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

Friday, 13 July 2018

Theatre Review: Three Sisters at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The British Theatre Guide

There’s little in this show’s title and its innocuous-sounding ‘After Chekhov’ disclaimer to suggest the anarchic, exhilarating and playfully intelligent subversion that lies within.

While RashDash is well-versed in tackling the social and political ideas behind traditional narratives, this is its first foray into interpreting a classic. It takes a drawing room in 1901, somewhere in the Russian countryside, where three painfully constrained sisters are living out their days, and asks why.

If male, the characters would be philosophising, but, with all men removed from the play, their feminine talk is viewed as lacking in merit. That is until the consciously disjointed narrative is blasted apart with music, from vibrant and incisive punk to mournful power ballads, before being cradled back together with the lingering shared physicality of movement and dance. It’s less an updating of a familiar story and more an explosive examination of how the dead white guys still get so much attention.

The framework of Chekhov’s writing and his big questions - of dreams, dissatisfaction, and isolation - remain in this mixture of forms, but these three sisters throw in a few of their own. Olga (Helen Goalen), Masha (Abbi Greenland) and Irena (Becky Wilkie) unfetter themselves in a frenzy of costume changes that suggest this play’s many reinventions. After baring all, they transform into present-day young women. What resonance does Chekhov hold for them? Why do the men still get all the best lines?

Aspects of the dissection of the staging and meaning of theatre recall the perceptiveness of Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play. Time passes with an endlessly looping Tick Tock on an LED screen, while Irena is still being enchanted by a spinning top. But now, questions of love and destiny are wrapped up in creating events on Facebook and swiping on Tinder.

Interspersed with the music and dance are witty explorations of the weight of the playwright’s canon. The sisters become Chekhov’s cheerleaders and two pinion the third to the floor under a pile of dusty tomes. Newspaper reviews of various Three Sisters revivals are read aloud, mutating into song, from male reviewers opining about who should and should not be permitted to interpret the work.

Not a weak link can be discerned in the three superlatively self-aware performances: raw, energy-charged, and full of heart. The company’s two talented musicians - Chloe Rianna on drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on violin and synth - are well-integrated into the action and given their moments to shine. Rosie Elnile’s set design - a fallen chandelier, a bathtub and a disconnected view - simply and inventively accommodates the piece’s themes.

RashDash’s Three Sisters is feminism unstoppered, riotously entertaining and empowering but also personal and reflective. When the early 20th century costumes are rebuttoned, there’s a sense that the genie is being shoved back into the bottle, but with every expectation that it won’t be staying there for long.

Reviewed on 12 June 2018 | Image: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Theatre Review: Miss Saigon at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

With its epic themes of war, love, and loss set against a heightened score, Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon was a 1980s West End phenomenon.

Now a new production of the musical, revived by Mackintosh in 2014 for both London and Broadway, is embarking on a UK tour. Can it maintain the breathtaking excitement and captivating relevance of the original for a new millennium audience well-versed in theatrical spectacle and further removed from events surrounding the last days of the Vietnam war?

It certainly dazzles from the outset, with the clamour of aerial strafing and bombardment offsetting the manic hustling energy of Saigon bars. Here, American GIs seek a girl for the night, while the girls in return hope every soldier might be their ticket to a better life in the USA.

Showstopping set pieces pile up in quick succession, highlighted in the slick military display and acrobatics of the new regime in Ho Chi Minh City and the glitz and glamour of “The American Dream”, not forgetting that now iconic evacuation, complete with life-size model helicopter, full of blinding confusion and the desperation of those left behind.

But, while there are noise and action aplenty, it never truly establishes a quieter counterpoint in the central story (loosely drawn from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly) of 17-year-old Kim, an innocent arrival from the country put to work in a brothel by local fixer The Engineer. On her first night, Kim meets and falls in love with Chris, a marine who promises to take her out of Vietnam.

While their duets - especially “Sun and Moon” - are polished with a sincerity that reaches towards the intimate, they are never given quite enough space to develop, before becoming as loud and action-filled as every other number. This same treatment is applied to any instance of profoundly felt emotion, resulting in a show that frequently awes the senses but rarely moves the heart.

The timeline of the narrative, switching back and forth from the end of the Vietnam war to Ho Chi Minh’s regime, can be difficult to follow without reference to the programme. This does not take away from a dexterous songbook and strong performances, particularly from Sooha Kim as Kim, displaying an astonishing vocal range and combining vulnerability with an inner determination, making the most of a role that appears all too passive in this era of #MeToo.

Ashley Gilmour as Chris is a convincing foil as the GI with a conscience and Ryan O’Gorman as John makes a believable transformation from macho marine to saviour of mixed-race children fathered by Americans and abandoned in Vietnam after the war. Elana Martin masters the difficult role of Chris’s wife Ellen while Red ConcepciĆ³n as The Engineer strikes a jocular maverick note at odds with his darkly sinister actions but endearing to the audience, earning him the biggest curtain call of the evening.

What this production lacks in subtlety, contemplation and the chance to interpret a deeper message for yourself, it attempts - not wholly successfully - to make up for in sheer entertaining extravagance. Though the universality of Miss Saigon’s themes still emerges, larger questions are raised around the acceptability of Kim’s abject victimhood and an unquestioning view of America and its dream as saving graces in the 21st century.

Reviewed on 18 May 2018 | Image: Johan Persson

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Book Review: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

Readers of this blog will know I'm a fan of Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum thrillers - I've reviewed three already (see below) and find myself reeled in by his combination of crisp Norwegian prose and intriguingly twisty storyline. And private investigator Veum is such a flawed but likable protagonist - his personal life crumbling and finances a mess, he readily admits to many a wrong turn in the past, yet retains a dogged determination to uncover the truth in every case he tackles.

So Big Sister, the next instalment from independent publishing superhero Orenda Books (once again translated into English by Don Bartlett), has my senses conflicting with a heady mix of anticipation and trepidation. Leapfrogging its way over my teetering TBR pile to prime location on the bedside table, it has a reputation to live up to.

Veum is a lone wolf. Yet his latest case turns out to be intensely personal:
Everyone was welcome to bring whatever they had on their minds. It took a lot to surprise me. Unless they came from Haugesund and said they were my sister.
His newly discovered half-sister, Norma, brings him a missing person case in the shape of her own nineteen-year-old god-daughter, Emma. But, more than this, she opens up questions about his own childhood that have long been repressed. His mother was a worker in a canning factory, the father he remembers a tram conductor with a love of Norse mythology. But who is the shadowy jazz band saxophone player that his mother once knew? And why was his father always such a distant figure?

Chapters begin with a statement and end in a question. Staalesen is a master of detail, drily capturing place:
Rain and income tax arrears are among the surest signs of autumn in Bergen. 
while skewering his characters:
He was in his early seventies and the little hair he had was combed back diagonally across his narrow scalp. He wore slender steel-frame glasses and continually peered over the top of them as though they were unable to cope with the distance between us at the table
Intertwined with the personal, Veum sets out to discover what has happened to Emma, a trainee nurse who's lost all contact with her family. She's moved out of the flat she was sharing and isn't answering her phone. But Emma also has a complicated past - a father caught up in a biker gang, disowned because of a harrowing incident in his adolescent past. A mother who became a single parent, full of dependencies. As Veum delves into family history, it turns out there's more than one big sister in the frame and the past has an explosive way of catching up with the present.

For a long while, it appears he's getting nowhere, yet Big Sister doesn't disappoint. Staalesen returns to familiar themes but with new insights, weaving a tale where plot threads - through persistence - eventually yield up their dark secrets. He reveals another side to Veum and the more we learn, the more there is to know.

Big Sister is published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Links to previous Varg Veum series reviews:

We Shall Inherit the Wind
Where Roses Never Die
Wolves in the Dark

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Theatre Review: A View from the Bridge - Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Arthur Miller’s landmark depiction of the 1950s docklands of Brooklyn’s Red Hook – ‘the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world’ – is authentically recreated in Mike Tweddle’s first production for the Tobacco Factory. The stage is filled with pallets, pulleys and winches echoing in an ominously clanking soundscape.

In the slum housing of the neighbourhood, longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Letheren) comes home to his wife Beatrice (Katy Stephens) and her niece Catherine (Laura Waldren), raised by the couple since infancy. Catherine is set upon taking a job she’s been offered as a stenographer in a nearby plumbing company, but Eddie has greater dreams for her: that she will work in a respectable office over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Further conflict arises when Beatrice’s cousins arrive, illegally smuggled ashore from Italy. Marco (Aaron Anthony) and Rodolpho (Joseph Tweedale) are initially welcomed into the household, but tension builds as Eddie witnesses Rodolpho and Catherine becoming entwined in a relationship. The complexities that hold a man together and bind him to his family and community begin to unravel, strand by strand.

Loosely based on a real-life incident that was relayed to Miller, the story is narrated by the lawyer Alfieri (Simon Armstrong), consulted by Eddie as his troubles deepen. In a world of dark secrets where loyalty is paramount, any recourse to the law can only result in betrayal.

Letheren convincingly conveys the inner turmoil of a decent, hardworking man, head of the household and family provider, whose illicit passion is tearing him apart. Eddie’s desires are slower to surface under Tweddle’s direction than they were in Ivo van Hove’s claustrophobic 2015 version for London’s Young Vic, the childish embrace where Catherine wraps her legs around his waist seeming just that. But the pace quickens with a gripping supporting performance from Stephens, who mines Beatrice’s pain in watching the man she loves moving away from her, showing her emotional strife to be every bit as deeply set as Eddie’s.

Waldren’s commendable portrayal of Catherine in her professional stage debut should come as no surprise to those who saw her Bristol Old Vic Theatre School performances. A heartfelt combination of tentative and courageous, she brings out the excitement and fear of a young woman beginning to make her way in the world. The moments when she questions whether Rodolpho’s love is for her or the American citizenship that marriage would bring are particularly poignant.

Only towards the end, the atmospheric sound effects become overloud and melodramatic, unnecessary in a production that is sufficiently engrossing.

The outside influences of migration on established neighbourhoods are as relevant to explore in Bristol today as they were in 1950s Brooklyn. That there are local players, many of whom haven’t acted before, taking some of the smaller roles, ties in with the strong sense of community threading through this play. The second of the Factory Company’s inaugural season, A View from the Bridge is a thrilling dissection of personal and societal breakdown with the most tragic of consequences.

Reviewed on 24 April 2018 | Image: Mark Dawson Photography