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

Saturday 12 September 2015

Book Review: The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

A chilling sense of place pervades the best northern noir thrillers - the biting cold, claustrophobic darkness and engulfing isolation combining to create a perfect backdrop for the grisliest of crimes. It is there in the Icelandic setting of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind which I reviewed recently, and can be found in spades (or should that be snow shovels?) in Finnish writer Kati Hiekkapelto's The Defenceless, translated by David Hackston.

This is Hiekkapelto's second book to feature police investigator Anna Fekete, following her highly regarded debut The Hummingbird. It opens in the winter cold - as Pakistani Christian Sammy, a migrant who arrived in Finland via Russia alongside the heroin he knows only too well, is searching for his next hit. Having been refused asylum, he's living illegally, scavenging and sleeping in bins. He comes to the police's attention when he's caught at his dealer's flat during a raid - but what does he have to do with an old man, who lived in the same apartment block, having been found dead on a desolate road? Or their missing neighbour - a woman who might just have seen too much?

This is a novel of multiple strands which Anna only gradually begins to unravel, as she does so finding herself mired in the complexities of illegal immigration, drug dealers, gang warfare and murder. She reflects:
There is a classic Finnish combination at the root of most homicides: blades and alcohol. Normally it was an axe and alcohol. 
As a Hungarian immigrant, Anna knows how it feels to be an outsider. Living alone, she takes her comfort where she can but her thoughts often fly to her family back home. Yet, she is a modern woman; athletic, environmentally aware, not yet ready for a steady relationship and all the compromises that might bring. And, like so many who have been transplanted into a different culture, she no longer feels that she truly belongs anywhere:
She tried to call her mother on Skype. She wanted to talk about Grandma, her final days, her funeral. She wanted to tell her mother about the pain, her sense of longing, to talk about Zoran, to ask her mother why breaking up with a married man, with whom she hadn't officially been together, could feel so terrible. There was no answer. Thank God, she thought. I don't normally talk to Mum about my feelings and certainly not about my sex life. Besides, her mother would have seen straight through it all and said that Anna needed to be in touch with her roots, whatever form that touch might take.
Anna's police partner Esko, on the other hand - an unreconstructed aging alpha male who smokes and drinks too much and is so unfit that he almost kills himself running after a suspect - embodies racist, anti-immigrant attitudes like the true relic from the past that he is. But, as he delves deeper into the activities of a criminal gang and it seems that his own life may be in danger, a well of loneliness emerges - which means he and Anna are much more alike than they could ever originally have imagined.

If, like me, your knowledge of Finnish literature is limited (in a quick scan, I could only identify Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna on my shelves), then Kati Hiekkapelto's writing makes a welcome addition to the fold. Here is a writer who is always in the most masterful control of her story; her plotting complex, her taut prose full of suspense. Most of all, she strikes a particularly poignant chord at a time when we are witnessing in Europe one of the largest mass migrations - and creating the greatest number of potential outsiders - in recent history.

The Defenceless is translated into English by David Hackston and published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for the photos and review copy. 

Friday 11 September 2015

Charlotte Proudman and that LinkedIn photo: time for debate not abuse

When I was in my late twenties, I can remember being given a low whistle of admiration - at very close range - by a workman, and something inside me flipped. 'Why the f**k do you think it's OK for you to do that?' I shouted, before marching into the office.

He looked astonished and backed away, no doubt to tell his mates about this raving madwoman he'd just encountered, who hadn't fallen over herself in gratitude for his attention. I was wearing an above knee-length skirt, after all. And it wasn't as if he'd done anything very extraordinary; it was just the culmination of years of suffering in stony silence every time I walked past building sites or was leered at out of a passing white van (yes, sadly) that caused my outburst.

This was many years ago, and nowadays, cloaked in the invisibility of the middle-aged woman, I no longer encounter such problems. That this attention turned off like a tap is mostly a great relief, although I can't help but admit it might be pleasant to be given the occasional second glance. Just to prove I still exist, you know? But, as my daughter pointed out, when you're objectified, you have a shelf-life and I've obviously gone way past mine.

Nevertheless, I'm as conscious as ever of the objectification of young women every time I'm out with my daughters (aged 21 and 17). And I can completely relate to where Charlotte Proudman is coming from (although I may have stopped short of naming him on Twitter) when she decided not to put up with clumsy, sexist comments anymore - in this instance made by a man twice her age.

Of course it's not true that you're no longer allowed to pay a woman a compliment; it's all a question of context. LinkedIn is a professional forum, not a dating website; you wouldn't begin a business meeting by telling someone you'd never met before how stunning they looked (would you?), but if you were seeing them for a date you might well do so. Just as friends of both sexes will compliment each other on their appearance without any offence - and usually a great deal of pleasure - being taken.

It's sadly inevitable that, in deciding to call out this issue, Charlotte Proudman is the one who has become the victim of a tidal wave of online abuse, as this excellent article in The Pool points out. At least my own 'red mist' incident occurred years ago, before I could be vilified on social media. The Daily Mail has happily branded her a 'feminazi' on their front page for the last two days - as though reacting against the boorish comments of men who should know better somehow equates to the excesses of a regime which murdered millions. As a label, it isn't clever and it isn't funny. Nor is it acceptable to demonise someone for at least challenging years of subjection to 'low-level', ingrained misogyny - however benign you might deem it to be.

Thursday 10 September 2015

A Playlist for Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

I originally reviewed Emma Hooper's enchanting debut Etta and Otto and Russell and James here back in February. To celebrate its recent publication in paperback, I'm really thrilled to be able to share below a playlist specially prepared by Emma to accompany the novel.

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 and school friends like Russell and Owen.

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.

Russell, who still 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 and she names him James.

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.

Emma'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 other times, there are no words and even the letters Otto sends to Etta from France during World War Two are filled with the holes left by a censor's scissors.

The lives of Etta, Otto, Russell and even James are 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 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 is a lecturer at Bath Spa University, in creative writing and music, and her prose is song-like in its rhythm and timing.

Her playlist choices really reflect the characters, setting and era of the story, here she explains why:

April Showers by Judy Garland

This is Owens song. The one he sings by the fire the night before he is killed, and the one that goes on to haunt Otto with his memory. Owen isnt one of the quartet of primary characters in the book, but he would have loved to have been. He is to Otto as Russell is to Etta, impossibly and, even, given the era and situation, dangerously, in love with him and unsure of how to handle it. The naïve hope of this song, matched with the almost desperate nature of Garlands voice reflects the character perhaps better than my words can.

Ill Be Seeing You by Frank Sinatra

This song at once captures the sentimental sound of the books wartime setting, and its larger theme of place as the root of memory.

Dont Sit Under The Apple Tree by The Andrews Sisters

I love how this one group, The Andrews Sisters, managed to make the simple musical phenomenon of close three-part harmony so synonymous with the 1940s, and World War Two specifically. This song, with its theme of lovers displaced by war, is especially fitting.

Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra

Etta and Russell take each other to dances as often as they possibly can during the period when Ottos away at war. The frantic sound of this tune, especially, captures the wild energy of the need of this eras youth to escape, though dance or whatever else, the sombre and mature issues of the time.

Tennessee Waltz by Emmylou Harris

Etta and Otto and Russell, dancing. Just that, so perfectly, in this song.

Many thanks to Emma Hooper for sharing her playlist. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin. Thanks to them for my original review copy. Images and playlist courtesy of Penguin, YouTube, Goodreads and Simon and Schuster.

Monday 7 September 2015

Book Review: The Infidel Stain by M J Carter

In The Strangler Vine, M J Carter introduces her two fictional detectives Blake and Avery, an unlikely pairing who meet in 1830s Calcutta during the heyday of the East India Company. Unwillingly, they become embroiled in a mission to rescue renowned poet and national hero Xavier Mountstuart from a band of Thugs; an adventure which sees them travel deep into India's outback before eventually earning each other's grudging respect.

Carter's second book, The Infidel Stain, finds this mismatched duo returned to Victorian England some four years later. In 1841, Captain Avery, having resigned his commission after a tour of Afghanistan, is taking his first ever train journey from his home in Devon to the festering streets of London. An outsider's viewpoint makes him the ideal narrator; descended from comfortable Tory landowning stock, he is simultaneously dazzled by the wealth and innovation but shocked by the immorality and destitution he finds there. His less than ecstatic reunion with the always-inscrutable Special Inquiry Agent Blake quickly draws him further into the seamier side of the capital, as they are retained by Viscount Allington (a pious reformer loosely based on the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury) to look into the grisly murders of two back-street printers.

The newly-formed police force is mysteriously reluctant to investigate and although the victims are soon uncovered as small-scale peddlers of pornography, this doesn't dish up a satisfying enough explanation. The murders continue and it seems radical politics may be tied up with the crimes.

The Chartists, in seeking suffrage for all men, are divided about whether violent physical force can be justified and at odds with the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers, a group of rich northern manufacturers campaigning for the repeal of the price-fixing Corn Laws. Here are shades of Middlemarch - but, what do they have in common with an earlier collective of fiercely atheist revolutionaries or 'infidels', inspired by the French revolution and the works of Thomas Paine? It is in investigating these links, often at peril to their personal safety, that Blake and Avery begin to piece together the answers.

Poverty is exemplified by the waif-like figure of young Matty Horner; an orphan selling winter cress in the streets to scrape a living for herself and her younger brother, earning enough when she can to send him for a rudimentary education at the 'ragged school'. Matty found the body of the second murder victim and Avery is philanthropically tempted to take her under his wing. But, when he attempts to buy food for her, Matty proves herself to be by far the more streetwise - as she has to be to survive:
 'Oh Captain, you're a babe-in-arms'
'I am sorry' I said, disappointed. 'Have I done wrong?'
'The orange. It's no good.' She took my hand and pressed it into the skin. 'See? Like a sponge. It's been boiled. Coster trick. They do it to the old ones - makes them swell up - but if we opened it, all the juice'd be gone.'
And so, the exotic sub-continental romance of Carter's debut novel is replaced by a much harder-nosed reality in The Infidel Stain. But, just as cleverly plotted, it is no less enjoyable for that; despite being a work of fiction (Carter, after years of non-fiction writing, declared 'it was brilliant to make stuff up!') The Infidel Stain feels as though its language is redolent of its time.

Each paragraph is steeped in research and every character drawn from history; Henry Mayhew, one of the founders of Punch magazine has a significant part to play, as does Richard Carlile, forgotten hero of the fight for a British free press. Even Dickens has a walk-on part.

Blake and Avery are easily cast as a detective double act in the mould of Holmes and Watson, but I can't hep thinking this is a rather lazy association to make. Carter's novels are layered with Victorian complexity, meticulously researched, sublimely plotted and completely engrossing in their own right. In her acknowledgements, she gives special thanks to her husband John Lanchester for counselling her to 'take out the boring bits'; in The Infidel Stain she has successfully followed his advice.

The Infidel Stain is published in the UK by Fig Tree, many thanks to them for my review copy. Photos courtesy of The Telegraph.