Thursday, 12 April 2018

Crimes under the Sun at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Returning to the Ustinov for the beginning of the Crimes Under the Sun UK tour, New Old Friends have really honed their brand of comedic Golden Age murder mystery. This third instalment of their Crimes capers, while conjuring up a classic mix of the bygone age of Agatha Christie and Noel Coward, has a decidedly modern twist of its own, replacing Hercule Poirot with a feminist Belgian super-sleuth.

Artemis Arinae, a renowned civilian detective, is holidaying in a secluded island hotel on the English Riviera while completing her memoirs. But when one of her fellow guests is found dead in suspicious circumstances, she instinctively becomes involved in solving the mystery. All the hotel residents are potential suspects and, with a hapless police force stranded on the mainland by a sudden storm, Arinae must cast aside a trail of false clues to uncover the murderer before more mayhem can be unleashed.

Spiriting up a cast of 14 with just four actors is a challenge the company relishes, with any slight mishaps being humorously improvised into the drama. From a thorough introduction of each character and their backstory at the outset, they swap between roles in an increasingly intense whirlwind of resourcefulness.

Jill Myers as Arinae is the only exception; in the eye of a storm of madcap events, she more than holds her own, an engaging and intriguing narrator who spins the unfolding yarn of explorers, free divers and shipping magnates with twinkling alacrity. Jonny McClean once again demonstrates his versatility as he swivels on a pinhead from gurning hotel owner to louche playboy to a diminutive precocious child, distinctively droll in each role. Meanwhile, husband and wife team Feargus Woods Dunlop and Heather Westwell create an array of suspects, from derring-do army major and unhinged priest to sporting rival and dispossessed heiress, with Westwell’s breakneck turn as a trio of police constables an unmissably inspired set piece.

Woods Dunlop’s original script is a masterclass in nimble, highly-tuned verbal interaction that delights in dual meanings and misunderstanding. There is some padding in the first half, as the complex premise having been established, the characters break out into an amusing but distracting song-and-dance routine. However, as events progress, James Farrell brings his West End experience from directing The 39 Steps to bear, in ratcheting up the velocity and immaculate timing. Carl Davies’s simple but adaptable Riviera hotel set is used with creative ingenuity, as magical spells are cast in a darkened cove, clues discovered on the sandy beach and suspects meet on a cliff edge – building to a frantic, farcical climax that rounds off this entertaining and inventive romp with gusto.

Reviewed on 20 February 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Theatre Review: Translunar Paradise at The Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

The tide of grief unleashed by the loss of a beloved partner is tenderly explored in Theatre Ad Infinitum’s achingly evocative Translunar Paradise.

First shown to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 and having garnered a raft of awards in the intervening years, this performance at the Ustinov kicks off the production’s 2018 UK tour.

Told entirely without words and using astonishingly expressive hand-held masks to portray their older selves, original performers George Mann (who also directs the piece) and Deborah Pugh recreate the intertwined lives of William and Rose. Here the personal triumphs and tragedies weathered over their many years together are laid bare, within the poignant framework of William’s inability to let go of his past life after Rose’s illness and death.

The power of this mime emerges in exquisitely realised moments of detail: the habitual setting out of two cups for tea when only one is now needed, the tapping of a finger melding into the ticking of a clock, the suitcase carrying life’s load transferred between partners, the scent of a handkerchief and caress of an abandoned scarf.

The story plays out against actor-musician Sophie Crawford’s haunting soundtrack of accordion and vocals. Much more than a bystander, she is the third storyteller on stage; circling to hold masks in position as William and Rose’s younger selves emerge, setting the teapot and cups on the table, creating heightened moments of silence and pressing air through the accordion to create a mournful sigh as the couple resume their masks of age.

Props are minimal, centred around two chairs and a table that folds out to become a hospital bed. The space is filled instead with the actors’ faultlessly timed movement and fluid transitions; their youthful dancing and the joy of falling in love, the pain of Rose’s pregnancy and William’s experiences of war, their older selves slowing down and shuffling around the furniture. Such choreography is a trademark of Mann’s direction, used to great effect in previous productions such as Pink Mist.

The era and narrative of William and Rose’s earlier life is occasionally unclear, their experiences not so much thought-provoking as profoundly felt. Most moving of all is that Rose’s ephemeral self is still so strongly present. Determined to lead him out of his grief, she stays close to William after death, yet as he repeatedly reaches out for her, he finds she is beyond his grasp.

Originally devised in response to Mann’s experiences as his father was dying of lung cancer, Translunar Paradise is an experiential and immersive piece. In the emotionally charged switching between past and present, what emerges beyond simple nostalgia is the universal grief and pain of loss; not only for a long-term partner, but also a younger self and a shared life that once held all its promise before it. 

Reviewed on 23 January 2018 as part of a UK tour | Images: Alex Brenner

Theatre Review: Beauty and the Beast at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Bristol’s Tobacco Factory has garnered a deserved reputation for the quality of its family Christmas shows and this year’s playfully quirky Beauty and the Beast is no exception. Think Disney unplugged; New International Encounter (NIE) and Cambridge Junction, under the direction of Alex Byrne, revisit the original French fairy-tale and strip it back to its story-telling essentials, conjuring up a delightfully eerie musical adventure full of mischief and heartfelt rustic charm.

The fable’s central message – that beauty is only skin-deep and it’s what’s under the surface that counts – may be well-worn but it’s delivered with real energy and freshness by NIE’s five-strong cast of actor-musicians. Maurice (Ben Tolley), a bankrupt Gallic shipowner, relocates his family to an impoverished hovel – known as Le Gite Terrible – in the middle of a forest. Terrible twins Latrice and Anastasia, played with ghastly verve by Samantha Sutherland and Stefanie Mueller (in this performance replacing Elliot Davis) hate their new environment and long to return to Paris, but Sara Lessore’s down-to-earth Isabella is drawn to the gite’s humble charms and soon has plans for a well-stocked vegetable garden.

Little do they realise that in a nearby chateau lurks a hideous beast – transformed from a vain and shallow playboy by a witch’s curse – until Maurice seeks shelter there in a storm and only escapes with his life when Isabella resolves to take his place as the chateau’s prisoner. Martin Bonger’s Beast combines the haunted, restless physicality of his enduring ordeal with a light-hearted turn as his new captive’s potential suitor; his song asking to be Isabella’s hairy fella is a comic masterpiece. Lessore, meanwhile, portraying a strong character in her own right, is also his perfect foil. Her Isabella radiates goodness and purity of heart without (despite her sisters’ condemnation of her creepiness) ever crossing the threshold into an annoying goody-two-shoes. The moments when she laughs at the Beast’s terrible Christmas cracker-style one-liners and later realises she loves him are full of poignancy and dawning revelation.

NIE and Cambridge Junction’s Beauty and the Beast is an enchanting antidote to everyday life. The original, folksy score is captivating and mood-changing, underpinning the narrative with a seamless blend of jaunty rhymes, searing strings, woodwind, percussion, and accordion. Stefanie Mueller’s inventive set design transforms from humble cottage to gothic chateau to table-top romance with the manipulation of a few wooden boards around a stage dotted with statues and foliage. Audience interaction (at this matinee with a house full of excited primary school children) is pitched at just the right level, while the simple addition of a wheel-barrow, a couple of chandeliers and some fallen leaves is all that’s needed to complete the picture.

Reviewed on 14 December 2017 | Image: Mark Dawson

Ballet Review: Romeo and Juliet at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

English National Ballet (ENB)’s Renaissance-set Romeo and Juliet revives the original choreography created by Rudolf Nureyev in 1997 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This new restaging under artistic director Tamara Rojo, first seen at the Royal Festival Hall in 2016, is a visual spectacle of intricate footwork, sumptuous costumes, and vibrant ensemble pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nureyev’s vision for his own performance often placed greater emphasis on Romeo’s predicament, the posturing of his friends and fighting between factions, than on the tragic love affair at the heart of the story.

While his work has been compared unfavourably to the gold standard of Kenneth MacMillan’s emotionally charged 1965 choreography, it still has more than enough to commend it. Renaissance Verona with its funeral carts and colourful market stalls is a setting both terrifying and entrancing in equal measure. Doom is augured by sinister and shadowy figures throwing dice and the beggar who, having been helped by the ill-fated Romeo, immediately drops down dead. The menace is palpable as young Capulets and Montagues bait each other in the square with bawdy hand gestures and their skirmishes flash with undertones of deepening violence.

By contrast, the grandeur of the opulently red-robed Capulet ball, set to Prokofiev’s now all-too-familiar music, is the dazzling centre-piece of Ezio Frigerio’s evocative design, establishing the family’s wealth and prestige. But there are comedic touches, too; Pedro Lapetra’s Mercutio is the joker in the pack, his swordplay with Tybalt (Fabian Reimair) a source of japes and general amusement until the devastating outcome is realised. The interplay between Lapetra and Reimair is dynamic and arresting from their first meeting: in Act 2, skilfully depicting life and death divided by an instant; comedy and tragedy forever interlaced.

Aaron Robison is charismatic in the lead role, his Romeo strong and lithe in the technically challenging Act 1 solo, convincingly transitioning from his initial boyish infatuation with Rosaline to the agony and ecstasy of obsessive love for Juliet. His backward leaping duet with Benvolio (James Forbat) in the final Act is an expressive highlight, emphasising the unexpectedly tender bond of male friendship.

Jurgita Dronina dances eloquently as Juliet, at first more interested in playing games with her girlfriends than dressing for the ball and the prospect of an arranged marriage to Paris. She sensitively portrays Juliet’s headstrong nature and growing maturity and enjoys a potent chemistry with Robison. Her storytelling is clear and persuasive, making the most of her role within Nureyev’s constraints, as she shares a single passionate night with her new husband, before his subsequent banishment leads her into desperation, conjuring to life the ghostly Tybalt and Mercutio in a dramatic scene that lays bare the futility of her plight.

ENB’s orchestra, under the sure-handed musical direction of Gavin Sutherland, effortlessly draws out the emotion of Prokofiev’s surging score. Only the tragic final scenes appear dimly lit and too brief, in comparison with earlier narrative, but overall this Romeo and Juliet is a revival that doesn’t disappoint: full of entrancing set pieces and moments that dazzle the senses.

Reviewed on 21 November 2017 | Image: Contributed

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Theatre Review: The Real Thing at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing dazzled when it was first produced in 1982, both for the intelligence and precision of his writing and the performances of Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the leading roles. Thought to be one of his most autobiographical plays, its themes of marital infidelity and the pursuit of enduring love are so universal that, today more than 30 years later, they should surely still resonate.

And, against an evocative soundtrack of vintage chart hits, Stoppard’s wit and wisdom do emerge as sharply observed as ever, as life and art become inextricably interwoven. In a play penned by her husband Henry (Laurence Fox), the foremost writer of his generation, Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) is portraying a woman trapped in a failing marriage. Her on-stage partner Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) suspects her of being unfaithful, yet it is Max’s wife Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) who is embroiled in a real-life affair with Henry.

As always, this is a polished production from Theatre Royal Bath, in conjunction with Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston, incorporating Jonathan Fensom’s sleek and minimalist design. What a pity then, that – despite the laughter induced by Stoppard’s clever lines – it misfires, thanks to an uneven overall performance. Fox’s Henry most noticeably lacks the clarity and conviction of delivery that his central character demands, especially in the early scenes.

Although he does show some measure of Henry’s progression from the detached observer in the first Act to desperate cuckold in the Second, it seems a puzzling directorial decision from Stephen Unwin that an actor of Fox’s stature should portray Henry in this underpowered way. While the Second Act is an improvement, this still drains energy from a production that consequently achieves little variety of pace. It distracts attention from other excellent performances, particularly by Spencer-Longhurst and Jackson-Smith, as well as recent RADA graduate Kit Young in the cameo role of Billy.

Although it doesn’t feel as tender and moving as it should, there’s still some satisfaction to be gained, as The Real Thing’s clever construction gradually reveals itself. When Annie decides to perform in a play written by her pet cause Brodie (Santino Smith), an unjustly imprisoned soldier, Henry’s comparison of the writing process with the skillful creation of a cricket bat is compelling.

Henry’s original play becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that echoes through the years, with honesty and trust being repeatedly eroded. Is lasting love ever achievable or simply an unattainable ideal pursued through a succession of relationships? Though the authentically detailed late 20th Century vinyl LPs and manual typewriter pin this play to the time of its first staging, it’s never in danger of feeling dated.

While Stoppard’s play is eminently watchable and emerges as a modern classic, this production sadly misses the mark. It’s early in the run and there’s still time and room for improvement, but it can’t yet be described as the real thing.

Reviewed on 20 September 2017 | Image: Edmond Terakopian

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Readers of this blog may know I've reviewed several novels by Ragnar Jonasson in the Dark Iceland series, translated by Quentin Bates and published by Orenda Books. My review of his latest book Rupture can be found here.

Jonasson's novels are set in Siglufjรถrdur in the far north of Iceland; a remote town of atmospheric winter darkness. Now from the same independent publishing and translating stable comes another Icelandic author, Lilja Sigurdardottir, whose thriller plays out primarily in the country's bustling capital, Reykjavik.

Both authors examine Icelandic society at a pivotal time, after the banking crash that devastated the country and the catastrophic eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Snare begins in November 2010; there's the taste of ash in the air and many lives are in turmoil.One of these is Sonja's, victim of an acrimonious divorce, now caught in a net of cocaine smuggling as a mean of supporting herself and battling for custody of her young son, Tomas.

Sonja is the novel's central character and, despite her morally questionable occupation, Sigurdardottir makes it easy to identify with her. Sonja's back is against the wall; she's renting a shabby apartment and just about making ends meet. Her ex-husband Adam seems to hold all the cards and Tomas' well-being is threatened by the ruthless drug dealers who keep her smuggling to ensure her son's safety. Her choices are limited; Sonja is truly caught in a snare.

To complicate matters further, Sonja is in a relationship with a woman, Agla, a high-level bank executive embroiled in the fallout of the financial crash. Agla has her own professional connection to Adam and her own demons to battle. Unlike Sonja, Agla refuses to acknowledge her sexuality and, despite her obvious desire, resists taking their relationship to a deeper level.

As the pressure builds for Sonja, she begins to attract the attention of seasoned customs officer Bragi at the country's international airport. Forced into carrying ever bigger consignments, Sonja's meticulous planning begins to unravel and Bragi closes in. Sonja attempts to wriggle free from the trap that ensnares her, but in doing so, puts herself and her son at ever greater risk.

Lilja Sigurdardottir has written a taut, tense and highly engaging thriller that delivers characters you care about - precisely because they have been backed into a corner.

She delivers several twists - some anticipated and others a genuine surprise. As Snare is the first of a trilogy, Sigurdardottir necessarily leaves some threads undone - which can be frustrating if you're looking for neat resolution. But if, like me, you've become invested in the characters and want to know what will happen to them, there's an impatient pleasure in anticipating the next compelling episode in this series.

Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir is published by Orenda Books, many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Theatre Review: Living with the Lights On at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Mark Lockyer portrayed a convincingly complex Iago in the Tobacco Factory’s Othello earlier this year, unleashing the dark and destructive forces of a master manipulator on those most deserving of his loyalty. Now he returns to the Factory Theatre in his one-man show Living with the Lights On, recounting his own personal encounter with the Devil in a performance of unflinching, soul-baring honesty.
In this Actors Touring Company production, Lockyer welcomes his audience into the theatre with disarming ease – offering the tea and Hobnobs of a typical village hall gathering. There isn’t any barrier or theatrical artifice – the lights, quite literally, are always on. He sets the scene with humour and pathos, but mental illness isn’t cosy or inclusive. His story soon turns to the very public breakdown he experienced as Mercutio in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet.

Under Ramin Gray’s nimble direction, Lockyer’s delivery switches from manic intensity when meeting the Devil – who is bizarrely dressed as a Californian beach boy – on a country walk near Stratford, running amok on the RSC stage and being unfaithful to his long-term girlfriend, to moments of quieter reflection on the consequences of his actions. He deftly characterizes those he loves or meets along the way – his mother, the doctors and the RSC landlord who frowns at the pizza boxes and saucers of ‘Holy water’ he has strewn around his bedroom.

As the tale of his disintegration continues, the moments of lucidity become fewer. His actions spiral into self-destruction and a reckless relationship with a can of petrol. Lockyer maps out the all-consuming suffering of his existence with such clarity that at times it’s difficult to keep watching. Most remarkable, but sadly not surprising, is how lightly his plight is brushed aside by the authorities; not only missing the clues but actively looking away, as he is sent home alone from hospital after a stomach pumping because there are no beds available.

It’s a cathartic, compelling 80-minute bombardment of pain, leavened by Lockyer’s flashes of bleak and self-deprecating humour. After descending into the depths of hell, the help he was crying out for is eventually at hand and he begins to find a path back to his former life. If it seems miraculous that Lockyer is now back on stage, this clearly took years of small steps to recovery that are summarised a little too quickly. Perhaps this is because these steps are still being taken and this show is a part of that. As a one-man embodiment of the fall from the precipice of sanity, it’s a courageous and insightful reminder of how close we all live to the edge.

Reviewed on 19 September 2017 | Image: Simon Annand