Tuesday 7 July 2020

Book Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

If it's a sharp, witty and richly textured skewering of a marriage in crisis that you're after, then look no further than Fleishman is in Trouble. Struggling, like so many of us, with concentration waxing and waning during lockdownmy reading has become something of a hit and miss affair. Yet Taffy Brodesser-Akner's incisive and unexpectedly affecting dissection of a failing relationship between two forty-something New Yorkers had me hooked from the off. 

Thematically, there is so much to unpack in what is incredibly her debut novel. There's the unsettling, revelatory parade of sexual availability through online dating, where body parts are shared more readily than small talk. Then there's a female narrator telling a story written through the prism of a male protagonist - because that might be the only way to get it taken seriously. Not to mention the envy of the merely affluent for the lifestyle of the uber-rich and the struggle of working mothers to balance the requirements of a demanding job with family life. And that - because, after all, this is a blog post and not a dissertation - is just for starters. 

Toby Fleishman is a hepatologist in a New York hospital; born into a Jewish family based in Los Angeles, he has become successful on his own terms. He's an excellent doctor to his patients, well respected in his field but earning only a fraction of the salary of the Wall Street bankers and financiers in his social circle. He's taken primary responsibility for the upbringing of his two young children - Hannah who is almost twelve and nine-year-old Solly - because his wife Rachel has a stellar career as an agent who represents emerging and established artists of stage and screen. 

As the novel opens, Toby and Rachel are recently separated and Toby is feeling his way in an unaccustomed world where he is an object of intense sexual desire - courtesy of his newly acquired online dating app. But this astonishing trajectory is curtailed when Rachel disappears unexpectedly, leaving him with the children she was supposed to be taking on holiday to The Hamptons. Cue child-care upset and the trauma of siblings already having to deal with a parental break up, not to mention unwanted complications for Toby and his current prospects for promotion at work.

All this is recounted to us by Toby's old friend Elizabeth, who layers his story with her own interpretation. Elizabeth weaves the history of their own relationship into her retelling of Toby's current dilemmas - their travels as students in Jerusalem with their mutual friend Seth, their falling apart and back together again across the passage of years. Then, finally and adroitly, Elizabeth inverts her viewpoint to Rachel.

As a staff writer for The New York Times magazine, Brodesser-Akner is used to interviewing subjects and presenting multiple perspectives, and it shows. This is deft, dense and masterful prose. If there is a critcism, it is that it can be hard to care about two self-absorbed characters who seem to have it all and whose chief dislike - apart from each other - is reserved for those even more privileged than themselves. Of course, whether you really need to like the characters in a novel is a matter for a whole other debate. There's always the pleasure of realising you can have plenty and still be miserable. But, whatever you do, keep on reading: the conclusion is perfectly formed and surprisingly poignant.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is released in the UK in paperback by Wildfire. Many thanks to the publishers and Anne Cater for my review copy

Thursday 21 May 2020

Theatre Review: The Red Shoes at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes was a landmark of its time, a surreally visual cinematic feast in an era of realism, with an extended ballet sequence at its core. Based around the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, it tells the story of an ambitious young dancer torn between art and love.

Now, more than three years after its world première at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Matthew Bourne has revived his Olivier Award-winning dance production of The Red Shoes for a UK tour. And, as you would expect from New Adventures, there’s no holding back or compromising on the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes and set just because this is a touring show. Long-time Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston’s design incorporates a traditional curtained proscenium arch that frames the performers for the audience, before revolving to reveal their moments backstage or moving to the side in rehearsal, uncovering all the agony and ecstasy of a dancer’s life.

It’s a perfect setting for the story of Victoria Page, a rising star in the fictional Ballet Lermontov, danced on press night by Cordelia Braithwaite with a lyrical and expressive grace in the role originated by Ashley Shaw. Victoria’s big break comes when the ballet’s prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured and she is selected by domineering impresario Boris Lermontov (Glenn Graham) to dance the principal role in his new show—a dark fable of a girl who covets a pair of red ballet shoes, only to find that, once she puts them on, they have a mind of their own and dance her to her death.

This ballet-within-a-ballet is demarcated by a series of grey-toned projections onto a kaleidoscopic white dreamscape, with dancers in monochrome costumes in stark contrast to Victoria’s vivid blood-red shoes and dress. Her increasingly frantic series of steps, as her character begins to realise her fate, comes to reflect her own swirling and chaotic state of mind as she finds herself more and more riven by Lermontov’s ferocious and controlling demands and her love for the ballet’s composer Julian Craster (tenderly portrayed by Dominic North).

Set to Bernard Herrmann’s evocative golden age music, gleaned by Terry Davies from a number of films including Fahrenheit 451 and Citizen Kane, the story moves from London to the dazzling Riviera glamour of Monte Carlo and Villefrance-sur-Mer, before diving into the tongue-in-cheek seediness of an East End music hall, complete with comic sand dancers and world-weary showgirls.

There are so many detailed references in Bourne’s choreography—from the ballet Les Sylphides through to Le Train Bleu—that it is virtually impossible to decide where to look first. You could spend all your time watching for the next gently lampooned classical pastiche and witty aside or—equally satisfyingly—just sit back and enjoy the ravishing spectacle. Like the film, the second act seems to rush too quickly towards its conclusion, but perhaps this is because you simply don’t want it to end. From the passionately wrought pas de deux between Victoria and Julian, to Lermontov’s controlling stillness, the company’s stunning ensemble pieces, the cascade of astonishing sets, and inventive sound design layering applause onto audience applause, this is a stirring extravaganza for all the senses.

Reviewed on 3 March 2020 | Images: Johan Persson

Thursday 30 April 2020

Theatre Review: Once at Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Based on John Carney’s 2007 indie film, the musical version of Once was a multi award-winning hit on both sides of the Atlantic, transferring from Broadway to the West End in 2013. Now this sweetly melancholic love story between a Dublin busker and a Czech pianist has reached Bath on the latest stop of its UK tour.

The music—a medley of rousing Irish folk harmonies, spirited torch songs and yearning ballads—reigns supreme from the first. Greeted by a foot-stomping pre-show gig from the ensemble of actor-musicians, we are already sold—even with the omission of the immersive on-stage bar that featured in the original production.

As the story unfolds, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s compositions, many of them written for the film in which they also starred, exert all their heart-stopping emotional pull. Guitar-playing Guy (Daniel Healy), who works in his Da’s hoover shop and peddles songs of his own unrequited love, is about to give up his musical dreams until he meets a young immigrant with a complicated past, simply known as Girl (Emma Lucia). Stunned by his talent, she persuades him to sing his latest creation with her in the piano shop where she is a regular visitor in return for mending her vacuum cleaner. From the first mesmerising bars of “Falling Slowly”, it is clear that this will be a fusion of souls as well as voices.

Healy and Lucia are captivating as the couple drawn together by their shared love of music and innate sense of harmony: an alchemy created over five turbulent days. As Guy gradually lets his guard down and Girl reveals the sadness underpinning her outward confidence, their richly textured voices blend beautifully but are equally strong alone in solo numbers such as “Leave” or “The Hill”.

In the Dublin pub setting, songs break out with seeming spontaneity, the multi-talented cast sitting around tables for all the world like seasoned regulars at a lock-in, whipping up a storm on a range of instruments including fiddle, guitar, drums, cello and mandolin. They also step in as characters in the story, with notable performances from Dan Bottomley as the anti-capitalist piano shop owning lothario Billy, who injects a dose of earthy humour into the wistfulness, and Ellen Chivers as Reza, in whom he more than meets his match. Peter Peverley brings a thoughtful solemnity to Da, while Samuel Martin mines all the laughter as the guitar-playing bank manager invited to become part of the band—just so long as he doesn’t sing.

Libby Watson’s design is centred in the confines of the pub, with its picture-filled walls and mismatched assortment of furniture. It’s like a story being told over a casual pint, with scenes set elsewhere imagined in the same room simply by wheeling on a piano or a bed. At times, with the seats filled by the cast awaiting their next cue, it feels almost too claustrophobic—which makes the elevation in the second act to a view over Dublin all the more entrancing.

Though Enda Walsh’s book—unlike the original film—seems in places over-reliant on quips as a shorthand to move the story along, there are many endearing moments of pause and quiet: “If You Want Me” and the a cappella version of “Gold” are both exquisite. As past mistakes and lost opportunities coalesce to write the couple’s future for them, it would take a very hard heart not to be affected in the closing moments of this tender, bittersweet and ultimately uplifting show.

Reviewed on 2 March 2020 | Images: Mark Senior

Thursday 16 April 2020

Theatre Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

First staged in 1962, Edward Albee’s play of marital drama set on an American college campus is widely hailed as a classic. Adapted into a film in 1966 starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it has been regularly revived over the decades, notably in the West End in 2017 with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in the leading roles. And for a reason: this funny, visceral, intense and ultimately devastating play, unlike many of its contemporaries, has stood the test of time.

Now director David Mercatali—previously at the Tobacco Factory with productions of Blue Heart and Radiant Vermin—brings this landmark work to the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre. Over a daunting but utterly absorbing running time of three-and-a-half hours, we witness all the raw humour and gladiatorial savagery of Martha and George’s confrontational marriage unravelling in compelling close-up.

It’s an alcohol-soused spiral into the void as, returning wearily home from a faculty party in the early hours, the couple settle down for a nightcap. At first, they seem like any other long-married pair, bickering, teasing and goading—knowing each other’s flash points only too well, inhibitions extinguished through hours of hard drinking. But when Martha announces that she has invited two of the party guests back because her Daddy—who is president of the inauspiciously named New Carthage College—said she should, darker undertones emerge. The naïve younger couple Nick and Honey become drawn into their game-playing: first as voyeurs but later as active participants, out of their depth in an arena with seasoned competitors.

Albee’s words are so finely honed, his psychological observation so acute that he leaves actors nowhere to hide, demanding nuanced and meticulous performances. And this quartet really delivers: Mark Meadows is astounding as George, stooped and downtrodden as he paces the stage, bruised and battered by his lack of advancement as an associate professor in the History department and his wife’s subsequent taunting and infidelities. But clever, lively and vindictive, his pugilistic essence endures; stung by Martha’s interest in the younger man, he squares up to biologist Nick, needling him about a geneticist’s narrow vision of the future, withholding truths and weaving fictions, making weapons of confessions and turning his own self-loathing outward.

Pooky Quesnel’s Martha matches him in spirit with her frustrations and hinted-at personal sorrows. Cast in a 1960s role of stifling domestication, her influence deriving from her position as a powerful man’s daughter, she is ill-reconciled with being a less successful man’s wife. She’s fighting back every inch of the way, boiling with scorn for George but seductively suggestive to Nick, until he also disappoints her. Capable of arguing with her husband about everything, including whether the moon is up or down, in the final gut-wrenching act, Quesnel reveals a Martha finally stripped of all artifice. With mascara tears staining her face, her vulnerability and quiet desolation at her loss of illusions is shattering.

Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey underpin the central performances with strong support: as their optimistic veneer is peeled away, they are revealed as another couple with hidden demons. Initially arrogant and sure-footed, Tweedale’s Nick begins to find himself on less-than-certain ground, while Henry’s coltish, guileless Honey (the most underwritten of the four characters) veers from innocent delight in her hosts’ no-holds-barred behaviour to the dawning realisation that she is one of the victims of their vitriol.

This play was conceived in the era of the Cold War, at a time of explosive social and political upheaval, its black humour and domestic strife seemingly a microcosm of greater power struggles that are no less relevant today. On designer Anisha Field’s deceptively cosy and detailed living room set, for all its lamps, door chimes, books and much visited drinks table, it feels as though World War Three is breaking out—and, as with all momentous events, it’s impossible to look away.

Reviewed on 25 February 2020 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Thursday 9 April 2020

Theatre Review: Her Naked Skin at Circomedia, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Though the National Theatre Company gave its initial performance in 1963, astoundingly it was not until 2008 that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin became the first full-length work by a living female writer to be seen on its Olivier stage.

Here performed by the graduating actors of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the play begins with arguably the single best-known event in suffragette history: the death of Emily Davison as she stepped in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. Director Sarah Bedi’s striking aesthetic uses black-and-white film footage of the moment, projected onto the set’s raised walls of windows at either side of Circomedia’s traverse stage, with a soundscape reflecting the ensuing terror and pandemonium.

From this historic springboard, Lenkiewicz delves into the personal relationship between two active suffragettes from very differing backgrounds: Lady Celia Cain, a veteran of the movement bound by convention in marriage to a man she doesn’t love, and young Limehouse machinist Eve Douglas, a new and eager recruit to the cause.

As both become increasingly caught up in the gruelling cycle of protest and imprisonment, with its attendant horrors of hunger strike and force-feeding, Celia takes Eve under her wing and an erotically charged relationship develops. There are strong performances here that promise much for the future; as Celia, Clementine Medforth portrays all the ease and confidence of her class, even as she navigates her conflicting choices between sexual and political fulfilment and the material comforts of her social standing.

Chanel Waddock is riveting as spirited working-class Eve, awakened to the possibilities of her own sensuality by the freedoms afforded to her through activism. As her liberty is taken away, her love unravels and she is ultimately subjected to the most degrading and graphically depicted act of state-sanctioned brutality. Kiera Lester has real gravitas and charisma as the veteran campaigner Florence Boorman and Charlotte East portrays hints of humanity lurking behind a stern carapace as prison officer Briggs.

Lenkiewicz’s writing never shies away from imperfect characters who embrace a cause for a variety of less than altruistic reasons and who might compromise their principles and exploit others in the face of heart-wrenching choices. This unflinching realism can obscure the direction of her narrative intent—of easy recognition of a character’s goodness or badness—but fundamentally reveals their humanity in all its slippery messiness.

That said, the majority of men written in this play tend towards the archetypal in their braying disregard: a group of politicians expressing their disdain over the furore caused by Davison’s death, or talking out attempts to debate the suffragettes’ demands in Parliament. But Jake Simmance as Celia’s husband William encapsulates the inner turmoil and bewilderment of a man struggling to reconcile his relationship with his wife to his position in society. And Akshay Khanna is chillingly convincing as the cruel doctor willing to mete out the harshest of punishments.

This is a hard-hitting and astute choice of production that joins with BOVTS’s The Laramie Project at Bristol Old Vic to highlight LGBTQ issues. Edoardo Lelli’s costumes are spot-on, while Oliver Wareham’s sound and Joel Williams’s lighting design bring real drama and tension to Benjamin Thapa’s film-footage projections and simple but effective multi-level set. Bedi’s direction of this absorbing play links the suffragettes’ struggles to contemporary protest movements and oppression, not seeking easy solutions but framing questions about how we might personally react to such intolerance, whether of ourselves or of others who dare to defy the conventions of the day.

Reviewed on 18 February 2020 | Images: Ed Felton

Saturday 4 April 2020

Book Review: I Am Dust by Louise Beech

It feels odd in these unprecedented times to be doing something as normal as reviewing a book (let alone publishing one). Though the birds are still singing and the trees blossoming with the onset of spring, for many of us in lockdown, life is very much curtailed.

Usually, I have the shape of what I want to say in my head long before I begin to type, but right now words are proving elusive. Luckily, discussing a book by someone whose writing I've come to relish makes the task considerably easier.

I've previously written on my blog about Louise Beech's Call Me Star Girl and (my personal favourite to date) The Lion Tamer Who Lost. Now, never an author afraid to switch between genres, she has penned a supernatural murder mystery thriller with a twist of romance: I Am Dust is set in a theatre suffused with ghostly apparitions, magic, and unexplained events.

Chloe Dee works as an usher in the Dean Wilson Theatre, a venue infamous for the murder of leading lady Morgan Miller at its opening production of the musical Dust more than 20 years ago. As with so many theatres where superstition abounds, the Dean Wilson has a reputation for being haunted, with Morgan waiting in the wings for her final cue or searching the passageways for her killer.

Like many an usher before her, Chloe dreams of being there to do more than simply 'pick up the glitter'; she is writing her own play, which she would one day love to perform. But she also has a facility for tuning into other-worldly happenings - strange voices over the radio waves or doors that lock of their own accord. And when it is announced that Dust will be returning to the theatre for another run after all these years, memories are stirred as the new cast includes a face from Chloe's past in the iconic leading role.

Alternating with this present-day story is an earlier narrative strand from 2005. Over the course of one feverishly hot summer holiday, the teenaged Chloe becomes drawn into playing 'The Game': talking to the spirit world through the medium of a Ouija board, together with Jess and Ryan, two friends from her youth theatre's production of Macbeth.

Relationships within the trio are complicated; confused teenage emotions and jealousies abound. Then, as portents coalesce and the messages from the other side become more frequent and urgent, Chloe begins to discover the extent of her powers. But why has she forgotten so much of what happened that one formative summer? And why are those memories only now resurfacing, warning that the three former friends should never again be together under one roof?

As an avid theatre-goer and reviewer, I was attracted to this novel by its authentic depiction of life in a regional theatre; the artistic egos and outsized personalities contrasting with the everyday pressure of an usher's role in selling programmes, curtailing mobile phone usage and putting out the rubbish after a show. Initially, at least, I was less intrigued by the world of magic and the supernatural, yet because of Beech's clever structure, knack of always writing from the heart and characterisation skills, my perceptions quickly changed. What might have been melodramatic becomes believable in her hands and I found myself increasingly invested in Chloe's plight; fragile, sensitive and damaged she may be, but you can't help but root for her as she gradually begins to discover her own underlying strength and talents.

Then there's the theatre noir conundrum of who really did murder Morgan Miller: all those false leads, dovetailing into Chloe's own fate, prove a perfect distraction from the real world right now - one where live theatre has gone dark. I Am Dust will fuel your curiosity, capture your imagination and tug at your heart-strings, while its intriguing and satisfying ending brings with it a welcome sense of completion.

I Am Dust is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 16 April 2020, or already available in ebook format. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater for my review copy.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Theatre Review: Mid Life at The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Why is there so little recognition that mid-life, particularly a woman’s, might be an age of exuberance, creativity, self-awareness and acceptance? While now emerging from the shadows of things-that-should-not-be-publicly-discussed, menopause is more usually viewed through the prism of loss; youth and fertility left behind amid a bomb-blast of hormones and hot flushes.

Not that the three women at the centre of this notionally one-woman show skirt around the perils of being either side of fifty. Claire, a company director, who in her 1982 heyday was the south east of England disco dancing champion, describes days when it’s all she can do to keep breathing in and out. It’s not something she wants to dwell on, though. This is meant to be her moment, except she keeps being interrupted by plain-speaking gay rights activist Karen, supposedly booked as an audio-describer, but who instead heckles Claire’s opening narrative with her own trenchant views.

Then there’s Jacqui, BSL signing the performance, but tired of delivering other people’s words without having her own voice and having to suppress her true feelings, for fear of being dismissed as an ‘angry black woman’. These three women thread their own individual backgrounds and stories through a performance that is by turns intimate, poignant, affecting and hilarious, prompted by Kandaka Moore—an ethereal on-stage presence, part-enabler part-seer—who hands out props and underpins the storytelling with snatches of pure-voiced song.

Developed by Diverse City with the support of Bristol Ferment, this production pays much more than lip-service to inclusivity, showing how it can be done without feeling preachy or contrived. There are voices from the older generation, describing their own mid-life experiences and dispatching advice and reflections on the pain of losing a parent. Lucy Richardson’s direction splices together the individual strands and mood swings into a coherent whole, with only the occasional moment between scenes when the pace seems to slacken as the performers regroup.

There is so much to recognise here, suitcases plucked from a wall of luggage at the back of the set, representing the baggage the women have carried in their lives as unpaid carers, housekeepers, parents, grand-parents and general mopper-uppers. These cases are unzipped with trepidation, for fear of letting too much emotion escape in one go.

The effect is cathartic, even with the acceptance of more troubled times ahead, of future diminishments and losses. Ultimately, this is a show of fierce and funny women who have made it through dark and messy times: they stand strong and proud of where they are now, inviting the audience to join with them in a gloriously uplifting celebration.

Reviewed on 14 February 2020 | Images: Chelsey Cliff