Sunday 22 February 2015

Theatre Review: Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

There’s a satisfying air of barely subdued panic in the auditorium before the beginning of Mischief Theatre’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong. There are technicians handing out hard hats, last minute adjustments being made to the stage and a request from the director for anyone with theatrical experience to help out. It suggests that the wrong-going is all going to plan.
If you’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong, you’ll already be familiar with the work of the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and its slickly shambolic 1920s’ murder mystery. Here they are presenting their very own reinterpretation of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan; not so much a late pantomime staged in February, we are assured, as a traditional Christmas vignette.
Or so Peter Pan’s director Chris Bean (Laurence Pears) would have it anyway, in his on stage introduction with his less than compliant assistant Robert Grove (Cornelius Booth). Comic potential is established early on by the bushy bearded Robert being dressed in a man-sized Babygro, ready as a last minute replacement for the part of the youngest of the Darling family, Michael.
What then ensues is an initially traditional retelling of the Peter Pan classic, undermined almost immediately by a rich Noises Off style series of malfunctioning scenery, misplaced props and increasingly impossible costume changes. There’s sheer farce in some of the pratfalls being predictably enjoyable but others so unexpected as to be a genuine surprise. The tally of physical injuries (at times realistically painful-looking) mounts up and attempts at on-stage rescue and repair become more and more disruptive. Already tense relationships between this motley crew of am-dram actors disintegrate further, thanks to the over-sharing brought about by some miscued sound effects.
The cast delivers a master class in perfectly portrayed lapses, slipping out of character enough to reveal the rifts between them, while maintaining a grim show-must-go-on facade. Leonie Hill is particularly enjoyable as the overacting, over dancing Sandra in the lead role of Wendy and Cornelius Booth as Robert transforms into a very silly Michael Darling and a hilariously incomprehensible duo of pirate and parrot. Alex Bartram in his guise of Peter pulls off some wildly erratic aeronautical sequences and Laurence Pears is an inspired Captain Hook, taking on the whole audience in his irate determination that the play is on no account to be turned into a pantomime (oh, yes it is…).
Helmed by real director Adam Meggido, the pace in this relentless, supposedly woebegone production never really lets up. The revolving set designed by Simon Scullion providing an energy all of its own,  turning to reveal a series of backstage misdemeanours and failing to stop at all in the see-sawing pirate finale. It may not be subtle, but this cleverly constructed, side-splitting family show is perfect half-term entertainment. It has you wondering whether anything really is going wrong on the night, but certainly a great deal is going right.

Currently on UK tour, click here for dates and venues| Photo: Alastair Muir

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Book Review: The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E. Hardisty

'The Kalashnikov's barrel was surprisingly hot.' 

When a novel opens this way, you know it's not for the faint-hearted.

Claymore Straker and his driver Abdulkader are hijacked at gunpoint in the searing heat of the Yemeni desert. Systematically, Clay weighs up his options and an already tense situation ratchets up another few notches.

From the beginning, The Abrupt Physics of Dying grabs you by the throat and never really lets go. Clay is in Yemen as a contractor for the oil company Petro-Tex, working to deliver their environmental permits for a new oilfield. Until now it's been a box-ticking exercise, something he's done countless times before. He has his own reasons for wanting to keep it that way. But to save Abdulkader's life, he's forced to investigate the mysterious sickness of many children in the village of Al Urush, close to the Petro-Tex processing plant. And what he finds there sets off a cascade of events which threaten to crack open the protective shell he has constructed around himself, to destroy both his sanity and his life.

Clay befriends Mohamed, one of the villlage children, and takes him to hospital when he's sick. But there the plight of the villagers is laid bare; as Mohamed's mother has no papers, no address, no identity card, it seems the desperately ill young boy cannot be admitted:
'Something deep inside Clay ruptured. He could feel it go, like a ligament tearing from bone. Clay hoisted the boy over his shoulder, grabbed the woman by the forearm and before she or the attendant could react he wheeled left and strode past the desk and led her through the double doors and into the bowels of the hospital.'
In true Bond and Bourne tradition, Clay is a maverick who often operates outside the rules. He's a South African ex-soldier damaged by his part in fighting the border war against Angola. He's a square peg in the round-holed world of Petro-Tex, his motives suspected by his colleagues. Yet the villagers he meets resent him as a corporate mouthpiece, and the Yemeni Secret Service want to interrogate him about his meeting with Abdulkader's kidnapper, the Islamic terrorist Al Shams. In a world where nobody is quite what they seem, Clay finds himself with few friends. So can he possibly trust French journalist Rania Latour with what he uncovers? Or is she too hiding something from him?

Unsurprisingly, The Abrupt Physics of Dying is predominantly a hard-drinking, hard-shooting man's world, bruising and brutal. So it's especially interesting to see how Paul E.Hardisty portrays its only significant female character. And at first, Rania appears stereotypical; beautiful, naturally, with all the attributes of a Bond girl and 'dark planets' for eyes. Gradually, though, a real person emerges. The struggle between the different aspects of her personality and heritage becomes clearer and, especially towards the latter part of the book, she begins to act more defiantly for herself.

The novel's plot is fiercely gripping yet labyrinthine; each time you think you're nearing a solution, you find instead another twist. And its reach is inter-continental, as the action moves from the outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 1994, to mainland Europe via Oman and on to London. Of all the locations, I was particularly taken with the accuracy of Clay's visit to the Tesco's store in Launceston, Cornwall; a town I used to live in and still visit regularly.

This is Hardisty's first novel and it's an intense and absorbing debut. His overarching themes of international business and corruption, the power of governments to suppress the rights of individuals in their own self-interest, have great relevance in today's globalised world. Canadian by birth, Hardisty has spent over 25 years working all over the world as an engineer, hydrologist and environmental scientist and his experience shows in the urgent authenticity of his writing.

Nobody emerges from this story unscathed and it's refreshing to find that Hardisty is not afraid to heap lasting damage on his main characters. Karen Sullivan, publisher of brand spanking new Orenda Books was so impressed with The Abrupt Physics of Dying that she made it her very first title and has already bought the sequel. Here we have a novel, a writer and a publisher to watch.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is already available in ebook format and will be published in paperback on 8th March 2015. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my review copy.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Theatre Review: The Life & Times of Fanny Hill at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

You might think you know what to expect from The Life & Times of Fanny Hill, Lamplighter Theatre’s new adaptation of John Cleland’s notorious tale of a prostitute’s misadventures. The book is essentially an 18th century romp with a full variety of sexual escapades complete with bawdy jokes. So you could be confounded to find a set built around dockside crates and scaffolding, Caroline Quentin as our eponymous heroine clambering inelegantly out of a wooden box and nary a boudoir in sight.

That’s not to say the sex doesn't kick in quickly as Fanny is accosted by Spark (Mawgan Gyles), who has bought her old gambling debt and demands that she writes a saucy autobiography to pay it off. In April de Angelis’s new version, Fanny has a terrible memory and needs to recreate her past, with the help of the street-hardened Louisa (Phoebe Thomas) and youthful Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth), who turns out to have a rare talent for storytelling. They are joined in their quest by Dingle (Nick Barber)who acts out the majority of the, ahem, male parts while Fanny narrates, takes notes and intervenes in this picaresque reinvention of her own life.

It’s exuberantly funny and endearing stuff before the interval – even as you wonder where it’s all going and whether that matters.  Every sexual encounter - from Fanny’s lesbian initiation to a stocking stretched taut over an arm and clenched fist as a representation of manhood running riot – is magnificently recreated as a set piece. Movement becomes stylised, set to music based on traditional broadside ballads by Bellowhead’s Pete Flood and performed by the eager and versatile Fiddle (Rosalind Steele). The mood swerves beguilingly from the bare-bottomed rough and tumble of Fanny’s first full-bodied experience to the tenderness of her encounter, in Swallow’s searing re-enactment using an empty jacket, with the young gentleman Charles, who may be the love of her life.

Under Michael Oakley’s direction the tone turns distinctly darker in the second half, as the true cost of the street-walking women’s ribaldry becomes clear. Social and political themes are brought to the fore and, as the full extent of Louisa and Swallow’s misfortunes plays out, it seems as though the gaiety of the first half is long gone.

The overall tone may be uneven, but what’s incredibly refreshing in de Angelis’s writing, is that the women are in charge of exploring their own sexuality. Resisting the exploitation of others, Fanny dictates her own story and decides not to share its spoils with any man. Yet for her book to be read, she must always deliver the scurrilous rather than the square, sex rather than romance.  In today’s febrile Fifty Shades of Grey atmosphere, with women’s ownership of their own bodies still in question, this feels more relevant than ever.

Tight-fitting costumes and period wigs set the restoration tone delightfully and there are assured performances from the whole cast. Quentin is outstanding as the voluptuous Fanny, holding court with masterful comic timing and considerable ease. The Life &Times of Fanny Hill suits the historic space of Bristol Old Vic’s main stage perfectly, even though the original book was a sensation before the theatre was built. If, in the end, I was expecting more to pop out of designer Andrew D Edwards’s intriguing on-stage boxes, this doesn't detract from what is a raucous, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining evening. 

Runs until 7th March 2015. Photo Helen Maybanks. More information and tickets available on Bristol Old Vic's website 

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta is eighty-two years old and has never seen the sea. One morning she gets up early and packs her bag, intending to walk to the coast. Her memory is fading and to her husband Otto she writes:
I will try to remember to come back
Etta lives in Saskatchewan. Going westwards, the water is over three thousand kilometres away. She carries her name as a reminder written on a piece of paper and, as she walks, begins stepping back into the past. We learn of her childhood in the city, with her only sister Alma, and Otto's contrasting life in rolling acres of dusty farmland with his fourteen brothers and sisters.

Like Etta's memories, the chapters in Etta and Otto and Russell and James are often in fragments. The spaces around the words are like the wide-open vastness of the Canadian wilderness that Etta must cross to achieve her goal.

As Etta walks, Otto waits at home, working his way through the recipe cards she's left him. He makes cinnamon buns, date squares when he can't sleep and Saskatoon berry pie. He adopts a guinea pig and writes to Etta even though she won't receive his letters.

His school friend Russell, who lives on the neighbouring farm and shares Etta and Otto's past, is less contented to stay at home. He gets in his truck to pursue her, but Etta is avoiding towns as much as possible, not wanting to be found. At least, not by humans. While walking, a coyote joins her. She names him James and they talk:

I thought you weren't real, said Etta. I thought I had made you up.

You could have. 

But I didn't, did I?

Etta, it could be everything, it could be nothing, what you're making up. You shouldn't let that bother you. 

There has recently been a rash of books themed around journeys made on foot, especially by older people. Think of Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and its companion The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy or Jonas Jonasson's The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared. These journeys might be made for self-discovery, fulfillment of a long-held ambition or simply to make a difference, but it was with a little trepidation that I approached Emma Hooper's debut novel, wondering whether it would be an echo of what had gone before.

I needn't have worried, because Hooper's magical prose quickly drew me in. There is a spirituality about her writing - a sense of each word being given its allotted time and space. At times even, there are no words:
no term for a parent without a child, a sister without a sister
and the letters Otto sends back from wartime France are filled with the holes left by a censor's scissors.

The lives of Etta, Otto, Russell and even James are all closely connected. Otto and Russell take it in turns to go to school so that the other can help on the farm. As Otto goes off to fight in the Second World War and Russell is left behind, they begin to take each other's place in Etta's life too. We are all shaped by each other, so where does one person end and another begin? Characters fuse, sharing memories and experiences as if they were their own.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a poignant, wise and funny debutEmma Hooper is a lecturer at Bath Spa University, in creative writing and music and her prose is song-like in its rhythm and timing. She's one of my personal picks at the Bath Literature Festival from Friday 27th February to Sunday 8th March 2015; details of all the events she'll be appearing at can be found here.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is published in the UK by Fig Tree. Thanks to them for my review copy. Images courtesy of Goodreads and Simon and Schuster.

Monday 9 February 2015

Theatre Review: The Forbidden Door – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

As the storytelling magic of The Forbidden Door unfolds, we realise we are being told not just one tale, but many. Here are the threads of half-remembered fables, woven together and breathed into new life with captivating skill and evocative music.
After their 2012 success with A Love Like Salt, The Devil’s Violin returns to the Tobacco Factory with another mesmerising and mythical adventure. If you were ordered by your father, on the cusp of his leaving for battle, not to open a particular door, what would you do? At first you might meekly comply, but as the weeks and months pass by, curiosity gnaws away at you – an itch demanding to be scratched. In the end, more than likely, you’d open that door and unleash the forbidden power of whatever lies within.
Stories are older than language itself, and we are attuned to their power, so there’s something very elemental about watching and listening as Daniel Morden conjures up this tale of transgression. He commands the bare stage with pace, rhythm and melodrama, which he then proceeds to skewer at intervals with an off-the-cuff reference to latecomers or a short and pithy one-liner. The world he describes fuses with the melodies created by Sarah Moody, Dylan Fowler and Oliver Wilson-Dickson; primarily with cello, violin and guitar they draw on influences from folk and world music, with touches of classical and jazz. You could be sitting in a field under a night-starred sky, warming your hands round a blazing camp fire, rather than on the smart red benches of the Factory Theatre.
Morden spins a multi-stranded tale of the far-reaching consequences when a King is disobeyed by two of his three daughters. Do we detect echoes of King Lear? And the door itself harks back to Bluebeard and The Bloody Chamber retellings of Angela Carter. There are creation stories here, the King of the Sun and the Queen of the Moon and the destructive forces of the four winds, threading through Beauty and the Beast, shades of Rapunzel and more. There’s jealousy and deceit, banishment and despair, hope and humour and above all the transformative power of love. It’s a visceral combination which resonates and only towards the end does it begin to feel a little over-long.
Directed by Sally Cookson, this essentially low-tech evening is enhanced by simple, effective lighting; golden for the sun, silvery for the moon and dimmed for the night-time bedroom of the princess and the husband she’s not allowed to look upon. Now you don’t get that round a camp-fire. The Forbidden Door tours the UK until the end of May 2015.
Tour details available on The Devil's Violin website

Friday 6 February 2015

Theatre Review: Roundelay - Theatre Royal Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
The concept of five short plays combining in no fixed order is an intriguing one, given the 120 possible permutations that could be performed, with a running order decided each time by a pre-show lottery. It holds the promise of theatre extending what it already does best – building performance anew every night – and evens up the balance; a different audience, a different dramatic interpretation.
And so Roundelay commences its unique rotation; in the event, no doubt with a nod to trimming the overall running time, only four out of the five possible plays are performed here on the night. Each stands alone in its moment in time, but the characters and narratives are inter-connected. Thus the judge trying to recreate his dead wife with a young escort in one play reappears as the father of a disturbed novelist in another and the aspiring actress, mistaking the dubious nature of the work her new agent is offering her, tries to audition in the next with a monologue from Chekhov’s The Seagull.
This is achingly Ayckbourn-funny stuff at times, still full of the confused identities and sharp one liners which characterise his best creations. It is by turns comedic, charming, poignant, clever and a
little bit (but never too) disturbing. In this his 78th play, visiting Bath from his home theatre the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn shows he hasn't lost any of the zest for experimenting with new form which marks out previous works such as Sisterly Feelings, where a coin is flipped at the end of one scene to determine what comes next, or the multiple perspectives of The Norman Conquests.

Despite this experimentation with structure, and references to the internet and social media, the content and staging show a distinct preference for the traditional. Suggested themes of identity and reaching out for human relationship are hinted at touchingly but can never be fully explored by this fragmented portrayal. Genres swerve from farce to thriller and, inevitably, this can result in an unevenness which doesn't always quite gel.

Yet there are still convincingly strong characterisations; Sarah Stanley is both chilling and amusingly batty as the somewhat deranged Blanche, whilst Krystle Hylton excels as feisty Roz, the sixteen year old who knows she should be a star. Richard Stacey is admirable as Russ, the self-effacing vicar who will never be bishop, obsessed with Gale (Elizabeth Boag), his first love turned questionable actress and agent.
Could Roundelay be more of a buzz to keep the cast and crew on their toes, than for the audience, the majority of whom will only ever get to see it once? Can a series of transposed plays ever build towards a compelling conclusion? These are the questions hovering in my mind before the show begins. Yet afterwards, I find myself reassured by how well the four short plays do sit together overall, musing about how they might work in a different order, and pondering over what has been lost with the fifth – on any one night unseen – instalment.

Runs until 7th February 2015, details and booking with Theatre Royal Bath.