. What emerges from the visceral exchange is a need to heal divisions, both between warring countries and within each battered land.

At the beginning of Elizabeth Freestone’s dynamic production, Henry is an awkward and uncertain king, clinging to the partying of his misspent youth. War with France seems not so much his decision as that of his closest advisers. But Ben Hall’s Henry has a thread of steel, almost menace, running through him that gives credence to his transformation. Despite his hangover and slept-in clothes, slumped shoulders and uneasy gait, here is a man capable of threatening the citizens of Harfleur with rape and pillage and standing by as his friend Bardolph is brutally executed for looting.

What seems less obvious is that Henry will also become an inspirational leader, able to rally his troops before the approaching firestorm. But Hall crosses this divide with dexterity, delivering a thrilling "Once more unto the breach, dear friends". Now he is a warrior king forged in the crucible of war, bitter experience informing the growing wisdom of more thoughtful moral judgements.

Having already run for a month at the Ustinov in Bath over the summer, this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production has had time to bed in, feeling at ease in its contemporary context. Lily Arnold’s simple set of metal cage platforms strewn with grit is both an austere reminder of war’s stringencies and a versatile backdrop, remoulding a podium for kings into the trenches of France and flag-draped coffins of the fallen. Only an over-reliance on two microphones to herald every proclamation of importance has the potential to prove a touch wearying.

Joanne Howarth as Chorus is a folder-carrying, spectacle-wearing bureaucrat who introduces each act with the resignation of one who has seen it all before. Her clarity of verse speaking is matched by that of the tightly-choreographed ensemble cast, who seamlessly switch allegiance in war from England to France and back again with nimble changes of jacket and insignia. Like the gun fodder of World War I, dying only yards apart, the foot soldiers on both sides have everything in common.

There’s a prescient alchemy in Freestone’s decision to remould Katharine as a shaven-headed soldier. Combining the roles of princess and dauphin, Heledd Gwynn portrays her as a punky feminist streetfighter who looks forward to the rigours of battle, but also plunges the depths of grief over her slain lover and meets Henry’s wooing in the final act on her own terms.

Here Henry and Katharine’s verbal jousting is full of ambiguity. This is no simple capitulation and the symbolism of their two shaven heads locked together in eventual embrace is striking. Sacrifices on both sides are needed for the first tentative buds of fragile conciliation to appear; Freestone’s Henry V has mined the personal and political divisions of the medieval world and found in them our own.

Runs until 6 October 2018 and then touring | Images: Craig Fuller

Monday, 10 September 2018

Theatre Review: Shrek The Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Shrek the cantankerous green ogre is midway through a new UK and Ireland tour of the musical first seen on Broadway nearly ten years ago.

Based on the perennially popular 2001 DreamWorks movie, it’s a warm-hearted and fun-filled family show with a message that today seems more relevant than ever. And, though there are as many musical misses as hits in Jeanine Tesori’s songbook, Nigel Harman’s direction still provides plenty of toe-tapping exuberance to enjoy along the way.

By way of introduction to a familiar tale, we learn more about the backstory of the main characters. It emerges that Shrek and Princess Fiona were both cast out of their family homes at an early age into a life of seclusion. Later, the show-stealing Lord Farquaad is revealed to have had a hilariously colourful past.

Tim Hatley’s slick and serviceable touring set is enhanced by projection and puppetry. As Shrek (played in this performance by Michael Carolan replacing Steffan Harri) embarks on his quest to rescue Princess Fiona so that he can get his swamp back, some of the most enjoyable moments are refreshingly low-tech.

There’s the physical comedy of Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad shuffling on his knees with tiny yellow-clothed prop legs replacing his own and an eclectic parade of animals met along Shrek’s road trip with Donkey (a sassy, braying Marcus Ayton, reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s Cat). In act II, an ingenious rat tap routine turns into a glittering song and dance number that wouldn’t feel out of place in 42nd Street.

Some moments in the first act do feel static, particularly the scenes between Shrek and Donkey, where there are one or two forgettable ballads and, despite individually strong performances, an initial lack of chemistry. Momentum is restored by the strong ensemble cast of fairy-tale characters ejected from the town of Duloc, perfect in both pitch and step, as well as Lord Farquaad directing the remaining townspeople according to his vision and the magical puppet Dragon guarding her quarry in the castle.

Act II feels to be on firmer ground. Shrek and Donkey trek back to Duloc escorting a hopeful Princess Fiona, portrayed with distinctive verve and spirit by X Factor’s Amelia Lily. The sound is clearer and words more distinct. All the film’s humour is still present in Fiona’s memorable "Morning Person" and enhanced in her flatulence-filled duet with Shrek "I Think I Got You Beat". As with the original, there’s enough here to appeal to adults and children alike.

The odd contemporary reference to Love Island and Meghan and Harry is thrown in to give a pantomime feel, but when Shrek is persuaded he doesn’t need to build a wall and isolation is not all he thought it was, the show’s central theme of inclusiveness really hits home.

That we should be loved for who we are and not how we look or where we’re from plays out in the rousing song "Freak Flag". After this, the reprise of "Big Bright Beautiful World" and zestful rendition of the Neil Diamond-penned classic "I’m a Believer" are all it takes to send the audience home on a high note.

Reviewed on 9 August 2018 | Images: Tristram Kenton

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Book Review: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

Louise Beech's fourth novel The Lion Tamer Who Lost has the scope and feel of an epic. Switching between a troubled present and the events leading up to it, her story's setting ranges from the sun-dazzled pride lands of a lion rescue venture in Zimbabwe to a life-changing chance meeting in Hull.

In volunteering at the Liberty Lion Rehabilitation Project, Ben is fulfilling a long-held ambition. Yet it's clear from the outset that there's something he's running from. Africa is his refuge: the glorious sunrises, majestic wildlife and chance to start anew all overshadowed by his past.

Andrew is a writer of children's books working on his third novel, his day-to-day existence full of challenges. Growing up as the only child of a hard-working single mum, he's always felt intensely lonely. He has a silver box with an ill-fitting lid that he keeps his wishes in. Many have already come true, but there's one from his boyhood still waiting to be fulfilled. 

Despite their difference in ages, these two men's lives are seemingly interlinked: they keep bumping into each other unexpectedly. Their friendship deepens but, while Andrew is at ease with his sexuality, Ben has not yet confided in his feckless father, scared of the reaction he might provoke.

So, their relationship is covert: one of tender snatched moments and outward pretence. It's only as their sacrifices become greater that the past begins to yield up its skeletons. And Ben and Andrew discover what has drawn them together is the very thing that could finally tear them asunder. 

Beech writes with an eloquence that defies easy classification. Her narrative develops with initial stealth, throwing up so many questions that its direction is often a puzzle. At times the mood is dream-like and poetic, at others hard-hitting and unsparing. Her assurance with a complex structure defies any easy second-guessing. Though there are connections and revelations aplenty, she tantalises in what she chooses to reveal and what to hold back.

While one or two more minor players sometimes feel undefined, Ben and Andrew are always characterised in believable, involving detail. Their burgeoning relationship is handled with sensitivity and it's only when their bond is irrevocably established that the secrets tumble forth.

The consequences are devastating and tragic, only partially tempered by moments of bittersweet reconciliation and seeds of future hope. Ultimately, you come to care deeply about Ben and Andrew's story and I have to admit, more than once, that I may have had something in my eye. 

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech is published in paperback by Orenda Books, many thanks to them for my review copy. 


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Theatre Review: Pomona at theSpace Triplex, Edinburgh

'Everything bad is real': in the darkly disturbing world of Alistair McDowall's Pomona, where time is fractured and reality blurred, this is one route to distinguishing truth from role play.

This dystopian thriller caused something of a stir when it was first staged in 2014. Originally commissioned by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, it transferred from Richmond's Orange Tree to the National Theatre and was named as one of Lyn Gardner's Top 10 picks of that year.

Now, following a sellout run in their home city, University of Manchester's HiveMCR have brought their production of Pomona, co-directed by Tom Thacker and Kwame Owusu, to the Fringe.

The story begins with a vulnerable young girl Ollie (Imogen Hayes) looking for her missing twin. In the course of her search, Ollie learns of Pomona, a deserted island in the heart of Manchester with a ring road running around it. Vans deliver daily through closely guarded gates, but their cargo is a mystery. The city's seedy underbelly is revealed in the lives of sex workers, those who seek their custom and those who profit from them.

Against a simple black backdrop with only a chalk circle and minimal props - aside from a monstrous octopus head - Thacker and Owusu skilfully build momentum with moments when the pieces of the puzzle almost seem to fit, juxtaposed with scenes that blow any sense of linear narrative wide apart. Is there a deeper exploitation taking place, a sinister cult intent on wreaking havoc, or is this all part of a role play game based on horror stories, devised by a geeky security guard in an effort to win friends?

There are strong performances across the board from the talented and committed student cast: I have to declare an interest as my daughter is one of them. Christopher Stoops is outstanding in the central role of unlikely security guard Charlie, full of an amenable puppy-like enthusiasm for fantasy and gaming - a naivety that belies a darker core.

Every character exudes desperation, some more immediately obvious than others. One of the many strengths of McDowall's fluid construct is that each character has their own story arc or, more accurately, existential loop they must circle. It's the points at which they intersect that become compelling. Even the bleakest of characters has a moral code they've failed to live by: Sam Whitehouse's conflicted henchman Moe's moment of redemption with Grainne Flynn's warm-hearted, damaged sex worker Fay is particularly affecting.

This production mines the work's moments of comedy, though it is of the bleakest kind, and you may need to give yourself permission to laugh. McDowall's worldview is unsettlingly pessimistic, but always prescient, taking in the information-rich 24-hour onslaught of popular culture, the facts we choose to act on and those we decide to ignore. Pomona is never short of gripping  - a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill once said of Russia), yet truly a parable for our times.

Pomona is at theSpace Triplex Studio, Venue 38, Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August 2018, tickets are available here

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Theatre Review: Birdsong at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

The First World War novel Birdsong - written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993 - is composed of such densely descriptive prose and nuanced storytelling that it’s difficult to imagine this complexity being transferred to the stage. And yet Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation, rewritten after an initial spell in the West End in 2010, poignantly captures the book’s essence as it tours again to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.

Rather than follow Faulks’s chronology, Wagstaff begins in the mud and squalor of the trenches in 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is already emotionally ravaged, hollowed out by the horrors he has endured. His pre-war love affair with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), beautiful young wife of a cruel factory owner, is conveyed by a series of flashbacks.

Charlotte Peters, now replacing Alastair Whatley as director, navigates a fine line between past and present, delving into the turbulent unfurling of illicit passion. Though well crafted, there are so many transitions that, for a time, Wraysford’s current gruesome predicament and the developing story of the soldiers in his charge are overlooked. Perhaps Kay’s portrayal of a tortured and complicated man is emotionally repressed for too long, without even a flicker to convey the feeling beneath, but his transformation in the final scenes is compelling.

Knight’s Isabelle convinces in her evolution from initial wariness of Wraysford’s wooing to the giddiness of overwhelming love. Later, she embodies the suffering of those left behind; damaged and compromising as she must to survive, she retains a dignity and determination to follow her chosen path.

It would be impossible to recreate the whole of the novel and ridiculous even to try. Some aspects of the story seem too curtailed; Wraysford’s encounter with a prostitute, though shocking, takes too little time to build. And layers have been lost, there’s no direct link between events of the early 20th century and the present day, though there are hints.

Wraysford’s life becomes unexpectedly intertwined with that of Sapper Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), an expert tunneller who in peacetime helped build the London Underground. Though working in conditions even more hellish than those of the trenches and denied leave to visit his desperately ill young son, Firebrace retains his humour and humanity. Treloar’s portrayal brings real emotional heart and heft to Firebrace’s close bond with fellow tunneller Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd), his care for others in his regiment and growing regard for his commanding officer.

Victoria Spearing’s set evokes the nightmare with barbed wire entanglements towering above the confines of cramped tunnels below. It combines with plaintive violin and song and last letters home to loved ones, interspersed with the shocking staccato flashes and booms of exploding shells, to become a deeply affecting backdrop to the devastation being played out.

This stage adaptation of Birdsong brings a Journey’s End sensibility to the meaninglessness of mass slaughter. As faith is lost, the final scenes trapped in the virtual darkness of the underground tunnels are almost unbearably moving; the suffering of millions condensed into the very personal tragedy of two wholly different men yoked together by fate.

Reviewed on 10 July 2018 | Images: Jack Ladenburg

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Book Review: The Last Thing She Told Me by Linda Green

If a gripping psychological thriller is your idea of the perfect summer read, then Linda Green's new novel The Last Thing She Told Me could well be for you. Not having read any of Green's previous work, its title sounded a little melodramatic for my taste, but within pages I found myself hooked.

In her final words, Nicola's grandmother Betty tells her there are babies at the bottom of the garden. Are these the hallucinations of a fading mind, or is there something in her claim? Nicola has her suspicions: why has there been a rift between her mother and Betty for as long as she can remember and why won't her mother tell her anything about it?

When her daughter finds a bone in Betty's garden, Nicola is determined to unearth the truth. But just how far is she prepared to go? As the police move in and painful secrets surface, Nicola begins to realise the distress she is causing, not only to her immediate family but also to herself.

The story begins in a domestic setting but soon casts its net further afield in both time and place. Letters and voices from the past are intertwined throughout the narrative and Green has a mastery of detail; in portraying her main character as a teaching assistant in a town on the edge of the Pennines, it feels like she's writing what she knows.

All too often in novels children are underwritten, only there to move the plot along. By contrast, Nicola's daughters Ruby and Maisie are both well-rounded characters, integral to the storyline. Ruby's transition from accepting girlhood to awkward, questioning adolescence is particularly affecting.

The only occasional quibbles are in the ease of selling a house or finding a long-lost relative and the apparent saintliness of Nicola's partner, James. As the haunting truth emerges, it looks like Nicola's family has suffered more than its fair share of misfortunes through the generations. What's more, she still has a fight on her hands to stem the suffering and prevent any further tragedy.

The Last Thing She Told Me is a page-turner in the good old-fashioned sense: compelling you to read on, desperate to fit together its tangled puzzle of pieces, gratified and a little breathless once you do.

The Last Thing She Told Me by Linda Green is published as an ebook on 26th July 2018 by Quercus Books. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Theatre Review: Welcome to Thebes at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

A country ravaged by civil war emerging from the ashes of destruction to become a fledgling democracy. A paternalistic patron, who could make all the difference, arriving to visit the wastelands. It could be the setting of so many conflict zones in recent history but, in Moira Buffini’s 2010 play, this is Thebes, centre of an ancient Greek myth now transposed to the near future.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s graduating students show admirable ambition in tackling this thrilling if uneven epic but suffer in the opening scenes from the weight of exposition required to set up Buffini’s poetic complexity of tensions.

Eurydice (Emma Prendergast), widow of Creon, is democratically elected leader of Thebes, promising to rebuild the country with a distinctly feminist agenda. She may be supported by a sisterhood, but she still needs aid from Theseus (Alexander Mushore), arrogant first citizen of neighbouring superpower Athens, to do so.

A summit between the two heads of state and Eurydice’s inauguration are hindered by her vengeful refusal to bury the body of former dictator Polynices, the murderer of her son. The nation unsettled, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young), a violent malcontent from the former regime goaded by Polynices’s wife Pargeia (Lucia Young), sees his opportunity to seize control.

Towards the latter part of the first half, this production gets into its stride as Eurydice and Theseus become locked together in negotiations that threaten to demand too much. Their performances are well matched: Prendergast a compelling and idealistic Eurydice, firm in her belief that her new manifesto should not be compromised by Athens’s profit-motivated view of Thebes, while Mushore’s Theseus oozes entitlement as he seeks to take possession, on both a national and a personal level.

The country’s violent militia and the hawkish security contingent from Athens circle the unfolding narrative, unhinged Antigone (an incredibly expressive Bonnie Baddoo) vows to bury her brother and blind soothsayer Tiresias (a mournful George Readshaw) foretells of doom. Free-will and destiny collide, culminating in a disturbing standoff with explosive consequences that threaten the basis of this fragile democracy.

Counterpoint to the action are the touching testimonies of those who have lost family and friends through war and the personal tragedy of Antigone’s sister Ismene (movingly portrayed by Anna Munden) who keeps her suffering to herself until she can bear it no longer. But Buffini’s writing is playful, too: evoking the myth of Phaedra as Theseus repeatedly calls his wife on a mobile phone and then asks his son Hippolytus to search for her, while a bittersweet moment finds an almost blind Haemon (James Bradwell) proposing to the wrong person.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace uses Emily Leonard’s simple but effective stone plinth design and Daniel Scott’s strikingly demarcated costumes to build from some initially static moments; the desecration and brutality of war, the fragility of democracy and compromises and corruption of power are finally laid bare. What begins with the capacity to confuse ends with the momentum of a genuinely absorbing and satisfying piece, with performances full of potential from a talented and committed company.

Reviewed on 22 June 2018 | Image: Craig Fuller