Saturday 30 January 2016

Book Review: Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

The first of Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland novels, Snowblind introduces rookie police officer Ari Thór Arason in his posting to the isolated northern fishing town of Siglufjördur; a place where - belying its scenic appearance - desperate deeds are happening. Now Nightblind, the second of the series to be published in English by Orenda Books and again translated from the Icelandic by Quentin Bates, picks up his story some five years later.

Ari Thór has a new boss, Herjólfur, a man who is still a stranger to him. One thing he does know, though, is that Herjólfur has taken the inspector's job he wanted, the one he applied for when his old boss, Tómas, moved south. Since Snowblind, Ari Thór has been reunited with his girlfriend Kristin but, although they now have a ten-month-old son, things seem far from rosy on the home front. When Herjólfur is blasted by a shotgun one night in an abandoned house on the edge of Siglufjördur and Tómas returns, Ari Thor must step away from his own domestic problems to investigate what is likely to become a murder case.

Much may have changed in Siglufjördur since Snowblind but still it's good to be back; Jónasson recaptures all of its evocative sense of placeA second tunnel through the mountains has opened the town to an influx of visitors, not to mention southerners buying up holiday homes. The story is enmeshed in local politics; there's a new mayor, an ambitious outsider with something to hide and an assistant who's running from her past. Winter claustrophobia has been replaced by a foreshadowing autumnal bleakness. Once again, Siglufjördur emerges as a town riven with tension beneath a serene exterior and, all too often, the source of conflict is uncomfortably close to home. 

As before, there's a second narrative interwoven through the book; this time someone being held in a psychiatric ward in Reykjavik, their identity a mystery but their story the key to unlocking the source of the crime. In drawing these threads together, Jónasson's grip is never less than secure; he knows his characters well now and moves them with precision towards a satisfying, but unsettling, ending. One where many secrets are resolved but others still lurk under the surface, ready to strike again.

Nightblind is published in the UK by Orenda Books: thanks to Karen for my review copy.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Theatre Review: Lord of the Flies at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Following its sell-out tour of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2015, this season Regent’s Park Theatre brings another 20th Century classic, Lord of the Flies, to Bath.

This retelling of William Golding’s allegorical novel, of a group of British schoolboys reverting to savagery when marooned on a jungle island, is based on the 1992 stage adaptation by Nigel Williams. Here the plane crash they survive is updated to being that of a modern passenger jet; contemporary cultural references include the newly-formed group posing with a selfie-stick and lamenting the island’s lack of 3G reception.

Jon Bausor’s stunning set, featuring a severed fuselage strewn about with the luggage of the perished, has immediate visual impact in the wake of all-too-familiar TV images of terrorist atrocities. Yet the story at the centre is as ageless as ever; a roadmap of the breakdown of civilised western values as the boys are left to their own devices. At first agreeing on a basic structure and rules for their survival and rescue, they quickly divide into warring factions capable of committing acts of the most shocking and merciless brutality as the constraints of society corrode.

Luke Ward-Wilkinson is a fundamentally decent and likeable Ralph; democratically elected as the group’s leader and initially befriending the bespectacled and socially isolated Piggy (Anthony Roberts), he is nevertheless capable of joining in Piggy’s taunting by Freddie Watkins’ cruelly casual Jack and his entourage of distinctly unangelic choirboys. Ralph and Jack’s growing enmity is palpable; as Jack’s hunters acquire sharpened sticks and war paint redolent of English football hooligans, other standout performances include Matthew Castle as the already-thuggish Roger and young Benedict Barker as Perceval, sole representative of the island’s population of ‘littluns’.

Timothy Sheader’s direction combines naturalistic performance with ritualistic movement; there are compelling elements of dance and physical theatre during the fighting, hunting and slaughter – with action slowed at critical moments. The set’s various levels are used to full effect, as the plane’s tail fin is clambered over to reach the mountain-top inhabited by the elusive Beast and the front of stage slopes down as a sea-shore hideaway.

Nick Powell’s original soundscape of ethereal choristers is a chilling counterpoint to the anarchy playing out; just occasionally, it feels as though the boys’ chanting doesn’t quite fill the auditorium as it should. In the magical summer outdoor setting of Regent’s Park, the theatre must have seemed like an island in itself; transferring this atmosphere to a more conventional proscenium arch is a challenge further hampered on press night by a technical hitch leading to an absence of fire in the climactic final scenes.

The terrifying violence and urgency of Golding’s original is still present, however; a telling contrast to the rows of well-behaved schoolchildren in the audience. In its updating, this production seems less a reflection of the brutality of past wars, more a reminder of the fragile veneer of civilisation that binds us today and all the more prescient for that.

Runs until 16 January 2016 as part of a UK tour until 19 March 2016 | Image: Johan Persson

Sunday 17 January 2016

Personal Picks: The Independent Bath Literature Festival 2016

With general booking open from Monday 18th January, the time has come to snuffle through the riches of this year's Bath Literature Festival brochure and unearth some personal picks.

This year marks the festival's 21st birthday, and - just in case the impossibly hip might consider it over the hill - is defiantly themed Forever Young. And, despite appearances from luminaries like Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Tracy Chevalier, this means Viv Groskop, in her final year as Artistic Director, has resisted the lure of the literary pipe and slippers in favour of a record number of emerging new writers.

My pick of the new has to be Claire Fuller with her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days - primarily because I've had this in my sights for far too long. It's not exactly undiscovered, having already won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for new writing, but sounds fascinating - the dark tale of a father who keeps his daughter captive in the German wilderness for nine years, because they may be the last people alive on earth.

Chosen as this year's Big Bath Read, there are several opportunities to join Claire discussing her debut in and around Bath, as well as the chance for book groups to get hold of free copies.

I'm a huge fan of the series of Bliss lectures uniquely created each year for the festival - where writers and thinkers talk about the one thing in life they feel most passionately about.

Having previously enjoyed subjects as diverse as badgers and bee-keeping, this year I'm particularly looking forward to classicist Caroline Alexander's take on The Iliad, while soldier Harry Parker, describing the bliss of floating in helping him come to terms with his injuries in Afghanistan, promises to be both insightful and inspiring.

Viv's programming has again brought a strong - although smaller than in previous years - comedy strand to the festival, with appearances from Al Murray and Isy Suttie, as well as a return for perennial improv favourites Austentatious, whom I can heartily recommend having caught up with their hilariously quick-witted storytelling last year. This time, I'm plumping for Dom Joly discussing his how he dealt with overnight fame after the success of Trigger Happy TV in his autobiography Here Comes the Clown.

Having read some criticism recently about the lack of ethnic diversity at UK literature festivals, I've been on the look out for some BAME writers to broaden my own reading horizons. While struggling to find new novelists here, I do like the look of Sunil Khilnani's exploration of the history of India told through 50 significant lives, as well as the brilliant playwright and political activist Bonnie Greer, opposing the motion that British popular culture is the best in the world, in the Independent Great British Popular Culture debate.

Talking of debates, you might be tempted to ask esteemed Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington why so few of his 101 greatest plays are by women (in his book he debates this with himself, after all). And if, like me, you're a conflicted ageing, feminist proud to display her wrinkles yet reaching for the hair-dye at the first glimpse of breakthrough grey (or even if you're not), you won't want to miss Joan Bakewell chairing a discussion on Women and the Ageing Process - or the mother of all feminist icons Gloria Steinem, on her first visit to the UK in over 20 years, talking to Woman's Hour's Jenni Murray.

Will you be visiting the Bath Literature Festival this year? What are your personal picks?

The Independent Bath Literature Festival 2016 runs from Friday 28 February - Sunday 6 March 2016. Full details and booking are on the Bath Festivals website or by calling the Box Office on 01225 463362 | Images: Bath Festivals/ Contributed

Theatre Review: Living Spit's A Christmas Carol at the Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Much-loved comedy duo Living Spit is back in the Brewery Theatre with its own particular take on that perennial Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Such is the extent of Bristol’s appreciation for Stuart Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins that most of the run is already sold out, with extra shows having been added.

It isn’t difficult to see why. Living Spit’s particular brand of adult-style Horrible Histories silliness has previously tackled subjects as diverse as Elizabeth I and Adolf Hitler with sharp-witted verve. The two actors are great at storytelling and playing themselves alongside multiple characters, so it seems A Christmas Carol should be right up their street.

And indeed, there are moments of guffaw-worthy delight. The entrance of the actor Howard Coggins is a highlight as he transforms into the pyjama clad, Daily Mail reading Ebenezer Scrooge railing against migrants with plenty of Bah Humbugs thrown in. From thereon in, it’s a largely traditional retelling of the story, featuring the ghosts of Marley and Christmases Past, Present (taken very literally) and Future, with a contemporary twist. There’s a good old debate about the talents of Pierce Brosnan and his untrained singing voice in Mama Mia!, while a chugger gets short shrift as he accosts Scrooge in the street. Stu takes every opportunity to don a variety of dresses and wigs and the duo’s well-sung harmonies make a reappearance in trademark songs such as Howard’s Interval Song and the funny but surprisingly poignant ballad Let’s Have Pity on Uncle Scrooge.

In between, though, there are some meandering scenes which could do with tightening to lift this piece to the same level as other Living Spit productions. Scrooge’s encounter with his first girlfriend Angharad at Fezziwig’s nightclub is endearing but overlong and doesn’t really go anywhere. Some of the dialogue isn’t as crisp and sparkling as usual and the appearance of each of the ghosts and recreation of minor characters in the form of Barbie dolls and teddies – despite a fantastically Pythonesque Christmas meal for the Cratchit family – is oddly lacking in comedic or dramatic tension.

The ending is satisfying, though, as the audience gets the chance to join in an enjoyably crass rendition of Hymn 1971 and Scrooge realises the error of his ways and sets about putting things right with an inflatable turkey. Living Spit’s A Christmas Carol is still a Christmas cracker full of festive fun, sure to please the fans, but it could be so much more with some judicious tweaking.

Reviewed on 9 December 2015 | Image: Paul Blakemore

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Theatre Review: The Light Princess at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

The blank canvas of the Factory Theatre is transformed into an enchanted kingdom of leafy woods, secret lakes and flower-covered castle walls for the Tobacco Factory’s new Christmas show The Light Princess, in association with Peepolykus. 

George MacDonald’s 1864 fairy tale of a princess cursed with having no gravitational pull to tether her to earth was ambitiously staged at the National Theatre just two years ago, with music by Tori Amos. This fresh adaptation opens with a distinctive new score from Verity Standen – whose a cappella piece Mmm Hmmm made such an impact in the Brewery Theatre – as Court Conductor, leading the cast in funny and mesmerising song.

The free-spirited Princess, infused with exuberant playfulness by Suzanne Ahmet, can be blown off course by the tiniest air current, which makes her terrestrial relationships hard to manage. Along with her lightness of being, she has acquired a lightness of mind at odds with the King’s rigid approach to courtly life.

Flying around the intimate Factory Theatre is no easy task, but director John Nicholson’s inventive reimagining has Ahmet swinging around pillars with hand-held rope, playing with physical theatre, magical stick puppetry and shadow. By accident, the Princess discovers the attraction of gravity works when she’s swimming in water; there’s a lovely moment with the lake’s surface represented by a simple stretch of Sellotape, before the plot takes on a delightfully wet and messy dimension.

The Princess makes friends with a serious Prince (Richard Holt) in search of a royal bride, but also attracts the attention of her evil Aunt (Julie Black) – source of the original curse – who orders her witchy intern to drain the lake so she can take over the kingdom.

Comedic highlights are provided by Rew Lowe, clambering down unnecessary trapdoors as he alternates various roles including the Prince’s Bristolian horse, and Amalia Vitale in her guises as French thinker Humdrum and plucky intern Lauren. Their confidence grows as the performance progresses; clowning, interacting with the audience and gleefully overcoming missing props.

Elsewhere, some characterisation could be pushed a little further and the story-telling becomes obscured and lacking in tension towards the end. The intrinsic problem of a heroine not able to feel compassion, meaning the audience doesn’t experience it either, isn’t overcome until it’s too late.

It may be missing some deeper emotions, but with an endearing mix of haunting music, inventiveness and tomfoolery, The Light Princess still provides a joyously entertaining diversion for all the family this Christmas. It’s a charming and riotous dollop of silliness that sets just the right tone for the festive season.

Reviewed on 3rd December 2015 | Image: Farrows Creative

Sunday 3 January 2016

Book Review: The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

While not being a frequent reader of historical fiction, I can't help but share the contemporary fascination for the Tudors. Hilary Mantel's nuanced and masterful portrayal of Thomas Cromwell ranks highly in my all-time favourite reads; waiting impatiently for the third instalment of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I've turned meanwhile to a retelling of the final marriage in Henry VIII's turbulent reign.

Philippa Gregory's latest novel, The Taming of the Queen, follows the fortunes of his sixth wife, Kateryn Parr, as she attracts Henry's attention when lady-in-waiting to his eldest daughter, Mary. Twice-widowed by the age of 31, Kateryn has already embarked on a love affair with Thomas Seymour, brother to the dead Queen Jane. Now, she must set that aside and close her heart, to marry a suitor who is also a serial killer not to be refused - the most powerful man in England, Henry Tudor.

The glamorous young man that Kateryn's mother used to adore as the handsomest prince in Christendom is long gone; five wives later, at the age of 51, Henry is stale-breathed, obese, tyrannical and volatile. His health may be failing, his leg so ulcerated he can barely walk, but his legendary appetites are as voracious as ever - for feasting, power, war and women.

Gregory's version of Kateryn, far from being matronly as she is often portrayed, knows she must use both her beauty and wits to survive. Sumptuously clothed in the jewels and garments of the wives who have gone before her - glimpsing their shadows at every turn - she gradually gains the King's confidence alongside his lust. In a court riven by religious faction, her scholarship increases and she becomes a voice for the new reforming faith. She makes a family of Henry's three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, uniting them under one roof, and rules as Regent when Henry is fighting in France.

But, this stability is short-lived. Weaving in historical facts as skilfully as you would expect from a writer of such prolificacy and stature, Gregory also creates for Kateryn a compelling inner voice - my only quibble being a repetitive dream sequence - which, even as you know the outcome, has you reading on to find out what will happen next:
Whoever wins the battle for the king's wavering attention now, will win the next reign. Whoever he favours now, will inherit a prime place when Edward comes to the throne. My husband has described these people to me as dogs waiting for his favour, but for the first time I see it for myself, and know that I am one of them. My future depends on his favour just as theirs does, and tonight I cannot be sure that I have it.
Henry is notoriously short-tempered and mercurial, his memory revisionist and opinions increasingly influenced by those who would have him turn back to the Catholic faith. Never happier than when playing dog-master, Henry once again sets his subjects against each other and Kateryn must do all she can to avoid becoming yet another dead wife. Gregory's version of how Kateryn saves her own life while being broken in spirit is so gruellingly believable, it's hard to remember that all she describes as happening behind closed bedroom doors is conjecture rather than fact.

In her author's note at the end of the book, Gregory ponders why Kateryn Parr has not been more written about; despite her fame as the wife who outlived Henry VIII, as with so many women in history, we remember too little of her in her own right. Kateryn is a survivor, a scholar and the first woman to publish original work under her own name in English; a source of inspiration for the future Elizabeth I, she is indisputably a woman of great accomplishment, ahead of her time.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory is published in hardback in the UK by Simon & Schuster | Image: Contributed