Monday 28 December 2015

Theatre Review: Handbagged at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Theatre so often speculates about the Queen’s relationship with her public servants – from Anthony Blunt as her surveyor of pictures in A Question of Attribution to her interviews with successive Prime Ministers in The Audience.

In the Olivier Award-winning Handbagged, now on tour having premiered at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2014 and transferred to the West End, writer Moira Buffini focuses on Her Majesty’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher, as the grocer’s daughter comes to power in the 1980s.

Each character is played by two actresses – the older Queen and Mrs Thatcher sagely commenting on the relationship of their younger counterparts, addressing each other and their earlier selves. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett talking to himself in The Lady in the Van, it’s a device that offers a huge variety of droll possibilities.

It would be all too easy to slip into comic asides and caricature; the Queen offering tea and cakes at her weekly audiences with her latest Prime Minister, while her older self comments drily on Mrs Thatcher’s lack of humour; Mrs T worrying about balancing the books like the penny-pinching housewife she is at heart and whether their outfits might clash at public events. But Buffini treads a fine line between condemning and condoning her characters, offering instead a witty, poignant and rounded alternative view of the people behind the titles.

Their strong personalities are convincingly assumed by the cast; Kate Fahy nails the older Mrs Thatcher’s accent and imperious mannerisms while Sanchia McCormack defines her initial nervousness at meeting the Queen. Suzie Blake as the older monarch delivers hilarious one-liners with acerbic wit – desperate to find some common ground, Emma Handy’s younger Elizabeth asks Mrs T whether she has any pets; ‘If she’s got a dog, we’ve got a subject’. Sadly, it seems they don’t and the Prime Minister goes on to describe a picnic at Balmoral as ‘more stressful than a Nato summit’.

Indhu Rubasingham’s direction makes the most of the meta-theatre; against a simple yet striking framework of a Union Jack, the Queen and Mrs T spar over their tea cups, while their older selves often comment that, of course, this never happened. Tragic events – the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the bombing of the Tory party conference – are given due respect and it’s prevented from becoming too much like a history lesson by the Queen hurrying her Prime Minister along and insisting on an interval.

Asif Khan plays everything from palace butler to power-suited Nancy Reagan with panache, interrupting to ensure Mrs T doesn’t gloss over the unsavoury bits – the miners’ strike and the poll tax – while bickering with Richard Teverson, who takes on all the other rôles from Denis Thatcher to Lord Carrington, over who can deliver the best Neil Kinnock.

For all the sharp writing and sheer entertainment value, it’s hard not to wonder about the appeal of this play for those too young to have experienced the phenomenon of Thatcherism first-hand. For those of us who did, however, the era is served up with enough subversively nostalgic bite to demolish a trolley full of scones – by two forces of nature armed with handbags and sensible court shoes.

Reviewed on 30 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Book Review: A Line of Blood by Ben McPherson

I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel the need for an out-and-out page-turner. A fast-paced, twisting and turning thriller that draws me into reading on until I discover the ending. And while Ben McPherson's A Line of Blood may have a very contemporary north London Finsbury Park setting, a good old-fashioned page-turner it certainly is.

In searching for his errant cat, Alex Mercer stumbles upon his neighbour, dead in the bath. His young son Max is with him and sees much more than he should. What at first looks like a suicide turns into something even darker and, as the police begin to investigate, secrets that have been locked away in closed hearts start tumbling out.

There are the cracks in Alex's tumultuous marriage to Millicent; a shared tragedy in their past they have never truly recovered from. Aspects of Alex's own upbringing also feed into his concern that his own son should not be traumatised by what he's seen. Meanwhile, as the police dredge through the neighbour's past, what they find is increasingly murky and threatens to destroy Alex's family completely:
Millicent was sitting with her head in her hands, tiny against the vast communal table. I sat down beside her; it seemed at first as if she hadn't seen me, as if she were somewhere very private; then she sat up, looked me in the eye, and began to speak.
'I need you to understand that I have never and never would betray you, Alex.'
She hadn't slept. I could see the blood pulsing in her neck, smell the sourness on her breath.
'So I probably need to start with the really bad stuff, and then I can explain - and I hope, I really hope you're going to listen and to understand - how it isn't what it looks like. Because I know it doesn't look so good.'
She reached into her bag and produced a small white envelope; she looked at it for a moment, then handed it to me.
'So this is what the police wanted to discuss with me.' 
The protagonists are unreliable and flawed but still credible; their faults explained by the revelations of their pasts. As the life they've created for themselves begins to fracture, Alex and Millicent remain just about likable enough to retain your sympathy. With plenty of twists and shifts the plot cracks on towards an ending that, although visible a little way off, still scores highly on dramatic tension and shock.

Like his character Alex, Ben McPherson grew up in Scotland before working for many years in film and television in London. Indeed, there is a very fluid, filmic quality to this, his debut novel; it seems ripe for adaptation into a gripping screen thriller. If it's jolts and chills you're after, A Line of Blood will have you hooked, but - a word of warning - set aside the time; despite a mountain of other things I should have been doing, I found myself reading the second half of this book in one sitting.

A Line of Blood is published in the UK by HarperCollins; thanks to them for my review copy.

Monday 7 December 2015

Theatre Review: The One That Got Away at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Hot on the heels of Eugène Labiche’s Monsieur Popular, the second of the Ustinov’s classic 19th Century French farces is from the master himself, Georges Feydeau.

In The One That Got Away, Kenneth McLeish’s translation of Feydeau’s 1892 play, Monsieur Chasse!, director Laurence Boswell capitalises on the exaggerated twists and fast-paced physicality that this fantastical tale of thinly-disguised deceit throws up.

Léontine is contentedly sorting out fishing tackle for her husband, Monsieur Duchotel, and evading the attentions of his best friend, the beguiling Dr Moricet. Duchotel is supposedly off on a trip with his old mate Cassagne – but Léontine is alerted to his adulterous duplicity by the unlikely combination of trout and lobster he’s caught in the past – and by Cassagne himself turning up on the doorstep to visit the friend he hasn’t seen for many months.

This sets in train a catalogue of events where nobody is completely innocent but some are guiltier than others; the most unlikely allegiances are formed in a spiral of increasingly desperate and hilarious attempts to save face and preserve the status quo. In Moricet’s newly-rented apartment in Paris’ Rue d’Athenes, propriety is thrown out of the window as Léontine seeks to avenge her husband’s betrayal – only for it to boomerang back in again as she finds it harder to be as improper with Moricet as her husband is being with Madame Cassagne.

The sparkling cast fizzes with energy; Richard Clothier’s Moricet charms, cavorts and implores his way in and out of trouble but meets his match in Frances McNamee as Léontine, whose facial expressions range from flirtatious to outraged and all the way back again in the blink of an eye. Throw in Joe Alessi as her convivial, wandering husband Duchotel and Oscar Batterqham as his amorous but penniless young nephew Gontran – suffering from a bad dose of mistaken identity – and layer upon layer of mayhem ensues. Meanwhile, Victoria Wicks breathes comic life into the role of Madame Latour; her fall from gentility to become the concierge of the apartments, due to the allure of a strong-thighed lion-tamer, is a tale that will linger long in the memory.

The split-second timing and sheer physicality are electric; doors are there for slamming or knocking on relentlessly, closets for hiding in and another man’s trousers for appropriating in an emergency escape from the police. But, despite the pandemonium, the sequence of events is crisp and clear, thanks to Feydeau’s clever writing and a cast of fully-rounded characters who make the improbable appear mirthfully believable.

Much like Feydeau, Polly Sullivan’s opulent set has borrowed from and built upon elements of Labiche’s Monsieur Popular. In The One That Got Away, the cast’s asides to the audience are engaging rather than tedious and the situations arising from the goings on – apart from the occasional cringe-worthy double entendre concerning the state of Duchotel’s rod and anachronistic comments about a woman’s place – are entertainingly relevant to a contemporary audience.

The One That Got Away recalls a world long gone, of Paris during The Belle Epoque; a light-hearted and thrillingly hedonistic delight which, under Boswell’s direction, becomes a masterclass in chaos management, still bringing great fun and frivolity more than a century after it was first conceived.

Runs until 19 December 2015 | Image: Simon Annand

Sunday 6 December 2015

Theare Review: Dracula at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

The mere mention of Dracula is enough to evoke a thrill of anticipation, so enduring is our fascination with Bram Stoker’s 19th Century vampire tale of supernatural seduction and death. And Arnos Vale cemetery in the windswept November darkness makes the perfect backdrop for Red Rope Theatre’s new production, as the audience sets out into the night, passing Victorian graves and mausoleums, to reach the Gothic grandeur of the chapel.

This new adaptation by Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead, directed by established Bristol theatre-maker Matt Grinter, is largely faithful to Stoker’s narrative. Cleverly weaving in dialogue, letters and newspaper articles found in the epistolary original, it explores Victorian preoccupations of science versus superstition, madness versus reason and the threat of early feminism to a patriarchal society.

A simple table and chairs at the centre of an intimate traverse stage become the setting for high melodrama as solicitor Jonathon Harker travels to Transylvania for what he believes to be a routine business trip. But, in his encounter with a sinister nobleman wishing to purchase an English estate, he endures a chilling night at the mercy of Dracula and his vampire brides, barely escaping with his life. The motifs unfamiliar to early readers of the novel – mirrors, garlic, crucifixes, blood – are all here; immediately recognisable to a contemporary audience, but none the less thrilling for that.

The story is clearly conveyed by an able cast; Elliot Chapman seethes with insane, tortured energy as Dracula’s reluctant follower Renfield, while Simon Riordan and Rebecca Robson delicately portray the loving but riven relationship between Harker and his new wife, Mina. There are some gripping set pieces; the journey of Dracula by boat to England in search of fresh blood is entrancingly played out over a tablecloth sea, while Jared Morgan’s darkly menacing Dracula meets his demise in the final outdoor scene with the help of Peter Clifford’s illusionist expertise.

There are fine moments of physical theatre, too, particularly as the vampire brides threaten to overwhelm Harker. Eerie sound design by Thomas and Thomas heightens the suspense at key moments, although it does feel as though even more could be made of the chapel’s atmospheric setting in terms of surprising and unsettling the audience.

Coming in at over three hours including interval, this piece is long. There is such spine-tingling imagery and detail in the novel, it seems that Lochhead has been reluctant to leave too much of it out. While understandable, the denseness of the exposition does slow the pace and occasionally is in danger of draining this horror story of its true vitality.

Nevertheless, in this ambitious production, Red Rope Theatre succeeds in taking a fresh, site-specific look at a much-reworked classic while remaining faithful to its original, disturbing vision and bringing clarity to themes that still resonate with us more than a century later.

Reviewed on 17 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Theatre Review: Happy Hour at The Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

The latest commission in Òran Mór’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series showcasing new writing is Happy Hour, Anita Vettesse’s funny, poignant and sharply observed exploration of a family floundering in its attempts to re-establish an equilibrium after the death of father and husband Joe.

Gathering together in the family pub to scatter his ashes, each of them has their own baggage. Kay (Hannah Donaldson) was always a daddy’s girl, but she has her alternative therapies and crystals for comfort – and if they don’t work she still has the inhaler and red wine to fall back on. Tom (Stephen McCole) is home from his role as an overseas aid worker – having missed his father’s funeral he’s there to say a final farewell. Meanwhile, their mother, Anne (Anne Lacey), is selling the pub that she and her husband ran for many years. She’s promised the money to her children, but she might be about to change her mind.

Joe’s ashes sit in their midst in a shoebox on the table and you can really feel his presence and absence in this family. Then, talk turns to inheritance and the arguments gather momentum; Kay’s desperation for cash becomes increasingly plain as she alternates between threats and pleading to recruit her brother to her cause. Tom has secrets he wants to reveal at his own pace while Anne sees the opportunity for a new life –although determined not to lose any of the control she held in the old.

Vettesse’s writing is full of promise. Here she delivers a finely nuanced examination of family dynamics at a time of loss and critical change; her frequently barbed dialogue rings true in all its tragicomedy and the audience’s sympathy gradually realigns as perspectives change and each character reveals a little more of themselves. Under Gethin Evans’ direction the pace is fast yet naturalistic, the setting simple and the cast of three delivers its characters with venomous yet touching assurance. The only real question mark is over those ashes; as you fix your gaze on them, it’s impossible not to feel a certain predictability in their outcome from early on.

That said, Happy Hour’s ending, in the face of a pub quiz conundrum, is more than satisfying enough to complete an evening’s entertainment for ticketholders that begins with a pie and a pint; a tasty and refreshing celebration of new one-act plays and an inspiring initiative.

Reviewed on 19 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Monday 30 November 2015

Book Review: Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam

Sometime during the last Millennium, I read a rather wonderful memoir called Rocket Boys about a young lad growing up in a 1950s West Virginia coal-mining town. Captivated by Sputnik, the world's first satellite, flying over his home, fourteen-year-old Homer Hickam decided to build a rocket to rival the Russians'. His predominantly true story of Coalwood's Big Creek Missile Agency was later made into a successful film, October Sky, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal.

Now, many years later, I felt a thrill of anticipation in reading another book by Hickam about his Coalwood family: Carrying Albert Home. Once again described as a true story 'except the bits that are made up', this is the somewhat tall tale of Hickam's parents, Homer Senior and Elsie.

Growing up together as classmates during the Great Depression, handsome but steady Homer Senior is content to follow his father into the mines, while beautiful, vivacious Elsie dreams of escaping the permanent tang of coal dust in the air and moves to sunny Orlando. There she enjoys a burgeoning romance with aspiring dancer and actor Buddy Ebsen, but, when Buddy heads for New York, Elsie moves back to Coalwood, marries Homer and tries to settle down as a miner's wife.

Yet, a wedding present from Buddy in the shape of an alligator named Albert serves as a persistent reminder for Elsie of all she has lost, as well as a constant source of resentment for Homer. Finally, he issues her with an ultimatum; either the alligator goes, or he does. Thus begins a road trip of almost a thousand miles across several states, to carry Albert back home to the swamps of Orlando.

Told from the point of view of Homer Junior, the story of this trip is revealed in episodes as gradually recounted to him by his mother and father. He learns that, as they packed up their Buick to leave Coalwood, the unlikely trio somehow acquired a rooster as a companion; that a journey scheduled to take two weeks turned into a stormy and fantastical odyssey of many months' duration; Elsie helped John Steinbeck decide the title of his most famous novel and Homer was taught to smoke cigars by Ernest Hemingway.

Along the way, the journey changes them both. As the couple grows closer in the face of adversity, Elsie's sharp tongue softens and Homer's stubbornness subsides. Meanwhile, Homer Junior begins to discover his mother and father as individuals in their own right, not just the parents who raised him:
I didn't know how they came to be married or what shaped them to become the people I know. I also didn't know that my mother carried in her heart an unquenchable love for a man who became a famous Hollywood actor and that my father met that man after battling a mighty hurricane, not only in the tropics but in his soul. The story of Albert taught me these and many other things, not only about my parents but the life they gave me to live and the lives we all live, even when we don't understand why.
And at the centre of it all is the lovable and never to be forgotten Albert; heroic on more than one occasion and an excellent judge of character, bestowing his yeah-yeah-yeah happy sound only on those worthy of it.

It may not have all the youthful impact and vibrancy I remember from Rocket Boys, but Carrying Albert Home is a charming, quirky and often whimsical family epic; one you can imagine evolving with every swing-seat retelling. Verging on the folkishly sentimental, at heart, it is an all-American love story; even with a fair share of tragedy mixed in with the comic, the twinkle in Homer's parents' eyes is never far away.

Image courtesy of Carrying Albert Home is published in the UK by HarperCollins; thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday 27 November 2015

Theatre Review: Eventide at the Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol

The prosaic setting of a pub garden in the heart of the Hampshire countryside – a place where smokers gather to nurse their addiction – becomes the confessional at the centre of Barney Norris’ new play Eventide

From the beginning, the play’s three characters are intricately observed; under Alice Hamilton’s direction you can feel the weight of every facial tic and reaction. John, played by James Doherty, is the larger-than-life landlord of the establishment, ever ready with a joke about a ferret and a blow job. Hasan Dixon’s Mark is a young man scratching a living from whatever manual labouring he can find; work is scarce and, no matter what his troubles, he has to pay the rent. And Ellie Piercy’s eager, diffident Liz travels for miles to play the local church organ because there aren’t that many left and – by her own candid admission – she’s really not very good.

Not much happens; events in this play take place elsewhere. Here, on the decking of the beer garden, between the bin for the empties and the hosepipe, all we see is their aftermath. Yet, there is so much going on. It’s quickly evident that John, Mark and Liz are all, for different reasons, reeling from an individual sense of loss. The slow-building poignancy of this character-based piece is the way in which each of their tragedies gradually unfurls. The skin is stripped back until we reach the bone. Norris’ writing is subtle, layered, incisive, full of witty one-liners – and all the more devastating for that.

Norris gets the performances he deserves from a talented cast, so warmly natural and believable in their chatter that you feel tempted for a moment to leave your seat and join them. On these wooden benches, connections are made through easy banter but long-held desires dashed by a moment’s heedless line; a mistaken recollection can wound to the core and what is really meant stays lurking in the gaps between the words.

After the interval, a year has passed and although it seems there is now cause for celebration, this could be an illusion. The pub may be hosting a wedding party, but it’s been taken over by a chain. The villagers’ way of life is being eroded and not everyone finds it so easy to move on.

Like Bea Roberts’ And Then Come the Nightjars that played recently at Bristol Old Vic, Norris follows his award-winning debut Visitors by framing isolation and loneliness in a rural setting with finely drawn characterisation. In doing this, he finds a humanity common to us all; a place amid the hopelessness where there’s still a ray of hope.

Reviewed on 11 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Monday 23 November 2015

Opera Review: The Tales of Hoffmann at the Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Jacques Offenbach’s darkly fantastical The Tales of Hoffmann has had many incarnations since its first public performance in 1881. Now English Touring Opera’s new production, sung in English with surtitles, sets it in the 1920s world of early cinema; the eponymous protagonist transforming from a poet into a silent movie-maker well past his prime, poring obsessively over his work.

Based on three short stories by the German romantic E T A Hoffmann, the opera is well suited to this updating – at the outset, at least. Played with great conviction by tenor Sam Furness, the fictionalised Hoffmann’s passion for his current love, Stella, together with the interference of the devilish Lindorf, disrupts his creativity and hastens his spiral through an alcoholic maelstrom into the wasteland where madness beckons. Furness’ rich tones and natural stage presence mark him out as a rising star from the beginning; egged on by his boisterous friends, Hoffmann tells the story of his three great loves and the macabre threats that destroyed each one in turn.

It’s in these episodes that the movie-making relevance seems to lose its way, with Hoffmann still referred to as ‘the poet’ and some uneasy directorial choices being made by James Bonas. Louise Mott as Hoffmann’s muse transforms without real explanation into the guise of a padded-out schoolboy as his companion, Nicklausse. Hoffmann’s first love, the automaton Olympia, takes the form of a loose-limbed pink neon puppet propelled around the stage by other cast members. In the gothic surroundings of a physics lab staffed by wild-haired scientists, War Horse it isn’t, although so bizarre a creature does effectively demonstrate Hoffmann’s hallucinatory hell and the spell he must be under – much more than the magic glasses sold to him by Coppelius would be needed to make him fall for her.

At least Olympia’s singing is effortlessly beautiful; ETO favourite Ilona Domnich’s soprano soars above the surreal setting as she fills the puppet’s blankness with divine purity. But it is in the second story, after the interval, that Domnich really comes into her own, bringing lustrous passion as the consumptive Antonia, for whom the compulsion to sing is stronger than life itself. The production settles into a more conventional retelling of Hoffmann’s woes and Domnich’s characterisation carries through into the final tale of the courtesan Giulietta and the licentious depravity of Venice.

The opera’s best-known Venetian Barcarolle is surprisingly underplayed, and at times the scaled-down orchestra sounds a little thin for the grandeur of the music. The staging is simple and effective for touring, though; a panelled surround clambered over by the cast, with hatches opening to reveal spectral visions and uninvited comments from beyond the grave, transforming from film set to science lab, Munich household to Venetian palazzo with a few slick changes.

In each setting, Warwick Fyfe brings a potency to his role as Hoffmann’s nemesis; as the sinister Lindorf he scuttles across the stage on two sticks with arachnid-like malevolence, while equally at home recreating the other villains in Hoffmann’s demise, especially the vampiric Dr Miracle. Matt R J Ward provides the comedic highlight of the evening in his cameo as Frantz, the family servant in Antonia’s household who creates unintended havoc through his deafness and sings endearingly of what might have been.

This may not always be a full-throttle production, yet ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann does reveal glimpses of greatness in the performances of its leads, strong visual imagery and the core of a good idea in the updating of its premise – if only this could be clearly carried through in the storytelling.

Reviewed on 10 November 2015 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Monday 16 November 2015

Theatre Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at Tobacco Factory Theatres

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

A play that opens in the aftermath of a hanging, Out of Joint’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern makes a grab for the dramatic jugular. Rebecca Lenkiewicz examines a Hertfordshire village at the beginning of the 18th Century; a time when the full frenzy of witch hunts may have passed their peak, yet rumours of sorcery are still woven into the fabric of a closed and superstitious society, with those accused all too easily damned when events go awry.

Ann Thorn’s mother, Eleanor, has just been executed for witchcraft. A noose hanging from a cruciform gibbet remains centre stage throughout the play, an ever-present reminder of the dead and a warning to the living. Young Ann is unhinged by events but also ready to make her own fresh assault on convention, when Jane Wenham, a woman existing at the edges of respectability, steps in as her protector. Yet, already Wenham’s detractors are baying for her blood. She sleeps for warmth with her cockerel, dances in the woods and has an all-consuming interest in herbs and potions. When tragedy strikes, it’s enough for her to be accused of witchcraft; in a place where outsiders are viewed with suspicion, she is unmarried, unnatural, old; a charge upon the parish.

Lenkiewicz skilfully exposes the human flaws of Walkern’s inhabitants; there are many all too ready to accuse Jane as a way of deflecting the guilt in their own hearts, only a few whose stumbling from the path of righteousness gives them a greater tolerance and empathy for others. The local cleric Francis Hutchinson refuses to believe in Wenham’s guilt, as do his housekeeper and former slave Kemi Martha and the publican Widow Higgins. But their voices are drowned out in the hue and cry led by Samuel Crane, the recently arrived minister sent to keep an eye on Hutchinson’s lack of orthodoxy, who finds ready support for his certainty of Wenham’s guilt.

The strong cast often takes on more than one role to present a mirror image; David Acton convinces both as the flawed but humane Hutchinson and also the belligerent villager Saul Paterson. Rachel Sanders extols tolerance as the feisty Widow Higgins but is baying for Jane’s blood as the grief-stricken Bridget Hurst. In a refreshingly predominantly female cast, there are also standout performances from Amanda Bellamy as the determined and stoical Wenham, dignified in the face of the most lowering of assaults, Tim Delap as the righteous but inwardly desperate Crane, and Hannah Hutch as the wild and grief-stricken Ann.

Strikingly staged and lit by James Button and Richard Howell, with eerie sound design by Max Pappenheim and haunting song from Cat Simmons as Kemi Martha, Ria Parry’s direction is full of bone-chilling potency from the start. Yet, the clarity of plot occasionally suffers for this and the intensity is dissipated by a few scenes running on for too long in the first half. After the interval, however, the tension builds anew; Jane’s harrowing encounter with the witch-identifier chillingly known as the Pricker will linger long in the memory although the resolution of her plight is then almost underplayed and rather too neat.

With Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently across town at the Old Vic, this is a second, no less absorbing, Bristol look at the destructive forces of intolerance. Pinned in the form of witchcraft to a specific time and place, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern nevertheless has an enduring resonance and also echoes the themes of Jim Crace’s timeless Man Booker shortlisted novel, Harvest. The play’s exploration of grief, loss, identity, religion, sexuality and truth-bending hysteria is often unremittingly stark, sometimes unexpectedly funny, but never less than stimulating.

Reviewed on Tuesday 3 November 2015. touring until 30 January 2016 | Image: Richard Davenport

Thursday 5 November 2015

Opera Review: Welsh National Opera's Orlando at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

With so many characters at the extremes of emotion, opera might reasonably lay claim to madness as a pre-requisite. Yet, while there could be no shortage of suitable candidates for Welsh National Opera’s 2015 Madness season, Handel’s frequently overlooked Orlando, originally performed in London in 1733, still fits the bill very nicely.

WNO’s production, first staged by Scottish Opera in 2011, updates the original mountainside setting to a hospital ward during World War Two. Zoroastro is now a psychiatrist rather than a magician, while Orlando, the warrior driven to insanity through doomed love, becomes a heroic but traumatised RAF pilot. It’s a transformation from director Harry Fehr that correlates well with the plot most of the time, although the stark staging does rob the story of much of its mysticism.

The individual performances are superb; Lawrence Zazzo is masterful as the conflicted Orlando, his counter-tenor soaring full of anguish as his emotions plummet from rage to despair to the final torment of madness. Torn between the duty to fight for his country – demonstrated to him in a slide show of abdication and Nazi imagery by Daniel Grice’s commanding Zoroastro – and love for the wealthy American socialite Angelica, he storms around the stage, creating consternation and dismay while maintaining exquisite control in his vocal delivery.

Rebecca Evans as Angelica is no less impressive at portraying the tender desire of her love for Medoro in rich tones, combined with fear and preparation for flight once Orlando realises she loves another. And Fflur Wyn as Dorinda – now a nurse in a crisp, starched uniform – who also loves Medoro, provides a wonderful visual contrast while more than holding her own with her pure and plaintive precision. The trio Consolati o Bella, where Angelica combines with James Laing’s compassionate Medoro to console Dorinda that one day she too will find love, is a sublime ending to Act One.

The orchestra, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini, performs Handel’s soulfully beautiful score with such distinction that it’s tempting at times to simply close your eyes and just listen – especially as the action on stage, despite Fehr’s best endeavours, sometimes becomes a little static. Handel’s arias – each one spell-binding but repetitive in style and sentiment – have a tendency not to deliver much in the way of plot advancement. This is mitigated by projections onto Yannis Thavoris’ simple revolving set, reflecting Orlando’s increasingly delusional state of mind, and dramatic devices such as his rampage with a cut-throat razor and disturbing electroconvulsive therapy. There is still an undue amount of dressing and undressing, tea dispensing and bed-making needed, however, to pad out the action over three acts.

Yet, despite these reservations about Handel’s pacing, this is a production still well worth seeking out for the tenderness and beauty of its music, interpreted with great sympathy by an outstanding cast; a turbulent and often moving exploration of the madness of love.

Reviewed on 21 October 2015. Touring until 18 November 2015 | Image: Bill Cooper

Sunday 1 November 2015

Book Review: The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak

I loved Elif Shafak's novel Honour, an illuminating and moving story of a traditional Kurdish family that begins to fragment when exposed to the freedoms and pressures of modern, multi-cultural society. Set in the recent 20th Century past, it combines an examination of the construct of masculinity with the timeless quality of a fable; something which is again apparent in Shafak's most recent, historical novel published in English, The Architect's Apprentice.

Istanbul in the 16th Century is a city seething with life and colour; the centre of an Ottoman empire full of exotic sights, sounds and smells. It is inhabited by a multitude of races; rich and poor, weak and strong - above all, it is full of enterprise. Home to Sinan, the Sultan's Master Architect, builder of palaces and mosques, in The Architect's Apprentice it is also a place where Jahan, apprentice to Sinan, mahout to the Sultan's elephant, makes his way in the world.

As a boy, Jahan arrives in Istanbul by boat. A stranger to the land, we see it through his eyes:
He peered ahead at the line where the water lapped against the shore, a strip of grey, and could not make out whether he was sailing towards Istanbul or away from it. The longer he stared, the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever-changing. This, more or less, was his earliest impression of Istanbul, and unbeknown to him, it would not change even after a lifetime. 
Although an imposter, initially posing as the mahout of Chota, the Sultan's white elephant, Jahan has a rare empathy for the beast and rises steadily through the ranks of the court. He catches the eye of the Sultan's daughter Mihrimah and develops an attachment that can never be fulfilled. Before the heat of battle, he meets Sinan and, helping him to construct a bridge for the Sultan's army to cross a river, is offered the rare chance to become one of the Master Architect's four apprentices, if only he can accept the need to work hard and make a fresh start:
' must let go of the past,' said Sinan as he stood up. 'Resentment is a cage, talent is a captured bird. Break the cage, let the bird take off and soar high. Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance in the universe. If you do not foster these qualities in your heart, you cannot build'
As Jahan grows in stature and wisdom through recognising the value of knowledge, his new situation brings many enemies as well as friends. Sinan's buildings are raised but occasionally fall again, new Sultans accede to the title of The Shadow of God on Earth, bring both prosperity and war before themselves being succeeded. And, all the time, intrigue piles upon intrigue in a thrilling, absorbing but seemingly episodic fashion which Shafak nevertheless draws together with great skill at the close.

This is such a richly woven tale of multiple layers and textures, a heady blend of historical fact, blurred timelines and fiction. Detractors of women writers, who accuse them of concentrating on the domestic and the 'small' (not that this is in any way a crime in my eyes), take note; this is a novel of dizzying intensity and huge ambition. Above all, it is an unblinkered love letter to Istanbul; in Shafak's hands the city takes on a vital life force of it own and Sinan's legacy is described with tender detail by an author (the most read female novelist in Turkey) unafraid to recount its dazzling beauty, but also its many human imperfections.

The Architect's Apprentice is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Theatre Review: Monsieur Popular at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov’s Autumn 2015 season of French farce opens in energetic but uncertain style with Jeremy Sams’ new translation of Eugène Marin Labiche’s Monsieur Popular.

In 19th Century Paris, 47-year-old Celimare is preparing to marry Emma, his 18-year-old bride. Unlike Emma, however, Celimare has a history; his past holds no shortage of married lovers and, to make sure these relationships flourished, he befriended their husbands, too. Now, he’s managed to jettison the lovers, one way or another, but their husbands are a different matter. Impervious to what’s been going on under their noses, they still regard Celimare as their best friend; the man who loves to play dominoes night after night and is never happier than when sorting out their crises with the servants.

Raymond Coulthard strikes the right sort of note as Celimare; self-possessed, twinkling and charmingly louche, it’s easy to see what the women are falling for. At first, Celimare’s habit of never passing up the opportunity to dabble in double-entendre and his knowing comments to the audience – letting us in on his secrets – is an inspired bit of fun. Yet, because overused, it becomes tiresome; under Sams’ direction the comic asides turn into full-on addresses, slowing the action and making Celimare appear less hapless victim of circumstance, more scheming con man in control of events.

Gregory Gudgeon and Howard Ward as the cuckolded husbands Vernouillet and Bocardon form a spirited and contrasting duo that, along with Celimare’s new parents-in-law – convincingly played by Nicola Sloane and Iain Mitchell – excels in riotously fast-paced entrances, exits and general door-slamming. Unwittingly, they conspire to ensure that Celimare receives barely a moment’s peace or time alone with his new bride Emma, played by Charlotte Wakefield – who has the difficult task of springing fully-formed into the action the day after her wedding to a man she barely appears to know.

Polly Sullivan’s set morphs easily from opulent drawing room into a dining room paying homage to the Victorian penchant for being surrounded by stuffed creatures while eating. After the interval, the transformation into a country house setting is impressive and complemented by sumptuously detailed 19thCentury French summer fashions.

There are moments of magic; Celimare’s servants Pitois and Adelina (Stephen Matthews and Karoline Gable) are a delight and their singing is particularly effective. Vernouillet’s composition Marriage is Bliss is a hoot and many elements of physical comedy – the passing of messages in Bocardon’s hat, the superb comic timing with the footstool – work well. Yet, overall the piece feels too long and laboured; jokes the audience has already understood are reiterated and become unwieldy without really moving the action forward. Perhaps a contemporary audience has less patience than one from the 1800s, but tightening some scenes and dispensing with the interval (a rarity in a Ustinov production, perhaps only there to accommodate the set change) would result in a crisper, more focused production.

Monsieur Popular is interesting as a work from the writer who inspired comic master Georges Feydeau, but it doesn’t offer any of the heightened and exaggerated reflection of our times that can be found in successfully updated farces like One Man, Two Guvnors. Although it has fine performances and pleasing aspects these never really come together; the piece remains an entertaining but uneven glance back at a different age – charming, amusing but very much bygone.

Runs until 7 November 2015 | Image: Simon Annand

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Book Review: Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I've been wanting to read Simon Sebag Montefiore for some time - although unusually it's his non-fiction works on Stalin that most interest me as background for Bulgakov's classic The Master and Margarita. Nevertheless, my book group's next choice of Sashenka seemed serendipitous; not least because Montefiore's novel of revolutionary Russia covers some of the same ground as Young Stalin.

This epic story of over 600 pages begins in 1916, with one woman's involvement in the Bolshevik uprising in St Petersburg, before moving through the decades to portray her experiences of Stalin's crushing repression in the 1930s and finally the next generation's attempts to discover what happened to her.

Sashenka Zeitlin, 16-year-old schoolgirl and daughter and of a well-heeled Jewish merchant with connections to Russian royalty, is imprisoned in St Petersburg's Kresty prison. Her mother, a ravaged beauty and devotee of Rasputin, is living an drug-fuelled high-life full of easy relationships with men and doesn't seem too concerned about her daughter's well-being. It's Sashenka's Uncle Mendel who's converted her to Marxism and drawn her into the Bolshevik party. While her father's influence means that Sashenka's imprisonment is a short one, it still marks the beginning of a lifelong involvement with Communism. Delivering messages and running workshops on Marxism, known as Comrade Snowfox because of her furs, she becomes ingrained in party life, although her background means the suspicion of her comrades never completely leaves her.

Despite a fascinating chronicling of events - from meeting the stuttering Comrade Molotov to working directly for Lenin - in this first part of the novel, the central character of Sashenka fails to fully convince. Often, she appears more of a two-dimensional peg to hang with historical detail than a living, breathing girl on the cusp of womanhood; there are early references to her full breasts, which appall and embarrass her, but otherwise she is usually described through the eyes of the men she unfailingly captivates: her figure slim and appealing, her lips wide, crimson and slightly swollen.

Part Two leaps forward to Moscow in 1939 and - despite Montefiore's seeming desire to cram in as much historical detail as possible leading to a meandering style - to me is more involving. Sashenka has become a loyal Bolshevik wife and the mother of two small children; she and her husband have already survived several purges, made personal sacrifices for the good of the party and even entertained Stalin in their own home. Yet, as she is drawn into an affair of the heart, Sashenka is in danger of losing all she has worked for and holds dear. Falling from the party's favour is terrifyingly swift, brutal and absolute; utmost in Sashenka's mind as she approaches this precipice is the safety of her children - will she be able to get them out of danger in time?

The final section of the book moves to Moscow in 1994 where Katinka, a young Russian historian, is trawling through Communist archives in an attempt to discover what really happened to Sashenka and her children. Often, she unwittingly treads the same ground as her subject, but despite its fall from power, Communism refuses to give up its secrets easily. There are many twists and turns and insights into the scope of the horrors committed at the time, before Katinka is able to uncover the tantalising truth.

By the end of this novel, I was torn between genuine interest in what had happened to Sashenka, admiration for its historical content and a strong desire to be done with characters who never truly came alive in my mind. Similarly, my book group's opinion was divided between love and dislike for Sashenka. I would still read Montefiore again - but I wasn't drawn into perusing the first few pages of his next novel One Night in Winter that were appended to this one; next time, I'll be opting for non-fiction.

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published in the UK by Transworld books. Paperback 607pp. Image: Contributed.

Friday 16 October 2015

Theatre Review: And Then Come The Nightjars at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There is a fierce and tender connection to the land threading through And Then Come the Nightjars that might seem reminiscent of Irish influences – from the recently late, great Brian Friel to John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. And yet, this original writing from Bea Roberts, developed with Bristol Old Vic Ferment and Theatre503, is set in rural Devon, on a farm with a view of the Tamar. It tells the story of a friendship between two men from differing backgrounds but with common cause, which becomes an elegy for a rural way of life rapidly being outpaced by modernity.

Widower Michael is awaiting the birth of his prize cow Dottie’s calf and Jeffrey is the vet in attendance. Except that Michael doesn’t really need Jeffrey’s help; he’s brought so many calves into the world on his own that he’s running out of royals to name them after, referring to his herd as “my girls”. Jeffrey is really there to escape from an unhappy marriage, but it is 2001 and there are bigger storm clouds looming. Foot and mouth is circling the area, tightening its grip; the landscape of the countryside is shifting and the nightjars, birds traditionally said to herald death, are in full song.

If at first verging on the stereotypical – Nigel Hastings as Jeffrey is all public school, excessive drinking and trivia questions, while David Fielder’s Michael is brimming with Devon burr and earthy cussedness – then one of the main joys of this beautifully observed play is to watch the friendship between the two men slowly unfold and mature. From the beginning, there is a mutual dependency, with Michael providing Jeffrey with refuge and Jeffrey tending to Michael’s herd before being called on to slaughter it. As time goes by, experiencing both the best and the worst of each other, with wives either deceased or divorced, each man gradually, movingly, becomes the other’s saviour.

The set created by Max Dorey is a small marvel; a barn full of so many worn and authentic details – from stalls and wooden crates to cobwebs in the rafters – that it could have been freshly plucked from the Devon countryside. And over the years it barely changes, despite Jeffrey’s attempts to persuade Michael of the value of modernising; going organic, building holiday homes or a conference centre to accommodate the Grand Designs crowd. Michael’s watchword is constancy; he was born on the farm and you feel his anger when all he holds dear – the earth and his animals – is in danger of being destroyed.

There are moments of pure pleasure, both in Paul Robinson’s direction which atmospherically recreates external events in falling incinerator ash and disco lights, and Roberts’ weaving of tragedy with hilariously acerbic one-liners; Jeffrey describing his wife as having “10 different lizard heads, all of which hate me” and Michael advising him to “eat before cider or the cider eats you”. Following her recent audio-visual piece Infinity Pool at the Tobacco Factory, this is a more conventionally-staged but equally compassionate portrayal from Roberts of characters finding their own muddled pathways through the maelstrom and minutiae of their lives.

Reviewed on 7 October 2015 | Image: Jack Sain

Monday 12 October 2015

Theatre Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

What you might lose in subtlety when dipping your toe into the water at Beaumont-Sur-Mer, you can more than make up for in comic, high-octane entertainment.

This fictional town on the French Riviera, backdrop for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is home to the suave and debonair British conman Lawrence Jameson. Each season it welcomes a host of wealthy women easily separated from their money – and Jameson, in league with chief of police Andre Thibault, is all too willing to relieve them of it. The story is largely faithful to the 1988 film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, but with their 2004 stage adaptation Jeffrey Lane and David Yasbek have gone one step further; heightening the escapism by turning it into a musical that has shades of Mel Brooks and The Producers.

Jameson’s comfortable existence is undermined by the arrival of a new pretender; an enthusiastic but shambolic young American, Freddy Benson. Relieved that Benson has helped him out of a spot of bother involving an Oklahoman blonde with a penchant for shopping and new husbands, Jameson agrees to teach him the tricks of the trade. Before we know it, the pair of them are battling it out to win the money and affection of the newest young heiress on the block, soap queen Christine Colgate.

Don’t expect light and shade here; there are stereotypes a plenty and no great variation in tempo – this is a show that starts off loud and ends up even louder. But, along the way, there is a great deal of fun to be had, as the conmen first work together and then compete – with increasingly sadistic tendencies – to outdo each other.

The chemistry between the two leads works well; Michael Praed embodies all the self-absorbed, silver fox charm of Jameson in a performance, which sometimes hints at Ralph Fiennes’ legendary concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel, while Noel Sullivan’s Benson is crude, coarse, yet somehow loveable. Gary Wilmot, only recently at the Hippodrome in Oklahoma!, is completely at home once again as Thibault, the chief of police whose subplot involves lonely English tourist Muriel Eubanks (Geraldine Fitzgerald); their duet of Like Zis/Like Zat is a rare moment of endearing tenderness. And Carley Stenson, her singing voice powerful and pleasing in tone, exudes charm and innocence as Christine Colgate, one of the few characters who is more complicated than she at first seems.

There are gorgeous costumes and bucketfuls of glitz and glamour in Jerry Mitchell’s stylishly choreographed chorus numbers, plenty of comic asides and laugh-out-loud moments – let’s not even think about Ruprecht and his genital cuff – all played out within a bold, dynamic set. This is slick, fast-paced entertainment that may not push at the boundaries of the musical form, but is not afraid to send itself up and more than keeps the audience happy throughout.

Reviewed on 6 October 2015 | Image: Phil Tragen

Thursday 8 October 2015

Theatre Review: Hands Up For Jonny Wilkinson's Right Boot! at the Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

For an endearing evening of rugby-related entertainment, Live Wire Theatre’s Hands Up For Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot! is hard to beat.

Yet, although Jonny’s 2003 World Cup-winning drop goal – with the wrong foot – gets a very honourable mention, alongside Jonah Lomu’s destructive four tries against England, and Nelson Mandela’s presentation of South Africa’s first ever World Cup to the Afrikaner Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, this production really belongs to one unsung hero: Frederick Stanley Jackson.

A Cornish rugby player after the turn of the 20th Century, Jackson tackled many a prejudice head-on; from the amateur Rugby Union committee that frowned on players needing to earn a living from their talent to the New Zealand establishment prohibiting any fraternising with the Maori. Banned from playing for his county on the grounds of professionalism, Jackson re-established himself on the other side of the world, only to find that, despite being called upon to serve his country at war in a tumultuous time of world history and going beyond duty at Gallipoli, he was repeatedly shunned by those in charge.

This deft and historically-informed piece of new writing by Dougie Blaxland is energetically enacted and narrated by just four players; George Williams as Jackson, with Giles Coram, Hannah Douglas and Moira Hunt supplying the chorus and multiple roles in Jackson’s story. Under the lively and fast-paced direction of Shane Morgan, there are many physically astute set pieces to admire, with the old buffers of the Rugby Union rocking from side to side in their condemnation of Jackson’s escapades, plenty of chanting and shirt-swapping and manoeuvres on the playing field culminating in the legendary Haka.

At the centre of this play is a very human story – the love of Jackson for a Maori woman, Horowai (meaning Waterfall). Conjured into existence only as words spoken by Williams, Horowai is distant to us; a turning point amid so much activity that is, in essence, an absence. Although an understandable portrayal of a woman whose race renders her invisible, perhaps her story could be enhanced by slowing down the word-tumbling narrative on occasion and representing her in another of the actors. Her lack of characterisation does prevent real empathy with the couple’s condemned relationship – a union that goes on triumphantly (yet almost as an afterthought) to produce five children, three of whom eventually play rugby for New Zealand themselves.

Nevertheless, these are 70 original minutes (might it be possible to stretch to 80?) that have a great deal going for them, with an acceptable level of audience participation to boot. And the Cornish accents alone deserve mention for being the proper job – not the mid south-western fudge we’ve come to know in lazy TV dramatisations. If you’re not a rugby aficionado, this is a production that still has plenty to offer, but its rich retelling is tailored for a rugby-loving city like Bath – and indeed the rest of the West Country and beyond – in the grip of a home World Cup in 2015.

Reviewed on 1 October 2015 | Image: Contributed

Monday 5 October 2015

Theatre Review: 1984 at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has enjoyed three West End runs and two tours prior to its arrival in Bath. So, those of us who’ve already read the book and perused the four and five-star reviews of the play may feel as though they know what they’re letting themselves in for. But Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production quickly batters down any hint of complacency, in a chilling 101 minutes where intense theatrical staging meets astounding Orwellian prescience.

From the outset, the use of Orwell’s appendix on the principles of Newspeak frames Winston Smith’s story in a different light; the piece opens with a book group discussion taking place sometime after 2050, praising the universality but questioning the authenticity of Winston’s diary. In a setting where the clocks already strike 13 – and, due to the number of times history has been revised, nobody is sure of the exact date anymore – both time and the truth take on a new and unaccustomed fluidity.

Matthew Spencer’s pallid and tentative Winston is lost in the world he inhabits. Simultaneously, it seems he is writing his diary of the present and being addressed by the futuristic book group. So where now does he really exist? His work at the Ministry of Truth carries on, “unpersoning” those who have dared to challenge the Party by deleting every trace of their existence and taking part in the regular “Two Minute Hates” against newly-decreed Party enemies.

Yet, afflicted by fragmented memories, Winston sets his course for a fight back. Against a background of continuous war with interchangeable enemies, he falls in love with Julia (Janine Harouni), a co-worker he previously suspected of being a member of the Thought Police. With her unprecedented access to chocolate, real coffee and a half-remembered memory of the refrain of Oranges and Lemons (one of the many motifs of the play), Julia brings with her echoes of the past – but also a foreshadowing of the future in the mantra she shares with Winston: “We are the dead”.

Chloe Lamford’s startling and ingeniously dynamic set design begins in the drab, haunted corridors of the Ministry of Truth, before a series of transformations brings overhead video projections onto a sterile, tiled backdrop, flashing images of Winston’s work and messages from Big Brother which include the destruction of deviant thought criminals. Enhanced by Natasha Chivers’ forensic lighting, Tom Gibbons’ dyspeptically precise sound and Tim Reid’s unsparing video, we witness the secret hideaway Winston shares with Julia at the back of an antiques shop and the ultimate terror of Room 101 – a place where Tim Dutton’s impenetrable O’Brien can casually brush away a forcibly-extracted stray tooth from a seat as if it were no more than a crumb.

The performances are outstanding; Spencer and Harouni are both fiery and tenderly convincing as the idealistically doomed lovers and Dutton coolly menacing as the man of the Inner Party. Headlong’s magnificently incisive version can be a harrowing watch and may not be for the faint-hearted, but it emphasises the astonishing relevance of Orwell’s surveillance state vision for our present and future – every bit as much as for our 20th Century past.

Reviewed on 29 September 2015 | Image: Manuel Harlan

Sunday 27 September 2015

Theatre Review: Living Quarters at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

In this new production of Living Quarters, Andrew Hilton dusts off the play he first directed back in 1991 to reimagine a much-overlooked piece by one of our most significant living writers. Yet, being revived as an echo from the past feels particularly appropriate for Brian Friel’s 1977 work, dwelling as it does on memories and turning points; the “what if” moments we find ourselves replaying and contorting when they revolve around events of great consequence.

Living Quarters is based on Euripides’ tale of Theseus’ son Hippolytus, punished by a vengeful Aphrodite, who causes his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. A story also retold by Racine and Eugene O’Neill, Friel locates it in his Irish heartlands; the fictional Ballybeg, a small community in County Donegal, where the Butler clan – three sisters, a brother and a young second wife – are convening at the family home to celebrate their soldier father and husband’s heroic return from conflict.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this play’s neglect is Friel’s insertion of an authoritative Greek chorus of one, simply known as “Sir” (played by Christopher Bianchi), who introduces himself as the omnipotent arbiter of the story. Sir audits the plot’s key flashback scenes by selecting them from his ledger, stripping away superfluous characters with a ruthlessness that belies his outward benevolence. It’s a difficult construct to get right; top-heavy and distancing until Sir’s role is fully established, Friel does gradually succeed in replacing the play’s subsequent loss of fluency with a meditation on the counterpoint of fate and individual responsibility.

Bianchi is the consummate master of ceremonies – steely, unruffled and wry – and Friel is already displaying his empathy for family dynamics in the tight-knit, conflicted Butler children, all unravelling in different ways since the loss of their mother. Nina Logue is world-weary as the eldest, Helen, on a flying visit from her new life in London, while Hayley Doherty is all domestic chatter as Miriam, the sister who settled down in the village. Martha Seignior brings eagerness and naiveté as Tina, the youngest, and Craig Fuller is woefully, passionately lost as black-sheep brother Ben, instrumental in the tragedy about to unfold.

Meanwhile, Rose O’Loughlin portrays the cuckoo in the nest; smouldering young second wife Anna, lonely and vulnerable in the quiet backwater, adored and overlooked by her self-absorbed Commandant husband (Simon Armstrong) and the others in turn – although the latent chemistry, which must once have existed between her and both Butler males, is difficult to discern.

All of Friel’s trademark ingredients are here – the layers of family strife, tumbling cadences of exquisite prose, empathy, wit and immersion in a particular moment – and, with Hilton’s usual pared-back clarity, this joint production from Tobacco Factory Theatres and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory makes the most of them. The cast heightens the tension with some spell-binding performances that are convincing in their regret and remorse. But, while Living Quarters certainly deserves more of an airing than it has seen in past decades, it has a sometimes tentative and uneven structure, with a much stronger second half than first. Principally, as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman does for To Kill a Mockingbird it serves as an interesting exploration of the sources and themes found in Friel’s later, iconic works such as Faith Healer, Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa; seen through this prism, Living Quarters is still exceedingly watchable.

Runs until Saturday, 3 October 2015 | Image: Camilla Adams

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Encounter at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Complicite’s work over the last 30 years has garnered a reputation for being both emotionally and philosophically challenging and, fresh from the Edinburgh International Festival, artistic director Simon McBurney’s aurally spectacular The Encounter certainly lives up to expectations.

Set in the dense jungle of the Amazon rainforest, McBurney tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photojournalist dropped there by plane in 1969, seeking out the remote Mayoruna tribes people. For each audience member, using binaural technology and individual headsets, The Encounter combines the remarkably intimate experience of a story happening right there in your head (when McBurney says he’s about to breathe in your ear you can feel his presence beside you) with a shared involvement in what’s being created on stage.

McBurney uses a voice-lowering microphone and American accent to become McIntyre as he recounts his adventures, inspired by Petru Popescu’s novel Amazon Beaming. Stumbling upon a Mayoruna tribe and then realising he hasn’t marked his route back to camp, McIntyre is thrown into dependency for his own survival on the community he has discovered. Initially without any form of common language, he nevertheless becomes aware that, involved in a struggle of their own, not all of the tribe welcomes his presence.

McBurney takes time to develop his story, layering it over a multitude of voices; the soundscape of contemporary western life combining with explanations of technology and exchanges with his young daughter. Only gradually – as McIntyre’s western possessions, his reliance on his camera and watch, are denied him – does new language and connection emerge in the jungle. He begins to understand why he is not universally accepted; white people have brought death before, their quest for oil sucking the earth of its blood. He forges elemental friendships amid the hostility, encounters jaguars, thorns and maggots, and falls into a fever where real life and a dream world intertwine. Ultimately, he seeks a place where he can accompany the Mayoruna in their quest to reach back to their beginning.

In the audience, you often share McIntyre’s disorientation, his sense of only beginning to discover his true self when his possessions and preconceptions are stripped away. In creating this remote world, McBurney is quite simply mesmerising; using water bottles, spent videotape and his own body to create layers of sound, he loops it back on itself, contorting, whispering, story-telling. In this, he’s supported by a team of technicians interpreting Gareth Fry’s stunningly precise and complex sound design, with atmospheric lighting and striking projections onto a backdrop of soundproofing foam by Paul Anderson and Will Duke.

The Encounter is an immersive and intense two hours, which itself stretches and contracts time and challenges the hierarchies we unthinkingly buy into. It’s been quite a week at Bristol Old Vic, all in all, with Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree first redefining the nature of theatre and connectedness in the studio space and now McBurney again pushing at our supposedly civilised boundaries on the main stage.

Reviewed on Saturday 19 September 2015 | Photo: Robbie Jack

Monday 21 September 2015

Theatre Review: An Oak Tree at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Pay close attention to the date of this performance of An Oak Tree, because it’s the one that belongs to Neve McIntosh. Every night a different actor – who has never seen or read the play before – joins Tim Crouch on stage in this two-hander – either for him to tell them what to say, to read from a script or to pick up their lines through earphones. They met for the first time only an hour ago. This is theatre which is not just different every night, but reincarnated.

An Oak Tree explores the grief of Adam, played by McIntosh, who loses his young daughter in a road traffic accident, knocked over by a stage hypnotist on his way to a gig. Crouch is the Ford Fiesta-driving hypnotist whose show Adam visits; not so much intent on revenge as finding an answer to his overwhelming sense of loss. For Adam, this grief is boundless, formless, blanketing in its density. Surfaces become permeable; rejecting the solidity of the photograph or the hairbrush which comfort his wife, he instead finds his daughter in cracks and indentations - a presence he scoops up and pours into a tree.

Boundaries dissolve and the story fragments as it moves back and forth in time, the actors in and out of character. Crouch controls the narrative, not only as the guilt-ravaged hypnotist manipulating his on-stage volunteer but also as himself, moving his second actor around the minimal set, feeding them every carefully scripted word. He controls us too; with the house lights up he stares out into the exposed audience, instructing us when – and when not – to respond.

Crouch is gripping, almost chilling in his intensity as he drives the pace of the piece with music, traffic noise and pin-sharp timing. It is his intelligence and touches of humour that keep him likeable – having McIntosh compliment the quality of his writing in a seemingly off-hand manner that we know is pre-ordained, leaving her on stage alone while he fetches a glass of water. What he is creating here is magical; no sterile experimentation for the sake of it, this is a forensic deconstruction of the unique nature of theatre, conducted with a gentle understanding of a devastating loss.

The demands on the second actor are daunting; unrehearsed and vulnerable, they must pick up the script instantly, respond to Crouch’s direction and convey the emotions he requires without knowing where they’re leading. In this, McIntosh – soon to be seen on the main Bristol Old Vic stage in The Crucible - doesn’t falter; she may not look all that much like a 46-year-old man, but her portrayal is beautifully judged. She is expressive but avoids the temptation to over-act, effortlessly inhabiting Adam’s character and all-encompassing grief, taking the reversals that Crouch throws at her in her stride.

This is the tenth anniversary revival of this production of An Oak Tree, which originally opened at the Edinburgh Fringe and has since played around the world over 300 times – with 300 second actors taking Adams’s role. It is a play to be watched again and again – to see how different actors might alter the piece and how Crouch changes in response; to reflect on life and loss and to muse on the possibilities that theatre can present if we come to it afresh.

Reviewed on 15 September 2015.

Monday 14 September 2015

Theatre Review: Flare Path at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Terence Rattigan’s resurgence as a frequently performed playwright continues with this brand new touring revival of Flare Path from the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions.
Rattigan fell out of favour in the latter decades of the 20th Century, overtaken by a post-war generation of angry young men creating kitchen sink dramas. Yet his understated lines, full of the suppressed emotions of those dealing with the trauma and aftermath of the Second World War, have in recent years swung back into fashion.
One of his most autobiographical works, Flare Path is based on Rattigan’s own experience as a tail-gunner, and deeply affected its audiences when first staged in 1942. It tells the story of Patricia, a former actress now married to RAF pilot Teddy Graham but caught up in an affair with her earlier lover, Hollywood film star Peter Kyle. Taking place over a single night when the airmen are called away on a raid, the play becomes a microcosm of the valour and sacrifice of war.
Patricia’s dilemma is intensified when Peter turns up unexpectedly; even more desperate to talk to Teddy, his latest mission means her news for him must wait. Indeed, all the wives gathering in the lounge of a Lincolnshire hotel can do nothing but put their lives on hold one way or another as their husbands take to the perilous skies. With the noise of planes overhead and the lights of the flare path guiding them, Peter’s woes by contrast seem pitifully small. His studio is about to drop him for being too old now he’s turned 40 while many a young pilot fighting for the survival of his country will never live to see that age.
If at first the assembling cast seems a little static, sometimes lacking the aura of a screen idol in its midst, Justin Audibert’s direction does pick up the pace and succeed in bringing out the conflict between duty and desire. Strong central performances include Olivia Hallinan, who encapsulates the spirit of the 1940s in her delivery of a glamorous but torn Patricia, and Alastair Whatley as Teddy, the plucky Captain whose banter masks a thousand fears.
In Hayley Grindle’s traditional, richly textured country hotel setting – overlaid with the lines of Alex Wardle’s cleverly lit flare path – their scenes together in the second act are especially moving. Teddy’s confession of his inner terrors has a heart-breaking, authentic quality, setting up a convincing turning-point in the play. Also enjoyable are Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid turned Polish countess and Philip Franks as warm-hearted Squadron Leader “Gloria” Swanson.
While Mrs Henderson Presents only recently demonstrated a patriotic show-must-go-on defiance to Bath audiences, Flare Path peels away the layers of wartime bravado to reveal the emotional devastation and personal vulnerability beneath. This is a production steeped in the stiff upper lip courage of a particular generation, with Rattigan’s finely crafted lines reminding us of the sacrifices made, not only by those who flew, but also those forced to wait behind.
Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Bath on 7 September 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Jack Ladenburg