Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

If it’s light-hearted escapist entertainment you’re after then the jazz age Thoroughly Modern Millie, with Strictly Come Dancing’s Joanne Clifton asserting her musical theatre credentials in the title role, could just fit the bill.

Be warned though, around the edges, it does feel dated. In this revival of the 2002 musical, based on the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Millie Dillmount from Kansas arrives in the 1920s metropolis of New York. Determined to be a ‘modern’ girl, she undergoes a rapid flapper makeover – all bobbed hair and fringed hemline – takes a room in a women-only hotel and decides her future lies in getting a job that will allow her to marry the boss.

Most charmingly, she seems to spend her time falling for the enticing but impecunious Jimmy Smith, played by a debonair Sam Barrett, instead. Less charmingly, there’s a questionable sub-plot centring around white slavery that involves the hotel’s proprietor Mrs Meers (Lucas Rush) and two Chinese helpers (Nick Len and Andy Yau). These scenes have their comedic moments but don’t sit comfortably with the present day, either in the storyline or racial stereotyping.

Clifton proves she can sing and act as well as dance with pleasing on-stage presence – although her Millie, like many of the production’s characters under Racky Plews’ direction, is a broad-brush stroke creation veering towards the overly-dramatic. One shining exception to this is Jenny Fitzpatrick as Muzzy Van Hossmere, who elevates the closing moments of the first half with her luminous performance of Only in New York. Many of the show’s amusing highlights involve Graham MacDuff as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon: dictating letters at speed, falling head-over-heels in love and portraying a flailing comedy drunk with all the co-ordination of a flamingo on an ice-rink.

At times, the pacing flags and scenes feel protracted, particularly in Act One. It’s the ensemble numbers that really zing with clever choreography; the title song Thoroughly Modern Millie is an obvious highlight. Then there’s the desk-dancing, swivelling stenographers of Millie’s workplace and Forget About the Boy, the rousing opening number in Act Two.

The colourful and glittery sequinned flapper costumes look as though they’ve been borrowed straight from Strictly’s wardrobe. Morgan Large’s art deco set neatly captures the New York skyline as well as doubling as a hotel lobby and workplace, even if by the end it feels as though it has run out of surprises. But the small surtitles, providing occasional Chinese translation, are both a distraction and difficult to read in a large venue and, on press night, there are some occasional problems with clarity of sound.

If Thoroughly Modern Millie is not generally held up as a classic of musical theatre, then this production will do little to alter that view. Overlook certain aspects of the plot though and it does provide plenty of good old-fashioned entertainment and a toe-tapping distraction from current reality.

Reviewed on 20 June 2017 | Image: Darren Bell

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

Private investigator Varg Veum is back, and this time he's in real trouble. As readers of Gunnar Staalesen's previously translated Nordic noir We Shall Inherit the Wind and Where Roses Never Die will know, Veum has been plunged headlong into despair by the loss of his long-term partner Karin. If you haven't read either of these titles yet, there's enough backstory in Wolves in the Dark to make his predicament clear.

Hauled into Bergen's police station for questioning after an early morning raid, Veum is astounded to find himself accused of accessing child pornography online. A cache of incriminating material has been found on his computer and he's remanded in custody as a suspected member of an international paedophile ring.

After three and a half years of trying to obliterate his grief with alcohol and one-night stands, Veum has recently met Sølvi and found some solace in their tentative new relationship. But he's still over-reliant on his bottles of Aquavit as a crutch, and there are too many holes in his memory.

Yet, despite the blackouts, Veum is convinced of his own innocence. Will he be able to remember enough to identify the person who hacked into his computer and planted the evidence?

He has no shortage of enemies, indeed his confrontational style is destined to ruffle plenty of feathers. Now it seems there's a dearth of sympathy from those already decided on his guilt. So, when an unexpected chance to escape presents itself, Veum grabs it with both hands. On the run, he now has a fraught and hazard-strewn opportunity to clear his name and solve his most testing case of all.

Staalesen's writing, translated from the Norwegian with accustomed fluency by Don Bartlett, is as tense and spare as ever and his gruelling subject matter is treated with sensitivity. Veum is humanised by his self-deprecating acknowledgment of a flawed past, in contrast to the repulsive and amoral - but always believable - inhabitants of Bergen's murky underworld. There's a palpable sense of place as Veum crisscrosses city streets while ducking away from the police and Staalesen introduces enough twists, turns and dead ends along the way to keep intrigue levels smouldering nicely. Gripping and satisfying, Wolves in the Dark is proof that this father of Nordic noir has lost none of his enduring powers.

Wolves in the Dark was published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

With controversy over Trump-as-Caesar raging in New York, the latest collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and its theatre school seems set on a similar theme. As an examination of a society in the process of destroying itself, their contemporary production of Julius Caesar feels at least as relevant to the political situation on this side of the pond.

Following on from last year’s King Lear, which combined the experience of Timothy West and Stephanie Cole with the zestful enthusiasm of 2016’s new graduates, this year’s choice Julius Caesar sees Julian Glover in the eponymous role. Lynn Farleigh is Calpurnia and John Hartoch the ‘beware the Ides of March’ Soothsayer, with all other roles played by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 2017 students.

The sleek, statesman-like dignity of Glover’s proud Caesar, returning to Rome in triumph from battle, is in stark contrast to the impassioned urgency of the youthful conspirators led by Cassius (Edward Stone) as they seek to recruit Caesar’s loyal friend Brutus (Freddie Bowerman) to their cause.

Stone is a suitably urbane Cassius, while Bowerman’s central performance as Brutus is one of convincing nuance and plausible, if ill-conceived, moral reasoning, as he wrestles with his conscience. Finally, we see him persuaded of his patriotic duty to participate in Caesar’s assassination, to prevent the harm that might be inflicted in future on the people of Rome.

Ross O’Donnellan’s Mark Antony is commanding, while other performances of note include Eleanor House’s waspish Casca and Rosie Gray’s silver-tongued Decia. The assassination plays out as a viscerally ritualistic orgy, its power-suited perpetrators stunned and triumphant in the brutality of their actions. This is neatly juxtaposed with the fizzing unpredictability of the street protestors in tracksuit tops and leggings, exploding like Molotov cocktails in the spaces around the auditorium, storming the stage, spraying graffiti and switching allegiances back and forth in the duration of a single speech.

The talents of the theatre school students are also much in evidence in the production’s distinctive creative design. The simple monolithic panels of Sarah Mercadé’s set, sparingly accessorised to accommodate scene changes from a raging storm to Caesar’s residence, combines with Jessica Edkins’ raucous sound design – the sirens and gunshots of approaching mob rule – and strong, mood-intensifying lighting from Paul Pyant.

After the interval, there is a little space for quiet contemplation as Caesar’s ghost revisits the battle-ground of the warring factions and Brutus reflects upon his deeds. Then the battle scenes erupt into life and suicidal recriminations begin. It’s to the young company’s credit that this phase of the play, so often messy and anti-climactic, is held together with taut and crisp action.

Subtle this Julius Caesar generally isn’t and clarity of verse may be occasionally lost in the melee, but under Simon Dormandy’s direction it never lets up on the engrossing entertainment. This energetic production not only showcases the best of Bristol’s emerging talents and gives them the chance to learn from established practitioners, it also proves thought-provoking and relevant in its own right.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Simon Purse

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Theatre Review: While We're Here at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

A typical suburban living room in Havant plays host to Barney Norris’s latest excursion into the lives of the lonely and unfulfilled. Carol and Eddie were lovers many years ago and meeting up again, seemingly by chance, she takes him in; no small gesture for Carol, whose existence has become contained. She has remained in one place, ‘hefted like sheep’ to her surroundings, while Eddie has drifted – to Nigeria and back again. She has a broken marriage and a daughter too busy to talk to her or visit; his whole life is packed up in a few supermarket carrier bags. There’s so much pain etched under the surface of both lives, at times it’s hard to look.

This is Norris’s heartland. He’s already been recognised for the success of his previous plays with theatre company Up In Arms; Eventide toured to great acclaim to the Tobacco Factory’s Brewery Theatre in 2015. He’s recently published his first novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, exploring intersecting lives in the aftermath of a car crash in Salisbury. Now While We’re Here, delicately directed by Alice Hamilton, once again examines the minutiae of humdrum lives; two characters trapped like rabbits in the headlights of previous hurt and disappointments. Awkward and uncertain but finding a spark still exists between them, they begin to circle tentatively around where this might lead – if only they could let it.

It’s a relationship played out with studied and detailed tenderness by the two actors. Tessa Peake-Jones portrays Carol’s every fleeting emotion with naturalistic clarity, her compassion for Eddie’s plight and desire to reach out curtailed by the instinct to protect herself. She’s been hurt by relationships before, particularly this one: “I know where I am on my own,” she declares.

Andrew French as Eddie still has glimmers of the charismatic swagger he must have carried as a young man, a façade that peels away in crucial moments to reveal the torment beneath. He’s worn down by the burden of never having belonged; a black child fostered by white parents, always searching for his roots, denied the care he needs by a tick-box NHS system he never really fitted.

While We’re Here is an intensely character-driven, intimately drawn play that encompasses all the nuances of everyday existence. In the larger Factory Theatre, it does feel as though it loses some of the potency of a small studio space; the audience is observing the minuscule shifts in Carol’s relationship with Eddie at a distance, as if through glass, rather than taking a seat in her living room. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Eventide, then this is still another Up In Arms production (co-produced with the Bush Theatre and Farnham Maltings) of rare empathy, the play’s deceptively simple, heart-wrenching ending emphasising the quiet drama of the human condition.

Reviewed on 9 June 2017 | Image: Mark Douet

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

There may be no shortage of blockbuster psychological thrillers around at the moment, but - let's face it - they're not always all that well written. Many rely not so much on plot twists as complete reversals of fortune to keep readers turning the pages. It may work in the short-term, but feels manipulative and ends up distancing the story from any contact with reality.

Of course, there are exceptions and I'd count among those Liz Nugent's gripping Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait, as well as Amanda Jennings' tenderly affecting In Her Wake. And now there's another title to add to this list of exceptional domestic noir: Exquisite, the debut thriller from Sarah Stovell.

The story revolves around two women: Bo Luxton, best-selling author with a family and home in the Lake District and 25-year-old Alice Dark, a talented young drifter with a first class degree in English Literature and a dead-end boyfriend. They meet at a writers' retreat in Northumberland; Bo is teaching and Alice is the most promising of her students, reminding Bo of her younger self. During the week, Bo takes Alice under her wing, leaving the starstruck Alice with a dread of returning home to Brighton:
This train was the hinge between the creative, seductive week I'd just had and the life I was going back to. Already I could feel my spirits starting to sag. Jake the Waster was waiting for me, half-drunk on Special Brew, his clothes unwashed, tobacco down his trousers. I wasn't sure I could bear it.
A flood of emails builds intensity. Bo invites Alice to stay with her. After the visit it's clear their friendship is tipping into obsession:
Upstairs the spare room stood empty and bare, nothing left of Alice save the wrinkle of an untidy bedspread. I took the duvet cover off and started a wash pile in the middle of the room. I could smell her in the bed linen - the warm, broken and beautiful heart of her, ingrained in the fibres. And I couldn't help myself: I stood and stared at the empty space on the mattress, knowing her imprint would be fixed in the memory foam below; and then I climbed into the bed, curled up and wept. 
The women take turns to narrate sections of the book; though there are twists, Stovell's novel is primarily an examination of their increasingly sinister relationship. Has their closeness cascaded into a life-changing affair? Who is telling the truth and whose writing the fiction of an unreliable narrator? Their versions of events vary ever more markedly as the story unfolds, only fusing in their recollection of one single, memorable night.

Bo previously had a stalker, which means her husband opens all the post and reads her emails, but it's unclear whether she was really a victim or the puppeteer pulling the strings. Both women have shadows in their past; unreliable mothers, broken relationships, failed attempts to settle down. It's what draws them together and ultimately threatens to tear them apart. Stovell keeps her readers guessing to the end; each section begins with a narrative from a women's prison in Yorkshire, but it's impossible to discern whether the words belong to Alice or Bo.

Exquisite is a well-constructed psychological novel with flawed but believable characters. There's never any sense of being short-changed; I found myself devouring Stovell's intriguing, incisive prose in a couple of sittings. It's a compelling debut thriller from a creative writing lecturer who has obviously put her own teaching to good use.

Exquisite is published in paperback in the UK by Orenda Books on 30 June 2017. Many thanks to Karen and Anne at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre Review: Medea at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Of the many interpretations of the classical Greek myth of Medea, only Euripides’ version has survived in full. A woman driven to extremes, delivering the ultimate act of vengeance on the man who betrayed her for another, and consequently demonised as an unnatural she-devil.

George Mann, director of Bristol Old Vic’s bold new all-female staging, seeks an alternative portrayal. His vision is of a woman who rises above the wrongs heaped on her by her husband; seeking justice but, above all, equality. To relate this to a modern audience, Mann’s production intertwines Medea’s ancient story with a contemporary tale of newly single mum Maddy, written by Chino Odimba.

While Maddy’s story of her bullying ex-army husband Jack’s affair begins in spoken word, the lines from Euripides are sung, power-ballad style, in a musical fusion co-composed by the company and Jon Nicholls. African influences permeate the Greek. Performed by a young company of six, this sounds like it shouldn’t work but, on balance, it does. The frame story may be a little crudely grafted onto the classical tale at times, but as the twin narratives progress there’s an increasing fluidity bridging old and new.

In large part this is due to a magnificent central performance from Akiya Henry, as both down-trodden Maddy from Gloucester, drawing strength from a discovered copy of the translated text, and the wrathful Medea. Henry embodies both vulnerability and regal power in equal measure, seamlessly portraying the transformation between the two. Stephanie Levi-John as Jack and Medea’s husband Jason struts the stage full of bombast and blather, and there’s strong support from the committed chorus – Michelle Fox, Eleanor Jackson, Kezrena James and Jessica Temple – creating rainfall with finger-clicks and chanting unearthly acapella harmonies as they switch between characters.

Shizuka Hariu’s glossy white set builds ingeniously through the piece, from minimalist bed to towering stairway, in line with Medea’s transcendence. In the second half, the question of the story’s resolution looms large. Will Maddy’s revenge embody the violence of Medea’s wrath? The potential for anti-climax is huge and it’s all credit to the company that, with the dizzying heights of Mount Olympus and a final lingering chorus, there comes a palpable sense of justice being soundly delivered.

Mann’s Medea may not quite possess the clarity and dynamic physicality of his previous Bristol Old Vic work Pink Mist, but what emerges here is a tantalising, occasionally frustrating but more frequently illuminating hybrid of stories and styles, that brings an original focus and feminist resilience to a classical tale of retribution.

Reviewed on 11 May 2017 | Image: Jack Offord

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Book Review: Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe

After tackling the dictatorship of the professional kitchen in his Costa shortlisted debut Chop Chop, Simon Wroe sets his sights on a different sort of tyranny. Here Comes Trouble, his second novel, explores abuse of power on a state-sponsored scale in the fictitious crackpot nation of Kyrzbekistan. A toxic mix of Russian oligarchs, hamstrung press and far-right populism makes this a parable for our turbulent times. But it's also a coming of age tale that combines hormonal confusion with acerbic observation, conjuring up a darkly humorous world brimful of cataclysmic absurdity.

Expelled from school for an act of rule breaking, 16-year-old Ellis Dau is sent to work at the Chronicle. His father Cornelius is editor of this last remaining remnant of a free press, overseeing a crew of squabbling reporters and unbowed in his determination to speak truth to power. Not that Ellis is initially all that impressed:
Journalism, as far as he was concerned, was a lot of people making a big deal out of stuff that wasn't a big deal. That, or they squashed an actual big deal into a small space, or said the big deal was exactly this or that, or claimed they were experts on the big deal with the absolute definitive take when they'd first heard about it five minutes ago. Or they used the big deal to flog their own hobby horses because when you thought about it wasn't this what the big deal was actually about. And all the while, in every instance, they pretended the big deal was not chaotic and constantly changing but fixed and orderly, which was never true or in any way the case.  
Ellis' interests consist of gaining underage access to the Chicago Pub with his best mate Vincent and trailing round after Joan, the beautiful daughter of a local business magnate. But a brick through the office window, with a cryptic misspelled message wrapped around it, wakes him from his teenage solipsism; the newspaper and all it represents is under threat. Now it's down to Ellis to make a stand and, with the narrative written from his perspective, he proves to be an endearing, doubt-filled protagonist.

Here Comes Trouble is based on Wroe's experiences in accompanying reporters for the online news site on their stories. He may take on the serious misuse of power, but isn't afraid to poke fun at the ludicrous logic of its perpetrators. Corrupt law enforcers spout their own crazy reasons why free speech is the real enemy of the people and even the shocking spectacle of a summary execution is delivered with a sideswipe of farce.

The far right nationalist Horsemen movement is lethal and inept in equal measure:
'Burn the flag, Rolo,' said Grotz.
An acned henchman stepped forward, tricolour flag in his hands. 'Take this, Russians', he said.
That's the Dutch flag,' said Joan. 
'I don't think so,' said Grotz.
'It is,' said Joan.
Grotz, seeing Rolo falter, told him, 'Don't listen to her. Ignore this negative thinking. Be the bigger person.'
Rolo lit one corner and the flag went up.
'See how foreigners are?' Grotz asked his men. 'It's always someone else's fault. "That's not our flag." They could have just gone along with it. Didn't have to be so difficult about it.' 
One misstep is that - as in Chop Chop - the few female characters, particularly Joan, feel underwritten. But there's a particular catharsis in laughing at events too close for comfort and Here Comes Trouble provides this in spades; a feel-good apocalypse for our times.

Here Comes Trouble is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Theatre Review: The Mentor at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov Studio, under artistic director Laurence Boswell, has garnered a well-deserved reputation for unearthing significant international works to present to a British audience – and then attracting top-flight actors to appear in them. Productions like The Father, with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role, have transferred to London’s West End and beyond. And yet, there’s still been a noticeable buzz, in anticipation of Academy Award Winner F Murray Abraham’s appearance in Daniel Kehlmann’s comedy The Mentor.

Kehlmann is a literary phenomenon in Germany, particularly renowned for his novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), but this is the first time one of his plays, translated with a sure and light touch by Christopher Hampton, has been performed outside his native land.

Abraham plays Benjamin Rubin, an embittered writer who presented his seminal work to the world aged 24 – and has been in slow decline ever since. Having dabbled in novels and screenplays to cover the cost of homes and ex-wives, he’s now accepted the fee of 10,000 Euros from a cultural foundation to mentor young prodigy Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman). But, from the outset, this isn’t a harmonious relationship; Rubin swiftly discovers his mentee, described as ‘the voice of his generation’, far from feeling honoured, is being paid at the same rate.

Unlike his character, Abraham’s portrayal comes from an artist at the top of his game; full of depth and nuance with the subtlest of comic delivery. Rubin heaps demands – more pillows, Speyside malt, no television – on the foundation’s representative Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) as though he were a waiter, before demolishing the basis of Wegner’s work and setting his sights on the writer’s successful art historian wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick).

Abraham’s performance is matched by the rest of the cast, with Weyman and Frederick the epitome of a golden young couple – all light colours and chic accessories, in contrast with Rubin’s wardrobe of black – until Rubin throws a critical grenade in their path and uncovers the fault lines beneath the smooth exterior. Cullen’s Rudicek is a painfully convincing exploration of compromise, as a failed artist turned administrator, whose heart lies elsewhere.

Polly Sullivan’s light and shade design suggests a bucolic retreat, complete with flowering blossom, but the insistent chorus of frogs in the pond is an early indication that this is far from a haven of tranquillity.

There are obvious comparisons with Abraham’s film role as Salieri in Amadeus, although it’s unclear whether Wegner’s talent soars anywhere close to the genius of Mozart or is nothing more than pretentious drivel. As with Plastic, first play in the Ustinov’s season, The Mentor raises questions of life, art and ego; who sits as judge over artistic value in any endeavour? How much comes down to self-belief? At one stage, Gina tells her crestfallen husband, ‘even if he’s right, he won’t stay right’.

Of the two plays, it’s Plastic that examines the subject with greater complexity, but there are witty layers of challenging ambiguity to savour in The Mentor, too; does Wegner ever go on to award-winning heights, or is this, like so much, an illusion? Discover for yourself in this second accomplished and unmissable work in the Ustinov’s outstanding 2017 German season.

Reviewed on 13 April 2017 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday, 8 May 2017

Book Review: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Strap yourself in for a white-knuckle ride because Claymore Straker is back, in the third of Paul E. Hardisty's thrillers to feature the justice-seeking action hero. The Abrupt Physics of Dying saw Clay tackle environmental disaster and corporate corruption in Yemen, while by The Evolution of Fear,  he was fleeing for his life across Europe - in search of Rania, the woman he loves - only to become enmeshed in ecological devastation and murderous land grab on the divided island of Cyprus.

Now Reconciliation for the Dead takes us back to the beginning of Clay's story and his involvement as a callow young South African soldier in the Angolan border war of the 1980s. For those who've read the first two books, this is particularly satisfying; fleshing out events that shaped the flawed but driven man we've come to know, scarred both physically and mentally by the atrocities he witnessed. Yet, if this is your first encounter with Clay, the story still stands alone as an immersive and gripping thriller, that never lets up on the tension.

At the novel's opening, we find Clay returning to South Africa in the 1990s to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about events leading to his dishonourable discharge from the army and enforced exile. He has a debt to pay, to tell the truth on behalf of those who died for their beliefs. But, at the same time, he's forced to face up to his own actions 15 years earlier and to question whether he could have done more to save those he loved.

It's 1981 and the Cold War is at its height. As young paratroopers, Clay and his friend Eben are fighting the communist insurgency in Angola that threatens South Africa's Apartheid regime. Deep in enemy territory, they find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that undermines a previous unthinking faith in their country's cause. Bearing witness to ever greater and more visceral inhumanity, unable to stand by passively, they begin to reconsider their own allegiances. It sets them on a trail delving into a web of such unimaginable immorality, not only their own survival but that of an entire population is at risk.

What's really shocking is that the cold brutality depicted here is not the product of an unusually febrile and twisted mind, but, like Hardisty's previous books, based on true events. The level of detail from this ignominious period of South Africa's history is astonishing; from the terror and confusion of battle to the precise and horrific reasons for having specific items of equipment in a laboratory. It brings the story vividly to life; a corrupt regime doing whatever it can to protect its ideology. Those in positions of power killing without compunction to hold on to what they have. Faced with such ruthlessness, how far is Clay justified in using violence himself to defeat it?

Such philosophical questions raise Reconciliation for the Dead from being merely a hard-hitting, entertaining read to something more profound. It's interspersed with transcripts from Clay's interviews with the Commission; is he a reliable witness or has post-traumatic stress warped his memories and confused what really happened? The Commissioners seem divided; we find out little about them, but by their names discern they might be adopting different positions along ethnic lines.

There's less romantic distraction than in the first two books, with Rania only featuring at the beginning and end. Clay's relationship with fiancée Sara is unpromising - you can tell this, from the moment she visits him in the hospital and 'she looked heavier than he remembered her.' The most prominent female protagonist Vivian is a likely candidate but comes with her own troubled background and agenda.The storyline is all the better for it, concentrating instead on what Hardisty does best; tautly written, meticulously researched action and reaction in a spiraling collision of opposing forces, that has you hooked until the final page.

Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E.Hardisty is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30th May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Book Review: Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone's Strange Heart Beating has one of those singular covers that never fails to draw comment, even though reactions in my small sample veered between captivated and unconvinced. Maybe its contents will prove equally divisive, but I for one adored this striking debut novel from a bewitching and deceptively complex young voice.

Leda Kauss has perished in a bizarre North London boating accident involving a swan. From the outset, her death has an air of inevitability. Women in her family frequently die young in unusual circumstances; freezing to death in the 'javelin of a pine tree's shadow' or from the sepsis caused by the shard of a fallen chandelier.

Leda's husband Seb, the story's narrator, is undone. Robbed of a future with his beautiful, sophisticated artist wife and struggling to cope at work, he lashes out at those around him. He is alternately arrogant and apathetic, driven to extremes by his grief. Sunk in a morass of memory, he begins to research Leda's Latvian childhood:
I've taken it upon myself to learn more about her. Even in death, why shouldn't I get to know my own wife? I'm unlikely to find a woman to interest me more. I take a trip to the library. It's the first time I've set foot in the place, even though I signed a petition to save it.
Sifting through her belongings, he comes across photographs of people he doesn't know and a packet of unopened letters from Olaf, a man Leda never mentioned. He decides to travel to Latvia, to find out more about the enigmatic woman he married.

This is a book of layers to become immersed in, tumbling away from the sharp edges of reality down the rabbit hole of Leda's origins. The title is taken from W B Yeats' poem and references to the classical mythology of Leda and the Swan, are threaded through the narrative, although - as Seb discovers - it is his wife's identity that appears to have changed its shape.

Seb's narrative is interspersed with extracts from Leda's adolescent diary; meeting those she grew up with, he becomes increasingly unsettled by what he didn't know, finding more fresh questions than answers. At the same time, he is absorbed by Leda's forested homeland, so different from his own intellectual life in London. Finding Olaf, he is gradually drawn into the sinister and near-feral tensions of an exclusively male circle of hunting friends.

Strange Heart Beating is distinctive in its imagery, filled with the bitterness and melancholy of lost love, darkly witty and immersive from the first page. Eli Goldstone, a graduate of the City University Creative Writing MA, has produced a remarkable debut. She anatomizes grief from the inside out, stripping it back to the sinew, hinting at the magical realism of Angela Carter's writing but establishing a penetrating and fearless style that is firmly her own.

Strange Heart Beating is published by Granta Books on 4 May 2017. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Opera Review: WNO's La bohème at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was written for The Reviews Hub

Welsh National Opera (WNO)’s evocative 2012 production of Puccini’s La bohème returns to the stage for a well-deserved revival, as part of the company’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Here, Annabel Arden’s original combination of strong vocal performances, atmospheric staging and clear storytelling is continued under the direction of Caroline Chaney.

In a fin de siècle Paris recreated from projected rooftops and star-lit skies, the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, both penniless, meet on Christmas Eve and fall in love. There’s an instant chemistry between Jessica Muirhead’s Mimi and Matteo Lippi’s Rodolfo that convinces from the start; both are dramatically and vocally assured, as they combine with passion in the duet O Soave Fanciulla (Oh Loveliest of Maidens). Muirhead’s sweet soprano soars above the orchestra with a celestial purity that foreshadows her demise, while Lippi embraces the complex range required for an empathetic portrayal of Rodolfo.

To celebrate, they leave the humble garret Rodolfo shares with his fellow bohemians and join the warmth and excitement of Café Momus in the Latin quarter. Here, Rodolfo’s artist friend Marcello is reunited with his former love Musetta, who has tired of her elderly, rich admirer. In this most tempestuous of relationships, Gary Griffiths as Marcello is a charismatic presence, well matched with the flirtations of Lauren Fagan’s spirited Musetta, who waits until the final Act to reveal her tenderness of heart.

There are delightful supporting performances from Jihoon Kim as the philosopher Colline and Gareth Brynmor John as the musician Shaunard, who provide a palpable sense of friendship and joie de vivre alongside their technical skill. Act II in the Café Momus is a visual feast, festooned with coloured lights. WNO’s always admirable chorus is richly detailed and augmented by the lively, skittering presence of a group of children, in thrall to the toy seller Parpignol (Michael Clifton-Thompson) and his wares.

Design and lighting by Stephen Brimson Lewis and Tim Mitchell contrast the riotous colour of the café with the snowy austerity of the tollgate in Act III, as Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship sours under the weight of his unwarranted jealousy. Conductor Manlio Benzi’s interpretation ensures that WNO’s orchestra always enhances the rousing emotions on stage, as Mimi’s illness takes hold and she is reunited in Act IV with Rodolfo and his friends for one final, fleeting time.

WNO’s La bohème may not push the boundaries of what opera can do, but its traditional retelling focuses on the beauty of Puccini’s score and vividly brings to life the tragedy of the lovers’ story. This is a memorable revival that sates the senses, imprinting in the mind both the searing joy of friendship and love and the poignancy of loss.

Reviewed on 29 March 2017 | Image: Robert Workman

Monday, 10 April 2017

Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, and this brand-new version of What the Butler Saw, a joint production between Theatre Royal Bath and Leicester Curve, commemorates his final full-length play. But as a dark farce, this work is now showing its age; shocking at the time for its anti-establishment sentiment, today the aspect that strikes the most jarring note is the inherent sexism and gender stereotyping of the 1960s.

Viewed through this filter, there’s still enjoyment in a story that takes place entirely in the white box of a psychiatrist’s clinic. Here, the initial calm and order quickly descend into mayhem, as Dr. Prentice’s attempted seduction of his new secretary is thwarted by the untimely arrival of his voracious wife, fresh from her own suspect dalliance with a bell-boy in a linen cupboard.

Characteristically, it’s the cover-up that provides the greatest comedy; the handiest solution to most problems being to adopt a cross-dressing disguise that involves plenty of farcical stripping-off and trouser-dropping. A vase becomes a useful receptacle for all manner of clothing and there are moments of exquisite hilarity with the flowers it should innocently contain. Doors are entered and exited at great speed. Throw in a maniacal government analyst, a none-too-observant police sergeant and a diagnosis of insanity; the accompanying strait-jackets, guns and bloodshed all provide a galloping inevitability.

Orton’s text is dense with fast-paced words and wit and – apart from one or two fluffed lines in this performance – the timing in Nikolai Foster’s production is generally immaculate. Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell as Dr. and Mrs. Prentice are well matched in both sexual predilection and quick delivery, while Jasper Britton revels in his role as Dr. Rance, the single-minded spin-doctor of a pre-determined outcome: ‘I’m not interested in your explanations, I can supply my own!’ Dakota Blue Richards is a study in the downward spiral from enthusiastic young employee to gibbering, casually abused wreck.

Michael Taylor’s curved, raked set is a thing of beauty; adapting first to the width of Leicester’s Curve Theatre and now the traditional proscenium in Bath, it accommodates the unfolding story – and its requirement for doors to burst in and out of – while denying any specific time frame.

If only the narrative of this otherwise plot-driven, witty work could do the same. What must have been subversive in the 1960s verges on jaded in the twenty-first Century and its relevance is hard to discern. In this unadulterated form, What the Butler Saw resembles a misogynistic period piece lacking context, presenting rape as an acceptable extension of intense sexual desire and incest as its jolly consequence. The fine performances and clearly delivered merriment may still find an appeal with lovers of the genre, but ultimately this farce feels uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed on 28 March 2017 | Image: Contributed

Monday, 3 April 2017

Book Review: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Kjell Ola Dahl is known as one of the founding fathers of Nordic Noir but, unlike the widely translated thrillers of Jo Nesbø or Henning Mankell, opportunities to read his crime fiction in English have been limited. Now Faithless, a new translation by Don Bartlett of one of Dahl's best known Gunnarstranda and Frølich series, takes a step towards bringing his complex, twisty police procedurals to a wider audience.

Inspector Frank Frølich of the Oslo police is devastated when the victim of a brutal murder is identified as Veronika, fiancée of his oldest friend, Karl Anders. His colleague Gunnarstranda is brought back early from holiday and, as the investigation takes shape, lines between the personal and professional are increasingly blurred. Karl Anders' alibi doesn't seem to stack up and his relationship with the dead woman is far from straightforward. There are secrets she was withholding that the police must uncover to find her killer.

Why was Veronika arrested shortly before her death on a drugs charge? Who is the unidentified man who seems to have been stalking her? And is there any connection to a similar murder several years earlier in northern Norway? The possibility that the police have a serial killer on their hands adds even greater urgency to finding him before he has the chance to strike again.

Meanwhile, Frølich also has to grapple with the case of a beautiful young Ugandan student, who arrived in Norway to attend a university summer school but quickly went missing. Under pressure to downgrade the importance of this investigation, he finds it dredging up distressing memories of a night many years ago, that led to his long estrangement from Karl Anders.

As Faithless is not the first book in the series, there's an established back story to the flawed relationships between the characters: Frølich, Gunnarstranda, and their co-workers Lena Stigersand, Mustafa Rindal and Emil Yttergjerde. Their methods of policing rely heavily on instinct; they gossip between themselves and try to palm off the banalest of tasks. Yttergjerde is routinely too busy studying the pictures in Autocar to answer the phone. The bubbling undercurrents become clearly discernible as you read, and the novel still works as a standalone.

The narrative crackles with atmosphere; the oppressive heat and long sunshine hours of an unusually warm Norwegian summer swelter and daze its protagonists, only breaking in a symbolically dramatic storm towards the end. And, reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus thrillers, music adds an important element;  Frølich listens to the Dandy Warhols while Gunnarstranda favours Mack the Knife as sung by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett. 

Faithless is an elaborately plotted, well-constructed and gratifying read that questions the basis of friendship and reflects on wrong actions being taken for the right reasons. Dahl always has a confident grasp of his material, even while he is demonstrating the eggshell-thin fragility of the line between good and evil.

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett) is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format on 15 May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre Review: Escaped Alone at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

It’s all too easy to dismiss four women of 70 years or more, sitting in a garden on a summer’s afternoon. At this time of life, women are often condemned to a cloak of creeping invisibility – good for a little childcare, but otherwise functionally irrelevant. In a compelling 50 minutes, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone turns this trope on its head; enriching her all-female cast with profound interior lives and the jaggedly recurrent theme of an apocalypse, as told by an elderly woman sporting baggy leggings and a self-inflicted haircut.

It begins with Linda Bassett as the seemingly unshakeable Mrs Jarrett, spotting three women she vaguely knows behind a high garden fence, and popping through the gate to join them. After hardly a murmur, she’s accepted by the others; Deborah Findlay’s Sally, who used to work in medicine but whose charming exterior masks an extreme aversion to cats; phlegmatic ex-hairdresser Vi (June Watson), who doesn’t like kitchens any more for murderous reasons that will become apparent and shy retired office worker Lena (Kika Markham), who thinks it would be better to be in an empty room because ‘then there’s fewer things to mean nothing at all’.

Under a blue sky, they sit and chat about grand-children and TV serials, but their conversation is elliptical, sentences unfinished and pauses non-naturalistic. Then, as the others fade away into darkness, each woman has their own moment in the spotlight to portray their innermost thoughts and deepest anxieties. When it’s her turn, Mrs Jarrett is the least articulate, only able to utter of her ‘terrible rage’.

Her words, it seems, have already been spat out in the episodic retellings that punctuate proceedings; director James Macdonald combines with designer Miriam Buether, as he did in The Father, to create a sharp blackness framed by a coil of sputtering light, in stark contrast to the serenity of the garden. Here, Mrs Jarrett speaks of an apocalypse; ‘songs were sung until dry throats caused the end of speech’; ‘the obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers’. She conjures up a dystopia that Margaret Atwood might be proud of, but a bewildering one; is this a parallel universe or a prediction of future destruction? Churchill leaves it to her audience to decide.

As an established director of her plays, Macdonald knows how to bring out Churchill’s playful moments, too; in one joyous scene, the perfectly attuned cast sing The Crystals’ 1960s hit Da Doo Ron Ron, as well as discussing aspirations of flying to Japan. These women possess authority, look forwards as well as backwards in their lives and encompass both the domestic and the anarchic. Escaped Alone may be short, often perplexing and obscure, but long after you’ve left the theatre, it still contains a whole world of complexity to contemplate.

Reviewed on 22 March 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Book Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

In Six Stories, Matt Wesolowski tears apart the traditional narrative thread of murder mystery and challenges the reader to pull it back together, piece by piece.

The unexplained death of a teenager in remote woodlands twenty years ago is the subject of investigative journalist Scott King's latest series of podcasts. Tom Jeffries' body was found near an outward bound centre in Northumberland's haunting Scarclaw Fell. The official verdict was misadventure, but too much is still unknown.

Concealing his identity, the enigmatic King specializes in investigating unsolved cases and in six podcasts, interviews those closest to Tom during that fateful excursion to the fell. With each episode, he examines different testimonies of events leading up to Tom's disappearance, recounted by witnesses from Derek, the trip's organiser, to Harry, the centre owner's son, who stumbled across the body a year later.

King builds a picture of tension among a group of teenagers; drug and alcohol misuse, petty jealousy and resentment. But, does this reflect the normal behaviour of a typical group of young people, or something more sinister? What is the involvement of vulnerable local misfit Haris Novak, initially the prime suspect in the case? And is there any truth in the tales of horrific supernatural encounters with a creature known locally as the Beast of Belkeld?

As the podcasts become an Internet cult sensation, the story twists with insidious revelations that wrong foot and unsettle the reader, leading to an explosive final instalment that calls into question the whole basis of what's gone before.

What English tutor Wesolowski has created in his debut novel is a tense, dark tale of destruction, delivered with innovative style. Initially, the narrative in its podcast format with frequent changes of viewpoint and typography can be difficult to unpick, although there's no doubt it would make an instantly accessible audio book. However, it's worth sticking with the printed version, not only for the eerie beauty of its cover but also because you become drawn ever deeper into the secrets unlocked in each suspenseful episode and finally gratified by Six Stories' devastating ending.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Road to Huntsville - Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Men who kill and the women who love them, despite – or because of – their spending 15 years or more on death row. State-sanctioned homicide by lethal injection in the heart of small town Texas. It’s a huge subject to tackle in an hour long, one woman show; Stephanie Ridings, now touring after a successful 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, shapes it with a perspective that crosses the line between objective research and deeply personal involvement.

With imagery and video projected onto a large white screen behind her, Ridings engages the audience with her deceptively simple, open style. She quotes facts and figures about the men sentenced to death in America; frequently serial killers and rapists many times over. Yet, in representing the ‘ultimate alpha male’, these men are also strangely attractive to some women. On dedicated websites, they are befriended as pen pals; this is just what Ridings does, in the interests of researching her theatre piece.

She has a rocky relationship with her long-term partner Stompy – so called because of the way he moves around their house – an addiction to cat gifs and a gaping hole in her life. One that it seems a penfriend called Jonny might be able to fill. Never mind that he’s committed murder during a robbery; after an exchange of letters, suddenly Ridings is there in Huntsville with his sister. Combining tourist snaps with pictures of the apparatus of death, standing outside the walls of the prison, bearing witness to another man’s execution.

Ridings, it seems, becomes what she is investigating, taking on the morality she set out to question. Her relationship with Jonny grows increasingly surreal, while the much berated Stompy becomes the ever-patient voice of reason. How much is authentic and how much fabricated in the name of research? Sometimes difficult to unpick, it feels as though there are more ideas to explore here than Ridings knows what to do with. Her tone is often jovial, potentially desensitising the audience and filtering their reactions.

Ultimately, The Road to Huntsville is a quietly disturbing piece of theatre for incidental, unexpected reasons; questioning the boundaries in research conducted in a distant domestic setting, every bit as much as the legitimacy of capital punishment in a claustrophobic corner of a Texan prison.

Runs until Friday 17 March 2017 as part of a tour | Image: Graeme Braidwood

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Book Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

With her hotly anticipated second novel Greatest Hits, due for release in June 2017, Laura Barnett has created another innovative structure for her fiction. In her debut, Sunday Times bestseller The Versions of Us, she wove together three separate versions of the lives of Eva and Jim, whose paths cross when they are nineteen and students at Cambridge. Her taut fork-in-the-road storytelling was likened to the film Sliding Doors, Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life and David Nicholl's One Day. 

In Greatest Hits, Barnett chronicles the life of singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler, through the choices of tracks she makes for her new compilation album. During a single day in her recording studio at home in Kent, Cass selects the sixteen songs that mean the most to her personally; each one starting a new chapter in the book and recalling an important episode of her life. Because Cass' songs are autobiographical - often revealingly, painfully so.

Cass' unhappy childhood as a girl called Maria, her parents' loveless marriage and mother's betrayal all inform her first track Common Ground. By her second choice, Architect, she is already reinventing herself, moving to live with her aunt and uncle and becoming Cassandra:
I was an architect
I changed my name
With just a pencil and line
I'm going to knock it down
Build it back up from the ground
In her third track, Living Free, she is discovering her talent and ambition, collaborating musically and falling in love with Ivor, the man who sets her on the road to stardom. 

Cass becomes famous in the 1970s, an English Joan Baez or Carly Simon in an era of hippies and psychedelic drugs. Cleverly, Barnett has collaborated with Mercury Prize nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams to create Cass' tracks. An album is due for release at the same time as the book; hearing these songs promises to layer the narrative with fresh perspective.  

Cass' renown as a solo artist accelerates and she tours relentlessly:
So this, it seemed, was success.
Mornings waking in a featureless succession of hotel rooms, unsure of where she was, drawing gradually back into the present. The next city; the next town; the day's ever-changing schedule of commitments replacing the free, formless landscapes of her dreams.
Cass has a daughter, fashions in music change and life with Ivor requires compromises that take their toll on a long but fractured relationship. Then tragedy strikes, causing Cass to shut herself away for many years, the music that was always in her head replaced with silence. Choosing tracks for this new album promises a fresh start, the chance to forgive herself and move on. It's intriguing to discover whether she can finally do so. 

Greatest Hits is a compelling story with an authentic cast of rounded characters; none more so than Cass herself, broken from childhood yet still determined to stand tall. Barnett's writing is always absorbing, particularly during Cass' early years. Occasionally, I found the plethora of session musicians and producers involved in the decades of her career too many to hold in my head. Yet, I was always invested in Cass' struggles to overcome setbacks, reaching tentatively for new relationships despite the fear of further hurt. If you like your fiction well-structured and accessible, poignant but ultimately life-affirming, then Greatest Hits is for you. 

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published in hardback/ebook by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 15 June 2017. Songs from the novel Greatest Hits by Kathryn Williams and Laura Barnett is released in June 2017 through One Little Indian. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Theatre Review: Plastic at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The ambition behind Marius von Mayenburg’s Plastic is dazzling: using the artifice of theatre, its shared space and storytelling communion, to question the boundaries between art and life. If you listen to the narrative of the play’s central character Serge Haulupa, conceptual artist and orchestrator of domestic mayhem, that is. The play has other, complex identities: the middle-class couple, striving to get to grips with everyday existence: the teenager facing the onslaught of puberty: and the cleaner whose role is pivotal, but often overlooked.

Michael and Ulrike are a married couple whose comfortable life is falling apart. He’s a doctor, looking for meaning in a wider context and she’s an artist and Haulupa’s personal assistant. Neither seems capable of coping with their teenage son, Vincent, preferring to buy in the services of Jessica, cleaner, housekeeper and general dogsbody, instead.

In the beginning, Jessica is an awkward presence; the couple argue over leaving money in their home where she might take it, bicker about her personal hygiene and patronise her abilities. Then Haulupa, deciding his next conceptual performance will centre around the contents of Michael and Ulrike’s fridge, discovers Jessica for himself. She becomes not only his muse, but also the reluctant confessor to the family’s most intimate revelations, who gives little of herself away.

Von Mayenburg’s writing is razor-sharp, acerbic and bleak, with Maja Zade’s translation from the German capturing its satire; darkly probing the disconnect between affluent contemporary lifestyles and the equally pretentious artistic values that undermine them. Steve John Shepherd as Haulupa is a relentless, restless presence; full of disruptive and outrageous creative self-absorption. Charlotte Randle and Jonathan Slinger as Ulrike and Michael bicker and deride each other with the suppressed fury of a couple on the brink of divorce; that there is still love left in their marriage when Michael announces his intention to work with Doctors Without Borders (‘but you’ve got borders all over the place!’ declares Ulrike) comes as a surprise. Ria Zmitrowicz is the unruffled, matter-of-fact Jessica with just the hint of an exterior life (‘I don’t imagine things when I’m at work’) and Brenock O’Connor is a suitably truculent but vulnerably pubescent Vincent.

Matthew Dunster’s direction is fast-paced and crisp, while Jean Chan’s set of minimalist hard edges is vividly brought to life by Richard Howell’s imposing lighting design. A TV screen suggests performance art installations as well as more mundane after-school programmes. There’s plenty to sink your teeth into, even if the much-anticipated food fight ends up being little more than a few strands of spaghetti slithering down a paint-splattered overall.

Von Mayenburg came to prominence in the UK in 2007 with The Ugly One at the Royal Court. Now this UK premiere underlines his talent and continues the Ustinov’s reputation, in its new German season, for unearthing European plays of rare quality. Plastic is a scintillating comedy of modern manners that circles within circles, questioning which is the greater artifice; one family’s self-image and lip-service to liberal ideals or the solipsistic superficiality of the artist. Food for thought, indeed.

Runs until 25 March 2017 | Image: Simon Annand

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre Review: Othello at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF)’s new version of Othello brings the Bard’s tragedy of malign manipulation and jealous, destructive rage right into the present-day. It’s immediately apparent that the entrenched racism, misogyny and religious intolerance of the 16th Century still resonates in a setting of mobiles, microphones and concrete basement strip lighting.

Abraham Popoola’s Othello is a Moor who has converted to Christianity in name only; he and Desdemona marry in a Muslim ceremony and only then does he stow away his prayer mat and take up his crucifix instead. This adds a new layer of complexity to his portrayal; bold, physically imposing, yet always an outsider striving to assimilate himself in Venetian society by paying it lip service. Othello’s gullibility in relying on Iago’s advice and falling for his web of falsehoods is at once more believable. Popoola, fresh from RADA, does well to capture these nuances in his performance, though his verse-speaking occasionally loses some clarity.

Overlooked for promotion in Othello’s ranks in favour of Cassio, Iago is the scheming central puppet-master out for revenge. Mark Lockyer plays him with convincing, restless energy; pacing, quick witted, malevolently delighting in his own capacity for invention, as he provokes Othello’s suspicions about his young wife’s faithfulness. Lockyer’s splinter of humour, exuding bonhomie as Iago strides the stage and addresses the audience, renders his pathological ruthlessness in plotting innocent deaths even more chilling.

The testosterone is palpable, much of it arising from the black-clad soldiers who display all the barely suppressed anger of Fascist bully boys, swearing and chanting in a pack. Against this is contrasted the welcome warmth of Desdemona’s purity; Norah Lopez Holden brings a freshness and vitality to the role as she turns from the giddy excitement of a new bride to bewilderment at Othello’s unwarranted jealousy. There’s profound feeling in her relationship with her husband and compelling camaraderie with Iago’s wife Emilia, vividly drawn by Katy Stephens.

Richard Twyman, artistic director of English Touring Theatre, retains all SATTF’s renowned clarity of storytelling and grasp of Shakespeare’s verse here, while introducing an underlying urgency and some memorable set pieces. The storm when sailing from Venice to Cyprus is strikingly invoked by the ensemble in sou’westers and rain capes, ranked under a central rectangle of down-lighters while thunder and lightning rages round. Othello takes out his frustration at Cassio’s supposed betrayal by practising his boxing skills on a leather punchbag suspended from the ceiling. It might not be the subtlest interpretation, but it’s effective against the backdrop of an otherwise empty stage.

Twyman’s Othello starkly demonstrates how easily the thin veneer of civilised society can be peeled away, once the seeds of divisiveness are sown. This is an intense and absorbing production with real depth, that signals the play’s continuing relevance in holding a brutal, unflinching mirror to contemporary society.

Runs until 1 April 2017 | Image: The Other Richard

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger

Nordic Noir is alive and well; for proof look no further than Thomas Enger's Cursed. Despite it being his fourth novel revolving around Norwegian journalist Henning Juul, Cursed also works as a gripping, multi-layered crime thriller in its own right.You might just need to concentrate a little harder to catch up with the twisty but well-integrated backstory, if you haven't already read the first three instalments in the series.

Henning Juul is barely existing; living on the edge in Oslo after losing the family he loves. His young son Jonas was taken from him in the most painful of circumstances and his ex-wife Nora has a new partner, Iver. But, as a fellow reporter, her investigation into the disappearance of a friend unexpectedly overlaps with Henning's attempts to discover the facts behind the night that devastated his life. The estranged couple have more reasons than ever to talk to each other, however difficult that might be.

When Hedda Hellberg doesn't return after a three-week trip to a retreat in Italy, her husband establishes she'd never been there in the first place. He calls on Nora, as an old school friend, to delve into the conundrum and she quickly becomes absorbed in the tangled relationships between generations of the wealthy Hellberg family. What connects Hedda's disappearance with the murder of an old man in his own woods in Sweden? Nora forensically uncovers a trail leading back to events of the Second World War, only to find herself enlisting Henning's help as their investigations converge.

Henning and Nora's alternating narratives are the heart of this novel; two people floundering in the aftermath of a tragedy that drove an insurmountable wedge between them. Both flagrantly disregard their own safety in pursuit of the truth. Nora sought comfort in Iver, but has only succeeded in weaving more complications into her life. Yet, while he doesn't exactly seem like the settling-down type, Iver redeems himself by rescuing Henning from a new threat. A fascinating love triangle is established, one that underpins every twist and turn of this intriguing and all-too-human tale.

Enger has written a complicated, skilfully-drawn story that rewards your close attention. This translation by Kari Dickson captures all the pared-back Nordic style of The Bridge or The Killing, combined with the most compelling chapter-end hooks I've encountered since reading Harry Potter to my children.

There are the streets and suburbs of Oslo and the beauty of the islands nearby; in this setting, the elemental perils of fire and water combine with the dark underworld lurking beneath the mask of wealthy Norwegian society. Menace and brutality abound, morality is skewed, but there is also intense humanity in the complex web of relationships. Finally, there's a conclusion that hints at redemption and seems to settle matters, before ripping them open again with a shocking new revelation that must surely lead straight to Book Five.

Cursed  by Thomas Enger is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books on 1 March 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Theatre Review: Spillikin at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The full title of this 90-minute play from Pipeline Theatre is Spillikin, A Love Story. It combines the theme of an identity lost in the debilitating chasm of dementia with the technological innovation of an on-stage robot, becoming both substitute companion and treasurer of a lifetime’s experiences. What emerges is ultimately a very human story, a testament that what survives of us is love.

Sally’s husband Raymond is away at a conference, she thinks. He’s always away at a conference, despite his age and infirmity, because he’s an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence. She appears well-groomed and together, but looks can be deceptive. Her mind is fading fast and it seems that Raymond’s absence may be the permanent kind. What he’s left behind is an extraordinarily patient and reactive robot, filled with his memories of their first meeting and marriage; an offering of consolation extending beyond the grave.

Interspersed with Sally’s decline is the unlikely story of how she and Raymond first met in the 1970s and fell in love; she liked Blondie and he liked physics, but he had kind eyes and she loved the softness of his neck. Hannah Stephens as the bold, facetious younger Sally and Mike Tonkin Jones as shy, geeky young Raymond have great chemistry; they spark off each other and, despite their differences, under Jon Welch’s tightly choreographed direction, their mutual attraction is believable, hopeful and impulsive.

Judy Norman plays the older Sally with the bitterness and frustration of a woman whose mind is unravelling; alternately raging at her robot companion and treating him with the tenderness of renewal. Gradually losing her orientation, her hair becomes wilder, her clothing disordered, her vocabulary diminished. Through an evocative soundtrack, clever projection and symbolically emptying bookshelves, we realise Sally and Raymond’s long marriage was not always a happy one; childless and with shades of infidelity, yet a residual love endured.

The robot itself, a repository of older Raymond’s memories, remains almost infuriatingly calm throughout; played by a remarkable ‘Robothesbian’ designed by Will Jackson of Engineered Arts to mimic human movement. Seated and omnipresent, it assimilates Raymond’s personality and habits just as Sally is losing hers; exhibiting an eerily nuanced range of expression and movement, as well as the ability to sing along to My Funny Valentine. It may not be able to replace humans quite yet, but Spillikin raises intelligent questions about how developments in robotics could help, or indeed threaten, future generations, as our ageing population inevitably declines.

Several productions exploring human frailty and the devastating loss of identity in dementia sufferers have been staged at the Ustinov in recent seasons, including The Father and Half Life. Spillikin moves the debate forward by examining the role of technology; the strength of human bonds might prove impossible to replicate, but artificial intelligence could still provide comfort as well as functional support. The answers are far from clear-cut, but this riveting piece of theatre brings an insight and substance of its own.

Reviewed on 7 February 2017 as part of a UK tour until 7 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Theatre Review: Airswimming at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Here’s a shocking premise for a play; that women who don’t conform to convention should be shut away in an institution and left to decay. And yet, in early 20th Century Britain, this was too often their fate; from unmarried mothers to those who simply didn’t fit in, exclusion from society could be brutally sudden and final.

by Charlotte Jones, the writer best known for Humble Boy and creating the ITV series The Halcyon, focuses on the lives of two compelling representatives of this injustice. Most productions of this 1997 play use just two actors to portray young Dora and Persephone and their older alter egos, Dorph and Porph. Here, Old Bag Theatre Company clearly delineates the younger and older characters by having four.

Dora, played by Phoebe Mulcahy, is mannish, down to earth and working class. She’s already a dab hand at polishing baths and staircases and treats these daily chores with all the precision of a military operation. She’s joined by a new recruit, Serena Dunlop’s Persephone, an upper-class debutante with no knowledge or aptitude for housework, certain she will soon be rescued by her family. Both are dressed in 1920s maids’ uniforms but their residence, rather than a grand old country house, is St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

It’s hard to reconcile these fresh-faced, still hopeful young women with their older counterparts Porph (Jane Lawson), larger than life with her facial tics and Doris Day wig and Dorph, ostensibly the voice of reason, played by Liz Hume with stoic calm and occasional shades of a Dawn French character.

With a simple set of a tin bath and a couple of stairs and the help of some of Doris Day’s greatest hits, this bleakly funny and poignant story shifts backwards and forwards in time to cover the 50 years of the women’s incarceration. All four actors are evenly matched and do justice to their unfolding relationship; as hope turns to despair, they comfort and cling to each other to survive. There are moments of madness, with the women’s grasp on reality beginning to slip away through extended isolation. There’s a deep vein of humour, mainly played out in Porph’s growing obsession with Doris Day and Dorph’s alternating exasperation and weary acceptance, as well as the moving, magical originality of the air swimming of the play’s title.

Directors Andy Cork and Emma Firman handle the subject matter and Jones’ sensitive writing with insight and compassion. Towards the end of the play, the downside of having two versions of each character on stage is that events are harder to follow as young and old converge. The intimacy of the stage begins to feel almost crowded and yet, despite this, it still works; emphasising the passage of years and adding another dimension to a story that, for all its cruel intolerance, ultimately celebrates the boundless capacity of the human spirit for friendship and survival.

Reviewed on 1 February 2017 | Image: Contributed

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Book Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

Schroder is the story of a German immigrant to America, who arrives in the Boston hinterlands as a young boy and attempts to assimilate as he grows up. Nothing too unusual about that, except Eric's reinvention goes much further than the norm; changing his surname to Kennedy, distancing himself from his taciturn East German father and successfully creating a whole new background for himself. It's only when his marriage to all-American Laura falls apart and he's left with strictly limited visiting rights to his six-year-old daughter Meadow, that his sense of self begins to unravel.

Eric takes his daughter on a road trip to Mount Washington, on an impulse that both of them share. Meadow is excited about spending more time with her father and skipping a few days of school. Eric promises he'll speak to her Mum and have her back home in a week. But along the way, priorities change and the adventure becomes a kidnap. As Eric documents the twists and turns of their increasingly desperate journey, we learn about his own elusive mother, the reasons behind his deception and his overwhelming love for his only child.

Eric's story takes the form of a confession to his estranged wife. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator and yet his moments of self-awareness are heartfelt and sensitively written. And his relationship with clever, inquisitive Meadow is well drawn, particularly in the descriptions of her endurance and willingness to forgive his questionable choices, because he is her Daddy. She has a child's perceptiveness and patience in dealing with his mounting delusion.

Yet, for all its plausible premise, effective structure and poignant prose, I found myself losing sympathy for Schroder towards the end. Eric's selfish and irresponsible self-pity begins to grate. He lacks insight into the failure of his relationship with his wife and it's hard for the reader to discern the truth between the lines. His research projects and footnotes suggested a pedantic, minutiae-loving character that doesn't seem to tally with the rest of the novel. I pondered whether this was throwback to his Germanic roots, yet crucially, the main body of writing feels so American, it might hardly have been written by an outsider at all.

I loved the sound of  this novel when I heard Amity Gaige discussing it at the Bath Literature Festival back in 2013. She's an articulate speaker and clearly a talented writer. If, by the end, it doesn't quite live up to my initial expectations, it's still an intriguing exploration of one man's unreconciled soul and his need for validation and identity.

Schroder by Amity Gaige is published in the UK in paperback by Faber & Faber.