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

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Theatre Review: Wink at The Mission Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


There’s a nostalgia to the opening of TopButton Theatre’s debut production Wink as video images from a previous decade, of two young boys and their families enjoying birthday treats, flitter across the central projection screen.

It seems to hark back to an innocence lost in an online world today awash with social media, easy-access porn and ubiquitous cat memes. A world that those two boys John and Mark, now teacher and pupil in a smart private secondary school, unquestioningly incorporate into their everyday lives.

Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s funny and intelligent dissection of the perils of negotiating online and offline relationships teeters at the boundaries of credibility plot-wise but sharply draws together its disparate strands into an affecting resolution. Mark (Gabriel Howell), having recently lost his father, idolises his French teacher John (Matt Harwood) and searches him out on Facebook. There Mark finds he can reinvent his own online identity and make a connection through the unlocked profile of John’s long-term partner Claire that has consequences far beyond his initial intentions.

In this exploration of modern-day male identity, both Mark and John are misfits in the world they inhabit. Mark, burdened by unspoken grief, only has his place in the school thanks to a sports scholarship. John approaches his job with a cynicism that papers over the cracks of his own insecurities, while casually cheating on Claire – often using text exchanges with one lover to fuel his passion for the other, all the while doubting the feelings and fidelity of both.

Faye Elvin’s direction brings strength and purpose to the piece, particularly in the sections of fast-paced, choreographed physicality as the actions of these two young men’s trajectories collide. A padded office chair is pivotal: propelled around the stage, connecting home with school, exchanging ownership as John and Mark’s fractured stories overlap and foreshadow each other. There’s neat use of projected images to communicate online screens and absent characters and an effectively integrated sound design, all by Harry Jerome.

In the tumult of words, some clarity of dialogue is occasionally lost, especially in the opening sequences. Aside from this, both Howell and Harwood are totally convincing and engaging in their portrayals of young men confused by the complexities of life where so much is available at the touch of a button: searching for identity both online and off, envying the outside of other people’s lives while struggling with the inside of their own.

TopButton’s stated mission is to promote discussion around subject areas that are often neglected, such as men’s mental health, indeed in developing this project they have worked with the charities Mind and Dyslexia in Action. This layered and thought-provoking production of Wink proves they are off to a very promising start.

Reviewed on 25 July 2017 | Image: Contributed


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Book Review: The Other Twin by L V Hay

In a post-truth world, it becomes increasingly impossible to define a single reality. But there are occasions - like when your sister has fallen to her death from a bridge in mysterious circumstances, for example - when it is imperative to discover what really happened.


This is the premise of L V Hay's The Other Twin, as Poppy - troubled and estranged from her family for reasons that are initially unclear - finds out that her younger sibling India is dead. Returning to her home in Brighton for the first time in years, she comes face to face with parents who are unravelling and traces of her sister - in her online blog and digital communications - that are difficult to reconcile with the innocent girl Poppy once knew.

But this world of social media cloaks a tangled web of relationships as old as time itself - full of jealousy, manipulation and deceit. India had uncovered a scandal - so it seems - that she alludes to in online posts full of references to fairy tale characters such as the Frog King, the Wicked Witch and the Wolf.

The narrative is peppered with definitions of millenial slang, for example:
Bitch slap (noun. A blow with an open hand. Related words: strike, whack)
as well as text messaging and Facebook profiles. But in essence, while presenting multiple viewpoints, the contemporary setting disguises a good old fashioned whodunnit that peels back the layers of a suburban existence to reveal its dark, beating heart. Who is Jenny and why was India always so protective of her? Why did India make such an enemy of JoJo, previously her best friend? And can Poppy trust that her passionately resurrected relationship with former boyfriend Matthew - not to mention his evasive twin sister Ana - is all that it seems?

It's a sultry, sexy tale that tantalises as it witholds. There are implausible moments and false leads aplenty, but the enjoyment and anticipation never diminishes in this taut and fast-paced thriller.

The Other Twin was published on 1 August 2017 in paperback by Orenda Books. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre Review: Goldilock, Stock & Three Smoking Bears at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


It may be July, but that doesn’t stop The Wardrobe theatre company from reprising its 2015 Christmas show, this time in the Factory Theatre.

And why not, when this seasonally ubiquitous mash up of Guy Ritchie’s 1998 cockney gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy-tale has proved to be such a Bristolian hit.

Even if your recall of the original stories is too fuzzy to pick up all the self-referencing jokes, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this comic caper devised by director Adam Fuller and his four-strong cast. Goldilock (Emma Keaveney-Roys), a struggling East End market trader, finds herself short of cash and takes on a seemingly straightforward furniture delivery job for local mobster Vinnie (Andrew Kingston). Unwittingly, she becomes entangled in the seedy card-sharping underworld of gangland boss Harry (Harry Humberstone) and his sidekick Barry (Lotte Allan).

The four players blast their way through multiple roles as Goldilock seeks to recover a mistakenly appropriated chair from the dingy pad of three very privileged and drug-addled bears. Throw in a family of extreme Scottish porridge providers flogging hipster takeaway breakfasts and you have the recipe for multiple plot threads colliding with riotous results.

It’s all very meta, as Goldilock undoes her own storyline by questioning the physics behind the porridge’s drastic temperature variation and deciding her bed at home is more comfortable. Meanwhile, Ritchie’s slow-motion character introductions and card game sequences are ingeniously invoked with help from Edmund McKay and Ben Osborn’s lighting and sound design.

The cast maintains the madcap energy throughout, with only the occasional moment of quiet self-reflection pervading the succession of high-octane scene and costume changes. Keaveney-Roys keeps the complex narrative clear and strong while Humberstone excels in comedic physicality and characterisation. Harry’s ongoing bromance with Allan’s none-too-bright Barry is the show’s standout storyline, both hilarious and oddly touching in turn. The three bears – Winston, Rupe and Paddy – are similarly well-defined, with only the Scottish porridge makers outstaying their stage-time, never rising above the two-dimensional while seeming to add little to the plot.

Perhaps this is something to work on before the show continues its upward trajectory with runs at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and The Drum in Plymouth in December. It doesn’t detract overall though from a clever, silly and uproarious show that may be short on subtlety but is always long on laughs.

Reviewed on 21 July 2017 | Image: Contributed


Friday, 28 July 2017

Book Review: Dying to Live by Michael Stanley

Dying to Live is the latest thriller by South African writing duo Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) to feature Botswanan detective David 'Kubu' Bengu. You can read my review of Deadly Harvest, an earlier book in the series, by clicking on the title link.


This new instalment plunges straight into the sweltering heat of the Kalahari desert, where a Bushman's body is found near a road to the game reserve. Back in Botswana's capital Gaborone, where he is taken for an autopsy, a puzzle emerges. The deceased is white-haired, frail-boned and clearly very old, yet his internal organs appear to be those of a much younger man. What's more, there's a bullet lodged in one of his muscles - yet no sign of an entry wound.

Although the case is being investigated locally, Kubu can't help looking into it - especially when he feels inquiries are drawing to a premature close. He discovers the Bushman had been much sought after because of his oral storytelling abilities and profound knowledge of the Kalahari's healing plants - of particular interest to anthropologists, international drug companies and local witch doctors alike.

Once more, the narrative mixes police procedure with Kubu's home life - where his adopted daughter Nono, HIV positive from birth, is suffering from the complications of her condition. Kubu's mother advises traditional remedies but he and his wife Joy are determined that modern Western style treatments will prevail - until a crisis causes an unexpected rift between them.

Kubu's dedicated young colleague Samantha Khama begins investigating a separate mystery: the disappearance of a renowned witch doctor rumored to offer a powerful traditional medicine or muti promising eternal life. Then the Bushman's body is stolen from the morgue and the two cases begin to overlap. The detectives find themselves enmeshed in a complex web of greed, corruption and murder, spanning the continents as far as America and China and back again.

The vibrancy of Gaborone and insights into Botswanan life - the clash of ingrained traditional beliefs and modern thinking - once again provide a compelling backdrop. Kubu is as thoughtful and endearing a central character as ever, hiding his steely determination and incisive mind behind the guise of a family man and food-lover who rarely misses a meal, no matter what comes up - yearning for that second portion of bobotie or rifling through his office drawers for snacks. My only quibble is that the authors introduce a few too many new characters to grapple with late on in the plot, threatening to confuse what is otherwise another intriguing and involving slice of  'Sunshine Noir'.

Dying To Live is published on 30 July 2017 by Orenda Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Racing Demon at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


Jonathan Church’s inaugural summer season for Bath’s Theatre Royal signalled changes from the moment his programme was revealed – without any hint of the usual Shakespeare or Coward. Instead, it opens with a revival of David Hare’s 1990 play Racing Demon, a meditation on the state of the Church of England, complete with a heavyweight cast.

The production takes a while to get into its stride. At its centre is Lionel Espy, played by David Haig, a priest who has essentially lost his faith but retains his conscience. He’s out tending to his south London flock at all hours – without wanting to specifically mention God or Jesus, for fear of putting them off. Haig, infinitely adaptable and always watchable, here portrays a tortured soul cloaked in the cassock of a self-effacing man of the people – more comfortable with A4 summaries of good intentions than specifics of sacrament and doctrine.

Contrast this with Paapa Essiedu’s firebrand young curate Tony, who has little patience with Lionel’s reticence and advocates an evangelical approach. Essiedu proves that his recent stellar trajectory has been no fluke as he portrays Tony’s single-minded insistence on delivering change while giving glimpses of inner conflict. He’s all direct action and filling the pews, at the expense of Christian tolerance in his personal relationships, especially with his forbearing partner Frances (Rebecca Night).

It’s difficult to know where Night can go with Frances, less of a character in her own right and more of a canvas for others to project upon – as is Lionel’s neglected wife Heather, played by Amanda Root, bringing a heartbreaking reticence to the role. But ultimately, in a church that in the 1990s is baulking at ordaining women bishops, it’s all about the men.

Here, there’s much to admire, both in the profound performances and David Hare’s incisive writing that juxtaposes rival forces in a Church struggling to maintain its position. The soliloquies, as each character shares their innermost thoughts with God, are revealing and affecting. Arguments intensify from the theological to the personal as the authoritarian Bishop of Southwark (Anthony Calf) seeks to enforce his will. There’s a light-hearted interlude as Lionel’s colleagues Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon (Sam Alexander) and Harry Henderson (Ian Gelder) defend his livelihood while drinking too much tequila at the Savoy. Most poignant of all are the moments when Tony re-examines his shattered childhood and Harry tranquilly comes to terms with the impossibility of his own situation, while still encouraging Lionel to fight.

Simon Higlett’s understated and subtly lit design effectively evokes the surroundings of church and synod, yet it does feel as though the play is creaking a little at the seams, compared with issues tackled so astutely in the recent television sitcom Rev. Women’s ordination and homosexuality remain contentious in some quarters but events have moved on – to discussions of same-sex marriage and scandals centring around abuse. Racing Demon is a work that remains firmly set in 1990, harder to relate to now than some of Hare’s other plays of the era, such as his dissection of the political establishment in The Absence of War. Seen through this prism, though, it remains a compelling examination of personal and institutional turmoil.

Reviewed on 29 June 2017 | Image: Nobby Clark