Friday, 15 June 2018

Opera Review: WNO's Tosca at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

WNO’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ season has Puccini’s perennially popular Tosca at its centre — flanked by Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Given that Puccini concentrates on the personal and melodramatic elements of the story above its 19th century Italian social and political setting, this link may seem a little overstated. Yet Benjamin Davis’s revival of Michael Blakemore’s traditionally staged 1992 production rises above such quibbles, with strong performances full of colour and vibrancy.

Having sung the role of Floria Tosca on many previous occasions, Claire Rutter is on commanding form from the moment she enters the chapel, jealously believing that her lover Cavaradossi is dallying with another woman. Her Tosca is spirited rather than gentle, steely in both voice and demeanour, but she has a softness too—melting as Cavaradossi soothes her with words of love, tender and passionate in her act II aria "Vissi d’Arte" ("I Lived for Art").

Rutter is well matched with Gwyn Hughes Jones (replacing Hector Sandoval at this performance) as the painter Cavaradossi and the duo share a convincing chemistry. Thus, it becomes entirely believable that Tosca would betray the whereabouts of escaped prisoner Angelotti (Daniel Grice) to end her lover’s torture and contemplate submitting to the carnal desires of the evil police chief Scarpia — and even murder — in her attempts to save him.

Hughes Jones also persuasively portrays the affection he feels for Tosca in the richness and depth of his tenor, most memorably during his act III reminiscences in the hour before death and "O Dolci Mani" ("Oh Sweet Hands"), as he admires Tosca’s courage and ingenuity in the face of danger.

Mark S Doss as Baron Scarpia is a formidable adversary for the couple from the outset: almost a pantomime villain without redeeming features, always scheming towards his own ends with menace and sadistic glee. The American baritone gives a full-blooded performance that is suave and full of narcissistic swagger.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s design is a suitably atmospheric and forbidding setting for the unfolding drama; the huge statue looming over the condemned in Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo in act III foreshadows approaching catastrophe.

WNO’s orchestra is at its finest, conducted here by the assured baton of Timothy Burke, rather than the laureate Carlo Rizzi. There are sections of contrasting sweetness and purity, with the strings underlining Tosca and Cavaradossi’s many expressions of mutual devotion. But all the soul-stirring tension of Puccini’s score is given full rein, rising to a crescendo in the final Act as the reality of her lover’s demise dawns on a horrified Tosca and she decides to take charge of her own fate.

Reviewed on 11 April 2018 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Theatre Review: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

It may be impossible to condense a lifetime of legendary achievement into two-and-a-half hours of stage entertainment, but Beautiful - The Carole King Musical certainly showcases the extraordinary talent of this incomparable singer-songwriter. Having opened on Broadway in 2013 and made an award-winning transfer to London, it now stops off in Bristol as part of a UK and Ireland tour.
Beginning with King’s 1971 appearance in Carnegie Hall following the phenomenal success of her solo album Tapestry, the story then rewinds to her early days in Brooklyn, writing music in her bedroom after school.
More than simply a jukebox musical packed full of hits, this is a biography of love and friendship, too. On tour, King is played by Bronté Barbé, who captures all her initial awkwardness and vulnerability, selling her first songs and marrying her writing partner Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry) while still in her teens.
Her geekiness contrasts with the self-assurance of fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (a compelling Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves) who quickly become the couple’s firm friends and professional rivals in the competitive business of creating US number one hit singles for other artists - from the Shirelles to the Drifters to Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers.
The cast is well served by Derek McLane’s slick scenic design and there’s fine work here from the energetic ensemble, as the song factory on 1650 Broadway transforms into a stage for glitzy 'sixties classics from both song-writing teams; showstoppers like “Up On The Roof”, “The Locomotion” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” are performed with authentic verve and style.
Douglas McGrath’s storyline punctuates the flow of hits and has a lightness of tone throughout, delivered by the cast with polished comic timing. However, as personal problems emerge for Goffin and King, the darkening mood seems too sanitised, with the inevitable tension and heart-wrenching messiness of break-up lacking in emotional intensity. Here, the songs come to the rescue, with King wistfully echoing the words of “One Fine Day” and reprising “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to illustrate the depth of her pain.
There are strong performances, but as King becomes successful in singing her own material as well as writing it, Barbé’s portrayal - though always endearing - threatens to veer into impersonation and she struggles on occasion to find the range of her voice without losing its tone.
Yet, under the assured musical direction of Patrick Hurley, the songs just keep on coming. From “It Might As Well Rain Until September” to “You’ve Got A Friend”, it’s impossible not to bask in nostalgia for these superb hits of the 'sixties and 'seventies, or to marvel at the spectacular scale and influence of Carole King’s work.
If you’re lucky enough to have seen her perform live then there may be no real substitute but, by the end of the show, much of the audience is up on its feet and dancing to the sheer vitality of her songbook.
Reviewed on 4 April 2018 as part of a UK tour. Image: Contributed.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Book Review: Absolution by Paul E.Hardisty

Where next for Claymore Straker? He's tackled environmental contamination and endemic corruption stretching from Yemen to Cyprus, before returning to his native South Africa to testify about his incendiary past in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He's fled for his life so many times, it's beginning to take on the regularity of a daily commute.

Set in 1997, Absolution is the fourth in Paul E. Hardisty's series of hard-hitting, socially conscious adventures, finding Clay laying low off the coast of Zanzibar, seeking uneasy sanctuary with a local family. This peaceful existence can't last, of course, and when gunmen arrive to shatter the lull, Clay realises there's still no refuge from the violent and bloody path he's been seeking to escape.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Clay's former lover Rania LaTour discovers that her husband Hamid, a prominent human rights lawyer, has vanished along with her young son. Her journalistic instincts lead her towards unearthing the most painful of stories: that their disappearance is somehow linked to a case that Hamid had been fighting in Egypt and that their very survival is in doubt. As Rania is forced to flee France for Cairo to find out what has really happened to her family, she embarks upon a perilous investigation that she calls upon Clay's help to resolve.

Rania plays a more prominent role in Absolution than she has in the first three novels, her writings in her diary - addressed in the second person to Clay - alternating with his unfolding third person narrative. Rania abhors violence in any form and this brings a counter-balancing perspective to the havoc he seems forced to wreak simply to save his own life. In some ways, we get to know Rania better - her past and the faith that guides her - although she still remains a character defined by her own desires and desirability, as seen through Clay's and other men's eyes.

Still, in this multi-faceted thriller, there is no shortage of fresh perspective to be found. Clay may be war-damaged, physically scarred and mentally ravaged by killing, mentored by his steely-hearted former commanding officer, the aptly nick-named Crowbar, to hit first and hit fast with whatever weaponry is at hand. Even so, hope emerges for him to edge towards the absolution of this book's title, even if it is brought about by the witnessing of yet more death.

Hardisty has become expert in piling on the adrenaline-fuelled tension and the page-turning pace in Absolution never lets up. Plot twists fly like shrapnel and environmental and political concerns are revisited in the chaotic labyrinth of 1990s Cairo and the dramatic backdrop of the Nile Valley. Peeling back the personal, social, religious and governmental layers of the complex plot to reveal the kernel of truth within is as satisfying in this novel as in the first three instalments of the Claymore Straker series.

Absolution by Paul E Hardisty is published by Orenda Books on 30 May 2018. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

To read my reviews of the first three Claymore Straker novels, click the following links:

The Abrupt Physics of Dying
The Evolution of Fear
Reconciliation for the Dead

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Theatre Review: 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