Wednesday 28 October 2015

Theatre Review: Monsieur Popular at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov’s Autumn 2015 season of French farce opens in energetic but uncertain style with Jeremy Sams’ new translation of Eugène Marin Labiche’s Monsieur Popular.

In 19th Century Paris, 47-year-old Celimare is preparing to marry Emma, his 18-year-old bride. Unlike Emma, however, Celimare has a history; his past holds no shortage of married lovers and, to make sure these relationships flourished, he befriended their husbands, too. Now, he’s managed to jettison the lovers, one way or another, but their husbands are a different matter. Impervious to what’s been going on under their noses, they still regard Celimare as their best friend; the man who loves to play dominoes night after night and is never happier than when sorting out their crises with the servants.

Raymond Coulthard strikes the right sort of note as Celimare; self-possessed, twinkling and charmingly louche, it’s easy to see what the women are falling for. At first, Celimare’s habit of never passing up the opportunity to dabble in double-entendre and his knowing comments to the audience – letting us in on his secrets – is an inspired bit of fun. Yet, because overused, it becomes tiresome; under Sams’ direction the comic asides turn into full-on addresses, slowing the action and making Celimare appear less hapless victim of circumstance, more scheming con man in control of events.

Gregory Gudgeon and Howard Ward as the cuckolded husbands Vernouillet and Bocardon form a spirited and contrasting duo that, along with Celimare’s new parents-in-law – convincingly played by Nicola Sloane and Iain Mitchell – excels in riotously fast-paced entrances, exits and general door-slamming. Unwittingly, they conspire to ensure that Celimare receives barely a moment’s peace or time alone with his new bride Emma, played by Charlotte Wakefield – who has the difficult task of springing fully-formed into the action the day after her wedding to a man she barely appears to know.

Polly Sullivan’s set morphs easily from opulent drawing room into a dining room paying homage to the Victorian penchant for being surrounded by stuffed creatures while eating. After the interval, the transformation into a country house setting is impressive and complemented by sumptuously detailed 19thCentury French summer fashions.

There are moments of magic; Celimare’s servants Pitois and Adelina (Stephen Matthews and Karoline Gable) are a delight and their singing is particularly effective. Vernouillet’s composition Marriage is Bliss is a hoot and many elements of physical comedy – the passing of messages in Bocardon’s hat, the superb comic timing with the footstool – work well. Yet, overall the piece feels too long and laboured; jokes the audience has already understood are reiterated and become unwieldy without really moving the action forward. Perhaps a contemporary audience has less patience than one from the 1800s, but tightening some scenes and dispensing with the interval (a rarity in a Ustinov production, perhaps only there to accommodate the set change) would result in a crisper, more focused production.

Monsieur Popular is interesting as a work from the writer who inspired comic master Georges Feydeau, but it doesn’t offer any of the heightened and exaggerated reflection of our times that can be found in successfully updated farces like One Man, Two Guvnors. Although it has fine performances and pleasing aspects these never really come together; the piece remains an entertaining but uneven glance back at a different age – charming, amusing but very much bygone.

Runs until 7 November 2015 | Image: Simon Annand

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Book Review: Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I've been wanting to read Simon Sebag Montefiore for some time - although unusually it's his non-fiction works on Stalin that most interest me as background for Bulgakov's classic The Master and Margarita. Nevertheless, my book group's next choice of Sashenka seemed serendipitous; not least because Montefiore's novel of revolutionary Russia covers some of the same ground as Young Stalin.

This epic story of over 600 pages begins in 1916, with one woman's involvement in the Bolshevik uprising in St Petersburg, before moving through the decades to portray her experiences of Stalin's crushing repression in the 1930s and finally the next generation's attempts to discover what happened to her.

Sashenka Zeitlin, 16-year-old schoolgirl and daughter and of a well-heeled Jewish merchant with connections to Russian royalty, is imprisoned in St Petersburg's Kresty prison. Her mother, a ravaged beauty and devotee of Rasputin, is living an drug-fuelled high-life full of easy relationships with men and doesn't seem too concerned about her daughter's well-being. It's Sashenka's Uncle Mendel who's converted her to Marxism and drawn her into the Bolshevik party. While her father's influence means that Sashenka's imprisonment is a short one, it still marks the beginning of a lifelong involvement with Communism. Delivering messages and running workshops on Marxism, known as Comrade Snowfox because of her furs, she becomes ingrained in party life, although her background means the suspicion of her comrades never completely leaves her.

Despite a fascinating chronicling of events - from meeting the stuttering Comrade Molotov to working directly for Lenin - in this first part of the novel, the central character of Sashenka fails to fully convince. Often, she appears more of a two-dimensional peg to hang with historical detail than a living, breathing girl on the cusp of womanhood; there are early references to her full breasts, which appall and embarrass her, but otherwise she is usually described through the eyes of the men she unfailingly captivates: her figure slim and appealing, her lips wide, crimson and slightly swollen.

Part Two leaps forward to Moscow in 1939 and - despite Montefiore's seeming desire to cram in as much historical detail as possible leading to a meandering style - to me is more involving. Sashenka has become a loyal Bolshevik wife and the mother of two small children; she and her husband have already survived several purges, made personal sacrifices for the good of the party and even entertained Stalin in their own home. Yet, as she is drawn into an affair of the heart, Sashenka is in danger of losing all she has worked for and holds dear. Falling from the party's favour is terrifyingly swift, brutal and absolute; utmost in Sashenka's mind as she approaches this precipice is the safety of her children - will she be able to get them out of danger in time?

The final section of the book moves to Moscow in 1994 where Katinka, a young Russian historian, is trawling through Communist archives in an attempt to discover what really happened to Sashenka and her children. Often, she unwittingly treads the same ground as her subject, but despite its fall from power, Communism refuses to give up its secrets easily. There are many twists and turns and insights into the scope of the horrors committed at the time, before Katinka is able to uncover the tantalising truth.

By the end of this novel, I was torn between genuine interest in what had happened to Sashenka, admiration for its historical content and a strong desire to be done with characters who never truly came alive in my mind. Similarly, my book group's opinion was divided between love and dislike for Sashenka. I would still read Montefiore again - but I wasn't drawn into perusing the first few pages of his next novel One Night in Winter that were appended to this one; next time, I'll be opting for non-fiction.

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published in the UK by Transworld books. Paperback 607pp. Image: Contributed.

Friday 16 October 2015

Theatre Review: And Then Come The Nightjars at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There is a fierce and tender connection to the land threading through And Then Come the Nightjars that might seem reminiscent of Irish influences – from the recently late, great Brian Friel to John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. And yet, this original writing from Bea Roberts, developed with Bristol Old Vic Ferment and Theatre503, is set in rural Devon, on a farm with a view of the Tamar. It tells the story of a friendship between two men from differing backgrounds but with common cause, which becomes an elegy for a rural way of life rapidly being outpaced by modernity.

Widower Michael is awaiting the birth of his prize cow Dottie’s calf and Jeffrey is the vet in attendance. Except that Michael doesn’t really need Jeffrey’s help; he’s brought so many calves into the world on his own that he’s running out of royals to name them after, referring to his herd as “my girls”. Jeffrey is really there to escape from an unhappy marriage, but it is 2001 and there are bigger storm clouds looming. Foot and mouth is circling the area, tightening its grip; the landscape of the countryside is shifting and the nightjars, birds traditionally said to herald death, are in full song.

If at first verging on the stereotypical – Nigel Hastings as Jeffrey is all public school, excessive drinking and trivia questions, while David Fielder’s Michael is brimming with Devon burr and earthy cussedness – then one of the main joys of this beautifully observed play is to watch the friendship between the two men slowly unfold and mature. From the beginning, there is a mutual dependency, with Michael providing Jeffrey with refuge and Jeffrey tending to Michael’s herd before being called on to slaughter it. As time goes by, experiencing both the best and the worst of each other, with wives either deceased or divorced, each man gradually, movingly, becomes the other’s saviour.

The set created by Max Dorey is a small marvel; a barn full of so many worn and authentic details – from stalls and wooden crates to cobwebs in the rafters – that it could have been freshly plucked from the Devon countryside. And over the years it barely changes, despite Jeffrey’s attempts to persuade Michael of the value of modernising; going organic, building holiday homes or a conference centre to accommodate the Grand Designs crowd. Michael’s watchword is constancy; he was born on the farm and you feel his anger when all he holds dear – the earth and his animals – is in danger of being destroyed.

There are moments of pure pleasure, both in Paul Robinson’s direction which atmospherically recreates external events in falling incinerator ash and disco lights, and Roberts’ weaving of tragedy with hilariously acerbic one-liners; Jeffrey describing his wife as having “10 different lizard heads, all of which hate me” and Michael advising him to “eat before cider or the cider eats you”. Following her recent audio-visual piece Infinity Pool at the Tobacco Factory, this is a more conventionally-staged but equally compassionate portrayal from Roberts of characters finding their own muddled pathways through the maelstrom and minutiae of their lives.

Reviewed on 7 October 2015 | Image: Jack Sain

Monday 12 October 2015

Theatre Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

What you might lose in subtlety when dipping your toe into the water at Beaumont-Sur-Mer, you can more than make up for in comic, high-octane entertainment.

This fictional town on the French Riviera, backdrop for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is home to the suave and debonair British conman Lawrence Jameson. Each season it welcomes a host of wealthy women easily separated from their money – and Jameson, in league with chief of police Andre Thibault, is all too willing to relieve them of it. The story is largely faithful to the 1988 film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, but with their 2004 stage adaptation Jeffrey Lane and David Yasbek have gone one step further; heightening the escapism by turning it into a musical that has shades of Mel Brooks and The Producers.

Jameson’s comfortable existence is undermined by the arrival of a new pretender; an enthusiastic but shambolic young American, Freddy Benson. Relieved that Benson has helped him out of a spot of bother involving an Oklahoman blonde with a penchant for shopping and new husbands, Jameson agrees to teach him the tricks of the trade. Before we know it, the pair of them are battling it out to win the money and affection of the newest young heiress on the block, soap queen Christine Colgate.

Don’t expect light and shade here; there are stereotypes a plenty and no great variation in tempo – this is a show that starts off loud and ends up even louder. But, along the way, there is a great deal of fun to be had, as the conmen first work together and then compete – with increasingly sadistic tendencies – to outdo each other.

The chemistry between the two leads works well; Michael Praed embodies all the self-absorbed, silver fox charm of Jameson in a performance, which sometimes hints at Ralph Fiennes’ legendary concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel, while Noel Sullivan’s Benson is crude, coarse, yet somehow loveable. Gary Wilmot, only recently at the Hippodrome in Oklahoma!, is completely at home once again as Thibault, the chief of police whose subplot involves lonely English tourist Muriel Eubanks (Geraldine Fitzgerald); their duet of Like Zis/Like Zat is a rare moment of endearing tenderness. And Carley Stenson, her singing voice powerful and pleasing in tone, exudes charm and innocence as Christine Colgate, one of the few characters who is more complicated than she at first seems.

There are gorgeous costumes and bucketfuls of glitz and glamour in Jerry Mitchell’s stylishly choreographed chorus numbers, plenty of comic asides and laugh-out-loud moments – let’s not even think about Ruprecht and his genital cuff – all played out within a bold, dynamic set. This is slick, fast-paced entertainment that may not push at the boundaries of the musical form, but is not afraid to send itself up and more than keeps the audience happy throughout.

Reviewed on 6 October 2015 | Image: Phil Tragen

Thursday 8 October 2015

Theatre Review: Hands Up For Jonny Wilkinson's Right Boot! at the Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

For an endearing evening of rugby-related entertainment, Live Wire Theatre’s Hands Up For Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot! is hard to beat.

Yet, although Jonny’s 2003 World Cup-winning drop goal – with the wrong foot – gets a very honourable mention, alongside Jonah Lomu’s destructive four tries against England, and Nelson Mandela’s presentation of South Africa’s first ever World Cup to the Afrikaner Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, this production really belongs to one unsung hero: Frederick Stanley Jackson.

A Cornish rugby player after the turn of the 20th Century, Jackson tackled many a prejudice head-on; from the amateur Rugby Union committee that frowned on players needing to earn a living from their talent to the New Zealand establishment prohibiting any fraternising with the Maori. Banned from playing for his county on the grounds of professionalism, Jackson re-established himself on the other side of the world, only to find that, despite being called upon to serve his country at war in a tumultuous time of world history and going beyond duty at Gallipoli, he was repeatedly shunned by those in charge.

This deft and historically-informed piece of new writing by Dougie Blaxland is energetically enacted and narrated by just four players; George Williams as Jackson, with Giles Coram, Hannah Douglas and Moira Hunt supplying the chorus and multiple roles in Jackson’s story. Under the lively and fast-paced direction of Shane Morgan, there are many physically astute set pieces to admire, with the old buffers of the Rugby Union rocking from side to side in their condemnation of Jackson’s escapades, plenty of chanting and shirt-swapping and manoeuvres on the playing field culminating in the legendary Haka.

At the centre of this play is a very human story – the love of Jackson for a Maori woman, Horowai (meaning Waterfall). Conjured into existence only as words spoken by Williams, Horowai is distant to us; a turning point amid so much activity that is, in essence, an absence. Although an understandable portrayal of a woman whose race renders her invisible, perhaps her story could be enhanced by slowing down the word-tumbling narrative on occasion and representing her in another of the actors. Her lack of characterisation does prevent real empathy with the couple’s condemned relationship – a union that goes on triumphantly (yet almost as an afterthought) to produce five children, three of whom eventually play rugby for New Zealand themselves.

Nevertheless, these are 70 original minutes (might it be possible to stretch to 80?) that have a great deal going for them, with an acceptable level of audience participation to boot. And the Cornish accents alone deserve mention for being the proper job – not the mid south-western fudge we’ve come to know in lazy TV dramatisations. If you’re not a rugby aficionado, this is a production that still has plenty to offer, but its rich retelling is tailored for a rugby-loving city like Bath – and indeed the rest of the West Country and beyond – in the grip of a home World Cup in 2015.

Reviewed on 1 October 2015 | Image: Contributed

Monday 5 October 2015

Theatre Review: 1984 at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has enjoyed three West End runs and two tours prior to its arrival in Bath. So, those of us who’ve already read the book and perused the four and five-star reviews of the play may feel as though they know what they’re letting themselves in for. But Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production quickly batters down any hint of complacency, in a chilling 101 minutes where intense theatrical staging meets astounding Orwellian prescience.

From the outset, the use of Orwell’s appendix on the principles of Newspeak frames Winston Smith’s story in a different light; the piece opens with a book group discussion taking place sometime after 2050, praising the universality but questioning the authenticity of Winston’s diary. In a setting where the clocks already strike 13 – and, due to the number of times history has been revised, nobody is sure of the exact date anymore – both time and the truth take on a new and unaccustomed fluidity.

Matthew Spencer’s pallid and tentative Winston is lost in the world he inhabits. Simultaneously, it seems he is writing his diary of the present and being addressed by the futuristic book group. So where now does he really exist? His work at the Ministry of Truth carries on, “unpersoning” those who have dared to challenge the Party by deleting every trace of their existence and taking part in the regular “Two Minute Hates” against newly-decreed Party enemies.

Yet, afflicted by fragmented memories, Winston sets his course for a fight back. Against a background of continuous war with interchangeable enemies, he falls in love with Julia (Janine Harouni), a co-worker he previously suspected of being a member of the Thought Police. With her unprecedented access to chocolate, real coffee and a half-remembered memory of the refrain of Oranges and Lemons (one of the many motifs of the play), Julia brings with her echoes of the past – but also a foreshadowing of the future in the mantra she shares with Winston: “We are the dead”.

Chloe Lamford’s startling and ingeniously dynamic set design begins in the drab, haunted corridors of the Ministry of Truth, before a series of transformations brings overhead video projections onto a sterile, tiled backdrop, flashing images of Winston’s work and messages from Big Brother which include the destruction of deviant thought criminals. Enhanced by Natasha Chivers’ forensic lighting, Tom Gibbons’ dyspeptically precise sound and Tim Reid’s unsparing video, we witness the secret hideaway Winston shares with Julia at the back of an antiques shop and the ultimate terror of Room 101 – a place where Tim Dutton’s impenetrable O’Brien can casually brush away a forcibly-extracted stray tooth from a seat as if it were no more than a crumb.

The performances are outstanding; Spencer and Harouni are both fiery and tenderly convincing as the idealistically doomed lovers and Dutton coolly menacing as the man of the Inner Party. Headlong’s magnificently incisive version can be a harrowing watch and may not be for the faint-hearted, but it emphasises the astonishing relevance of Orwell’s surveillance state vision for our present and future – every bit as much as for our 20th Century past.

Reviewed on 29 September 2015 | Image: Manuel Harlan