Wednesday 14 December 2016

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Back in 2014, I was keen to get my hands on Ali Smith's latest novel How to be Both - we'd just chosen it as our next book club read.

In a flurry of optimism, given the Man Booker isn't generally my favourite prize, I bought one of those bundles of the whole shortlist. There were a couple of other titles I thought I might read before the prize was announced.

Needless to say, the only one finished was How To Be Both (which I loved), with the rest of the books consigned to the depths of my TBR pile. Earlier this year I ferreted out Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and was blown away by that, too.

Since then, my eye has repeatedly been drawn to the eventual winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. How stunning must it be to have beaten two such strong contenders? Only one thing for it - read it myself and find out.

Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, captured by the Japanese in the Second World War, is imprisoned in a jungle camp where POWs are forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway. Here, Dorrigo and his Aussie camp mates endure the most gruelling physical and mental privations. Prisoners have few rights and are treated no better than slaves; malnourished, beaten and literally worked to death. Cholera is rife; despite this, Dorrigo must stand by as his patients are dragged out of hospital to make up work gangs and he's reduced to performing operations without surgical instruments or anaesthetic.

Flanagan writes with sensitivity and authenticity; the frequently harrowing passages in the squalor and monsoon rains of the jungle vividly detail the mental and physical struggle to survive. In their communal suffering, the motley crew of men from the furthest-flung corners of Australia are spirited but never saintly. Tiny Middleton works at such a rate that he sets an unachievable target for the rest of the men, while Rooster MacNeice harbours a festering resentment over the perceived theft of a duck egg.

The pressure on their Japanese captors is also well drawn; driven by a code of honour that sees death as a preferable alternative to imprisonment and always battling to fulfil the ever increasing demands from high command. Yet, the Japanese still show vestiges of respect to fellow officers, and Dorrigo is able to mitigate the worst of their orders by daily negotiating down the numbers of men required in the gangs. Concentrating on leading by example, on being 'the Big Fella' to his men, he's haunted still by the intense love affair he had before the war with Amy, young wife of his uncle. An affair which ended as Dorrigo was leaving to fight and already promised to another woman.
While captivated and horrified by the graphic events in the jungle, I struggled to engage with Flanagan's narrative outside of them; the post-war difficulties of the Australian survivors returning home, the rehabilitation of their Japanese captors into family men. While this sounds equally engrossing, for me the prose veers here towards the overblown. Most importantly, Amy simply doesn't ring true in my imagination as a living, breathing character. While the depiction of suffering in The Narrow Road to the Deep North recalls Sebastian Faulks' First World War saga Birdsong, the claustrophobic intensity of the affair Faulks describes between Stephen Wraysford and the married Isabelle seems lacking in Dorrigo and Amy's story.

A significant work and a contender, certainly, but this wouldn't have been my pick as winner. Only three more of the shortlist to read and, finger on the pulse, I might be finally able to form a definitive view of the Man Booker Prize for 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is published in paperback by Vintage.

Friday 9 December 2016

Book Review: The Mine by Antti Tuomainen

In The Mine, Antti Tuomainen threads together two contemporary narratives to challenge the traditions of Scandinavian crime writing. This is Finland as a spent dystopia; elements of noir fused with the eco-thriller polemic of Paul E. Hardisty's The Abrupt Physics of Dying or David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, to create a fiction that subtly subverts the genre.

Janne Vuori, investigative journalist for Helsinki Today, receives a tip-off about the hazardous practices of a mining company in Finland's frozen north. He's plunged deep into a black-and-white world of darkness and ice, where the snow must be forced to give up its secrets. Sifting through his findings, Janne becomes certain he's uncovering an environmental disaster. One that may have already claimed the life of a reporter, and that convinces him he's being followed back home in Helsinki.

When the mining company's directors die one after another in mysterious circumstances, it seems militant activists are taking matters into their own hands. But Janne's investigations are muddied, as unresolved elements of his past come crashing back to haunt him. And he must confront the most modern dilemma of all; how to combine his obsessive pursuit of the truth with personal responsibilities - as the father he never had to his young daughter Ella and husband to Pauliina, who has a career of her own.

Tuomainen, translated into English by David Hackston, writes with pace and style, weaving Janne's first person story together with blogs, emails and news articles and a second, off-kilter narrative that gradually comes into focus.There are similarities with Ari Thór Arason in Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series; Janne and Ari Thór are both young men with disturbed pasts, in search of resolution and their own identities. As Janne is confronted with a series of impossible dilemmas, he has to decide where his own morality lies and what it is that he holds most dear.

For lovers of fictional journalists (my favourite probably being Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American), Janne Vuori is a gift:
Writing was thinking, a way of bringing order to the world. By writing I worked out what I was actually doing, formulated my true opinion on things. When I was writing, I could shut off everything around me...When I didn't write, it soon started to show...Everything began to become patchy. And the longer I didn't write, the more scattered and restless my mind became.
You can forgive a man like that quite a lot, even if you disagree with his choices. In the heart of the narrative are moments of humour, as Janne unexpectedly finds himself grappling with the logistics of twerking. But for the most part, Tuomainen keeps his reader on a tense, tight rein.

Maybe it's for another story, but I wanted to know more about the women in Janne's life  - his wife and mother - apart from their relationship to their men. They are both called on to make significant sacrifices of their own; what do they think of each other, how do they get along? It's an indication of Janne's personal struggles and single-minded pursuit of his own agenda, that there's still so much more to know.

The Mine by Antti Tuomainen is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday 5 December 2016

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Imagine being limited to speaking just 140 words a day; that’s exactly what happens to Bernadette and Oliver in this accomplished production from the University of Warwick’s recently-formed Walrus Theatre company. Words – tumbling and jostling with all the force of a white-knuckle ride – are the essence of this bare stage two-hander from the pen of Sam Steiner. Apparently, an average person uses 123,205,750 of them in a lifetime; here their loss is all the more starkly felt as they’re ruthlessly legislated away.

Bernadette (Beth Holmes) is a trainee lawyer and Oliver (Euan Kitson) a musician and political activist when they meet in a pet cemetery for the funeral of a cat. At first, they’re uninhibited, able to use all the free-flowing words they want. Bernadette questions Oliver’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, while her profession obviously rankles with him. But, as their relationship deepens, the shadow of the Hush Laws looms over them, limiting their speech. Bernadette – practical, career-focused and, like so many of us, in denial that it will ever happen – doesn’t foresee the devastating consequences. Idealistic Oliver senses danger and goes on protest marches that ultimately prove useless. As the Orwellian laws are introduced, the couple rush to spill out their last uninhibited words of freedom, an ‘exorcism’ that raises more questions than it has time to answer.

Holmes and Kitson are engaging and likeable as they circle the stage and their two unadorned microphones, flexing together and apart in moves tightly choreographed by director Ed Madden to sometimes reflect, sometimes challenge each other. As the timeline zips back and forth – one minute they’ve just met, the next they’re each announcing the number of words they have left over from their day – we see their relationship move from infatuation and love through to boredom and disillusionment. Without the adequate number of words, they struggle to express themselves, to resolve issues and move on.

Through this everyday couple’s on-stage chemistry – polished now by repeated performance – the focus of the personal convincingly illuminates the social, political and philosophical consequences of such draconian limits. Bernadette, when in court, is allowed a special dispensation of additional words, dividing society into verbal ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. When each word needs to count, its meaning matters. A qualifier like ‘really’ becomes thoughtless and extravagant, two words like ‘love you’ run together to make a saving. And yet, one of the most endearing moments is when the couple spontaneously bursts into a gloriously wasteful rendition of the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

A show honed to great acclaim on the tiny stages of Edinburgh is in danger of wallowing in the relative size of the Factory Theatre, but still it works. Despite an ending that tries to wrap things up a little too neatly, it’s a clever and incisive exploration of free speech and the power of words.

Reviewed on 18 November 2016 | Image: Contributed


Wednesday 23 November 2016

Book Review: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

In The Exiled, police detective Anna Fekete takes a break from the cold of Finland to return to Kanizsa, the Balkan village of her birth. But, what's meant to be a relaxing holiday turns into a fresh investigation, as her bag is stolen and the thief found dead next day in the mud of the riverbank.

Anna can't help but get involved - even though her intervention is not entirely welcomed by the Serbian authorities. Details of their investigation don't ring true and she suspects something is amiss. As she probes more deeply into the background of the dead man - a Romany living on the marginalised fringes of society - she becomes more and more convinced that his death was no accident. She finds evidence of traffickers taking advantage of the thousands of refugees trying to cross the border into Hungary, of corruption and cover ups by officials. And, most frightening of all, a trail that leads back to her own family, that threatens to reopen the wounds of hurt and grief from her past.

Anna is a complex character - as readers of Kati Hiekkapelto's previous two Fekete novels The Hummingbird and The Defenceless will already know. Living in one country with her roots in another, she finds it hard to feel fully at home in either. Her policeman father was killed on duty while she was still a child and, in following in his footsteps, she's driven to extremes in her singular dedication. Her mother wants nothing more than for Anna to settle down with a family of her own - the accepted feminine role in traditional Kanizsa - but she is unwilling and unable to conform.

As in The Defenceless, Hiekkapelto mines themes that resonate with the world today; of migrants forced to flee from war, enduring the most abject conditions in their desperate scrabble for survival. Of racism, prejudice and playing politics with people's lives. Of a village fighting to retain its values and identity. In the midst of this she places Anna and her family, her loss of her father and older brother and renewed friendships with villagers who have never left Kanizsa.

Hiekkapelto writes in her signature taut, gritty and unsparing style - translated once again from the Finnish by David Hackston - though at times it feels like the insights into Anna's home life are weighing the story down. For me, it takes longer than in previous books for all the elements to come together - there are too many new friends and family members to fully get to grips with, perhaps. But the help she receives from Finnish colleagues leads to breakthroughs and her new relationship with Péter, a man she only began flirting with for information, becomes an intriguing aside. In the last third of the book, the tension mounts as the enormity of the crime is uncovered, leading to a shocking and satisfying conclusion.

The Exiled is published in paperback and ebook by Orenda Books. Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Theatre Review: Trouble in Mind at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
In the aftermath of a brutal 2016 election dividing the US along racial lines, Trouble in Mind offers a particularly timely glimpse of segregation in mid-20th Century America. Laurence Boswell’s latest production for the Ustinov revives Alice Childress’ trailblazing but overlooked work, originally produced Off Broadway in 1955; a race-play-within-a-race-play. It’s a powerful, funny and ultimately disturbing portrayal of the stereotypes African Americans have fought against for generations, which still resonate all too clearly with a contemporary audience.

Wiletta Mayer is a singer and actor with a lifetime’s experience, glad to take on the mother’s role in a new work, Chaos in Belleville, set in America’s deep south. She may have a low opinion of the play’s merits, but she’s willing to go along with it to keep the white director happy. Only as rehearsals progress does she begin to question its authenticity; simple black characters depicted through the prism of a white writer, protected from their own foolishness by the benevolence of a white boss.

Tanya Moodie turns in a powerhouse performance as Wiletta, simultaneously still excited by acting in the theatre and wearied to her bones by the limitations of playing ‘Mammies’ and ‘Jemimas’. She’s spirited, bold and brimming with energy; mining the nuances of every emotion, her larger-than-life bravado runs into sudden, devastating moments of defiance, as Wiletta gradually realises she’s no longer willing to gratefully accept the crumbs from the white man’s table.

While this is overwhelmingly Wiletta’s story, under Boswell’s vivid and well-paced direction, the whole cast is superb. The play’s other black characters may agree with Wiletta, but they’re less willing to put their jobs – and lives – on the line; veteran actor Sheldon (Joseph Marcell), the only one to have seen a lynching in real life, questions whether he would whittle a stick while his own son is in danger, but does it anyway. Kiza Deen’s Millie is bright and sassy in life but will only go through the motions of her part, while Daniel Ezra’s eager and naive John quickly discovers the compromises he must make to survive in theatre. Meanwhile, Jonathan Cullen delivers a mercurial portrayal of white director Al Manners, who has his own agenda; paying lip service to motivation and black lives, he’s ultimately dictatorial, ruthless and lacking in any real empathy.

Polly Sullivan’s set design has all the meticulous detail we’ve come to expect at the Ustinov; a dingy 1950s Broadway stage area for rehearsal, littered with mismatched furniture and assorted props. Alice Childress was herself an actor and Trouble in Mind is rooted in her own experiences; a work of rare intensity, excoriating humour and textural depth, that deals not only with racism but touches on sexism, too.

Could this be why the play, which won an OBIE award in 1956, has been so infrequently performed and too often neglected since? Ironically, it might have got to Broadway had Childress agreed to compromise with a white director’s demands to change the ending. Occasionally, it may seem to have too much happening to absorb in any one sitting, but this production of Trouble in Mind is not only an overdue revival; in the light of current social and economic upheaval, it also serves as an unsettling reminder of a patriarchal past that is still exerting its grip.

Runs until 17 December 2016 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday 7 November 2016

Theatre Review: The Weir at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
There’s a deceptive air of normality at the opening of Conor McPherson’s much garlanded 1997 play The Weir; another evening in a rural Irish backwater pub, where the regulars shut out the howling wind and gather for a few pints and a ‘small one’ or two.

Rachel O’Riordan – hugely successful last year in her direction of Iphigenia in Splott – takes the helm of this co-production between the Sherman and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Transferring to the intimacy of the Factory Theatre from its run in Cardiff, with Kenny Miller’s authentically spit and sawdust bare-wood design, it feels as though we’re listening into a series of illicitly intriguing conversations at the next table.

Yet, there’s a huge hinterland here. As Jack and Jim chew over their day with barman Brendan, their easy familiarity is underpinned by years of shared experience, growing up in the same small community, immersed in its traditions and now comparing betting tips. Then, this evening’s equilibrium is threatened by the arrival of local-boy-made-good Finbar with Valerie, a newcomer recently arrived from Dublin. It’s in seeking to impress the stranger in their midst that the men begin to tell stories from their past; tales veering into ghostly local folklore that also expose the bitter resentments and confessions of their own youth and childhoods.

O’Riordan mines the play for its rhythms; the startling intensity of the monologues, the poignant silent pauses and humour’s intense but welcome waves of relief. McPherson writes with exceptional skill and precision; his characters are quite ordinarily flawed and rounded, each one with their own moving and convincing story arc.

The five-strong company of actors rises to the challenge. Simon Wolfe is magnificent in his embodiment of the foul-mouthed, cantankerous Jack, unexpectedly reduced to displaying his emotional underbelly. You can hear a pin drop during Orla Fitzgerald’s shocking and revealing monologue as Valerie, so haunting and naturalistic is her delivery. Steven Elliot is glib as successful entrepreneur Finbar; in the end, despite his superficial veneer, he’s impossible to dislike. Meanwhile, Richard Clements disarms as the introverted Jim, still looking after his aged mother, and Patrick Moy’s Brendan is the glue that holds this fragile community together.

It’s a story to take home and ponder. Like Brian Friel’s revelatory Faith Healer or Barney Norris’ more recent Eventide, it explores the spaces between everyday life and eternity, the extraordinary emotional struggle and pain we all pack away behind the relief of routine. It also celebrates the power of conversation and the human need to commune.

A well-executed revival of a beautifully written, hauntingly melancholic and unexpectedly humorous play, this newest incarnation of The Weir makes 100 uninterrupted minutes pass in an instant, while still retaining the meaning of each word.

Reviewed on 27 October 2016 | Image: Camilla Adams

Saturday 5 November 2016

Nine things I learnt in nine months of commuting

At the end of January, the company I was working for closed its Bath office and offered me the chance to relocate to a business park near Didcot. And so, a short commute to the centre of a beautiful heritage city mushroomed into a 90 minute car-train-bus ride to an office block in the shadow of a decommissioned power station.

I embarked on the sort of journey to work I hadn't undertaken since my twenties, the major part being a train from Bath Spa station to Didcot Parkway and back again. No The Girl on the Train moments (thankfully), but here, in nine months of commuting, is what I learnt:

  • I HATE having cold feet. Train platforms are stubbornly chilly even when the temperature elsewhere is balmy. It took me until mid-July to break out of opaque tights and boots. 
  • Every peak-time passenger (myself included) bristles with electronic appliances, BUT... 

  • DON'T even think about relying on the GWR WiFi. Apart from being insecure, in my experience it rarely works - except late at night, by which time you've probably given up.
  • DO take advantage of extra reading time but be warned; the frequent announcements, nearby conversations and compulsion to people-watch aren't conducive to concentration. High-octane thrillers are better than subtle works of contemplation.
  • It's a bubble land, where people discuss all sorts of things they really shouldn't in public. I've overheard details of confidential pricing, contracts, legal cases and even staff appraisals.
  • The vast majority of rail staff (though sometimes difficult to find) are fantastically helpful. The same can't be said for bus drivers.

  • All sorts of things can be spotted on the tracks: sooty black rats, hairbrushes, a single shoe, a potted plant. Each one has its own story.
  • Sadly, people on the lines are all too frequent, too.
  • Travel may be exciting but long-distance commuting is tiring, boring and expensive. And that's when it all goes to plan. You really need to factor this in from the start - or negotiate as many opportunities as possible to work from home.

Image of Didcot Power Station courtesy of the BBC.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Book Review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

Locked rooms and locked hearts; from the first, there's a chilling core of isolation running through Agnes Ravatn's The Bird Tribunal. The lonely house only reached by a forest path. A man who guards his words like bullets. A woman running away from her glittering past to a job as housekeeper and gardener.

At six o'clock on the dot he emerged from his bedroom, pulled out a chair and took a seat at the head of the table. He waited. I placed the dish containing the fish in the middle of the table, then put the bowl of potatoes in front of him. I pulled out my chair and was about to sit down when he halted me with an abrupt wave.
No. You eat afterwards. He stared straight ahead, making no eye contact. My mistake. Perhaps I wasn't clear about that fact.

Allis Hagtorn has left her career as a TV presenter behind in a hurry; disgraced somehow in a way that's unclear. Arriving at Sigurd Bagge's remote house on a fjord, she's expecting to find an old man to look after. Instead, she's greeted by a fit and healthy forty-something full of secrets; Bagge's wife apparently away on her travels, his work undertaken behind closed doors.

Initially, their daily encounters have the swift, nail-biting thrust and parry of a sword fight; opponents taking each other's measure, jabbing tentatively before darting back defensively into silence. But, despite - or perhaps fuelled by - this distance and shared isolation, Allis feels a growing attraction for her employer:

...inside the washing machine, our underwear swirled around in close contact, tangling together in warm soapy water once each week, and I wondered if he took for granted the fact that I did it like this, the most natural way, or if he'd keel over or see red at the whole idea. 
Drying on the lines in my bedroom, in the moonlight my clothes cast human-like silhouettes on the wall and ceiling, and when I woke I was forced to acknowledge I'd had an erotic dream.
As the weeks pass, this attraction is the thread that binds Allis and Bagge ever closer in an obsessive, claustrophobic relationship of gradual advances and sudden reversals. Unexpected kindnesses are followed by savage cruelty, mythical retellings interwoven with strange nightmares. When disclosures are - often unwillingly - revealed, they only serve to expose greater unknowns and even question the integrity of the narrator.

The engulfing suspense is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's writing in Rebecca and The Birds, veering from haunting, poetically-spun folklore into horror territory. Ravatn's imagery is startling, her prose pared back with Scandinavian precision, combined with clean translation by Rosie Hedger from the original Norwegian. At under 200 pages, this is a book that can be read in one or two breath-taking sittings; despite one seemingly off-the-shelf revelation, there are many more that ambush the reader and the climactic ending is as taut and shocking as it is satisfying.

The Bird Tribunal is published in paperback and as an ebook by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Theatre Review: The Grinning Man at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The land of The Grinning Man is one of seeping pain and lost memories, where the old cannot forget while the young seek desperately to remember. Director Tom Morris and writer Carl Grose have taken Victor Hugo’s 19th Century novel The Man Who Laughs and transplanted it into a timeless, ravaged otherworld that also happens to be England’s capital city…Bristol. It sets the tone for this brand new musical; combining grotesque, mercurial transformation through suffering with earthy comedy and love, told with social commentary.

Les Miserables it’s not, but the story retains Hugo’s depth and complexity; Grinpayne lives with a bandaged face, covering scars from infancy that have left a permanent, hideous grin. As a child, he was rescued, along with blind baby Dea, by a pedlar of potions and freak show proprietor at Stokes Croft fair. A show-within-a-show uses shadow play and puppetry to tell Grinpayne’s story from when, as a young boy, he lost his mother at sea. The revelation of his face proves infectious, transforming the lives of those – from commoner to royalty – who watch. But, while Grinpayne is desperate to discover who he really is, there are those equally determined he should never unearth the truth.

There’s strong ensemble work from the cast and Julian Bleach as the spidery Barkilphedro takes on the Emcee’s role with darkly comedic aplomb, as though in a version of Cabaret directed by Tim Burton. Louis Maskell is a charismatic, compelling Grinpayne, convincing in his ability to transgress normal societal barriers and save a nation while Audrey Brisson as Dea channels emotional clarity and strength into exceptionally pure singing. Onto this canvas, Gloria Onitiri as the louche Duchess Josiana and Stuart Neal’s nice-but-dim Lord David layer energy and entertainment with their double act of hapless, self-centred royalty.

The original score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler has a refreshingly folksy and organic feel, deploying the necessary emotional drive but occasionally bogged down by the weight of exposition, particularly in the first half. Here the story verges on confusing and overlong but in the second half there’s no such problem; with a firm grip on its evocative carnival atmosphere, the narrative picks up breath-taking pace.

Jon Bausor’s distinctive design – a giant smiling mouth encasing a grimy stage – sets the macabre scene while puppetry from Gyre and Gimble, part of the team behind War Horse, is tenderly, exquisitely realised – especially in Mojo, the wolf. One or two other aspects – the picture-frame portraits used one too many times now and strangely simplistic neon faces – work less well.

There’s more than a hint of Kneehigh – Grose also penned Dead Dog in a Suitcase and many of the actors are regulars with the Cornish company. There are also touches of a diamond in the rough, one that will continue to improve with performance and revision. But this production undoubtedly resonates with universal themes; it’s ambitious, exuberant and surprising – entirely fitting for Bristol Old Vic in its 250th year.

Runs until 13 November 2016 | Image: Simon Annand


Thursday 27 October 2016

Dance Review: Akram Khan's Giselle at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Huge anticipation has surrounded English National Ballet’s latest production of Giselle – especially since Akram Khan was confirmed as its choreographer. Having previously collaborated with ENB to choreograph Dust as part of 2014’s World War One commemoration trilogy Lest We Forget, his Giselle promises not so much a reworking of this classical favourite, as a stripping back to its core. The essence of the peasant girl and her doomed love triangle remains, but here she is reinvented with a contemporary edge as a migrant factory worker in a gang of Outcasts, hemmed into their shared misfortune by a massive, insurmountable wall.

It’s a setting that thrums with the cacophony of manufacture in Vincenzo Lamagna’s surging new composition, blended with live music from the orchestra and shot through by familiar motifs from the original score. The company of dancers are reduced to a lowly existence as cogs in a remorseless machine; pulsating with kinetic energy, they move to a timeless warp and weft – of England’s industrial revolution, perhaps, or Khan’s own Bangladeshi roots. Dispossessed of their jobs, the earthy, elemental endurance of the Outcasts is in stark contrast to the statuesque superiority of the obscenely super-rich Landlords; having no imperative to move, it is they who appear more hampered by their extraordinary costumes of outlandish gaudiness.

In the original 19th Century narrative, Giselle is courted by both local gamekeeper Hilarion and the already-betrothed nobleman Albrecht, who, to win Giselle’s love, has adopted a peasant’s disguise. Here, their roles are less defined; Hilarion is described as a ‘shape-shifter’ – a gang-master, maybe – bridging the worlds between the Landlords and their underlings. Meanwhile, Albrecht’s duplicity in winning Giselle’s love is only made clear at the end of the first act; in this retelling we realise it at the same time as she does. For some purists, this may just be a step too far.

What this production lacks in narrative clarity, however, it more than makes up for in the sheer scope of its visual and aural impact; from the beginning, hypnotic rhythms incorporate Khan’s Kathak influences in the forceful, riveting vitality of the whole company, beautifully contrasted with moments of loving tenderness, heart-breaking betrayal and the eternal silence of separation. Tim Yip’s austere but strikingly ethereal set design and costumes create this world and set the tone from the outset for the dancers to illuminate.

Artistic director and lead principal Tamara Rojo’s portrayal of Giselle is hauntingly vulnerable but courageous, expressive to her fingertips and lyrical in her pas de deux with James Streeter’s princely, although slightly understated, Albrecht. Cesar Corrales’ dark and brooding Hilarion emphatically imposes his will in the first act before meeting his demise in the second, while Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha is a truly chilling Queen of the Wilis, her pointe work spectacular as she attempts to enlist Giselle into her stick-wielding marionette army of the dead. The contrast between the chaotic world of the living in Act I and the regimented, spectral Wilis in Act II is dramatically marked by their elevation on to pointe, towering over their chosen victim as they close mercilessly around him.

Bristol is only the second venue to host this production of Giselle after its premiere in Manchester, high on the list of cities bearing witness to this mould-breaking metamorphosis of an already-revered classic. Although not without flaws, this is a work of such visceral emotional intensity, it surmounts any quibbles you might throw at it and promises to linger in the memory for years.

Reviewed on 18 October 2016 | Image: ENB

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Guest Post: M J Carter on her relationship with Blake and Avery

As the third of her historical Blake and Avery mysteries is published, I'm delighted to host a guest post from M J Carter about the relationship between a writer and her characters.

The Devil's Feast finds intrepid young soldier-turned-sleuth William Avery investigating a grisly death in 1842 London at the newly opened Reform Club. A death he witnessed, that might be from cholera but could equally have had an altogether more suspicious cause.

Bereft of his unlikely partner Jeremiah Blake, Avery must investigate alone, unearthing a seething ants' nest of rivalries and recriminations. The club's committee is divided, the members politically at odds and tensions simmer in the kitchen around the eccentric but brilliant head chef, Alexis Soyer.

This wasn't the first death, it seems, and may not be the last. But although Avery is quick to discover deep divisions, he's less sure of what to do about them. He desperately needs his errant mentor Blake to help sift the clues and divert a potential disaster, but will he be able to find him in time?

The Devil's Feast reprises all the rich historical detail and authenticity of Carter's previous Blake and Avery adventures The Strangler Vine and The Printer's Coffin, combining mouth-watering descriptions of sumptuous banquets with a vivid portrayal of life in a Victorian professional kitchen and the genius of the now largely forgotten Soyer, self-styled 'Napoleon of Food'. Above all, it develops the intriguing relationship between our intrepid duo further, as we learn more about the unhappy state of Avery's marriage and the secrets of Blake's past.

Here's what M J Carter has to say about them:

The relationship between a writer and her characters can go wrong… Just now, though I’m more than happy to spend more time with Blake and Avery.’

My protagonists are Jeremiah Blake, a working class private enquiry agent — the name given to private detectives in the 19th century — and his younger, posher sidekick, William Avery, a former Captain in the East India Company army. Blake comes from a seedy, maybe actively criminal, London background, and was sent to India as a child where he was spotted for his astonishing ability to pick up languages by a Company spy, and received an education. Avery is the product of a conservative county family from Devon, undereducated and somewhat naïve, who hides beneath a sporty, hearty veneer a secret passion for books and a more questioning nature than he realises. So far, he has narrated the books.

The two are unlikely companions, thrown together by chance in the first book, The Strangler Vine, in a manner they never expected — Blake, the older working class one leads the younger, posher Avery. It allows them to develop a relationship beyond the normal boundaries of stratified Victorian society. Avery finds himself admiring Blake’s cleverness, independence and unspoken code of honour, and equally infuriated by his stubbornness and radical political views. Blake, who has endeavoured to cut himself off from the world, is annoyed to find himself susceptible to Avery’s mixture of youthful naivety, bravery and surprising kindness, and at the same time irritated by that same naivety and Avery’s conservative views.

One of the surprises of setting out to write a series set over a period of years, and have two characters bouncing off each other, is that I feel I can give them story and character arcs which carry over each book and onto the next. I can let them develop and change and bring their pasts to light. I always knew that I didn’t want to reveal everything about them both in The Strangler Vine: that each book would show a bit more about Blake’s mysterious history, and a bit more about Avery’s character forming. I have literally dozens of places I want to take them, and a range of experiences I plan to put them through (some of them extremely uncomfortable).

Of course, the relationship between a writer and her characters can go wrong. Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, feeling he was holding him back from writing other, better things — only to be forced to bring him back to life. Agatha Christie quickly came to loathe Hercule Poirot: his prissiness, fussiness, predictability, but was forced to live alongside him to the bitter end. Just now, though, I’m more than happy to spend more time with Blake and Avery. One thing though, I’m finding that I’d like to travel beyond Avery’s voice, and tell the stories in different voices. Is this a sign of exhaustion? I’d like to think it was just one more step deeper into their world.

The Devil's Feast is published in hardback by Fig Tree on 27th October 2016. Many thanks to Sara at Penguin Random House for my review copy.

Monday 24 October 2016

Opera Review: WNO's The Merchant of Venice

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
WNO’s English premiere of André Tchaikowsky’s opera The Merchant of Venice powerfully illuminates the story’s original themes of prejudice, tribalism and anti-Semitism. Keith Warner’s production, first performed at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 2013, forms part of WNO’s 2016 Autumn season commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In the starkest terms, it hammers home the play’s continuing relevance; that the seam of racial hatred, so embedded in Shakespeare’s portrayal of 16th Century Venice, can still all too easily be found running through the core of wider society today.

A Polish Jew and gifted musician who survived the Warsaw ghetto, André Tchaikowsky was unequivocally qualified to take on the challenge of translating Shakespeare’s problem play into an opera. Indeed, it became his life’s work, taking almost 25 years until his death in 1982 to complete. His score has echoes of Benjamin Britten and he wrote more and more of himself into it; that he was depressive is reflected in an opening scene with Antonio on the psychiatrist’s couch. Later, Tchaikowsky’s homosexuality underpins Antonio’s bond with Bassanio – driving him to secure his friend’s loan even by mortgaging his own flesh.

Despite, or more likely because of this, Tchaikowsky’s finished work is far from finely balanced; there’s an uneasy pendulum swing of styles between the dramatic tragedy of Act One as Shylock successfully agrees the terms of his loan to Antonio, only to discover his daughter has absconded with his money and jewels, and the Edwardian bathing costumes and cavorting light farce of the second act set in Portia’s Belmont. John O’Brien’s libretto lacks clarity on occasion, at its best when it closely reflects Shakespeare’s own words. The impact of the superbly heightened courtroom tension of Act Three – ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ – ebbs away during the baffling and over-long moonlit escapades of the Epilogue.

There are strong performances; Lester Lynch’s Shylock dominates the stage with his fluid baritone and imposing presence as he rails against Christian injustice and demands his pound of flesh. Sarah Castle’s Portia transforms from frustrated, frivolous heiress into an impressive courtroom doctor of law, where her mezzo really hits home. Mark Le Brocq convinces throughout as Bassanio, the conflict of lover and friend etched onto his face, but his rich tones often, unfortunately, overpower the weaker countertenor of Martin Wölfel’s Antonio.

Ashley Martin-Davis’ set, constructed around two towering walls of safety deposit boxes, is strikingly effective, and the WNO orchestra is elegantly conducted by Lionel Friend. For all the importance of the themes of Tchaikowsky’s opera, it feels like a curate’s egg of a work; while there’s much to admire in its discourse on the ugly, destructive forces of prejudice, this is too often deflected by a distracting lack of clarity and consistency in musical and narrative drive.

Reviewed on 11 October 2016 | Image: Johan Persson

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Theatre Review: Half Life at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

When memories fade, what is there left of us? John Mighton’s play examines issues of memory and identity; how reality blurs with age, the balance shifts and we become more diminished by what we have forgotten than defined by our recall of the past.

It’s a subject matter that reflects the themes of Florian Zeller’s The Father, which received its UK premiere in the Ustinov and went on to great acclaim. But Half Life, first seen in Toronto in 2005, contains the sweetness of new beginnings, too; love blossoming, in the sterility of a Canadian nursing home, between two elderly residents who may or may not have enjoyed a previous relationship.

Patrick and Clara meet over a game of hangman in the dayroom; Patrick was a wartime code-breaker and can still master such activities with ease. But Clara is more overtly fragile, her memories ephemeral, dissolving and reforming as she reaches out to grasp them. It seems they may have met before, gone dancing during the war. They develop a tender, protective relationship, childlike in its devotion, but then it is for their grown up children, Donald and Anna, to determine what their future should be.

Mighton writes with humour and empathy for the elderly couple; in a rapid succession of vignettes, Nancy Meckler’s direction always allows space for their dignity and relationship to develop. It is Donald and Anna, both divorced and grappling with the present, who are posed the greater challenge. Anna seems able to adapt to the idea of her father being happy in a new relationship but Donald, who worshipped his own recently deceased father, is more reluctant to permit his mother a life that might no longer encompass his own.

Helen Ryan is radiant and luminous in her portrayal of Clara, endlessly long-suffering and patient – truly an angel as she’s often described by her nurse. Patrick Godfrey as the irascible Patrick has fewer lines – and less room – to develop his character, but their relationship is entirely believable. Patricia Potter as Anna is at ease with herself and convincing in her support for her father’s new relationship. It is Ustinov regular Raymond Coulthard who has the most difficult task in communicating Donald’s distress at his loss and his mother’s new love, disguised in concern for her dementia-ridden vulnerability.

Janet Bird’s set is ingenious in its adaptable design, casting shadows and shifting perspectives to suggest both presence and absence. There are chairs that disorientate on the walls and ceilings, while the simple drawing of a hospital curtain is enough to change the focus of each scene. Mighton’s work throws up ideas aplenty, contrasting memory with the development of artificial intelligence, the endless variance of human life and death with mathematical constancy.

Yet, these ideas are not always carried to a satisfactory conclusion and ultimately, there is a sense of ambiguity; of questions unanswered and a gradual loss of momentum. Perhaps this – as in life itself – is the point. Still, in the confines of 90 minutes of theatre, there remains the uneasy sense of needing something more.

Runs until 5 November 2016 | Image: Contributed

Sunday 4 September 2016

Book Review: Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel Keep You Close hooks you from the very first paragraph and gradually reels you in:
Before she opens the door - before she even sets foot on the drive - she is on her guard. She knows he's there, he'd told her he would be, and yet the house is dark. If he'd left for any reason, he would have texted - Gone to buy wine. Back in ten - but when she checks her phone, there's no message.

Successful young artist Marianne Glass is discovered with her neck broken, frozen and dead in the snow that carpets her Oxford garden. The police declare it an accident - that she slipped from the roof. There's no evidence to suggest otherwise.

But her former friend Rowan knows this can't be true. There may only be one set of footprints leading to the front door of her home, but Marianne had vertigo and would never get so close to the roof's edge. Rowan is motherless, her father a distant and frequently absent shadow in her life, so her friendship with Marianne led to her being welcomed into the Glass household. Her fallout with her best friend also estranged her from the family warmth she was embracing for the very first time.

News of Marianne's death plunges Rowan back into memories and relationships that were abruptly severed over a decade ago - with Marianne's mother Jacqueline and brother Adam. It may be too late for her to be reconciled with Marianne now - but she's determined to find out what really happened to her. 

That opening paragraph throws up so many questions: what's going on here and who is involved? And reading on poses more: what happened between Rowan and Marianne to break up their friendship? Were Marianne's sketches really being taken from her home, as she thought? And, as Rowan moves in to look after the property while she's studying for her PhD, will the same intruder threaten her, too?

Lucie Whitehouse has already won acclaim for her previous novels; Before We Met was a Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick. Her latest tale of secrets and lies at the heart of academia is deftly paced and skillfully woven to reveal just enough - often throwing up more questions than it answers. There's the mystery of the car crash that killed Marianne's father and the relationship between Marianne and Michael Cory, the controversial portrait painter whose subjects so often take their own lives. As Rowan, with Cory's help, edges ever closer to the truth, we begin to wonder about both of their motives.

It's a tense, chilling and satisfying read. Clues are hidden in plain sight but Whitehouse keeps you guessing from beginning to end - with enough shocking and explosive twists to make you question where your loyalties lie.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published in paperback by Bloomsbury. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Theatre Royal Bath

 This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Dream TR Bath

Blue-daubed fairies prance and writhe, furious lovers claw and fight under a huge forest moon as one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies – the one so many of us cut our teeth on at school – is given a captivatingly contemporary and imaginative treatment in this new production from the Theatre Royal Bath.

Directed by Laurence Boswell, better known for showcasing international plays to great acclaim in next door’s Ustinov Studio, his A Midsummer Night’s Dream creates a magical kingdom at once both familiar and new: physical, visceral, sensual, funny and above all endlessly entertaining.

This romantically interwoven play can become messy and confusing if the elements don’t gel; the unevenly matched lovers, quarrelsome fairies and ragtag rude mechanicals putting on a play to celebrate a wedding in the Athenian court. Here bold, intelligent vision combines with minimalist staging from designer Jamie Vartan to create a cohesive whole.

In pre-publicity, there has been much talk of Phill Jupitus’ Bottom; he acquits himself well in his Shakespearean debut, delivering prose with relish in his larger-than-life characterisation of the domineering weaver. His transformation into an ass at the hands of Simon Gregor’s astonishingly nimble and menacingly exuberant Puck is perhaps less strikingly characterised than some, but he and his band of amateur players exploit all the comedic potential of their roles. Their performance of the play-within-a-play at the end is the farcical highlight it should be; Oscar Batterham as Frances Flute is a hilariously over-the-top Thisbe and Ekow Quartey charms as Snug’s hopelessly ineffectual lion.

The lovers are an explosively well-matched quartet; Maya Wasowicz and Eve Ponsonby as Helena and Hermia bicker and spar as only old friends can, bewildered by the inconstancy of their spellbound suitors, Lysander and Demetrius, played by William Postlethwaite and Wilf Scolding. Together, they bring such energetic physicality to Shakespeare’s central premise that to fall in love is to fall out of control – punching, clinging and tearing away garments – that it’s almost a disappointment when their plight’s neat resolution is brought about.

Katy Stephens, commanding, haughty and beautifully moderated as Titania, is all the more convincing in her metamorphosis into Bottom’s silkily seductive admirer, while Darrell D’Silva’s lowering and quixotic Oberon is always master of the ultimately benign games he plays with the lives of mere mortals.

Jon Nicholls’ echoing sound design and contemporary composition, together with Colin Grenfell’s lighting, brings layers of atmospheric complexity to the set’s clean lines and hidden doorways. With this production’s all-out theatricality, Boswell has conjured up a parallel universe of unique and accessible enchantment; no matter how well you might already know the play, it’s an unexpectedly refreshing and vibrant place to visit.

Reviewed on 10 August 2016 | Image: Contributed 

Thursday 18 August 2016

Book Review: The Museum of You by Carys Bray

Carys Bray's A Song for Issy Bradley was a heart-breaking and memorable debut; shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize, it marked her out as an author to watch. If you haven't read it yet, you can find my review here, together with a reading group guide.

Bray's second novel, The Museum of You, mines many similar themes to her first: a family tragedy that finds those left behind struggling in its aftermath, a young person's perspective on the grown ups in her world and an adult's wrong-headed assumptions about a child's needs. In this and its use of the close third person, it has echoes of another recently published novel, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Twelve-year-old Clover Quinn lives with her Dad, Darren, in a magpie house full of stuff he never quite gets around to sorting. It's the summer holidays, the first where Clover is allowed to be on her own; in previous years, she's had to stay with Mrs Mackerel next door while Darren is out working as a bus driver. Clover is  enjoying her new-found freedom - watering plants in the allotment, riding her bike and now, trying to find out more about the past events that are constantly shaping her present.

Meanwhile, Darren watches and worries about his daughter and tries to think of everything she'll need. He surrounds her with things: a skateboard, guitar and plenty of bargain books for her shelves. What he still can't bring himself to give her are answers to the questions she doesn't dare ask, but most wants to find out; ones concerning Becky, the mum she never got to know.

The Museum of You feels as though it has a more playful tone than Issy Bradley. While both are a poignant mixture of laughter and tears, the grief here is older, less raw; a hum that underlies the noise of everyday life. The story's protagonists, Clover and Darren have - in different ways - learnt to live with their loss, but that doesn't make it any less present or overwhelming.

Much of the humour comes from the busybody next door, Mrs Mackerel - a real Mrs Malaprop in her pronouncements:
'LOOK AT YOU' Mrs Mackerel interrupts. 'So GROWN UP all of a sudden. All that HAIR. You're the SPLITTING IMAGE OF YOUR MOTHER, God forgive her. ' 
Clover nods. Hoping for more.
'And your POOR FATHER - the way he put her on a PEDAL STOOL.'

The Museum of You is animated by Bray's feel for creating endearing characters, authentically realised in their day-to-day dealings with the minutiae of loss. Darren is selfless, doing the best he can in a life that turned out so much differently than he thought. Not only is he bringing up his unexpected daughter alone, he's also looking after his wider family.

But it is Clover - the clever, perceptive and funny emotional centre of this story - that you quickly take to your heart; navigating a tentative course towards adolescence without her Mum's help, she finds her own touchingly quirky and pragmatic ways to begin filling in the spaces that Becky left behind.

The Museum of You is published in the UK by Hutchinson. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Friday 12 August 2016

Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub