Monday 28 December 2015

Theatre Review: Handbagged at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Theatre so often speculates about the Queen’s relationship with her public servants – from Anthony Blunt as her surveyor of pictures in A Question of Attribution to her interviews with successive Prime Ministers in The Audience.

In the Olivier Award-winning Handbagged, now on tour having premiered at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2014 and transferred to the West End, writer Moira Buffini focuses on Her Majesty’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher, as the grocer’s daughter comes to power in the 1980s.

Each character is played by two actresses – the older Queen and Mrs Thatcher sagely commenting on the relationship of their younger counterparts, addressing each other and their earlier selves. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett talking to himself in The Lady in the Van, it’s a device that offers a huge variety of droll possibilities.

It would be all too easy to slip into comic asides and caricature; the Queen offering tea and cakes at her weekly audiences with her latest Prime Minister, while her older self comments drily on Mrs Thatcher’s lack of humour; Mrs T worrying about balancing the books like the penny-pinching housewife she is at heart and whether their outfits might clash at public events. But Buffini treads a fine line between condemning and condoning her characters, offering instead a witty, poignant and rounded alternative view of the people behind the titles.

Their strong personalities are convincingly assumed by the cast; Kate Fahy nails the older Mrs Thatcher’s accent and imperious mannerisms while Sanchia McCormack defines her initial nervousness at meeting the Queen. Suzie Blake as the older monarch delivers hilarious one-liners with acerbic wit – desperate to find some common ground, Emma Handy’s younger Elizabeth asks Mrs T whether she has any pets; ‘If she’s got a dog, we’ve got a subject’. Sadly, it seems they don’t and the Prime Minister goes on to describe a picnic at Balmoral as ‘more stressful than a Nato summit’.

Indhu Rubasingham’s direction makes the most of the meta-theatre; against a simple yet striking framework of a Union Jack, the Queen and Mrs T spar over their tea cups, while their older selves often comment that, of course, this never happened. Tragic events – the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the bombing of the Tory party conference – are given due respect and it’s prevented from becoming too much like a history lesson by the Queen hurrying her Prime Minister along and insisting on an interval.

Asif Khan plays everything from palace butler to power-suited Nancy Reagan with panache, interrupting to ensure Mrs T doesn’t gloss over the unsavoury bits – the miners’ strike and the poll tax – while bickering with Richard Teverson, who takes on all the other rôles from Denis Thatcher to Lord Carrington, over who can deliver the best Neil Kinnock.

For all the sharp writing and sheer entertainment value, it’s hard not to wonder about the appeal of this play for those too young to have experienced the phenomenon of Thatcherism first-hand. For those of us who did, however, the era is served up with enough subversively nostalgic bite to demolish a trolley full of scones – by two forces of nature armed with handbags and sensible court shoes.

Reviewed on 30 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Book Review: A Line of Blood by Ben McPherson

I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel the need for an out-and-out page-turner. A fast-paced, twisting and turning thriller that draws me into reading on until I discover the ending. And while Ben McPherson's A Line of Blood may have a very contemporary north London Finsbury Park setting, a good old-fashioned page-turner it certainly is.

In searching for his errant cat, Alex Mercer stumbles upon his neighbour, dead in the bath. His young son Max is with him and sees much more than he should. What at first looks like a suicide turns into something even darker and, as the police begin to investigate, secrets that have been locked away in closed hearts start tumbling out.

There are the cracks in Alex's tumultuous marriage to Millicent; a shared tragedy in their past they have never truly recovered from. Aspects of Alex's own upbringing also feed into his concern that his own son should not be traumatised by what he's seen. Meanwhile, as the police dredge through the neighbour's past, what they find is increasingly murky and threatens to destroy Alex's family completely:
Millicent was sitting with her head in her hands, tiny against the vast communal table. I sat down beside her; it seemed at first as if she hadn't seen me, as if she were somewhere very private; then she sat up, looked me in the eye, and began to speak.
'I need you to understand that I have never and never would betray you, Alex.'
She hadn't slept. I could see the blood pulsing in her neck, smell the sourness on her breath.
'So I probably need to start with the really bad stuff, and then I can explain - and I hope, I really hope you're going to listen and to understand - how it isn't what it looks like. Because I know it doesn't look so good.'
She reached into her bag and produced a small white envelope; she looked at it for a moment, then handed it to me.
'So this is what the police wanted to discuss with me.' 
The protagonists are unreliable and flawed but still credible; their faults explained by the revelations of their pasts. As the life they've created for themselves begins to fracture, Alex and Millicent remain just about likable enough to retain your sympathy. With plenty of twists and shifts the plot cracks on towards an ending that, although visible a little way off, still scores highly on dramatic tension and shock.

Like his character Alex, Ben McPherson grew up in Scotland before working for many years in film and television in London. Indeed, there is a very fluid, filmic quality to this, his debut novel; it seems ripe for adaptation into a gripping screen thriller. If it's jolts and chills you're after, A Line of Blood will have you hooked, but - a word of warning - set aside the time; despite a mountain of other things I should have been doing, I found myself reading the second half of this book in one sitting.

A Line of Blood is published in the UK by HarperCollins; thanks to them for my review copy.

Monday 7 December 2015

Theatre Review: The One That Got Away at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Hot on the heels of Eugène Labiche’s Monsieur Popular, the second of the Ustinov’s classic 19th Century French farces is from the master himself, Georges Feydeau.

In The One That Got Away, Kenneth McLeish’s translation of Feydeau’s 1892 play, Monsieur Chasse!, director Laurence Boswell capitalises on the exaggerated twists and fast-paced physicality that this fantastical tale of thinly-disguised deceit throws up.

Léontine is contentedly sorting out fishing tackle for her husband, Monsieur Duchotel, and evading the attentions of his best friend, the beguiling Dr Moricet. Duchotel is supposedly off on a trip with his old mate Cassagne – but Léontine is alerted to his adulterous duplicity by the unlikely combination of trout and lobster he’s caught in the past – and by Cassagne himself turning up on the doorstep to visit the friend he hasn’t seen for many months.

This sets in train a catalogue of events where nobody is completely innocent but some are guiltier than others; the most unlikely allegiances are formed in a spiral of increasingly desperate and hilarious attempts to save face and preserve the status quo. In Moricet’s newly-rented apartment in Paris’ Rue d’Athenes, propriety is thrown out of the window as Léontine seeks to avenge her husband’s betrayal – only for it to boomerang back in again as she finds it harder to be as improper with Moricet as her husband is being with Madame Cassagne.

The sparkling cast fizzes with energy; Richard Clothier’s Moricet charms, cavorts and implores his way in and out of trouble but meets his match in Frances McNamee as Léontine, whose facial expressions range from flirtatious to outraged and all the way back again in the blink of an eye. Throw in Joe Alessi as her convivial, wandering husband Duchotel and Oscar Batterqham as his amorous but penniless young nephew Gontran – suffering from a bad dose of mistaken identity – and layer upon layer of mayhem ensues. Meanwhile, Victoria Wicks breathes comic life into the role of Madame Latour; her fall from gentility to become the concierge of the apartments, due to the allure of a strong-thighed lion-tamer, is a tale that will linger long in the memory.

The split-second timing and sheer physicality are electric; doors are there for slamming or knocking on relentlessly, closets for hiding in and another man’s trousers for appropriating in an emergency escape from the police. But, despite the pandemonium, the sequence of events is crisp and clear, thanks to Feydeau’s clever writing and a cast of fully-rounded characters who make the improbable appear mirthfully believable.

Much like Feydeau, Polly Sullivan’s opulent set has borrowed from and built upon elements of Labiche’s Monsieur Popular. In The One That Got Away, the cast’s asides to the audience are engaging rather than tedious and the situations arising from the goings on – apart from the occasional cringe-worthy double entendre concerning the state of Duchotel’s rod and anachronistic comments about a woman’s place – are entertainingly relevant to a contemporary audience.

The One That Got Away recalls a world long gone, of Paris during The Belle Epoque; a light-hearted and thrillingly hedonistic delight which, under Boswell’s direction, becomes a masterclass in chaos management, still bringing great fun and frivolity more than a century after it was first conceived.

Runs until 19 December 2015 | Image: Simon Annand

Sunday 6 December 2015

Theare Review: Dracula at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

The mere mention of Dracula is enough to evoke a thrill of anticipation, so enduring is our fascination with Bram Stoker’s 19th Century vampire tale of supernatural seduction and death. And Arnos Vale cemetery in the windswept November darkness makes the perfect backdrop for Red Rope Theatre’s new production, as the audience sets out into the night, passing Victorian graves and mausoleums, to reach the Gothic grandeur of the chapel.

This new adaptation by Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead, directed by established Bristol theatre-maker Matt Grinter, is largely faithful to Stoker’s narrative. Cleverly weaving in dialogue, letters and newspaper articles found in the epistolary original, it explores Victorian preoccupations of science versus superstition, madness versus reason and the threat of early feminism to a patriarchal society.

A simple table and chairs at the centre of an intimate traverse stage become the setting for high melodrama as solicitor Jonathon Harker travels to Transylvania for what he believes to be a routine business trip. But, in his encounter with a sinister nobleman wishing to purchase an English estate, he endures a chilling night at the mercy of Dracula and his vampire brides, barely escaping with his life. The motifs unfamiliar to early readers of the novel – mirrors, garlic, crucifixes, blood – are all here; immediately recognisable to a contemporary audience, but none the less thrilling for that.

The story is clearly conveyed by an able cast; Elliot Chapman seethes with insane, tortured energy as Dracula’s reluctant follower Renfield, while Simon Riordan and Rebecca Robson delicately portray the loving but riven relationship between Harker and his new wife, Mina. There are some gripping set pieces; the journey of Dracula by boat to England in search of fresh blood is entrancingly played out over a tablecloth sea, while Jared Morgan’s darkly menacing Dracula meets his demise in the final outdoor scene with the help of Peter Clifford’s illusionist expertise.

There are fine moments of physical theatre, too, particularly as the vampire brides threaten to overwhelm Harker. Eerie sound design by Thomas and Thomas heightens the suspense at key moments, although it does feel as though even more could be made of the chapel’s atmospheric setting in terms of surprising and unsettling the audience.

Coming in at over three hours including interval, this piece is long. There is such spine-tingling imagery and detail in the novel, it seems that Lochhead has been reluctant to leave too much of it out. While understandable, the denseness of the exposition does slow the pace and occasionally is in danger of draining this horror story of its true vitality.

Nevertheless, in this ambitious production, Red Rope Theatre succeeds in taking a fresh, site-specific look at a much-reworked classic while remaining faithful to its original, disturbing vision and bringing clarity to themes that still resonate with us more than a century later.

Reviewed on 17 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

Theatre Review: Happy Hour at The Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

The latest commission in Òran Mór’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series showcasing new writing is Happy Hour, Anita Vettesse’s funny, poignant and sharply observed exploration of a family floundering in its attempts to re-establish an equilibrium after the death of father and husband Joe.

Gathering together in the family pub to scatter his ashes, each of them has their own baggage. Kay (Hannah Donaldson) was always a daddy’s girl, but she has her alternative therapies and crystals for comfort – and if they don’t work she still has the inhaler and red wine to fall back on. Tom (Stephen McCole) is home from his role as an overseas aid worker – having missed his father’s funeral he’s there to say a final farewell. Meanwhile, their mother, Anne (Anne Lacey), is selling the pub that she and her husband ran for many years. She’s promised the money to her children, but she might be about to change her mind.

Joe’s ashes sit in their midst in a shoebox on the table and you can really feel his presence and absence in this family. Then, talk turns to inheritance and the arguments gather momentum; Kay’s desperation for cash becomes increasingly plain as she alternates between threats and pleading to recruit her brother to her cause. Tom has secrets he wants to reveal at his own pace while Anne sees the opportunity for a new life –although determined not to lose any of the control she held in the old.

Vettesse’s writing is full of promise. Here she delivers a finely nuanced examination of family dynamics at a time of loss and critical change; her frequently barbed dialogue rings true in all its tragicomedy and the audience’s sympathy gradually realigns as perspectives change and each character reveals a little more of themselves. Under Gethin Evans’ direction the pace is fast yet naturalistic, the setting simple and the cast of three delivers its characters with venomous yet touching assurance. The only real question mark is over those ashes; as you fix your gaze on them, it’s impossible not to feel a certain predictability in their outcome from early on.

That said, Happy Hour’s ending, in the face of a pub quiz conundrum, is more than satisfying enough to complete an evening’s entertainment for ticketholders that begins with a pie and a pint; a tasty and refreshing celebration of new one-act plays and an inspiring initiative.

Reviewed on 19 November 2015 | Image: Contributed