Friday 27 March 2015

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

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Ustinov Studio regulars have become accustomed to taking their comedy black, following an autumn 2014 season which culminated with Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King. But The Harvest, the first production of the Ustinov’s spring 2015 World Theatre season and a UK premiere for Belarusian writer Pavel Pryazhko, promises to be different. A comedy, certainly, but one which at first suggests a lighter sort of madcap mayhem.
Egor, Ira, Valerii and Lyuba are busy in the orchard at harvest time, picking apples and packing them into crates. A task which at first seems straightforward, pleasurable even, rapidly descends into farce as they discover they may not have been handling them with due care. It will only take one bad – or even slightly imperfect – apple to infect the rest of the crate, a realisation which leads our fruit pickers to a detailed re-examination of all the apples that have so far been packed. But then the crates which carry them prove not to be up to the job either – and attempts at nailing them back together lead to a comedic ratcheting up of the tension with bloodshed and a general descent into chaos.
The set, designed by Madeleine Girling, is simple yet extremely effective, an orchard of apples suspended individually on strings from above and four ladders which are climbed to pick them. The cast of four is flawless and mines all the comic potential of the piece as the actors effortlessly inhabit the different levels. The two young men Egor and Valerii (Dafydd Llyr Thomas and Dyfan Dwyfor) ascend to pick the fruit and then compete to hand it down and show off their prowess – or lack of it. Valerii asserts himself as something of an expert on apple handling and so Egor must retaliate by taking the lead in crate repairs. They are alternately goaded and assisted, flirted with and mocked, by the two young women Ira and Lyuba (Beth Park previously seen in Exit the King and Lindsey Campbell who was in another Ustinov UK premiere,The Big Meal) with often hilarious results.
Under former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd’s direction, the pace is beautifully judged as the fallout of the fruit-pickers’ labours becomes increasingly funny and messy. The simple task of hammering a nail into a crate takes on epic proportions and the wastage rate of the harvest becomes exponentially high. There is a delicious scene where the foursome realise that all the apples they have rejected as damaged no longer need to be handled with care – the ensuing melee almost giving the front row of the audience a taste of the action.
Pavel Pryazhko has already garnered a cult following for his work in the “New Drama” movement in Russia and the post-Soviet nations and his hour-long play can be interpreted on many levels. It’s a wry and succinct take on the borderline bureaucracy inherent in even the simplest of processes in Soviet and post-Soviet society. It’s an indictment of modern day Belarus with its stagnant economy where, after Chernobyl, the young fear being outside too long and need increasing amounts of medication. Yet in many ways this hapless foursome could almost be migrant fruit-pickers in the UK, facing the all-encompassing hostility of a foreign land as they stare fearfully into the distance. Above all, in focusing on a supposedly simple task of fruit picking, The Harvest creates a microcosm of human existence – a striving for supremacy, a storm of flirtation and love, jealousy and in-fighting, all wrapped up in the humour necessary for survival. The bleakness may be hinted at rather than explicit, delivered with absurdist belly-laughs, but all the depth of the Ustinov’s previous season is still here.
Runs until 11th April 2015 | Photo: Simon Annand

Monday 23 March 2015

Book Review: Indian Magic by Balraj Khanna

Hope Road is an independent publishing company that supports voices too often neglected by the mainstream - multicultural literature with a special focus on Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. One of their titles is Balraj Khanna's Indian Magic, a novel which follows an immigrant's life in Swinging Sixties Britain.

Ravi Mehra arrives at Victoria Station, London from India with a work permit and five pounds in his pocket. He's young, good looking, educated and full of optimism but naïve about London life. His boundless enthusiasm for the Mother Country takes a severe drubbing when he meets reactions ranging from at best indifference to at worst open hostility. Racism is endemic, and most accommodation comes with the stark warning; No blacks. No Indian. No Irish. Jobless, homeless and starving, his luck eventually changes when he's hired as dishwasher in an Indian restaurant and stumbles upon a room to let without the usual prohibitions.

Life begins to look up as the affable Ravi finds favour with Mr Swami, owner of the Indian Magic restaurant, and is promoted to a permanent position as a waiter. He's invited into the traditional Swami household but also discovers the freedoms of 1960s London. In this typical east meets west culture clash, Ravi relishes the new; girls as eager as boys to have a good time and parties aplenty. Soon he's breaking his solemn promise to his mother to avoid the demon alcohol.

Indian Magic has elements of autobiography, as Balraj Khanna himself arrived in London in 1962 to continue his studies in English Literature at Oxford University. Due to the turmoil in India caused by the war with China, papers from his university never arrived and he was unable to resume studying. But he didn't let this defeat him, instead becoming a foreign correspondent, painter and author of both fiction and non-fiction.

This novel is full of insights into the immigrant experience in 1960s London. There are plenty of humorous moments, with enjoyable banter and rivalries between the restaurant staff and plenty of misunderstandings with the Swamis, who want to bend Ravi to their will. The traditional Indian dishes prepared in their home (but not in the restaurant where English people only want to eat generic 'curry') by Mrs Swami and her extended family sound mouth-watering, but the occasions on which they are served often descend into farce.

Racism is not a preserve of white people. Ravi's room is in a house in the Finchley Road affectionately known as the Subcontinental or Sub, and while Ravi makes lasting friendships:
Where my friends were concerned, their Sub was an island in the vast ocean of loneliness. Home politics were never discussed, though we sometimes said to each other that if Indians and Pakistanis could live happily together here, why couldn't they back home? The irony of it was not lost on us. We had to travel five thousand miles to find out. 
Ravi becomes embroiled in danger as a result of dating Jane, a white English girl, against the wishes of her violent and abusive father, but these darker episodes are not fully explored and, even when his life is threatened, it never really feels as though things will end too badly for him. Indian Magic reads like an intriguing romantic comedy and indeed would make a great film in this genre. You suspect that everything is going to turn out alright in the end, but it's no less enjoyable and engaging an experience for that.

Thanks to Hope Road Publishing for my review copy. Photos courtesy of

Saturday 21 March 2015

Theatre Review: Wuthering Heights at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

More than 150 years after it was first published, Wuthering Heights needs very little introduction. The only novel written by Emily Brontë, it tells of the destructive passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, brought up together in the Earnshaw household but driven apart by divisions of class and status and the elemental forces of life and death.
This adaptation from Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre strips the action back to just two actors; Alison Campbell and Jeremy Fowlds not only take the parts of Cathy and Heathcliff but play all the other characters as well. The play opens as Mr Lockwood, a tenant of Heathcliff’s at Thrushcross Grange, visits his landlord at his remote moorland farmhouse, Wuthering Heights. Compelled by bad weather to stay the night, he finds himself haunted by a nightmare of Cathy’s ghost at the bedroom window.
Back at the Grange, his housekeeper Nelly Dean tells him the story of Heathcliff and Cathy’s doomed and vengeful love and its wider repercussions for the next generation. Dougie Blaxland’s adaptation pares back some of Emily Brontë’s minor characters while still keeping the full sense of her complex plotlines – embracing the comedy of the squabbling Linton children as well as Heathcliff and Cathy’s greater tragedy.
Under Ian McGlynn’s direction, in the intimate setting of The Rondo, the two-handed approach works well, with generally clear transitions between characters and scenes linked by Lockwood and Nelly’s narration. When one of the actors plays two characters at once, the conversation is portrayed by their leaping back and forth between two sides of the stage; Fowlds faces greater demands in the number of rapid switches he has to make and just once or twice the roles of Heathcliff and Cathy’s brother Hindley become blurred.
Lighting and sound are understated, although particularly appropriate is Donna Summer’s I Feel Love playing before the beginning of the production. The set is minimal and Campbell’s simple full-length Victorian dress and Fowlds’ white shirt and dark coat serve to represent all their incarnations. Although it is not possible to mine the depths of each character in this way – showing the full extent of Cathy’s tempestuous wilfulness for example or Heathcliff’s brooding malevolence  – what we do get by a change of voice and mannerisms is a good representation of each and a pacey unfolding of the story.
This appealing adaptation of Wuthering Heights is part of Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre’s acclaimed Brontë season which includes a one-woman Jane Eyre (also starring Alison Campbell) and another two-hander in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In today’s often risk-averse arts climate, it’s refreshing to see this collaboration unafraid to take on such an ambitious programme and tackle it so effectively.
Reviewed on 14th March 2015.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Theatre Review: The Absence of War at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

In this election year 2015, many of the themes of David Hare’s The Absence of War are so contemporary, it’s hard to believe this play originally premiered in 1993. A man who has risen to the top of the Labour Party sacrifices the authentic voice which got him there, in order to make himself electable. In private charismatic, in public he’s unable to get his message across.
Today we might think of Ed Miliband, yet here, as Labour leader George Jones is undermined at every turn by his shadow chancellor Malcolm Pryce, Hare also foreshadows the querulous relationship that is yet to come between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Similarly, he anticipates the curse of spin, fencing in a new generation of career politicians, as George’s non-elected adviser Oliver Dix seeks to keep him on message. George must steer away from the economy and focus on healthcare, suppressing everything he wants to say from the heart.
In other ways, The Absence of War can be viewed as a period piece. A Labour party still daring to speak the name of socialism, yet to become New Labour and steal the centre ground from the Tories. There are no mobile phones to be checked obsessively – Ceefax appears on TV screens and MPs are told the official party line by pager. Most strikingly of all, cigarettes can still be smoked in the office.
Headlong’s new revival, in association with Sheffield Theatres and Rose Theatre Kingston, began its UK tour in Sheffield, home of the infamous speech which is reputed to have cost Labour leader Neil Kinnock the election in 1992. In Bristol, due to illness, Trevor Fox replaces Reece Dinsdale in the role of George Jones.  These are big shoes to fill, but Fox is convincingly more than just a stand in, delivering a genuinely caring leader tortured by his inability to put his point across succinctly when it comes to the crunch, too quick to anger and undone by a betrayal close to home.
The rest of the cast provide strong support; Cyril Nri excels as the detached and calculating Oliver who insists that George sticks to his agreed strategy at all costs. Charlotte Lucas gives a polished performance as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine and Gyuri Sarossy is ruthlessly conniving as the shadow chancellor who never pays more than lip service in his support for his leader – Malcolm’s showdown with George in the heat of the campaign is the most mesmerising scene of all.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction gives the piece much pace and visual flair, the landscape of designer Mike Britton’s TV screens reflecting the outside world in terms of news broadcasts, the simple coloured backdrop creating a stunning silhouette in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations.
With fighting in Ukraine, Syria and other fronts threatening to bring terror to our streets, it feels as though today’s political vacuum has been created not so much by a lack of war but by our failure to find a coherent response to its fragmentation. Yet Hare’s writing is prophetic in so many ways and has retained all of its scintillating sharpness, despite the passage of time. Much may have changed, but The Absence of War reminds us there’s still a fundamental need to ensure that genuine conviction of belief is not extinguished in the ruthless pursuit of power.
Runs until 14th March 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Mark Douet

Sunday 15 March 2015

Theatre Review: Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop broke the mould in 1963 when they unveiled their satirical musical about the devastation and futility of the First World War. Now this Theatre Royal Stratford East production has been revived under the direction of Terry Johnson to commemorate the centenary of the war which was supposed to end all wars.
Originally devised by its cast, the play uses a combination of costumed Pierrots and ridiculous monarchs to highlight the catastrophic events which led Europe into conflict in 1914. Interspersed with rousing song and dance routines, there is an atmosphere of music hall theatricality, of this all being a war game, except for the sobering images projected at the back of the stage and the illuminated news-feed scrolling its width, announcing events and, later on, the terrifying toll of casualties.
This revival is largely faithful to the original, albeit with a more elaborate set designed by Lez Brotherston. Odd touches bring it up to date – a projection of Nigel Farage here, a reference to Ewan McGregor there. If the play is not so shocking to us today as it was in the early sixties, so knowing are we now about the arrogant stupidity of its remote generals and the monumental waste of a generation of men, there are still moments which make you catch your breath. Early on, French cavalry are machine-gunned down in a German ambush and the letters home read aloud by an officer from either side are touching in their similarly descriptive recoil of horror.
Yet the most poignant moments always belong to the ordinary foot-soldiers. As a counterpoint to the rousing patriotism of songs such as Are We Downhearted? and the recruitment drive of I’ll Make a Man of You, the wounded men arriving back at Waterloo, to find that ambulances are for officers only, foreshadow their expendability in later battles. And Terry Johnson’s direction captures all the pathos of the British and German soldiers singing carols to each other – the German’s sublime rendering of Stille Nacht, the bawdy British retort of Christmas Day in the Cookhouse – and playing football on Christmas Day 1914.
The ensemble cast works well together with some beautifully pure singing voices amongst them. Particularly notable is Wendi Peters  – a splendid doyenne of the music hall making light work of the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and a rousing Mrs Pankhurst, battling against the hostility of the crowd with her message of pacifism. Ian Reddington also excels as the Pierrot MC adopting multiple roles, with an amusing turn as the infamous sergeant-major barking unintelligible commands during bayonet practice.
Some of the scenes are less fluid. Immediately after the interval, the August 12th grouse shooting seems under-powered and the dip in pace which is carried over makes the production overall feel too lengthy. But Field Marshal Haig’s indifference to the sacrifice of five to fifty thousand lives a day at Passchendaele is nonetheless chilling, as even his General observes; ‘this is not war, sir, it is slaughter.’ It is a timely reminder to a new generation that the war games are not over, we are still living through them today.
Reviewed on 14th March 2015 as part of a UK tour.

Friday 13 March 2015

Book Review: Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis' debut novel arrived in the UK trailing a long line of plaudits from its initial publication in Australia and New Zealand. 'The Number One International Bestseller' proclaims its jacket cover. 'The same feel-good word of mouth as...The Rosie Project' says the Sydney Morning Herald. Praise like this can be both a blessing and a burden for a new writer. On the one hand, her book will get noticed, but on the other - the bar of expectation may be set unrealistically high.

Seven-year-old Millie Bird knows all about death - too much for one so young. Her book of dead things already has twenty-seven entries, ranging from her family pet dog to a spider. Number twenty-eight is the biggest one of all, but when her Mum takes her to a local department store and leaves her in the ginormous women's underwear section, Millie experiences a new sort of loss.

What would you do? In true seven-year-old spirit, Millie turns her new circumstances into a series of lonely games, conducting a funeral for a fly, trying out the cosmetics in the beauty department and partying with a mannequin. She befriends an old man called Karl, a former touch typist who has his own losses to bear.The rest of the time, she's watching out for Mum's gold shoes from beneath the rail of underwear with the sign she's made, In Here Mum, fixed above.

Eventually Millie and her red wellies are found, but not in the way she hopes. It's what happens next, when Millie and Karl team up with eighty-two-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn't left home in the years since her husband died, which turns the narrative into an unlikely sort of road trip with both funny and devastating consequences.

At first Lost and Found reminded me of Catherine O'Flynn's similarly titled What Was Lost, whose young heroine Kate is subsumed by the world of a late twentieth century shopping centre. Its central theme also calls to mind the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas' creation in The Ice Palace of a childish existence much closer than an adult's to the forces of nature, the creative tensions of life and death. Yet Davis's writing is also engagingly original, as she takes the reader right into Millie's head:
Sometimes, when Millie takes her gumboots for a walk through the park near her house...she makes Walking Poems. She hears two words from the muscly couple running side by side (He said) and three words from the mum talking to her baby in the pram (want your dummy?) and a word from the elderly couple holding hands like they're holding each other up (specifically) and then the silence from the girl not wearing much at all (...) but her sunglasses are the biggest thing on her body and she has music shoved in her ears and she's concentrating on moving the fat on her thighs to her boobs and the expression on her face, that concentration, is part of the poem too
He said
Want your dummy?
At the other end of the age spectrum Davis humorously captures Karl's view of his nursing home:
A woman sat in an armchair doing her knitting, which was a reasonable and comforting-enough scenario had she been one of those soft, rounded women with pink cheeks, a gaggle of grandchildren at her feet to knit for, a sparkle in her eye, some scones in the oven. But she seemed to Karl to be knitting her own umbilical cord to the living; knitting so she wouldn't die.
and Agatha Pantha's paralysis after the death of her husband:
...neighbours suddenly dropped by unannounced, appearing on her doorstep from behind huge, hulking casseroles full of dead animals, and pity...They talked with their faces only centimeters away from hers. I understand, they all said, because Susie/Fido/Henry died last year/last week/ten years ago because she/it/he had lung cancer/was hit by a car/wasn't really dead but was dead to her because he was living with a twenty-six-year old on the Gold Coast.
If at first I felt a little unsure about the direction of Lost and Found and whether Millie, Karl and Agatha would really make such an impromptu dash across Australia to find Millie's mum, I ended by being absorbed in the captivating simplicity of Davis's writing, her quirky humour and the novel's overarching ache of grief. By how those who are left behind can stop living because their loss is so overwhelming. And by how this motley crew of brave, offbeat characters find renewed hope in each other and rediscover the strength to carry on.

At the end of the book, most moving of all, is Davis' article 'Relearning the World' about the death of her own mother in a car crash and how she eventually began to find a way to live alongside her grief. The article made me want to go back and reread Lost and Found in a new light. Brooke Davis, like her characters, is discovering her own way back and the praise she has received for her courageous novel is well deserved.

 Lost & Found is published in the UK by Hutchinson, many thanks to them for my review copy.

Saturday 7 March 2015

Theatre Review: Rebecca – Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The jealousy of a second wife for the first is at the core of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. But the second Mrs de Winter standing before us at the beginning of Kneehigh’s new adaptation appears far from a victim of circumstance. Instead, she portrays the sense of having glimpsed the deepest circle of hell and come back again as, smoking sensuously, she utters those infamous opening lines ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’
This most chilling of psychological thrillers is as Cornish as sea mist, supremely suited to the Truro company’s signature fusion of spectacular setting, atmospheric retelling, rousing folk songs, puppetry and anarchic comedy. And as a body and a boat descend into the depths under the gaze of fishermen in sou’westers singing sea shanties, to be immured in the foreground of Leslie Travers’ dramatic reconstruction of Manderley and its coastal setting, we realise first wife Rebecca will be ever present, haunting the future as much as she has dominated the past.
Maxim de Winter (Tristan Sturrock) brings his new, very young wife (Imogen Sage) back to his imposing family estate after the briefest of honeymoons, telling her very little of what has gone before. Sturrock plays Maxim with just the right degree of brooding authority and anguish, while Sage in this setting is the second Mrs de Winter as we expect her to be; timid, naïve and immediately out of her depth in trying to cope with her larger than life in laws. Director Emma Rice introduces the characters of Maxim’s little sister Beatrice and her buffoonish husband Giles as a sort of representation of everyman – on the one hand chiding Maxim for his hasty marriage only eleven months after Rebecca’s death, on the other demanding that Manderley’s traditional costume ball should carry on regardless.
Far more intimidating for the new Mrs de Winter is Mrs Danvers, who runs Manderley with steely efficiency, and whose devotion to her deceased mistress is revealed with devastating consequences. Emily Raymond plays the housekeeper with formidable sternness rather than sinister edge, which can make her subtle undermining of her new mistress’s position and her reasons for wanting her to dress up for the costume ball less clear. Sudden leaps in the time-frame of this play also have a tendency to detract from the steady ratcheting up of tension, which is so much to the fore in the novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film version.
The many comic moments woven into the mix add to the non-traditional slant; Katy Owen delivers a hilarious turn as the young Welsh servant Robert, conversing a little too frankly over the newly installed telephone about the details of his mother’s menopause. Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams play Beatrice and Giles with great gusto, in danger of stealing the limelight during the ball with their Egyptian double act and Jasper the puppet dog has an amusingly unhealthy obsession with the new Mrs de Winter’s crotch.
As layer upon layer of deception is peeled away, however, the final scenes are as thrillingly climactic as in the original story and it’s refreshing to watch the new Mrs de Winter begin to take charge. This is Rebecca with a 21st Century Kneehigh twist, retaining all of the first wife’s devastating, triumphant power while also allowing the second to become a force to be reckoned with.
Reviewed at The Theatre Royal, Bath as part of a UK tour | Photo: Steve Tanner

Sunday 1 March 2015

Theatre Review: Romeo and Juliet – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most familiar and frequently performed plays, a youthfully idealistic tale of star-crossed lovers. What can often be overlooked, though, is the visceral brutality of the clashes between the younger male Montagues and Capulets, their raw and ceaseless goading of each other, even until death.
In young Russian director Polina Kalinina’s new production for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF), this testosterone-fuelled rivalry crashes into the foreground, as the action relocates to the 1960s, birthplace of the hormonal teenager. It begins with a central playground roundabout, a world where childhood innocence has been left behind and young people gather to drink and fight. Quickly, the roundabout is stripped down to its component parts of bare metal bars; perfect weapons for the warring factions who circle each other with menacing intensity.
Meanwhile, the older generation is discussing marriage alliances, even as Romeo espies Juliet and forgets his previous infatuation with Rosaline. Kalinina describes the tension as ‘stretched like rubber bands – with the younger generation pulling one way and the older another.’
In the first half there are some wonderful set pieces; tightly staged, thrillingly violent fight scenes as the glittery, substance-soaked young Montagues face up to their gas-masked opponents. The loud, fast-paced Capulets’ ball, where Romeo and Juliet first discover each other, is so startlingly decadent you might find yourself wishing you could be part of it. The setting draws comparisons with Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 modern film reinterpretation or the more organised gangland culture depicted in Lucy Bailey’s King Lear of 2013 at the Theatre Royal, Bath.
Not everything works quite so well, though. The balcony scene feels contrastingly under-powered as Juliet inhabits the central revolve of the dismantled roundabout and Romeo skirts around in the shadows. And in the general helter-skelter rush of words, some of the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, usually delivered with such clarity by SATTF under artistic director Andrew Hilton, has a tendency to be lost. It takes stalwarts like Paul Currier as the steadfast Friar and Alan Coveney as the Prince, to re-establish the pace and rhythm of the verse and certainly by the second half, its delivery is much improved.
After the interval, the roiling cauldron of energy is distilled into pure emotion; from Juliet’s exuberantly adolescent dancing to the tender hours she is able to snatch with her new husband and the ending you always hope might somehow be avoided this time. The cast is outstanding and surely contains stars in the making; none more so than Paapa Essiedu who gives us an endearingly buoyant and convincing Romeo, charming as a lover even as he sticks the knife into his enemy. Daisy Whalley’s Juliet grows before our eyes from a biddable daughter into a passionate bride who would rather die than contemplate life without her fledgling husband. Callum McIntyre and Oliver Hoare impress as Benvolio and Mercutio respectively, Fiona Sheehan is haughty yet vulnerable as Lady Capulet and Sally Oliver shines as the edgily knowing nurse, complete with hotpants and hair rollers, hinting at hidden depths and hidden relationships.
The vivid 1960s aesthetic running through Emma Bailey’s costume and design reinforces Kalinina’s bold vision of a world on the cusp of huge social and political disorder, bordering on anarchy. This already striking production will surely be tightened over coming performances into something truly memorable.
Runs until 4th April 2015 then touring | Photo: Craig Fuller