Tuesday 23 February 2016

Theatre Review: Hamlet at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it seems that one of his most famous tragedies is being staged now more than ever. Benedict Cumberbatch’s high profile Hamlet attracted a legion of his fans to the Barbican last year, while Paapa Essiedu – who previously played Romeo at the Tobacco Factory – is soon to take the title role at the RSC.

In Bristol, directing for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF)’s new season, in tandem with All’s Well That Ends Well, Andrew Hilton has created something of an enigma at the centre of his Hamlet by casting Alan Mahon, a 23-year-old Irish actor in his English debut, as the Danish Prince.

Taking a star out of the equation refocuses attention back on the play itself; Hilton’s version of Hamlet’s attempts to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the King’s own brother is certainly played out with all his trademark clarity. Shakespeare’s words are exquisitely measured by the SATTF ensemble; each line given weight but delivered as though it has just occurred to them, rather than being some of the finest prose ever written in the English language.

In this, Isabella Marshall stands out as a wonderfully haunting Ophelia. At the beginning cool and collected, her descent into insanity after the death of Polonius (an effectively bumbling Ian Barritt) – the crazed singing and handing out of imaginary flowers – may be widely anticipated by those knowing the plot, but is nevertheless shocking to witness.

Yet any production of Hamlet will ultimately depend on its central character and, from a slightly uncertain start, Mahon turns in a solid performance that grows in stature as the play unfolds. A patently young Prince, he has the energy necessary to propel the action forwards without necessarily encompassing all the subtleties and gravitas of Hamlet’s most famous musings on mortality. His Hamlet is more angry than unhinged enough to convince the court of his madness, but his essential likeability sustains the audience’s sympathy throughout and promises much for the future.

Max Johns’ set is no-nonsense, grey and austere; a few wooden benches and thrones, a carpet runner and some sconces setting the tone for a production that involves but doesn’t necessarily excite. For all its clarity, this version lacks a sense of inventiveness in some of Hamlet’s traditionally most entertaining scenes. The play within a play appears rushed and the gravediggers are reduced to a solitary, although salaciously amusing, Sexton in the form of Nicky Goldie. The initial appearance of the ghost (Christopher Bianchi) fails to produce any real chill, although his subsequent return is much more atmospheric.

It falls to the final fight between Hamlet and Laertes (Callum McIntyre) to introduce a note of exhilaration; the moves are taken from authentic fencing principles of Shakespeare’s era and create a dynamic and thrilling climax to the play. All in all, this is a credible, firmly grounded and enjoyable Hamlet that tells its story well yet waits until the end to really catch light.

Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image: Mark Douet

Thursday 18 February 2016

(Re)Reading the Classics: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

My first experience of Brideshead Revisited came with the sumptuous 1981 Granada TV adaptation starring a youthful Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons and Diana Quick, alongside such established luminaries as Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom. Back then there was no cramming the action War and Peace style into as few minutes as possible; Brideshead's 300-odd pages unfolded over a leisurely 11 episodes. I wonder whether this would seem incredibly slow to us now.

Such was the impact of this series, that my first reading of Waugh's classic shortly afterwards couldn't escape from conjuring up its actors as the fully-formed characters, with Castle Howard the grandly imposing stately home of the title. Only on rereading some 30 years later have I been able to come to the book anew, recreating in my own imagination Waugh's glittering but doomed panorama of privilege and Catholic guilt set between the two World Wars.

The story is narrated by Charles Ryder, an Oxford undergraduate, who forms a close friendship with Sebastian Flyte, younger son of the aristocratic Marchmain family. Handsome and idiosyncratic, accompanied by his teddy bear confidante Aloysius, Sebastian willingly introduces Charles to his close circle of high-living Oxford contemporaries, yet seems strangely reluctant to let him meet his family. As Charles nevertheless gradually becomes entangled in their complicated web, Sebastian describes them thus:
'So you see we're a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he's miserable, she's bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn't; mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and papa is excommunicated - and I wouldn't know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn't seem to have anything to do with it and that's all I want...I wish I liked Catholics more.'
Charles and Sebastian have a golden first year at Oxford, but after a long vacation which Charles spends variously at home with his own remote father, at Brideshead with Sebastian and in Venice with the estranged Lord Marchmain, the pair seem unable to recapture their previous good spirits:
The autumnal mood possessed us both as though the riotous exuberance of June had died with the gillyflowers, whose scent at the windows now yielded to the damp leaves, smouldering in a corner of the quad.
Sebastian's relationship with his mother becomes increasingly strained and, sinking into depression, he numbs his pain with alcohol. As the Flyte family's troubles threatens to subsume him, Charles begins to make a life elsewhere. It is only years later, in a chance meeting with Julia on a transatlantic crossing, that he is drawn back into their doomed affairs, with devastating consequences.

Waugh's prose is rich and exquisite. Even his individual book titles Et in Arcadia Ego, A Twitch upon the Thread resonate. In his preface to Brideshead Revisited, he describes writing the book in 1943, while recovering from an injury incurred in the War: 
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster - the period of soya beans and basic English - and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.
In all that he recaptures, Waugh displays a depth of emotion lacking in his earlier - amusing but more superficial - novels like A Handful of Dust. Brideshead examines the tension between love and duty while bearing its losses and guilt with the resigned grace of a Graham Greene novel. Such is my love for this book that I'm even tolerating Ryder's early tirade against 'a rabble of womankind' invading Oxford. It belongs to a time and place, alongside casual racism; a narrow, glittering, entitled world long swept away by war.

Image of TV series courtesy of ITV/Rex Features | Book image courtesy of Penguin Books | Brideshead Revisited is available in paperback as a Penguin Classic (326 pp).

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Theatre Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

 This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

If you’ve read Eimear McBride’s 2014 Baileys Prize-winning novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, you’ll know you’re not in for an easy time in watching Corn Exchange Ireland’s stage production. In fact, you may still be recovering from the emotional devastation this book has wrought upon you. I know I am.

Yet I’m also feeling protective of the echoes this raw, harrowing, turbulent story has in my memory. Can Annie Ryan’s adaptation do McBride’s startlingly original and poetic prose justice? How can it reach, in the same incisively probing way, inside this solitary Irish girl’s troubled mind?

The answer is that it does so with astounding ferocity. If the book is all about the brave, staccato tumult of words, then this production is about their performance. Alone on stage, playing our unnamed protagonist, words pour out of Aoife Duffin like a swollen river in torrent. Her coming-of-age tale encompasses cancer, abandonment, Catholicism, deprivation, child abuse, rape, promiscuity, death and suicide. “In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say”; with visceral conviction Duffin inhabits them all as her own.

Ryan’s direction allows for no distraction; with the barest of lighting, sound and set design, Duffin’s vulnerable yet commanding portrayal brings out the tenderness, too. Abandoned before her birth by their father, this becomes an elegy for her brain-damaged older brother: “Thinking I think of you and me. Our empty spaces where fathers should be.” In every other relationship - mother, uncle, grandfather, school friends and strangers - our protagonist is used, abused, abandoned or accused; her brother remains the single, familiar beacon in her life.

Duffin is phenomenal; in navigating the darkest of material, she is its saviour. Baring her soul in an uninterrupted, exhausting 90 minutes, she recreates all the story’s other characters and interacts with them by making only the most miniscule of adjustments in naturalistic movement and characterisation. An occasional, sparse lightning rod of humour is welcome – forward rolls in a skirt in front of her grandfather, her mother’s moral outrage - allowing the rhythm of more bitter blows to have their impact, time and time again.

Despite the simplicity of the set there is a great sense of place; the mournful bleakness of the Irish rain, the thick, ankle-clagging mud and curtain-twitching intensity of life in a small rural community. In the hands of Ryan and Duffin, the novel becomes a soliloquy, as though it were always destined for the stage. Shocking to those in the hushed audience who haven’t yet read the novel; for those who have, devastating all over again.

Reviewed on 27th January 2016 | Image: Contributed

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Theatre Review: Hetty Feather at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

It’s not easy touring a family show in chilly January, with pantomime season at an end and the tinsel packed away for another year. But this doesn’t stop families of all ages – and mothers and daughters in particular – from enthusiastically turning out in the dark and cold for the opening night of Hetty Feather at Bath’s Theatre Royal. Emma Reeves’ adaptation of best-selling author Jacqueline Wilson’s novel – already a West End hit – promises an inviting blend of original music, circus skills and uplifting storytelling with a fearless role model at its heart.

Think Tracy Beaker transported back to the Victorian era: Hetty Feather begins with our eponymous heroine re-imagining her own abandonment at the foundling hospital when only a few days old. Of course, her mother only handed her over in desperation and is longing to come back and care for her; of course, she gave her a name more thrilling than Hetty – one that reflects the dazzling blue of her eyes. Sally Cookson’s direction takes this longing and cradles it for us, with more than a few nods to her devised production of Jane Eyre, shortly to return to Bristol Old Vic after a run at the National Theatre.

Hetty is fortunate in being well cared for her in her early years by a loving foster family; when the circus comes to town, she’s captivated by its exotic glamour. Then, her life changes for the worse; forced to return to the foundling hospital to begin her education, she falls under the disciplinarian auspices of the stern and humourless Matron Bottomly.

The music is enthralling throughout. The fluidity of the storytelling is made possible by Benji Bower’s original composition and the show’s opening is enhanced by the most charming of warm-up acts: musicians Seamas H Carey and Luke Potter.

No less impressive are the acrobatic circus skills displayed by the ensemble, as they seamlessly negotiate the set’s collection of ropes, ribbons and hoops, scaling ladders and clambering over scaffolds with spectacular ease. There are magical moments as Hetty’s parents’ romance is recreated in aerial form, and lovely comic touches, too; the scene with Madame Adeline’s circus horses is one of unbridled delight.

Phoebe Thomas captivates as plucky and adventurous Hetty, learning the hard-knock lessons of life and finding happiness in unexpected quarters. She is ably supported by Matt Costain playing Matron Bottomly and Hetty’s foster brother Jem, as well as a Sarah Goddard in the roles of Peg, her affectionate foster-mother and Ida, the foundling hospital’s cook.

Hetty Feather brings circus energy and theatrical invention to Jacqueline Wilson’s original novel, without losing any of its warm heart in the process. It’s an engaging and beguiling story well told, especially thrilling for Wilson’s legion of fans, but living up to its promise in appealing to children and adults of all ages.

Runs until 24 January 2016 as part of a UK tour until 10 April 2016 | Image: Contributed