Thursday 30 April 2015

Theatre Review: Outside Mullingar at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

The setting for Outside Mullingar is pinpointed by its American writer John Patrick Shanley to “a cattle and sheep farm outside Killucan” in Ireland. Inspired by the area where his cousin still lives, in the intimacy of the Ustinov, this sense of place becomes palpable. The atmospheric set, designed by Richard Kent, doubles as both the inside and outside of the rural location – a meticulously detailed unkempt country kitchen blending into a farm gate, barn wall and well-trodden, rain-soaked turf.
In the aftermath of a funeral, old-timers Tony Reilly and Aoife Muldoon share tea and memories across the kitchen table. Obsessed with their own mortality, they agree they too will be dead within a year and speculate about what will happen to their land. Carol Macready’s Aoife is devout and fatalistic – she has buried her husband that day and is certain to leave her farm to her daughter Rosemary. James Hayes as Tony is prickly and darkly critical; less sure about whether his son Anthony deserves to inherit. And then there’s the thorny issue of a symbolic strip of land owned by the Muldoons, which separates the Reilly farm from the road and prevents any easy sale to affluent American relatives.
The younger generation – now in middle age – are also bound to the blessings and burdens of the land but with different priorities, caught up in the aching romantic comedy of a love so slow burning it may never catch light. Attractive and spirited, Rosemary (Deirdre O’Kane) has turned away many suitors because of her yearning for Anthony (Owen McDonnell). But there’s a reason why the self-effacing Anthony has never married all these years, a solemnly sworn secret in the Reilly clan.
There are many beautifully observed moments with satisfying outcomes – the explanation for the Muldoons holding on to the disputed strip of land, Aoife’s Father Ted-like reason for not drinking from a glass, the lyrical losing and finding of Anthony’s dead mother’s ring. There are fine performances too, particularly from O’Kane as the feisty, increasingly embittered Rosemary who, after years of words unspoken, confronts Anthony in the riveting final scene. And Sam Yates’ direction brings out the change of pace with great poignancy, as Tony in ill-health eventually softens towards his son, recounting the story of his own slow-burn love for Anthony’s mother.
Outside Mullingar, which premiered in New York in January 2014, might not quite live up to the acclaim Shanley earned for his previous 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt. At times, particularly in the opening sequence, it talks itself round in circles rather than propelling the story forwards. It’s occasionally difficult to believe that a girl as driven as Rosemary would have the patience or desire to throw away her youth for Anthony. And the reason for his reticence, once revealed, stretches credulity.
Yet, although it reaches out for and doesn't always fully grasp the profound, Outside Mullingar is a thoughtful, moving and often hilarious watch.
Runs until 16th May 2015 |Photo: Simon Annand

Monday 27 April 2015

Theatre Review: Dear Lupin at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Over the course of twenty -five years, Sunday Times horse-racing correspondent Roger Mortimer wrote regularly to his wayward son Charlie, often in exasperation, but always with humour and affection. The collection of his letters, Dear Lupin – already a publishing sensation – has now been adapted for the stage by Michael Simkins, a two-hander starring the real-life pairing of father and son James and Jack Fox.
After a round of Mastermind which neatly fills in much of Roger’s background, the trials and tribulations of Charlie’s life from the age of fifteen to adulthood are explored through a mix of narration, excerpts from the letters and vignettes of pivotal moments. Whereas in the book, Roger’s correspondence is unanswered and our knowledge of his son gleaned primarily from reading between the lines, in this stage adaptation, more of Charlie himself is revealed; his comfortable upbringing and schooldays at Eton, his drink and drug-fuelled youth, misadventures in the Coldstream Guards, health problems and a haphazard series of jobs.
The humour of Roger’s original letters shines through. Charlie, nicknamed Lupin early on as a tribute to Mr Pooter’s feckless son in Diary of a Nobody, in danger of being expelled from Eton in 1967 is told; “You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge.” His father criticises him for wearing his hair “like a 1923 typist” and admonishes: “Even allowing for the fact that you cannot yet tie a bow tie, a sweat rag coiled round your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress….”
James Fox inhabits the role of Roger comfortably, with all the familiarity of donning a much-loved tweed jacket, sharing wry in-jokes about his wife’s drinking habits and over-reliance on the microwave. Jack Fox, given the lion’s share of narration, still sparkles with a charming roguish vitality as Charlie. The work of being a believable father and son may already be done, but the two still convincingly convey the nuances of the relationship, the loving familial ties bound up in everyday impatience and insouciance, pride and despair.
The set has all the appearance of a second hand furniture salesroom, which it becomes in one episode of Charlie’s life, but reveals itself to be a heady mix of yesteryear and repository of memories – Roger’s desk and typewriter which he uses to write his letters, the panama hat he wears while typing them. Under Philip Franks’ direction it becomes an Eton classroom, an unlikely assault course in the Brecon Beacons, a brothel and a setting for an exuberant Elvis impersonation.
And yet, despite these interludes, because of the reliance on narration, there is an overall sense that this adaptation is a little too safe and one-paced. Although there are references to the passage of time, the characters don’t seem to reflect this in becoming significantly older or younger over the twenty-five year span. And, in introducing greater detail of Charlie’s life, there’s a commensurate need which isn’t met for more light to be thrown on the reasons behind his actions and their wider consequences.
There’s a moving conclusion as the health of both Mortimers begins to fail, and the humour remains steady to the last. For lovers of the book, though, it may seem that the stage version of Dear Lupin doesn’t provide enough new insights or quite coalesce into the sum of its parts. Yet it still provides an entertaining and affectionate perspective on the enduring strength of family ties – from the Foxes to the Mortimers – from one father and son to another.
Runs until Saturday 25th April 2015 | Photo: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Theatre Review: The School for Scandal at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s second production of the season is from Sheridan – not the first time the company has strayed outside its Shakespearean roots. Unexpectedly for SATTF regulars though, it’s this play, rather than its season companion Romeo and Juliet, which has the more familiar, possibly even conventional, feel.
Much of this is down to Andrew Hilton being back at the helm, having temporarily handed control to new young director Polina Kalinina. In The School for Scandal a measured clarity of text returns to replace Kalinina’s viscerally exciting but occasionally uneven interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the plot of Sheridan’s comedy of manners masterpiece is delivered with all the verbal dexterity of a literary joust.
That London in 1777 was a scandalous mix of salons and soirées is reflected from the very beginning, as Lady Sneerwell (Julia Hills) and her associate Mr Snake (Paul Currier) gossip about the circumstances surrounding Sir Peter Teazle and his family. There’s plenty to speculate over; inveterate bachelor Sir Peter, recently married to a much younger wife, has acted as informal guardian to the two brothers Charles and Joseph Surface since their father died. Charles is impecuniously extravagant but good-hearted; Joseph is considered in polite society to be responsible and full of noble feeling, although it quickly becomes clear he’s anything but. Both are reliant on the benevolence of their absent uncle Sir Oliver Surface and, for very different reasons, are rivals for the hand of Sir Peter’s ward Maria.
The production is sumptuously costumed in the wigs, wide skirts and fine brocades of the period, although Dominic Power’s prologue and epilogue, adapted to feature mobile phones, social media and selfies, feel like an obviously signalled attempt to connect the play to the present day. Amusingly spoken by Byron Mondahl, it’s funny but unsubtle –  the sort of message that would be more satisfying for the audience to think of themselves.
The cast do a great job in bringing Sheridan’s potentially two-dimensional characters to life; Paapa Essiedu, Romeo in Kalinina’s production, shines again as the self-serving Joseph, plotting to marry Maria (Hannah Lee) for her fortune and leave Charles free for the designs of Lady Sneerwell. Essiedu distinctively delivers Sheridan’s eighteenth century lines with naturalistic modernity while Fiona Sheehan sparkles as the tittle-tattling busybody Mrs Candour. Daisy Whalley appears at home in the role of the coquettish and demanding young Lady Teazle while Christopher Bianchi’s comic timing and controlled outrage are perfect as her much put-upon husband Sir Peter.
Although tautly directed and glittering with wit and malicious asides, the play does start to feel long at over three hours. Fortunately, to relieve any flagging, the most entertaining moments arrive after the interval as Sir Oliver (Chris Garner), newly returned from the East Indies, dons a disguise to ascertain the true nature of his two nephews. The scene where Charles (Jack Wharrier) refuses to sell Sir Oliver his own portrait is hilariously delivered, as is the uncovering of Joseph’s secret liaison and duplicitous double-dealings in his library.
This is a undoubtedly a skilful and satisfying interpretation of Sheridan’s most famous scandal-mongering work, encapsulating the comedy and hinting at the tragedy that the power of words can bring. While it has you laughing from the start, it still leaves you with plenty to think about.
Runs until 9th May 2015 | Photo: Mark Douet

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Theatre Review: Frogs - The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The Ancient Greek god Dionysus went to hell and back. Now Hecate Theatre have taken his original subterranean quest and updated it for a modern audience.
According to Aristophanes, Greek tragedy was in decline after the death of the playwright Euripides, so Dionysus was sent from Mount Olympus down to Hades to bring him back. In Hecate Theatre’s Frogs, this journey has been comically adapted by writer Charles Scherer, with Dionysus now crossing the river Styx to arrange an unlikely showdown between William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, to determine which one is the greatest writer of all time.
The story is observed by a Greek chorus of frogs; Hecate Theatre’s five female members, daubed in green paint, ribbit and hop about a swampy landscape of rubbish, nets and the odd abandoned hub cap. In turn they transform into its main characters; Gemma Reynolds dons shades and a fur stole to become Dionysus, god of drama, while Hannah-Marie Chidwick becomes her sidekick slave Xanthias. Kate Mayne delivers a virtuoso performance as the cussedly no-nonsense boatman Charon, as well as Pluto, in charge of the Underworld, while Bella Fortune and Alice Chalk slug it out as Shakespeare and Austen respectively.
Programmed as part of the 2015 Bath Comedy Festival, this hour-long play fizzes with inventiveness and modern references, from Fifty Shades of Grey to zero hours contracts. Under Abbi Davey’s direction it gets off to a slightly slow start in establishing the potentially unfamiliar premise (perhaps an introduction could be given in the programme notes?), but really springs into life when the gnarled and grouchy Charon reluctantly agrees to transport the wine-swigging Dionysus and Xanthias across the Styx for a strictly set fee.
The contest is an energetically comedic centre-piece, with the initially reverential Austen turning on Shakespeare to put up a proper fight for the title of greatest writer. Shakespeare pompously dismisses her works as essentially plotless; her argument that too much happens in his plays (which he may not even have written) is supported by a very droll froggy re-enactment of some of his best known death scenes.
Designer Charlotte Cooke’s set deserves special mention, with credit being given in the programme for the number of video tapes destroyed in its creation. All in all, this is an endearing and fun family-friendly interpretation of one of the most ancient of classic tales.
Reviewed on 9th April 2015.

Monday 13 April 2015

Opera Review: WNO's Chorus! at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In staging an operatic showcase where the chorus is the star, Welsh National Opera is surely playing to its strengths. Coupled with a fluidly dramatic set design, thrilling costumes and a guest soloist in the form of soprano Lesley Garrett, WNO’s chorus shows why it has so often been the highlight of previous productions.
What at first appears to be a diverse selection of pieces – ranging from Wagner to Weill – at second glance has more coherence. Themes emerge as Prokofiev’s celebration of patriotic identity crystallises into the murderous lynch mob of Peter Grimes, intent on destruction at all costs. In the late Johan Engels’ stunning design, black costumes are gashed with red scarves, the blood of the dying in Verdi’s Macbeth Murderers’ Chorus dissolving into the Communist red of the workers in his Anvil Chorus. Following this is the cumulative power of massed voices heard quietly in the enchanting Hush, No More from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the Humming Chorus of Madama Butterfly.
Some of the pieces, by contrast, are less successful. Verdi’s Rataplan from La Forza del Destino (which also introduces Garrett to the audience) strikes a jarring, comedically strained note, while the sequence encompassing the vices of the night (The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky and Weill’s Alabama Song) is uneasily centred on a boxing match. Elvis, played by dancer Chris Tudor, makes an appearance at a wedding. Yes, it is very much tongue-in-cheek, but it also feels under-powered with some of Garrett’s lower register being drowned by the orchestra. 
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a squad of policemen seduced in their locker room by Carmen’s cigarette smoking factory girls. This delicious scene is a feast for both eyes and ears, as a languid hand emerges from behind the locker room door to plant a cigarette in a dazed policeman’s mouth. This time the comedic note is exactly right in A Policeman’s Lot from The Pirates of Penzance, followed by the vision of Garrett, languishing on a sofa resembling a pair of red velvet lips suspended from the ceiling, in Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. 
This resurgence continues after the interval. A surreal staging of Les Voici from Carmen which includes The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Andy Warhol and a teasing striptease by Tudor gives way to Garrett emerging in a nun’s habit in Verdi’s La Vergine Degli Angeli. Wrapped in a blue sheet, Tudor transforms into an angel with a cheeky nod to the audience, who are fully aware that only seconds before he was cavorting around devil-may-care in only his scarlet underpants. 
The WNO orchestra, conducted by Alexander Martin, is as faultless as ever throughout and the chorus prove their versatility – if it were in any doubt – with a rendition of Handel’s Messiah, followed by Musorgsky’s Wailing Chorus from Khovanshchina. After Garrett’s tour de force, The Impossible Dream, the conclusion is a rousing finale of Candide’s Make Our Garden Grow.
For all the fluidity of the choreography, there is a slight feeling by the end of having overdosed on a feast of fine snacks rather than a truly substantial three course meal. Yet Chorus! is a great taster menu of operatic possibilities and there is also the refreshing satisfaction of the chorus being placed centre stage. This last currently scheduled performance of this production, which combines with The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel to form WNO’s Spellbound programme, undoubtedly provides an entertaining evening for opera lovers and newcomers alike.
 Reviewed on 8th April 2015. Picture courtesy of WNO.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Book Review: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Aki Ollikainen's award-winning fiction debut opens with a sort of premonition:
Two skinny pikes lie at the bottom of the boat. They look more like snakes than fish. They no longer twitch; the cold has made them stiff. Their jaws gape, still trickling blood, which blends in slender swirls with the water around Mataleena's feet.  
Food is already in short supply in the remote isolation of northern Finland for Juhani, Marja and their two children Mataleena and Juho. The cold is setting in and their way of life, at best a sort of subsistence, will have no defence against the devastating famine of 1867.

Juhani begins refusing food so that his family can eat, but this leaves him weakened and close to death. Marja is angered:
It was not generosity that motivated Juhani's decision, but cowardice.
He should look after himself, she thinks, so that he can look after his wife and children.

It is Marja who makes the heart-breaking choice to set off on foot through the snow with the two children, leaving Juhani behind. The travellers find shelter from the cruel winter in the house of a neighbour, but must venture much further afield - as far as St Petersburg, they are told - to find a place where bread is more plentiful.

In each new village they are greeted warily; there may be a shortage of food but there's never any shortage of beggars. At times they are shown great kindness - given hard-to-spare bread and shelter for the night - but, at others, great brutality. The relentless cold and hunger deprives people of their humanity; in desperation they are prepared to slay each other for morsels of bread or meat. It takes its toll on the already weakened Marja and her children.

White Hunger has been compared in style and subject to Cormac McCarthy's The Road; its descriptions of poverty and starvation also remind me of Émile Zola's Germinal, although there the grinding misery in a mining village is brought about by industrial rather than environmental factors.

Still there is a common economic thread. In White Hunger, politicians stand accused of not doing more to alleviate the suffering of their people and they in turn blame businessmen for not getting emergency supplies of grain out in time.

Ollikainen has won a slew of awards for this remarkable, piercing novella in his native Finland, where the suffering endured in this famine is still etched on the national psyche. His writing comes with a warning from Meike Ziervogel of independent publisher Peirene Press:
There will come a point in this book where you can take no more of the snow-covered desolation.   
And so it felt to me, despite this being a slim volume of less than 140 pages. Ollikainen writes pared-back, beautiful but unsparing prose which, although rooted in real historical events, has a timeless, apocalyptic quality. The book's translation by mother and daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah conveys all the harshness of the barely imaginable conditions, a battle for survival that is painful and vivid.

About two thirds of the way through, I wasn't sure whether I would be able to carry on with this eloquent but relentless bleakness. Yet the moment at which all hope has been extinguished is also a turning point where the first hint of spring can be glimpsed on the horizon. The ending is masterful and leads you to reconsider the whole of this novella in its light.

Pictures courtesy of Peirene Press and many thanks to them too for my review copy.