Monday, 15 July 2019

Theatre Review: Blithe Spirit at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Theatre Royal Bath’s 2019 summer season has begun with an emphasis on the supernatural; while Cassandra predicts the future in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Ustinov Studio, in the main house Jennifer Saunders brings back the dead as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Perhaps this speaks to an overwhelming need for escapism right now, but in both spaces the intervention feels divinely welcome.

In 1941, with his London office and flat destroyed in the Blitz, Noël Coward decamped to the Welsh village of Portmeirion for a short holiday and penned Blithe Spirit within a week. As a distraction from the horrors of World War II, his comedy proved an instant hit with the public and over the decades it has been revived many times. Though tricky to stage and light with its ghostly interludes, here Anthony Ward’s towering book-filled set inspires confidence from the first.

Charles Condomine is a novelist and, in researching his latest book, he invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati to conduct a séance in his home. He and his second wife Ruth are sure she’s a fake, smug in the condescension they share with their dinner guests, Dr and Mrs Bradman. Charles’s objective is to pick up some appropriate jargon and tricks of the trade, but when Madame Arcati inadvertently conjures up the spirit of his dead first wife Elvira, the stage is set for an evening rife with marital discord and unexpected complications.

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Lisa Dillon as Charles and Ruth are the archetypal Cowardian couple: verbally jousting, witty and knowing, but more than a little cold-hearted. Their marriage works because they are both beyond the first youthful throes of passion - but in questioning Charles about his previous wife Elvira, Ruth portrays a jealousy that will come back to haunt her.

Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson are properly upright as the sceptical Dr and Mrs Bradman, providing a conventional contrast to the force of nature that is Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati. Grey-haired and dowdy but red-cheeked from her bicycle ride, fanning herself wide-legged while downing the dry martinis, she draws all eyes to her meticulous portrayal of a comical, eyebrow-raising but real woman with visions of ectoplasmic manifestations, living outside of all 1940s norms.

Charles is in the eye of the storm; the only person who can see and communicate with Elvira, an ethereal spectre of silvery gauze waspishly portrayed by Emma Naomi. Their conversations lead to a comical love triangle of misunderstanding and disharmony with Ruth, but the cracks in Charles’s first marriage soon begin to resurface as Elvira settles in for the long term and her attempts to ensure they are together forever go badly awry. Madame Arcati is at a loss to reverse the turmoil she has unleashed, but help is at hand in the form of the hapless maid, Edith, played with immaculate comic timing by Rose Wardlaw.

Howard Harrison’s lighting is flawless and the supernatural effects leading up to the final scene are simply but gloriously wrought. Coward has long been a staple of the Theatre Royal’s summer seasons, yet his plays are difficult to stage outside their original era, and so can feel dated and overly reliant on the writer’s indubitably incisive wit. Not so here; this revival, under the distinguished direction of Richard Eyre, provides exceptionally fast-paced, illuminating comic entertainment - the most spirited production of a Coward play seen in Bath for many a year.

Reviewed on 19 June 2019| Images: Nobby Clark

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Theatre Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Melancholic, middle-aged Sonia laments to her adopted brother Vanya that she no longer remembers the Italian for ‘window’ or ‘ceiling’ and that she’s forgetting more and more every day. In present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, she mirrors a line originally spoken by Irina in Three Sisters, one Chekhovian reference in a work stuffed full of them. It’s a play that resonates with the Russian dramatist’s preoccupations and motifs; in the programme notes, American writer Christopher Durang admits that he ‘takes Chekhov characters and themes and puts them into a blender.’

Yet, you don’t need any prior knowledge of Chekhov’s enigmatic dialogue to enjoy this UK première of a celebrated Broadway comedy that won a Tony Award in 2013. It’s playful, bittersweet and slyly subversive; so, when Vanya replies with the Italian translations of Sonia’s forgotten words, she realises they are unfamiliar—because she never learned the language in the first place.

Set in the jaded wood-beamed family home where Sonia and Vanya for years nursed their now-deceased professorial parents, it opens with the siblings musing on the disappointments and limitations of their lives. This is no weary meandering; they may have the familiarity of long-time cohabitants, but these are sharply observed characters. Though weighted with the opening scene’s burden of exposition, Durang captures the cadences of their relationship, the rivers of unspoken meaning running beneath the words.

Careworn but fiery Sonia exudes pent-up rage for a life that never happened, while Vanya, though more conciliatory, is determined to stand his ground. Then their psychic housekeeper Cassandra injects a dose of comically overblown Greek tragedy with grim prophecies of forthcoming doom. When their glamorous movie-star sister Masha arrives complete with Spike, her latest toy boy, and their pretty young theatre-infatuated neighbour Nina strolls into their lives, the catalyst for change is in place as an entertainingly eventful weekend begins to unravel.

As Masha announces she has decided to sell the family home, lingering regrets clash with boisterous youthfulness to rip apart the thinly papered cracks of old resentments. Cassandra’s premonitions, it seems, are being fulfilled.

Such is the Ustinov’s reputation for finding and producing dazzling works previously unseen in this country, the play has attracted a garlanded Broadway director in Walter Bobbie and an outstanding cast; West End favourite Janie Dee shines as charismatic, self-obsessed Masha who insists on everyone dressing as acolytes to her Snow White for a costume party, while Rebecca Lacey becomes increasingly animated as Sonia, finding her alter ego in diamante, lace and a hilarious Maggie Smith impersonation. Michelle Asante has fun imbuing the somewhat archetypal character of Cassandra with larger-than-life foreboding and Lewis Reeves’s physical comedy is superb as superficial, clothes-shedding Spike.

Mark Hadfield, only recently slain in the bloodletting of the RSC’s Tamburlaine, excels as Vanya - given the honorary title of ‘Uncle’ by Aysha Kala’s sweetly earnest Nina. He echoes his Chekhovian namesake in a heartfelt tirade, railing against the loss of shared memories in a world of constant change.

Yet, shared memories still link the three siblings and, unlike Chekhov, Durang steps back from the edge and allows green shoots of hope and reconciliation to emerge through the weekend’s fast paced, verging-on-farcical turbulence. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike marks the beginning of Theatre Royal Bath’s 2019 summer season, and (unlike the weather) it’s off to a shimmering start.

Runs until 6 July 2019 | Images: Nobby Clark

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Theatre Review: In The Willows at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Metta Theatre’s hip hop reworking of Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical children’s fable The Wind in the Willows is a theatrical breath of fresh air. Transferred from a genteel Edwardian riverbank to gritty inner-city mean streets, this tale of Rattie, Toad and Mole in human form starts slowly but builds momentum to deliver a family high school musical full of exuberance and diversity.

Mole arrives for her first day at The Willows, a failing senior school, with even more anxiety than most, for she has a dark secret that prevents her making friends. Victoria Boyce’s portrayal is full of affecting vulnerability; burdened by guilt from her early childhood, Mole doesn’t fit in, but, under the wise and watchful gaze of kindly teacher Mr Badger (a terrific performance from Clive Rowe), begins to find acceptance.

Zara MacIntosh’s compelling cool girl Rattie, conflicted about her Cambridge University application, reassures Mole that everyone has issues. Chris Fonseca’s genial Otter teaches her street dance and sign language, while Harry Jardine’s flashy and misguided Toad rules the decks at The Riverbank club but leads her astray with material possessions, only later revealing the hidden longing that lies beneath.

All this backstory means the narrative is slow to get going, with Poppy Burton-Morgan’s clever adaptation only gathering pace towards the end of the first half. Infectious from the off, though, are her witty lyrics, coupled with Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick’s music incorporating elements of hip hop, rap and grime. Energetic numbers such as “In the Willows” and “Easy Life”, performed with verve by the vocally talented cast, combine uplifting harmonies to linger long in the mind.

It’s in the second half that the story really catches fire, as Toad is rescued from gaol, only to be kidnapped by a gang of scurrilous weasels. There are moments of endearing bittersweet comedy as, imprisoned in his swanky (lily) pad, Toad attempts to resuscitate his beloved goldfish while lamenting the damage done by the weasels in leaving the freezer door open and neglecting to use coasters for their drinks.

Dynamic choreography from Zoo Nation’s Rhimes Lecointe incorporates BSL signing, either as part of the fast and riveting group numbers or by an interpreter who is on stage throughout. Deaf street dancer Fonseca and Bradley Charles as Chief Weasel dazzle in their moves as they battle for control of Toad Hall and there are entertaining tap-dancing dream sequences, led by X Factor’s Seann Miley Moore as non-binary Duck.

It’s a show of primary colours, not only in William Reynolds's design and Ryan Dawson Laight’s bright costumes, but also in the moral lessons learnt. Though not exactly subtle in its message, the finale is irresistible, as Mole finds forgiveness and the value of true friendship and the class of 2019 celebrate their exemplary achievements.

The exposition could be more fluidly woven into the narrative, yet it’s impossible not to warm to this vibrant, thrilling and inclusive delivery of Kenneth Grahame with ASBOs. Young or old, whether you know the original story or not, by the end of the show, In the Willows will have charmed its way into your heart.

Reviewed on 29 May 2019 | Images: Richard Davenport

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Book Review: The Body Lies by Jo Baker

Jo Baker's writing defies easy categorisation. Her previous novel A Country Road, A Tree delves into historical fiction, telling of Samuel Beckett's experiences in France during the Second World War. In Longbourn, she explores the world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from a servant's perspective. By contrast, her latest book The Body Lies captures the elements of a contemporary thriller, told mainly from the viewpoint of a young creative writing lecturer who takes up a new job at a rural university far from home. 

The job is a fresh start for our unnamed narrator, after suffering a vicious and unprovoked attack near her flat in South London. Leaving her husband behind at his teaching post, she and her young son Sammy move to a remote country retreat. Determined to put the violence of the past behind her, she picks up the threads of a new life, grappling with the demands of academia and an ever-increasing workload.

Other voices pervade the narrative; there are factual reports that suggest the collection of evidence, and unsettling extracts from the work of the six MA students on her creative writing course. One student, Nicholas, catches her attention - not only for his talent but also for the darkness of his subject matter and insistence on the truth. The class becomes increasingly fractious; as others write in stereotypical tones, confrontation arises over the portrayal of violence against women. Then, after the shocking outcome of an end of term party, the professor recognises herself in Nicholas' work and is disturbed and alarmed by his depiction of her fate. 

The effect of the different narrative strands is occasionally disjointed, and Sammy seems far too biddable a young child, but Baker's layered and sharply observed writing feels authentic from the first. In exploring men's casual encroachments and destructive assumptions, the nature of consent and a woman's response to a legacy of violence, she is examining issues at the heart of contemporary gender politics.

Though tense and gripping in its storytelling, there's much more to The Body Lies than mere suspense. 'You could decide not to think in arcs and lines. You might think of it as a pool in which narrative pebbles are dropped.' Baker, it seems, is taking her fictional creative writing lecturer's advice. Even as she writes in the thriller genre, she is finding space to comment on its worn motifs, moving beyond boundaries to divine the essence of what it is to be a woman navigating life in modern-day Britain.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker was published in the UK on 13 June 2019 by Doubleday. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Theatre Review: The Remains of the Day at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

In adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker prize-winning novel, Barney Norris has taken on a challenge: to translate a study of one man’s idiosyncratic world view, expressed as an inner monologue of repressed emotion, duty and regret, into a coherent piece of theatre. In the main, the result is finely constructed but, while under Christopher Haydon’s direction some aspects are highly successful, in totality it feels smaller than the sum of its parts.

The story captures the intimacy of an almost-love affair against a backdrop of momentous world events in which Stevens, long-serving butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, has his own role to play. When we first meet him in the 1950s, the Hall has a new American owner and Stevens, portrayed with ramrod-backed dignity by Stephen Boxer, is unsure what is required; his new employer’s practice of casual banter fills him with confusion and dread.

In a stalwart performance, Boxer is rarely off stage as the narrative switches between this era, with Stevens setting off on a journey in his employer’s Daimler to the West Country, and the 1930s, where the deferential butler is more certain of his place in the world. His life is one of dedication to his master Lord Darlington’s every need, even when the Hall becomes the centre of efforts to appease the Nazis and avoid a Second World War.

Lily Arnold’s design of ornate gold-framed sliding panels with projections by Andrzej Goulding is at first stunningly claustrophobic. Stevens is haunted by his memories of Miss Kenton, former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, finely embodied with playful spirit and vigour by Niamh Cusack.

In their developing relationship, Stevens and Miss Kenton spar consistently and a certain teasing familiarity develops that sees the buttoned-up butler almost imperceptibly unbend. It’s an affinity that was intimately captured in the 1993 Merchant Ivory film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins but in the play is more brushstroke, only truly realised in the heart-breaking poignancy of the concluding scenes.

Some of the most effective moments are when Stevens’s memories crowd in on him—conveyed by Norris splicing the two timeframes together so seamlessly that, at one moment, the butler is talking to the landlady of the 1950s inn where he’s staying the night and pretending to be a gentleman of stature, only to turn and find himself addressed by his pre-War master, Lord Darlington. The ensemble’s timing here is perfect, swirling around Stevens in the eye of the storm, switching roles with the changing of an apron, coat or hat.

Edward Franklin impresses as Darlington’s godson, Reginald, bringing a welcome lightness as he misunderstands Stevens’s attempts to convey the facts of life, while later having the more serious mission of discovering covert attempts at appeasement. Miles Richardson is equally convincing as the entitled Lord Darlington and genial west country Dr Carlisle, whom Stevens meets on his travels.

Over the course of the play, though, the constant darkness, rain and on-set servants’ bells that never ring combine to have a stilted, lowering effect; a greater contrast in the play’s lighter moments would be welcome. Then, the pacing of some scenes seems off; Stevens’s distant, dutiful relationship with his father and the subsequent demise of Mr Stevens Senior are too quickly realised and consequently lacking in pathos. And, when Stevens is uncovered as a manservant by Dr Carlisle, the moment is thrown away; there’s no accompanying cringing sting of shame.

The sting comes instead from stark reverberations of the present day; when the Lords in their drawing room regret the decision to put matters of international importance to the vote of the ill-informed common man, the audience gives a perceptible Brexit-shaped groan. As a piece of theatre, The Remains of the Day has undoubted elements of powerful resonance; while they never quite coalesce into a fully satisfying whole, this is a thoughtful adaptation that delivers fine performances and many moments to savour.

Reviewed on 22nd May 2019 | Images: Iona Firouzabadi

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Book Review: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

When the publicity for a forthcoming novel calls its author the Norwegian Anne Tyler and combines this with hints of Ingmar Bergman, I can't help but sit up and take notice.

But then the doubts begin to set in. Can this book possibly live up to its billing? Suddenly, A Modern Family by Helga Flatland has high expectations to deliver against.

Yet, this up-and-coming author, born in 1984, is far from an over-hyped ingénue. In Norway, she has won the Tarjei Vesaas first book prize and is already very widely read, writing for both adults and children. A Modern Family is her fifth novel - though the first to be translated into English.

The story focuses a lens on adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon. Arriving in Rome with their partners and children to celebrate their father's 70th birthday, they are stunned instead by the announcement of their parents' impending divorce. The tectonic plates beneath a family's life begin to shift, forcing the children to examine their shared past and the early warning tremors they might previously have overlooked.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Liv, Ellen and finally Håkon, the novel then explores the emotional aftershocks of this revelatory decision, set against the increasingly troubled trajectory of current relationships. The whole of the siblings' childhood is subject to examination and revision, their bonds with each other, their partners and newly single parents put under strain.

Liv, the eldest, believes she has always carried more than her fair share of responsibility. Middle child Ellen has exerted an independence that she now feels to be floundering, while as the youngest and only son, Håkon has so far escaped any shouldering of the family burden. Ther narratives reflect their places in the hierarchy and describe subtly different versions of the same events - where is the truth here and who is the unreliable narrator?

There are shades of Anne Tyler's closely observed domestic complexity and the unexpected poignancy of simple acts; the rhythms of family holidays and everyday preparation of meals. Yet, Tyler's Baltimore homeliness contrasts with the clean, crisp and notably Norwegian accents of Flatland's work, with its professional middle-class setting, where emotions that seem one stage removed gradually begin to implode.

It's impossible to compare any single novel from an emerging (in the United Kingdom, at least) writer with the body of work of one of literature's established greats. Yet nonetheless easy to reflect that, in this highly readable translation by Rosie Hedger, Helga Flatland has written an elegant, empathetically observed and insightful saga of the habitual ties that bind a family together, but ultimately threaten to cast it asunder.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland is published by Orenda Books on 21 June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Theatre Review: The Stranger on the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatres

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The difference between life and death can be infinitesimally small; captured in the moment it takes for a stranger to stop beside a man on a bridge - a young man balanced on the edge of the railings ready to jump.

Such moments of humanity indicate that a world of support and compassion does exist - that an outstretched hand can help that man survive. In Mental Health Awareness Week, The Stranger on the Bridge explores the real-life reasons that brought Jonny Benjamin to contemplate suicide and his quest to find the man who saved his life on Waterloo Bridge that morning in 2008.

Jonny’s subsequent #FindMike social media campaign was covered in a Channel 4 documentary in 2015. Now in this new play from Katie Hims, developed by Postcard Productions, the timeline alternates between Jonny's search for the man he has arbitrarily called Mike and his life leading up to that fateful day.

It’s Jonny’s story and he’s played with endearing warmth, vulnerability and openness by Jack Brownridge-Kelly - astonishingly in his first professional role - who switches between narration, engaging the audience and acting out key scenes. In a clever piece of theatricality that brings the terrors of mental illness to life, he’s joined on stage by his nemesis, Panda, the voice that has existed in Jonny’s head since he was ten.

Panda tells Jonny what to do and threatens all sorts of catastrophes for family and friends if he doesn’t obey. A swearing, hectoring and sometimes disturbing presence, he’s energetically and humorously realised by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Marco Young, building on his last promising performance at the Tobacco Factory in Welcome to Thebes.

As his social media campaign goes viral, Jonny is troubled when one interviewer suggests that Mike doesn’t really exist but is a figment of his imagination. Yet soon, many Mikes step forward and Jonny’s problem is in identifying the right one.

Other characters in Jonny’s life are empathetically portrayed by a trio of actors: Joanna Van Kampen, Robert Macpherson and Jessica May Buxton, who introduce a welcome lightness to the play’s emotional range; stepping in and out of the action as they switch roles, bickering about who should be the next doctor or worrying whether their portrayal is sufficiently true-to-life.

Some of the most affecting moments are when Jonny meets those whose relatives didn’t have a Mike to save them; he faces their anger at a loved one’s selfish act and guilt for not being there to help. But he is encouraged by e-mails thanking him for revealing his struggle with depression, creating a discussion that has made the senders realise they’re not alone.

Lizzie Minnion’s direction of such sensitive subject matter is immediate and beautifully thoughtful. Yet the play's pacing occasionally feels unbalanced; through a desire to include all the details, the initial scene-setting of Jonny’s childhood tends towards the leisurely, delaying our arrival at the heart of the story. By contrast, his time at university, seminal friendships and exploration of his sexuality could have been further developed.

It’s striking how seldom Jonny is helped by professionals - one doctor breezily advising him to eat more fruit and vegetables - in comparison to a stranger’s random act of kindness. Yet help is out there; many organisations are ready to listen, and the possibilities of theatre’s healing role are revealed by the play’s moving conclusion, featuring performers from Bristol-based mental health theatre group Stepping Out.

The Stranger on the Bridge is a courageous and inspiring tale of triumph over despair, poignant in the simplicity of Jonny’s eventual meeting with his saviour, ultimately uplifting in its message that devastating mental illness can be survived and, if not necessarily conquered, then subsequently lived alongside.

Reviewed on 15 May 2019| Images: Jack Offord