Monday 24 November 2014

Punch and Judy in Afghanistan at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stuffed Puppet has taken the seaside Punch and Judy tradition and transported it to the desert of Afghanistan. Neville Tranter’s one-man puppet show combines some sharp one-liners with a sense of the absurd, to put the puppeteer right at the heart of the political action.
Punch and Judy in Afghanistan tells the story of Nigel, a puppeteer visiting Afghanistan to entertain the troops. His assistant Emile goes missing on the back of an over-excited camel and when Nigel risks life and limb to find him, he unwittingly discovers the whereabouts of one of the western world’s most wanted terrorists.
Along the way, Nigel meets a whole host of manically glitter-eyed caricatures, from the owner in love with his lost camel to ‘Punch Bin Laden’ and his wife, Judy, who loves gardening so much that she’s cultivating a field full of poppies. While Emile may be joked about, his fate is unnerving. And will Nigel be able to make it out of there alive, to share what he’s found out?
With a simple set of a camouflage wall behind a line of poppies, Tranter ‘s skilful delivery is clear as he switches between an array of superbly crafted puppets, while also performing the role of Nigel. All the traditional Punch and Judy staples are here; the policeman is reimagined as a terrified young NATO soldier while the crocodile becomes a market trader, flogging a line of one-size-fits-all body bags.
There’s good use of music and witty observations aplenty. Early on Emile is described as having volunteered for Greenpeace as an alternative punishment to prison; charged with rescuing seals, he appears to have done something much more grisly with them. Perhaps we need to fear more for the fate of the camel than for its rider.
The ingredients are all in place but while this hour-long show throws up interesting, unsettling questions, the progression of the story is sometimes difficult to engage with and follow. The Tobacco Factory’s programme suggests a discovery of the repercussions of two clashing worlds of naiveté and cynicism; while these themes are certainly raised, this show falls short of any profound exploration of the resulting conflict of cultural values.

Seen at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol on 14th November 2014.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Opera Review: WNO's Carmen at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In reviving its Caurier and Leiser version of Carmen, Welsh National Opera (WNO) has chosen a solid foundation for its autumn season. It may not have been an instant success at its première in 1875, but Bizet’s tale of the life and loves of a seductive and headstrong gypsy girl has since enjoyed an enduring popularity.
Solid Caroline Chaney’s revival may be, but not always scintillating. Alessandra Volpe takes the eponymous lead, arrested for fighting with another woman at the tobacco factory in Seville where she works. While she looks and moves convincingly as Carmen, initially Volpe’s mezzo in the Habanera is a little uneven. She does warm into the role, illustrating her indomitable will with some bull-like head-butting of her lover towards the end, but both she and her Don José, Peter Wedd, have a tendency to be overpowered by the orchestra.
What’s more alarming is the lack of chemistry between the two, which undermines such scenes as Carmen’s private dance with castanets at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen’s allure is such that no man from the soldiers on guard to the bullfighter Escamillo is able to resist; in this production it’s often difficult to believe in the couple’s mutual attraction, or the overwhelming love which will compel Don José to desert the army and carry out his final act of vengeance.
Set against this, Jessica Muirhead really shines as Micaëla, the village girl bringing messages to Don José from his mother. Her soprano is crisp and full of pathos; in her early scenes she expresses all of Micaëla’s attraction for the soldier, combined with an embarrassment at his mother’s unsubtle matchmaking. Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo also has a pleasing tone, although he could do with a little more swagger at times, particularly when fighting his rival in love, Don José.
The WNO orchestra is superb throughout and James Southall conducts with great clarity and vigour. Although some of the set pieces, such as the build up to the bull-fight in the final act, feel less dramatic than they should, the chorus is consistently strong and rousing and the gang of young street children are delightfully urchin-like.
Against the grandeur of the Hippodrome, the pared back set consists of Goya-inspired backdrops and a scattering of wooden chairs and tables. With its soldiers and cigarette-girls costumed in an earth-coloured palette, it does feel like less of a lavish visual feast than other versions of Carmen, and indeed other WNO productions. What this dulled-down vision does do though, is contrast wonderfully with the greater colour and vibrancy of the finale. There may be many highs and lows in this revival, but it is still an absorbing production with plenty to enjoy.

Seen at Bristol Hippodrome on November 12th 2014. This production continues to tour; destinations and dates can be found here

Monday 17 November 2014

Book Review: The Other Ida by Amy Mason

The earliest memories of Ida Irons revolve around her mother, faded celebrity playwright Bridie Adair, and her episodes of excessive drinking.

Bridie's alcoholism isn't pretty; it breaks up her marriage and often leaves the young Ida to look after her little sister, Alice, all alone. Ida tries to reassure herself:
Things were nearly always fine, and if they weren't at least it would be an adventure.
Amy Mason's debut novel, The Other Ida, zips back and forth between childhood and a 'present day' setting of 1999. Now Ida's almost thirty and a mess herself; living in a squalid bedsit in London, she's abusing just about every substance she can lay her hands on. Bridie has died and Ida needs to get back home to Bournemouth for the funeral.

Home means confronting all the problems she ran away to escape; her difficult relationship with Alice, and her father's new life with her perfumed step-mother. Most of all, it means dealing with the long shadow of the play Ida's named after; the one her mother wrote before she was born:
She was almost asleep,...,when she realised what was wrong. It was so simple she could hardly believe it. She was the play, wasn't she? It wasn't just her stupid name. And if it was so terrible, so irrelevant, then what on earth was she?
Finding out about the other Ida in the play may help uncover the troubling secrets of her mother's life, but will Ida be able to cope with the discoveries she's about to make?

Real-life Ida isn't the easiest person to love; at first, like the passengers on the coach taking her back home, you might be tempted to give her a wide berth. She's dirty and smelly and she wets the bed when drunk. She's well on her way to becoming the female equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson, starring in her own version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing in Bournemouth, anyone? 

But, as you get to know Ida, you begin to realise she's avoiding a script that's already been written. That she's no good with boundaries because, as a child, she never had any.

Amy Mason won the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize with this, her debut novel. Her writing is full of incisive observation and she's created a gritty, funny and layered story in which key events in fiction are mirrored by reality and repeat themselves across the generations. By baring Ida's soul, Mason does a great job of making you understand and care for her.

Occasionally, a character will leap off the page of a novel with such vitality, you can almost reach out and touch them. By the end of The Other Ida,  I just wanted to grab brave, wild, lost, endearing Ida Irons with both hands and give her a great big hug.

Thanks to Cargo Publishing for the review copy. Pictures courtesy of Cargo Publishing and Amy Mason.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: Institute at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Gecko’s latest creation deals with the stuff of life itself. Institute is a raw, heart-rending, high energy exploration into the triumphs and despair of the human condition, encapsulated in a Kafkaesque world of unfathomable filing cabinets.
Each of the four performers within Institute has their own story to tell, but don’t expect a clear narrative; instead there’s a stream of consciousness in dance form, layers of meaning stretched taut by incredible physicality. There are echoes of Salvador Dali’s surrealist picture City of Drawers here, a body full of secrets waiting to be unlocked.
Amit Lahav directs and appears as Martin in this, Gecko’s sixth show in ten years. He has a rendezvous with Margaret; the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet opens to reveal a lamp-lit table and chairs, together with a pair of disembodied hands representing his beloved. It seems he’s all set for a romantic evening, until flashing red lights and harsh buzzers transport him back to the everyday.
Margaret remains a shape-shifting illusion, an ever-receding fantasy which Martin ends up carrying on his back. It’s his co-worker Daniel who proves to be his greatest source of fellow-feeling; their tightly sequenced dance culminating in a hilarious office meeting. They have become each other’s ticket to surviving the mundane and meaningless ritual of bureaucracy.
Martin and Daniel may be the employees or patients of Louis and his assistant Karl; like so much this is never really clear. The fragmented profusion of spoken English, French and German emphasizes their difficulty in finding a common understanding, yet each has an impulse to catch their fellow human being as they writhe in disjointed agony. Support is provided by crutches and ever more lengthy poles; beginning as close-fitting aids, by the end of the piece their increasingly sinister purpose seems to be to modify and control.
Institute is complex, it could be argued overly so. In a disconnected age, how far are we all still interconnected? With care being more commonly bought as a package, can we rely on each other’s freely given support? And at what stage does the carer turn puppet-master?  These are questions which Gecko typically doesn’t answer readily, but instead asks its audience to contemplate.
Lahav’s fellow performers are Chris Evans, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and François Testory, whose Louis is especially affecting in his attempts to retain control despite growing incapacity. They are thrilling to watch, never more so than in the passages of flowing choreography where they all move as one. The lighting, original music by Dave Price and atmospheric sound design also play an integral part; particularly mesmerising  is the vision of a body which cannot be saved, falling over and over again on the mezzanine.
Institute portrays a world of vulnerability and loss, relieved by an intense human connection ultimately betrayed by the passage of time. The piece’s final golden, frenzied expression of the continuance of life in the midst of grief helps to ensure that, by the end of the performance, there’s a great deal that will stay in its audience’s mind.

This run has now finished at Bristol Old Vic; there are more tour dates here

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Reading The Classics: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I've been reading To The Lighthouse for my on-line course, The Fiction of Relationship. Virginia Woolf's most autobiographical work may well be my favourite of all her novels, and it clearly has a special place in the heart of course tutor Professor Weinstein, too.

Woolf has recreated her own late parents as the book's central characters, Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and their holiday home in the Hebrides is based on her childhood summers in St Ives. The story begins before the outbreak of the First World War; strong emotional currents coursing just beneath the surface are visible from the outset.

Mrs Ramsay promises James, youngest of her brood of eight, that they'll be able to visit the nearby lighthouse next day, provided the weather is good. At this, James is filled with 'an extraordinary joy', until his father makes a passing comment that, of course, the weather won't be fine:
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence.
Mr Ramsay is egotistical and abrupt, apart from his family; an academic and philosopher who, like Woolf's own father Leslie Stephen, is nevertheless in need of constant approval to validate his life.

It is Mrs Ramsay who is the emotional heart of the novel. A woman whose extraordinary beauty affects all those around her, she is often conveyed through the impact she has on others. The odious Charles Tansley falls in love with her and his fellow house-guest Lily Briscoe, painter and spinster surrogate for Virginia herself, loves and observes Mrs Ramsay closely. At the family's dinner party, as she turns to the man next to her:
How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again
Mrs Ramsay breathes life into the house and provides her husband with the love and support he craves:
They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love. The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them.
Even though, at other times her feelings are less benevolent:
She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him
As Mrs Ramsay concerns herself with the well-being of family and friends, compelled to match-make those around her, she is also contemplating the 'wedge-shaped core of darkness' in her own soul.

The novel is written in Woolf's exquisitely lyrical stream of consciousness; Professor Weinstein describes it as 'throbbing and full throated.' It imbues every passing moment with depth and overturns the patriarchal point of view that Woolf so famously criticises in A Room of One's Own:
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
Shakespeare combines the domestic with the apocalyptic and political in King Lear and Professor Weinstein argues that in To The Lighthouse, by moving from a settled pre-war scene to the devastating short central section, Time Passes, and its aftermath, Woolf is doing the same.

To The Lighthouse can appear elitist in the twenty-first century, concerning itself with summer homes and dinner party meals of boeuf en daube. Mrs Ramsay is not the role model to women today that she might have been at the time of Woolf's writing; she has no profession and dwells entirely on the domestic. Yet, at a time of great social and class upheaval, she is the provider of social texture, the sole source of fusion, as she induces her family and reluctant guests to break bread together.

In her profound exploration of marriage and adult relationships, Woolf is is as relevant today as she has ever been. And the shocking brutality she introduces in Time Passes, with those we have come to love blotted out in brackets, emphasizes the fragility of our relationships. This is particularly poignant as, one hundred years on, we reflect on the senseless waste of the First World War. 

So what is the significance of the lighthouse? Like Mrs Ramsay, it is a beacon in the waves for human orientation. The sea is fluid, knowing nothing of human emotion, so all that endures is where a connection has taken place. 

In the final part, both reaching the lighthouse years later and Lily's finishing of her painting are paramount:
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
In Lily's thoughts there is also a sense that Virginia has successfully completed the task she set out to achieve; an intimate portrayal of her parents.

The edition of the book shown is published by Harcourt. Image of Virginia Woolf courtesy of The Virginia Woolf Blog.