Monday, 24 July 2017

Ballet Review: Coppélia at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


Based on the stories of E T A Hoffmann, Coppélia is the lightest and most fragile of confections; the tale of a mechanical doll who entrances and enrages in equal measure. Yet the enchantment of this enduringly popular 19th Century work is underscored by this classical production from Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Not for this company a touring set of a few two-dimensional scenery flats; their Coppélia is a sumptuous creation of pastoral idyll and opulent costumes, designed by the late Peter Farmer and delivered to Bristol by a fleet of articulated lorries. There’s a complete (and lengthy at times) scene change between each of the three Acts.

It’s an exquisite backdrop for the story to unfold, as Swanilda (Céline Gittens) meets her lover Franz (Tyrone Singleton) in the village square, only to find him distracted by the beautiful lifelike doll that eccentric toymaker Dr Coppélius (Michael O’Hare) has placed on his balcony. Gittens is a beguiling Swanilda, her dancing lyrical and expressive, in complete control of the technical challenges of the role. Her mime is full of a spurned sweetheart’s fury as she admonishes her flirtatious fiancé and questions his faithfulness, followed by darting mischief as she and her nervous friends steal into the toymaker’s workshop to find her mysterious rival.

Gittens' performance is matched by Singleton’s charismatic Franz, more loveable rogue than love rat, despite his roving eye. Singleton dances with strength and fluidity and his on-stage chemistry with Gittens is persuasive throughout. This is combined with an assured comedic touch as he tiptoes across the village square with a ladder to climb up to Coppélia’s balcony, then ineffectually tries to evade capture by the angry Doctor.

The story may be featherweight and the outcome never in doubt, yet Delibes’ incurably romantic score, sensitively interpreted by the Birmingham Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy, is impossible to resist. The central second Act of magical discovery in the toymaker’s workshop is captivating, as the individual dolls are wound up and come to life and Coppélius tries to capture Franz’s spirit to transform his most prized creation into a living, breathing woman.

No less impressive are the set piece dances; the gypsies are a whirl of scarlet and green and the Eastern European Mazurkas and Czárdáses a highlight of Act I. Daria Stanciulescu is imposing as the gypsy temptress who dances with Franz despite Swanilda’s protests. Equally spectacular is the succession of celebratory dances in Act III’s Masque, particularly the gravity-defying Call to Arms.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s uplifting and technically assured production embraces the traditional interpretation of Coppélia derived from Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti’s late 19th Century choreography. It’s a spellbinding setting for family-friendly comedy and fairy-tale devilry, beautifully told through ravishing colour, passionate dancing, and unashamed romance.

Reviewed on 28 June 2017 | Image: Andrew Ross


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


If it’s light-hearted escapist entertainment you’re after then the jazz age Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Strictly Come Dancing’s Joanne Clifton asserting her musical theatre credentials in the title role, could just fit the bill.

Be warned though, around the edges, it does feel dated. In this revival of the 2002 musical, based on the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Millie Dillmount from Kansas arrives in the 1920s metropolis of New York. Determined to be a ‘modern’ girl, she undergoes a rapid flapper makeover – all bobbed hair and fringed hemline – takes a room in a women-only hotel and decides her future lies in getting a job that will allow her to marry the boss.

Most charmingly, she seems to spend her time falling for the enticing but impecunious Jimmy Smith, played by a debonair Sam Barrett, instead. Less charmingly, there’s a questionable sub-plot centring around white slavery that involves the hotel’s proprietor Mrs Meers (Lucas Rush) and two Chinese helpers (Nick Len and Andy Yau). These scenes have their comedic moments but don’t sit comfortably with the present day, either in the storyline or racial stereotyping.

Clifton proves she can sing and act as well as dance with pleasing on-stage presence – although her Millie, like many of the production’s characters under Racky Plews’ direction, is a broad-brush stroke creation veering towards the overly-dramatic. One shining exception to this is Jenny Fitzpatrick as Muzzy Van Hossmere, who elevates the closing moments of the first half with her luminous performance of Only in New York. Many of the show’s amusing highlights involve Graham MacDuff as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon: dictating letters at speed, falling head-over-heels in love and portraying a flailing comedy drunk with all the co-ordination of a flamingo on an ice-rink.

At times, the pacing flags and scenes feel protracted, particularly in Act One. It’s the ensemble numbers that really zing with clever choreography; the title song Thoroughly Modern Millie is an obvious highlight. Then there’s the desk-dancing, swivelling stenographers of Millie’s workplace and Forget About the Boy, the rousing opening number in Act Two.

The colourful and glittery sequinned flapper costumes look as though they’ve been borrowed straight from Strictly’s wardrobe. Morgan Large’s art deco set neatly captures the New York skyline as well as doubling as a hotel lobby and workplace, even if by the end it feels as though it has run out of surprises. But the small surtitles, providing occasional Chinese translation, are both a distraction and difficult to read in a large venue and, on press night, there are some occasional problems with clarity of sound.

If Thoroughly Modern Millie is not generally held up as a classic of musical theatre, then this production will do little to alter that view. Overlook certain aspects of the plot though and it does provide plenty of good old-fashioned entertainment and a toe-tapping distraction from current reality.

Reviewed on 20 June 2017 | Image: Darren Bell


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

Private investigator Varg Veum is back, and this time he's in real trouble. As readers of Gunnar Staalesen's previously translated Nordic noir We Shall Inherit the Wind and Where Roses Never Die will know, Veum has been plunged headlong into despair by the loss of his long-term partner Karin. If you haven't read either of these titles yet, there's enough backstory in Wolves in the Dark to make his predicament clear.


Hauled into Bergen's police station for questioning after an early morning raid, Veum is astounded to find himself accused of accessing child pornography online. A cache of incriminating material has been found on his computer and he's remanded in custody as a suspected member of an international paedophile ring.

After three and a half years of trying to obliterate his grief with alcohol and one-night stands, Veum has recently met Sølvi and found some solace in their tentative new relationship. But he's still over-reliant on his bottles of Aquavit as a crutch, and there are too many holes in his memory.

Yet, despite the blackouts, Veum is convinced of his own innocence. Will he be able to remember enough to identify the person who hacked into his computer and planted the evidence?

He has no shortage of enemies, indeed his confrontational style is destined to ruffle plenty of feathers. Now it seems there's a dearth of sympathy from those already decided on his guilt. So, when an unexpected chance to escape presents itself, Veum grabs it with both hands. On the run, he now has a fraught and hazard-strewn opportunity to clear his name and solve his most testing case of all.

Staalesen's writing, translated from the Norwegian with accustomed fluency by Don Bartlett, is as tense and spare as ever and his gruelling subject matter is treated with sensitivity. Veum is humanised by his self-deprecating acknowledgment of a flawed past, in contrast to the repulsive and amoral - but always believable - inhabitants of Bergen's murky underworld. There's a palpable sense of place as Veum crisscrosses city streets while ducking away from the police and Staalesen introduces enough twists, turns and dead ends along the way to keep intrigue levels smouldering nicely. Gripping and satisfying, Wolves in the Dark is proof that this father of Nordic noir has lost none of his enduring powers.

Wolves in the Dark was published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


With controversy over Trump-as-Caesar raging in New York, the latest collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and its theatre school seems set on a similar theme. As an examination of a society in the process of destroying itself, their contemporary production of Julius Caesar feels at least as relevant to the political situation on this side of the pond.

Following on from last year’s King Lear, which combined the experience of Timothy West and Stephanie Cole with the zestful enthusiasm of 2016’s new graduates, this year’s choice Julius Caesar sees Julian Glover in the eponymous role. Lynn Farleigh is Calpurnia and John Hartoch the ‘beware the Ides of March’ Soothsayer, with all other roles played by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 2017 students.

The sleek, statesman-like dignity of Glover’s proud Caesar, returning to Rome in triumph from battle, is in stark contrast to the impassioned urgency of the youthful conspirators led by Cassius (Edward Stone) as they seek to recruit Caesar’s loyal friend Brutus (Freddie Bowerman) to their cause.

Stone is a suitably urbane Cassius, while Bowerman’s central performance as Brutus is one of convincing nuance and plausible, if ill-conceived, moral reasoning, as he wrestles with his conscience. Finally, we see him persuaded of his patriotic duty to participate in Caesar’s assassination, to prevent the harm that might be inflicted in future on the people of Rome.

Ross O’Donnellan’s Mark Antony is commanding, while other performances of note include Eleanor House’s waspish Casca and Rosie Gray’s silver-tongued Decia. The assassination plays out as a viscerally ritualistic orgy, its power-suited perpetrators stunned and triumphant in the brutality of their actions. This is neatly juxtaposed with the fizzing unpredictability of the street protestors in tracksuit tops and leggings, exploding like Molotov cocktails in the spaces around the auditorium, storming the stage, spraying graffiti and switching allegiances back and forth in the duration of a single speech.

The talents of the theatre school students are also much in evidence in the production’s distinctive creative design. The simple monolithic panels of Sarah Mercadé’s set, sparingly accessorised to accommodate scene changes from a raging storm to Caesar’s residence, combines with Jessica Edkins’ raucous sound design – the sirens and gunshots of approaching mob rule – and strong, mood-intensifying lighting from Paul Pyant.

After the interval, there is a little space for quiet contemplation as Caesar’s ghost revisits the battle-ground of the warring factions and Brutus reflects upon his deeds. Then the battle scenes erupt into life and suicidal recriminations begin. It’s to the young company’s credit that this phase of the play, so often messy and anti-climactic, is held together with taut and crisp action.

Subtle this Julius Caesar generally isn’t and clarity of verse may be occasionally lost in the melee, but under Simon Dormandy’s direction it never lets up on the engrossing entertainment. This energetic production not only showcases the best of Bristol’s emerging talents and gives them the chance to learn from established practitioners, it also proves thought-provoking and relevant in its own right.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Simon Purse


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Theatre Review: While We're Here at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


A typical suburban living room in Havant plays host to Barney Norris’s latest excursion into the lives of the lonely and unfulfilled. Carol and Eddie were lovers many years ago and meeting up again, seemingly by chance, she takes him in; no small gesture for Carol, whose existence has become contained. She has remained in one place, ‘hefted like sheep’ to her surroundings, while Eddie has drifted – to Nigeria and back again. She has a broken marriage and a daughter too busy to talk to her or visit; his whole life is packed up in a few supermarket carrier bags. There’s so much pain etched under the surface of both lives, at times it’s hard to look.

This is Norris’s heartland. He’s already been recognised for the success of his previous plays with theatre company Up In Arms; Eventide toured to great acclaim to the Tobacco Factory’s Brewery Theatre in 2015. He’s recently published his first novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, exploring intersecting lives in the aftermath of a car crash in Salisbury. Now While We’re Here, delicately directed by Alice Hamilton, once again examines the minutiae of humdrum lives; two characters trapped like rabbits in the headlights of previous hurt and disappointments. Awkward and uncertain but finding a spark still exists between them, they begin to circle tentatively around where this might lead – if only they could let it.

It’s a relationship played out with studied and detailed tenderness by the two actors. Tessa Peake-Jones portrays Carol’s every fleeting emotion with naturalistic clarity, her compassion for Eddie’s plight and desire to reach out curtailed by the instinct to protect herself. She’s been hurt by relationships before, particularly this one: “I know where I am on my own,” she declares.

Andrew French as Eddie still has glimmers of the charismatic swagger he must have carried as a young man, a façade that peels away in crucial moments to reveal the torment beneath. He’s worn down by the burden of never having belonged; a black child fostered by white parents, always searching for his roots, denied the care he needs by a tick-box NHS system he never really fitted.

While We’re Here is an intensely character-driven, intimately drawn play that encompasses all the nuances of everyday existence. In the larger Factory Theatre, it does feel as though it loses some of the potency of a small studio space; the audience is observing the minuscule shifts in Carol’s relationship with Eddie at a distance, as if through glass, rather than taking a seat in her living room. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Eventide, then this is still another Up In Arms production (co-produced with the Bush Theatre and Farnham Maltings) of rare empathy, the play’s deceptively simple, heart-wrenching ending emphasising the quiet drama of the human condition.

Reviewed on 9 June 2017 | Image: Mark Douet


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

There may be no shortage of blockbuster psychological thrillers around at the moment, but - let's face it - they're not always all that well written. Many rely not so much on plot twists as complete reversals of fortune to keep readers turning the pages. It may work in the short-term, but feels manipulative and ends up distancing the story from any contact with reality.

Of course, there are exceptions and I'd count among those Liz Nugent's gripping Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait, as well as Amanda Jennings' tenderly affecting In Her Wake. And now there's another title to add to this list of exceptional domestic noir: Exquisite, the debut thriller from Sarah Stovell.



The story revolves around two women: Bo Luxton, best-selling author with a family and home in the Lake District and 25-year-old Alice Dark, a talented young drifter with a first class degree in English Literature and a dead-end boyfriend. They meet at a writers' retreat in Northumberland; Bo is teaching and Alice is the most promising of her students, reminding Bo of her younger self. During the week, Bo takes Alice under her wing, leaving the starstruck Alice with a dread of returning home to Brighton:
This train was the hinge between the creative, seductive week I'd just had and the life I was going back to. Already I could feel my spirits starting to sag. Jake the Waster was waiting for me, half-drunk on Special Brew, his clothes unwashed, tobacco down his trousers. I wasn't sure I could bear it.
A flood of emails builds intensity. Bo invites Alice to stay with her. After the visit it's clear their friendship is tipping into obsession:
Upstairs the spare room stood empty and bare, nothing left of Alice save the wrinkle of an untidy bedspread. I took the duvet cover off and started a wash pile in the middle of the room. I could smell her in the bed linen - the warm, broken and beautiful heart of her, ingrained in the fibres. And I couldn't help myself: I stood and stared at the empty space on the mattress, knowing her imprint would be fixed in the memory foam below; and then I climbed into the bed, curled up and wept. 
The women take turns to narrate sections of the book; though there are twists, Stovell's novel is primarily an examination of their increasingly sinister relationship. Has their closeness cascaded into a life-changing affair? Who is telling the truth and whose writing the fiction of an unreliable narrator? Their versions of events vary ever more markedly as the story unfolds, only fusing in their recollection of one single, memorable night.

Bo previously had a stalker, which means her husband opens all the post and reads her emails, but it's unclear whether she was really a victim or the puppeteer pulling the strings. Both women have shadows in their past; unreliable mothers, broken relationships, failed attempts to settle down. It's what draws them together and ultimately threatens to tear them apart. Stovell keeps her readers guessing to the end; each section begins with a narrative from a women's prison in Yorkshire, but it's impossible to discern whether the words belong to Alice or Bo.

Exquisite is a well-constructed psychological novel with flawed but believable characters. There's never any sense of being short-changed; I found myself devouring Stovell's intriguing, incisive prose in a couple of sittings. It's a compelling debut thriller from a creative writing lecturer who has obviously put her own teaching to good use.

Exquisite is published in paperback in the UK by Orenda Books on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to Karen and Anne at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre Review: Medea at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



Of the many interpretations of the classical Greek myth of Medea, only Euripides’ version has survived in full. A woman driven to extremes, delivering the ultimate act of vengeance on the man who betrayed her for another, and consequently demonised as an unnatural she-devil.

George Mann, director of Bristol Old Vic’s bold new all-female staging, seeks an alternative portrayal. His vision is of a woman who rises above the wrongs heaped on her by her husband; seeking justice but, above all, equality. To relate this to a modern audience, Mann’s production intertwines Medea’s ancient story with a contemporary tale of newly single mum Maddy, written by Chino Odimba.

While Maddy’s story of her bullying ex-army husband Jack’s affair begins in spoken word, the lines from Euripides are sung, power-ballad style, in a musical fusion co-composed by the company and Jon Nicholls. African influences permeate the Greek. Performed by a young company of six, this sounds like it shouldn’t work but, on balance, it does. The frame story may be a little crudely grafted onto the classical tale at times, but as the twin narratives progress there’s an increasing fluidity bridging old and new.

In large part this is due to a magnificent central performance from Akiya Henry, as both down-trodden Maddy from Gloucester, drawing strength from a discovered copy of the translated text, and the wrathful Medea. Henry embodies both vulnerability and regal power in equal measure, seamlessly portraying the transformation between the two. Stephanie Levi-John as Jack and Medea’s husband Jason struts the stage full of bombast and blather, and there’s strong support from the committed chorus – Michelle Fox, Eleanor Jackson, Kezrena James and Jessica Temple – creating rainfall with finger-clicks and chanting unearthly acapella harmonies as they switch between characters.

Shizuka Hariu’s glossy white set builds ingeniously through the piece, from minimalist bed to towering stairway, in line with Medea’s transcendence. In the second half, the question of the story’s resolution looms large. Will Maddy’s revenge embody the violence of Medea’s wrath? The potential for anti-climax is huge and it’s all credit to the company that, with the dizzying heights of Mount Olympus and a final lingering chorus, there comes a palpable sense of justice being soundly delivered.

Mann’s Medea may not quite possess the clarity and dynamic physicality of his previous Bristol Old Vic work Pink Mist, but what emerges here is a tantalising, occasionally frustrating but more frequently illuminating hybrid of stories and styles, that brings an original focus and feminist resilience to a classical tale of retribution.

Reviewed on 11 May 2017 | Image: Jack Offord