Monday 30 November 2015

Book Review: Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam

Sometime during the last Millennium, I read a rather wonderful memoir called Rocket Boys about a young lad growing up in a 1950s West Virginia coal-mining town. Captivated by Sputnik, the world's first satellite, flying over his home, fourteen-year-old Homer Hickam decided to build a rocket to rival the Russians'. His predominantly true story of Coalwood's Big Creek Missile Agency was later made into a successful film, October Sky, starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal.

Now, many years later, I felt a thrill of anticipation in reading another book by Hickam about his Coalwood family: Carrying Albert Home. Once again described as a true story 'except the bits that are made up', this is the somewhat tall tale of Hickam's parents, Homer Senior and Elsie.

Growing up together as classmates during the Great Depression, handsome but steady Homer Senior is content to follow his father into the mines, while beautiful, vivacious Elsie dreams of escaping the permanent tang of coal dust in the air and moves to sunny Orlando. There she enjoys a burgeoning romance with aspiring dancer and actor Buddy Ebsen, but, when Buddy heads for New York, Elsie moves back to Coalwood, marries Homer and tries to settle down as a miner's wife.

Yet, a wedding present from Buddy in the shape of an alligator named Albert serves as a persistent reminder for Elsie of all she has lost, as well as a constant source of resentment for Homer. Finally, he issues her with an ultimatum; either the alligator goes, or he does. Thus begins a road trip of almost a thousand miles across several states, to carry Albert back home to the swamps of Orlando.

Told from the point of view of Homer Junior, the story of this trip is revealed in episodes as gradually recounted to him by his mother and father. He learns that, as they packed up their Buick to leave Coalwood, the unlikely trio somehow acquired a rooster as a companion; that a journey scheduled to take two weeks turned into a stormy and fantastical odyssey of many months' duration; Elsie helped John Steinbeck decide the title of his most famous novel and Homer was taught to smoke cigars by Ernest Hemingway.

Along the way, the journey changes them both. As the couple grows closer in the face of adversity, Elsie's sharp tongue softens and Homer's stubbornness subsides. Meanwhile, Homer Junior begins to discover his mother and father as individuals in their own right, not just the parents who raised him:
I didn't know how they came to be married or what shaped them to become the people I know. I also didn't know that my mother carried in her heart an unquenchable love for a man who became a famous Hollywood actor and that my father met that man after battling a mighty hurricane, not only in the tropics but in his soul. The story of Albert taught me these and many other things, not only about my parents but the life they gave me to live and the lives we all live, even when we don't understand why.
And at the centre of it all is the lovable and never to be forgotten Albert; heroic on more than one occasion and an excellent judge of character, bestowing his yeah-yeah-yeah happy sound only on those worthy of it.

It may not have all the youthful impact and vibrancy I remember from Rocket Boys, but Carrying Albert Home is a charming, quirky and often whimsical family epic; one you can imagine evolving with every swing-seat retelling. Verging on the folkishly sentimental, at heart, it is an all-American love story; even with a fair share of tragedy mixed in with the comic, the twinkle in Homer's parents' eyes is never far away.

Image courtesy of Carrying Albert Home is published in the UK by HarperCollins; thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday 27 November 2015

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

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol

The prosaic setting of a pub garden in the heart of the Hampshire countryside – a place where smokers gather to nurse their addiction – becomes the confessional at the centre of Barney Norris’ new play Eventide

From the beginning, the play’s three characters are intricately observed; under Alice Hamilton’s direction you can feel the weight of every facial tic and reaction. John, played by James Doherty, is the larger-than-life landlord of the establishment, ever ready with a joke about a ferret and a blow job. Hasan Dixon’s Mark is a young man scratching a living from whatever manual labouring he can find; work is scarce and, no matter what his troubles, he has to pay the rent. And Ellie Piercy’s eager, diffident Liz travels for miles to play the local church organ because there aren’t that many left and – by her own candid admission – she’s really not very good.

Not much happens; events in this play take place elsewhere. Here, on the decking of the beer garden, between the bin for the empties and the hosepipe, all we see is their aftermath. Yet, there is so much going on. It’s quickly evident that John, Mark and Liz are all, for different reasons, reeling from an individual sense of loss. The slow-building poignancy of this character-based piece is the way in which each of their tragedies gradually unfurls. The skin is stripped back until we reach the bone. Norris’ writing is subtle, layered, incisive, full of witty one-liners – and all the more devastating for that.

Norris gets the performances he deserves from a talented cast, so warmly natural and believable in their chatter that you feel tempted for a moment to leave your seat and join them. On these wooden benches, connections are made through easy banter but long-held desires dashed by a moment’s heedless line; a mistaken recollection can wound to the core and what is really meant stays lurking in the gaps between the words.

After the interval, a year has passed and although it seems there is now cause for celebration, this could be an illusion. The pub may be hosting a wedding party, but it’s been taken over by a chain. The villagers’ way of life is being eroded and not everyone finds it so easy to move on.

Like Bea Roberts’ And Then Come the Nightjars that played recently at Bristol Old Vic, Norris follows his award-winning debut Visitors by framing isolation and loneliness in a rural setting with finely drawn characterisation. In doing this, he finds a humanity common to us all; a place amid the hopelessness where there’s still a ray of hope.

Reviewed on 11 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Monday 23 November 2015

Opera Review: The Tales of Hoffmann at the Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Jacques Offenbach’s darkly fantastical The Tales of Hoffmann has had many incarnations since its first public performance in 1881. Now English Touring Opera’s new production, sung in English with surtitles, sets it in the 1920s world of early cinema; the eponymous protagonist transforming from a poet into a silent movie-maker well past his prime, poring obsessively over his work.

Based on three short stories by the German romantic E T A Hoffmann, the opera is well suited to this updating – at the outset, at least. Played with great conviction by tenor Sam Furness, the fictionalised Hoffmann’s passion for his current love, Stella, together with the interference of the devilish Lindorf, disrupts his creativity and hastens his spiral through an alcoholic maelstrom into the wasteland where madness beckons. Furness’ rich tones and natural stage presence mark him out as a rising star from the beginning; egged on by his boisterous friends, Hoffmann tells the story of his three great loves and the macabre threats that destroyed each one in turn.

It’s in these episodes that the movie-making relevance seems to lose its way, with Hoffmann still referred to as ‘the poet’ and some uneasy directorial choices being made by James Bonas. Louise Mott as Hoffmann’s muse transforms without real explanation into the guise of a padded-out schoolboy as his companion, Nicklausse. Hoffmann’s first love, the automaton Olympia, takes the form of a loose-limbed pink neon puppet propelled around the stage by other cast members. In the gothic surroundings of a physics lab staffed by wild-haired scientists, War Horse it isn’t, although so bizarre a creature does effectively demonstrate Hoffmann’s hallucinatory hell and the spell he must be under – much more than the magic glasses sold to him by Coppelius would be needed to make him fall for her.

At least Olympia’s singing is effortlessly beautiful; ETO favourite Ilona Domnich’s soprano soars above the surreal setting as she fills the puppet’s blankness with divine purity. But it is in the second story, after the interval, that Domnich really comes into her own, bringing lustrous passion as the consumptive Antonia, for whom the compulsion to sing is stronger than life itself. The production settles into a more conventional retelling of Hoffmann’s woes and Domnich’s characterisation carries through into the final tale of the courtesan Giulietta and the licentious depravity of Venice.

The opera’s best-known Venetian Barcarolle is surprisingly underplayed, and at times the scaled-down orchestra sounds a little thin for the grandeur of the music. The staging is simple and effective for touring, though; a panelled surround clambered over by the cast, with hatches opening to reveal spectral visions and uninvited comments from beyond the grave, transforming from film set to science lab, Munich household to Venetian palazzo with a few slick changes.

In each setting, Warwick Fyfe brings a potency to his role as Hoffmann’s nemesis; as the sinister Lindorf he scuttles across the stage on two sticks with arachnid-like malevolence, while equally at home recreating the other villains in Hoffmann’s demise, especially the vampiric Dr Miracle. Matt R J Ward provides the comedic highlight of the evening in his cameo as Frantz, the family servant in Antonia’s household who creates unintended havoc through his deafness and sings endearingly of what might have been.

This may not always be a full-throttle production, yet ETO’s The Tales of Hoffmann does reveal glimpses of greatness in the performances of its leads, strong visual imagery and the core of a good idea in the updating of its premise – if only this could be clearly carried through in the storytelling.

Reviewed on 10 November 2015 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Monday 16 November 2015

Theatre Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at Tobacco Factory Theatres

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

A play that opens in the aftermath of a hanging, Out of Joint’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern makes a grab for the dramatic jugular. Rebecca Lenkiewicz examines a Hertfordshire village at the beginning of the 18th Century; a time when the full frenzy of witch hunts may have passed their peak, yet rumours of sorcery are still woven into the fabric of a closed and superstitious society, with those accused all too easily damned when events go awry.

Ann Thorn’s mother, Eleanor, has just been executed for witchcraft. A noose hanging from a cruciform gibbet remains centre stage throughout the play, an ever-present reminder of the dead and a warning to the living. Young Ann is unhinged by events but also ready to make her own fresh assault on convention, when Jane Wenham, a woman existing at the edges of respectability, steps in as her protector. Yet, already Wenham’s detractors are baying for her blood. She sleeps for warmth with her cockerel, dances in the woods and has an all-consuming interest in herbs and potions. When tragedy strikes, it’s enough for her to be accused of witchcraft; in a place where outsiders are viewed with suspicion, she is unmarried, unnatural, old; a charge upon the parish.

Lenkiewicz skilfully exposes the human flaws of Walkern’s inhabitants; there are many all too ready to accuse Jane as a way of deflecting the guilt in their own hearts, only a few whose stumbling from the path of righteousness gives them a greater tolerance and empathy for others. The local cleric Francis Hutchinson refuses to believe in Wenham’s guilt, as do his housekeeper and former slave Kemi Martha and the publican Widow Higgins. But their voices are drowned out in the hue and cry led by Samuel Crane, the recently arrived minister sent to keep an eye on Hutchinson’s lack of orthodoxy, who finds ready support for his certainty of Wenham’s guilt.

The strong cast often takes on more than one role to present a mirror image; David Acton convinces both as the flawed but humane Hutchinson and also the belligerent villager Saul Paterson. Rachel Sanders extols tolerance as the feisty Widow Higgins but is baying for Jane’s blood as the grief-stricken Bridget Hurst. In a refreshingly predominantly female cast, there are also standout performances from Amanda Bellamy as the determined and stoical Wenham, dignified in the face of the most lowering of assaults, Tim Delap as the righteous but inwardly desperate Crane, and Hannah Hutch as the wild and grief-stricken Ann.

Strikingly staged and lit by James Button and Richard Howell, with eerie sound design by Max Pappenheim and haunting song from Cat Simmons as Kemi Martha, Ria Parry’s direction is full of bone-chilling potency from the start. Yet, the clarity of plot occasionally suffers for this and the intensity is dissipated by a few scenes running on for too long in the first half. After the interval, however, the tension builds anew; Jane’s harrowing encounter with the witch-identifier chillingly known as the Pricker will linger long in the memory although the resolution of her plight is then almost underplayed and rather too neat.

With Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently across town at the Old Vic, this is a second, no less absorbing, Bristol look at the destructive forces of intolerance. Pinned in the form of witchcraft to a specific time and place, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern nevertheless has an enduring resonance and also echoes the themes of Jim Crace’s timeless Man Booker shortlisted novel, Harvest. The play’s exploration of grief, loss, identity, religion, sexuality and truth-bending hysteria is often unremittingly stark, sometimes unexpectedly funny, but never less than stimulating.

Reviewed on Tuesday 3 November 2015. touring until 30 January 2016 | Image: Richard Davenport

Thursday 5 November 2015

Opera Review: Welsh National Opera's Orlando at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

With so many characters at the extremes of emotion, opera might reasonably lay claim to madness as a pre-requisite. Yet, while there could be no shortage of suitable candidates for Welsh National Opera’s 2015 Madness season, Handel’s frequently overlooked Orlando, originally performed in London in 1733, still fits the bill very nicely.

WNO’s production, first staged by Scottish Opera in 2011, updates the original mountainside setting to a hospital ward during World War Two. Zoroastro is now a psychiatrist rather than a magician, while Orlando, the warrior driven to insanity through doomed love, becomes a heroic but traumatised RAF pilot. It’s a transformation from director Harry Fehr that correlates well with the plot most of the time, although the stark staging does rob the story of much of its mysticism.

The individual performances are superb; Lawrence Zazzo is masterful as the conflicted Orlando, his counter-tenor soaring full of anguish as his emotions plummet from rage to despair to the final torment of madness. Torn between the duty to fight for his country – demonstrated to him in a slide show of abdication and Nazi imagery by Daniel Grice’s commanding Zoroastro – and love for the wealthy American socialite Angelica, he storms around the stage, creating consternation and dismay while maintaining exquisite control in his vocal delivery.

Rebecca Evans as Angelica is no less impressive at portraying the tender desire of her love for Medoro in rich tones, combined with fear and preparation for flight once Orlando realises she loves another. And Fflur Wyn as Dorinda – now a nurse in a crisp, starched uniform – who also loves Medoro, provides a wonderful visual contrast while more than holding her own with her pure and plaintive precision. The trio Consolati o Bella, where Angelica combines with James Laing’s compassionate Medoro to console Dorinda that one day she too will find love, is a sublime ending to Act One.

The orchestra, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini, performs Handel’s soulfully beautiful score with such distinction that it’s tempting at times to simply close your eyes and just listen – especially as the action on stage, despite Fehr’s best endeavours, sometimes becomes a little static. Handel’s arias – each one spell-binding but repetitive in style and sentiment – have a tendency not to deliver much in the way of plot advancement. This is mitigated by projections onto Yannis Thavoris’ simple revolving set, reflecting Orlando’s increasingly delusional state of mind, and dramatic devices such as his rampage with a cut-throat razor and disturbing electroconvulsive therapy. There is still an undue amount of dressing and undressing, tea dispensing and bed-making needed, however, to pad out the action over three acts.

Yet, despite these reservations about Handel’s pacing, this is a production still well worth seeking out for the tenderness and beauty of its music, interpreted with great sympathy by an outstanding cast; a turbulent and often moving exploration of the madness of love.

Reviewed on 21 October 2015. Touring until 18 November 2015 | Image: Bill Cooper

Sunday 1 November 2015

Book Review: The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak

I loved Elif Shafak's novel Honour, an illuminating and moving story of a traditional Kurdish family that begins to fragment when exposed to the freedoms and pressures of modern, multi-cultural society. Set in the recent 20th Century past, it combines an examination of the construct of masculinity with the timeless quality of a fable; something which is again apparent in Shafak's most recent, historical novel published in English, The Architect's Apprentice.

Istanbul in the 16th Century is a city seething with life and colour; the centre of an Ottoman empire full of exotic sights, sounds and smells. It is inhabited by a multitude of races; rich and poor, weak and strong - above all, it is full of enterprise. Home to Sinan, the Sultan's Master Architect, builder of palaces and mosques, in The Architect's Apprentice it is also a place where Jahan, apprentice to Sinan, mahout to the Sultan's elephant, makes his way in the world.

As a boy, Jahan arrives in Istanbul by boat. A stranger to the land, we see it through his eyes:
He peered ahead at the line where the water lapped against the shore, a strip of grey, and could not make out whether he was sailing towards Istanbul or away from it. The longer he stared, the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever-changing. This, more or less, was his earliest impression of Istanbul, and unbeknown to him, it would not change even after a lifetime. 
Although an imposter, initially posing as the mahout of Chota, the Sultan's white elephant, Jahan has a rare empathy for the beast and rises steadily through the ranks of the court. He catches the eye of the Sultan's daughter Mihrimah and develops an attachment that can never be fulfilled. Before the heat of battle, he meets Sinan and, helping him to construct a bridge for the Sultan's army to cross a river, is offered the rare chance to become one of the Master Architect's four apprentices, if only he can accept the need to work hard and make a fresh start:
' must let go of the past,' said Sinan as he stood up. 'Resentment is a cage, talent is a captured bird. Break the cage, let the bird take off and soar high. Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance in the universe. If you do not foster these qualities in your heart, you cannot build'
As Jahan grows in stature and wisdom through recognising the value of knowledge, his new situation brings many enemies as well as friends. Sinan's buildings are raised but occasionally fall again, new Sultans accede to the title of The Shadow of God on Earth, bring both prosperity and war before themselves being succeeded. And, all the time, intrigue piles upon intrigue in a thrilling, absorbing but seemingly episodic fashion which Shafak nevertheless draws together with great skill at the close.

This is such a richly woven tale of multiple layers and textures, a heady blend of historical fact, blurred timelines and fiction. Detractors of women writers, who accuse them of concentrating on the domestic and the 'small' (not that this is in any way a crime in my eyes), take note; this is a novel of dizzying intensity and huge ambition. Above all, it is an unblinkered love letter to Istanbul; in Shafak's hands the city takes on a vital life force of it own and Sinan's legacy is described with tender detail by an author (the most read female novelist in Turkey) unafraid to recount its dazzling beauty, but also its many human imperfections.

The Architect's Apprentice is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.