Wednesday 29 July 2015

Theatre Review: Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

There’s a myriad of colours in Pink Mist, Owen Sheers’ poetic drama which encompasses the brutal effects of war and its aftermath on three young Bristol soldiers and their families. There’s the green and black of night vision goggles and the white heat of the Afghan desert, the friendly fire of blue-on-blue and most of all the pink mist of the title, a harrowing experience when the mate who was fighting alongside you takes a direct hit and vaporises into droplets of blood in the air. Try getting that out of your head in a two hour play, and you begin to have an inkling of what these returning soldiers – often no more than boys – might be going through.

Pink Mist began life to great critical acclaim as a play on Radio 4, distilled from the raw testimony of recently wounded service personnel and their families. Commissioned and produced in Bristol, it’s a fusion of voices and settings from the city: the Thekla nightclub on an ex-cargo ship, the V-Shed bar and the all-too-regular suicides from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Local references come thick and fast and, on a pared down and specially adapted Bristol Old Vic stage, this feels close to a site-specific production.
Hads, Taff and Arthur were at school together, their most frequent playground chant; “Who wants to play war?” Despite the misgivings of the women in their lives, they join up together too and, ditching their monotonous jobs for basic training in Catterick, feel a new optimism and sense of purpose. But what makes them ultimately breaks them; the willingness to die for a fellow soldier turns to grief, then anger and revenge in a cycle where the mental scars can be even greater than the physical. The hurt stays with them long after returning home, making victims of their girlfriends and mothers, too. The testimony of the women in their lives is equally affecting; this is a life sentence which nobody escapes from.
The challenge of turning a radio play, with its emphasis on the rhythm and lyricism of voices, into a stage performance for six actors has been met head on by directors John Retallack and George Mann, who have developed a complementary physical language – with a nod to the likes of Gecko and DV8 – which captures the cadences of Sheers’ words without overwhelming them. There are flashbacks to battle scenes where you can almost smell the stench of death; the intensity of soundscape and lighting pulling the audience into the heart of the war zone. One choreographed slow motion sequence has an injured soldier thrown backwards through the air – to land, most poignantly, in a wheelchair. A man who was six foot two finds himself without his legs, cut down to just four foot three in the flash of an improvised explosive device.
The young cast is impeccable in both emotional and physical expressiveness; Phil Dunster as Arthur shoulders most of the narration, the first to sign up who persuades Hads (Alex Stedman) and Taff (Peter Edwards) to join him. Zara Ramm portrays all the anguish of a mother who now looks after her son like a small child again; while Rebecca Hamilton as Gwen and Erin Doherty as Lisa must both come to terms with partners they hardly recognise any more.
The voices may be local and contemporary, but the themes of Pink Mist are ageless and universal. Despite the odd glimmer of life going on, this overwhelmingly intense and heart-breaking production demonstrates how normality for those touched by the theatre of war can be transformed into a different and very much darker one.
Reviewed on Monday, 6th July 2015 | Photo: Mark Douet

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Book Review: Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin

Diana Dodsworth is a respectable, middle-aged university lecturer who lives on her own, with only her cat for company. At a glance, her life is unexceptional - yet from the very first page of Anne Goodwin's debut novel Sugar and Snails, we know she has a secret. It's something that distances her from her friends and family and inhibits her relationship with her boyfriend, Simon. It's prevented her from travelling abroad for the last thirty years and still, in moments of crisis, drives her to shocking self-harm with a Stanley knife.

As it becomes evident that Diana is no stranger to A & E departments, we also realise she's not the easiest person to help - refusing the overtures of friends and the kindnesses of strangers:
Compassion. It greets me in the soothing voice of the triage nurse who takes my details at reception. I shrug it off as due to youth and an unfinished apprenticeship in cynicism, until it pops up a second time in his grey-haired colleague, who lays a gentle hand on my shoulder as she ushers me through the swing doors to a couch in a curtained cubicle, apologising for the wait. It lurks again in the form of the bleary-eyed doctor, a petite woman sporting a turquoise sari beneath her white coat, who won't move an inch without explaining what she's doing. It's as if they're too gullible to register they're dealing with a self-inflicted wound. 
Diana is defensive and sensitive to perceived criticism; worrying obsessively that she has upset her friend Venus's daughter by telling her an inappropriate bedtime story - or rather, that she is judged harshly by others for having done so. She replays details like failing to compliment Venus's metallic blue helix earrings over and over in her mind, like a needle repeatedly stabbing into a fresh wound. This awkwardness could make her a difficult central character to empathise with, but as Goodwin intertwines the present day with Diana's childhood in a north-eastern mining town, the reasons for her feelings of isolation emerge and we begin to understand the darkness inside her.

The multiple strands and recurring memories at times threaten to overwhelm: the present where Simon is leaving for a sabbatical in Cairo; Diana's first meeting him at Venus's birthday party five months earlier; Diana at fifteen sandwiched between her parents in a Cairo taxi; at thirteen being taken by her mother to Lourdes; playing Romeo and Juliet with her school-friend Geraldine and her earliest memory at three years old, dressing up in her sister's tutu. It's a testament to Goodwin's skill as a writer that the thread of the narrative remains clear and pulls the reader towards its secret core.

The timing of a book's revelation is always tricky: too early and the ground hasn't been sufficiently prepared, too late and the reader begins to feel manipulated. For me, if anything, the full truth could have been confirmed a little sooner; once guessed, I was eager to explore the important contemporary issues that it raises.

Still, this is something which Goodwin picks up with great sensitivity and authenticity in the novel's latter pages. Diana lectures in psychology and, as she supervises Megan - a fragile young undergraduate - in her assignment, yet more painful memories are reawakened. She is forced to revisit her published doctoral research about the flawed process of adolescent decision-making, regretting, perhaps, how firmly she set her own life's path at only fifteen:
Adolescents need their self-absorption to discover who they are. I might have lingered longer in that ambiguous space between childhood and adulthood too, if there'd been anyone to show me how useful that could be.
But the younger Diana really is alone in her otherness; her relationship with her parents doesn't permit open discussion - her father distant and withdrawn, her mother nervous and unable to cope. These passages are heart-rending; reading how this fifteen-year-old faces the most profound life issues on her own, surrounded by hostility, unlocks all the complexity of the present-day Diana. Goodwin balances her personality with precision and care; it's fascinating to read in this article for Shiny New Books about the number of rewrites she went through to achieve this.

If some of the more minor characters like Megan and Simon (and to some extent her sometime friend Geraldine, whom I couldn't quite get a handle on) seem less rounded and primarily there to facilitate the plot, this doesn't lessen the impact of this absorbing and thoughtful story. As Diana takes the first tentative steps towards changing her life for the better, discovering that she too might enjoy the intimate relationships that others take for granted, I found myself cheering from the sidelines.

As a psychologist herself, it's tempting to believe that Goodwin must have based Diana on her own experiences. But this is far from the case; in this article for Sacha Black's blog she makes it clear that she's a non-LGBT author exploring LGBT issues from the outside - which makes this thoughtful, illuminating debut all the more remarkable.

Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin is published by Inspired Quill and available here. Many thanks to Inspired Quill for my review copy. 

Thursday 16 July 2015

Theatre Review: Around The World In 80 Days at The Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

All the sweaty and exotic exhilaration of the travel of yesteryear is evoked in New International Encounter’s interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. As Phileas Fogg sets off on his quest to win a wager by circumnavigating the globe in record time, he and his faithful manservant Passepartout must make their way by cab, train and ocean liner – not forgetting the occasional elephant. It helps, of course, if you can throw money at a trip; when a boat is missed, Phileas and his carpet bag of cash have the resources to charter another one. Anything to avoid the ultimate indignity for a Victorian English gentleman of having to break into a run. 

New International Encounter’s classic comedy travelogue – first performed as a family Christmas show in Cambridge last year – sticks closely to Verne’s original 1873 story; unsurprising, given its enduring popularity. The inventiveness comes from this talented ensemble of actor-musicians bringing a contemporary slant; there are delays caused by leaves on the line and an unfinished track, thanks to austerity cuts. For the children in the audience, their clever wordplay extracts every ounce of mirth from lines such as “Passepartout, call me a cab!”

Under Alex Byrne’s direction, NIE also make comically creative use of their musical instruments and set; the piano, in particular, is reinvented as a counter in the British consulate, the body of an elephant and the prow of a ship, for leaning back against Titanic-style. And the potted palms are deceptive too; it may look like they’re there for a bit of Victorian gentlemen’s club scene setting, but rustling and pushing them aside from the actors’ faces recreates a place where the train track has run out in the midst of the deepest, darkest Indian jungle. 

There’s no shortage of audience involvement, as our fearless hero and his sidekick clamber up through the allegedly jungle-infested seating, inviting parrot imitations and participation in magic tricks. This endearing cast can be forgiven the occasional wandering accent; in a selection of so many it’s all part of the fun. Martin Bonger, recently seen in Bristol as Fat Man, makes a very upright and obsessive Phileas, while Stefanie Mueller, complete with big fake moustache, is a delightfully authentic Passepartout. Ben Frimston perspires deliberately and disgustingly as the seedy Inspector Fix from Scotland Yard, on a mission is to arrest Phileas for having allegedly robbed the Bank of England. 

Occasionally, it feels as though the production could be pushed a little further; greater pace at the beginning and a heightening of the drama towards the end might introduce at least a little doubt about the outcome in the audience’s mind. But there are some magical ideas – most entertainingly, a less-is-more balloon flight that could teach the extravagant helicopter scene in Miss Saigon a thing or two – which easily justify this Christmas show being revisited all year round.

Runs until Saturday 18th July 2015 | Photo: Christa Holka

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Cover Reveal: The Evolution Of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Paul E. Hardisty's The Abrupt Physics of Dying (you can read my post here).

Since then, this absorbing and adrenalin-fuelled debut has been shortlisted for the 2015 Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger for best crime novel by a first-time author. But rather than sitting back and resting on his laurels, Paul has been writing a sequel.

The Evolution of Fear introduces the next episode in the life of Claymore Straker, hero of The Abrupt Physics of Dying. If, like me, you want to find out what happens next to the maverick I described as a cross between Bond and Bourne, then this is for you. 

I also mentioned in my review that here we have a novel, a writer and a publisher to watch (not something to say lightly). And so, I'm absolutely thrilled to be able to reveal the striking new cover:

And here's the lowdown:

Claymore Straker is a fugitive with a price on his head. Wanted by the CIA for acts of terrorism he did not commit, his best friend has just been murdered and Rania, the woman he loves, has disappeared. Betrayed by those closest to him, he must flee the sanctuary of his safe house in Cornwall and track her down. As his pursuers close in, Clay follows Rania to Istanbul and then to Cyprus, where he is drawn into a violent struggle between the Russian mafia, Greek Cypriot extremists, and Turkish developers cashing in on the tourism boom. As the island of love descends into chaos, and the horrific truth is unveiled, Clay must call on every ounce of skill and endurance to save Rania and put an end to the unimaginable destruction being wrought in the name of profit. Gripping, exhilarating and, above all, frighteningly realistic, The Evolution of Fear is a startling, eye-opening read that demands the question: How much is truth, and how much is fiction?

The Evolution of Fear will be available in ebook format in December 2015 and in print on 15th January 2016.

Many thanks to Karen Sullivan, publisher at Orenda Books, for supplying the images and details. 

Sunday 12 July 2015

Theatre Review: Love For Love at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Following Deborah McAndrew’s contemporary play The Grand Gesture, which has just finished its run at the Tobacco Factory, the other Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate show in town is William Congreve’s restoration comedy Love for Love – and at first glance it couldn’t be more different.
This is a fiendishly complicated comedy of manners, where the protagonists seem not to fall in love so much as lust after the fortunes of the marriageable. One exception to this rule is Valentine, who has sunk into debt through his wooing of Angelica, even though she has never offered him any real encouragement. Driven to desperate measures, Valentine agrees to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother Benjamin, in return for an immediate bailout from his father Sir Sampson. This makes Benjamin an eminently eligible bachelor and although, after returning from three years at sea, it has been arranged for him to marry Miss Prue, there are other schemes afoot. Mrs Frail, a single woman about town, hatches a plan with her sister Mrs Foresight to marry Benjamin and capture his fortune for herself.
If the plot becomes ever more labyrinthine and difficult to follow in detail, this is made up for by the atmospheric candlelit setting – which evokes thoughts of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse or the recent RSC productions of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – and delicately coloured period costumes, not to mention the fine array of acting talent, musicianship, choreography and movement on display.
At first, despite the beautifully executed formal bows, fan language and character-driven scene changes, the sheer amount of exposition in the play is over-long and difficult to disguise. But, once various scenarios have been set up, the performance is enlivened by nicely timed comic pratfalls, song and dance. Of particular note is the rousingly nautical tableau of Benjamin’s sailor song at the end of Act III.
After the interval the pace really picks up; witty asides to the audience and physical comedy abound, with Valentine throwing himself into a pretence of madness in a final desperate attempt to win Angelica’s affections and nullify the punitive deal he’s made with his father. Timothy Innes as Valentine carries this off with bravura but Pippa Moss as the spirited Angelica is more than a match for him. Karl Wilson as Sir Sampson is to be commended for portraying a character so much older than himself with convincing weight, while Ryan McKen puts in a hilarious turn as the tall, bearded nurse in a dress. But there isn’t a weak link in this ensemble – after spending so much time together learning their craft, this talented company works as an intuitively attuned and coherent whole.
It may not quite have the incisive sparkle of more familiar restoration plays such as Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, but the obsessively status-driven and gossip-fuelled world of Love For Love still resonates with a 21st Century audience; reminding us – as in The Grand Gesture – that at its essence human nature changes very little, but there’s always room for love if we make it.
Reviewed on Tuesday 16th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke

Monday 6 July 2015

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

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

If there was ever an award for the best use of cardboard in a show, it would have to go to Gloriator, a supremely silly reinvention of the Oscar-winning film Gladiator by French/English female comedy duo Spitz & Co. The set and many of the props and costumes – from Roman armour to Emperor’s laurel wreath – have been constructed out of cast-off boxes in a blaze of inspired recycling.

The laughter begins early on, as hapless tour manager Josephine sells lottery tickets to support French actress Gloria Delaneuf’s mission to bring the arts to a deprived community in the depths of the Kungalunga jungle. Apparently, Gloria is a household name in France and Josephine gives us a short presentation of her most famous films (projected, of course, on to cardboard) before the icon herself sweeps imperiously on stage, announcing she will be re-enacting the role made famous by Russell Crowe, while giving greater voice to other previously overlooked female characters in the film.

There then follows an inventive and eye-moppingly funny play-within-a-play, full of clowning, mime and physical comedy, as a just-about recognisable version of the story is performed. The cardboard is supplemented by a flurry of wigs, sackcloth and a nowhere-to-hide white leotard; whether bedecked in a bear costume or stripped down to their underwear, this duo displays great on-stage chemistry and an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves. Pauline Morel as Gloria maintains a comical hauteur throughout; she issues forth a stream of commands to Susie Donkin’s puppyishly enthusiastic – but often ineffective – Josephine, who rushes around providing costumes and props, mopping up spills, translating Gloria’s French and playing all the minor roles from horse to ghostly visitor. 

They’re not afraid to interact with the audience, either. "Is he a plant?" wonders my teenage daughter, as a young man called James is given both the women’s phone numbers in a subversive act of love rivalry on Josephine’s part. It’s his birthday and, invited onto the stage for a crucial scene, he’s rewarded with an unrehearsed chorus of Happy Birthday from an appreciative audience at the end. 

Silliness seems to come as naturally as breathing to this show; there’s a convincing appearance of anarchic spontaneity which must belie all the thought and timing that’s gone into its creation. Gloriator is like the workout for the facial muscles it at one stage portrays – on the way home, I realise mine are still aching from the relentless laughter of the last hour. 

Reviewed on 17th June 2015. Photo courtesy of Spitz &Co.