Wednesday 30 March 2016

Book Review: Beneath The Surface by Heidi Perks

Bad mothers present such a rich seam for writers - from book-hating Mrs Wormwood in Roald Dahl's Matilda to Christina Crawford's portrayal of her mother, Joan, in her memoir, Mommie Dearest. In failing to put their children's interests first, they - so much more than bad fathers - are seen as unnatural; their families doomed to dysfunction and a lifetime's striving for an equilibrium just out of reach. Fecund territory indeed, as Heidi Perks demonstrates in her tense new debut novel Beneath The Surface.

Seventeen-year-old Abigail Ryder could be said to have the worst mother of all; one who simply disappears one day while her daughter is at school, taking Abi's young half-sisters Hannah and Lauren with her. Yet the police already see Abi as trouble and are disinclined to investigate - especially when her grandmother Eleanor steps onto the scene. She simply tells Abi she's better off forgetting all about them and forging a path of her own.

Fourteen years later, this is just what Abi has been trying to do. Now married to Adam, she's rebuilt much of her life, but it's clear that all is not well; she's seeing a therapist and finding it hard to tell Adam the real reasons behind her reluctance for them to start a family of their own. So, was her mother, Kathryn, simply bad - or did she have good reasons for abandoning one daughter, while taking two others with her? Abi determines the only way to resolve her turmoil is to uncover the truth behind her family's disappearance that has evaded her for so many years.

The story unfolds through multiple points of view - sometimes Abi, Kathryn, Hannah or Lauren's, interlaced with a letter that Abi, on the advice of her therapist, is writing to Adam. It's a structure that allows us an insight into each person's head so that, however extreme their actions might be, there are clues to why they acted as they did. Perks skilfully weaves together the threads of her story, the secrets and lies that exist between mothers and daughters. She ratchets up the tension and reveals just enough to keep you desperate to find out more. As the real villain of the piece is gradually revealed, the story takes on aspects of a Victorian novel transported into contemporary times.

The characters in Beneath The Surface are convincing enough to keep you involved, although some are more fully rounded than others. Abi and Hannah are particularly well-drawn and spring from the page, especially in the evocative setting of Mull Bay, an isolated fishing community of both beauty and confinement somewhere in the North-East of England. Yet other family members remain a puzzle in their motivation, sketchier perhaps because restricted by the multi-layered plot that demands not everyone should be quite what they seem. And the fathers of the family tend to get off very lightly - but then, there's nothing very new about that.

If you like suspenseful, plot-driven stories that peel away layers of fabrication to unmask a shocking truth, then Beneath The Surface certainly delivers. You may guess some of the novel's secrets, but Heidi Perks has so much to reveal it's unlikely you'll think of them all. Ultimately, Beneath The Surface is a very engaging debut; an engrossing read with a satisfying ending that keeps you hooked until the final page.

Beneath The Surface is published by Red Door Publishing. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Dance Review: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
It's the Brothers Grimm fairytale that enchanted so many childhoods, the Disney film rewound until the video tape wore thin, but Matthew Bourne audaciously reinvents the classical ballet of Sleeping Beauty for an audience all too familiar with its content.

By immersing himself in all the versions of the story he could find, then throwing in some twists of his own, Bourne presents an exquisite but accessible fusion of ideas that opens with his New Adventures company in the Gothic splendour of 1890. It’s a time-frame that allows for a richly expressive reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s score and a whole range of sumptuous possibilities for Bourne’s long-time collaborator, set and costume designer Lez Brotherston.

The production is a visual feast from the start, as the King and Queen who longed for a child have their dearest wish granted, only to find their daughter cursed by the dark fairy, Carabosse. Bourne’s retelling introduces Aurora in puppet form as a mischievous toddler, clambering up the curtains and evading the servants, before being entertained with teasing vibrancy by a troupe of fairies representing such foreshadowing, elemental forces as passion, plenty and rebirth.

Swept aside by Carabosse’s dark vision, their King is able to mitigate the worst of her evil intentions, propelling us into the golden Edwardian summer of 1911 as Aurora comes of age; a free-spirited, independent young woman surrounded by suitors including Leo, the royal gamekeeper, whom she favours with her love and Carabosse’s enigmatic son Caradoc, introduced to the plot with a determination to carry on his mother’s fiendish legacy.

On press night, Ashley Shaw as Princess Aurora and Chris Trenfield as Leo combine in a series of pas de deux, which interpret both the playful and the passionate with lyrical ease, while Adam Maskell, dual-rolling as both Carabosse and Caradoc, is a commanding and charismatic presence who channels more than a little of The Twilight Saga’s Cullen family. Christopher Marley’s Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, more than tests his mettle in matching him; the vampiric theme recurs as a force for both evil and good and an elegant solution to the inherent difficulty of driving the narrative forward by 100 years into the 21st Century.

There are some stunning ensemble pieces from the company and technically, this is a flawless production. Paule Constable’s lighting imbues the land of sleepwalkers – a half-world of limpid ghosts seeking release – with all the painterly, textural beauty of a Hockney landscape. The use of a conveyor throughout to introduce dancers at the back of the set is simple yet stunningly effective, adding a further dimension to a high-value production that is a seamless blend of contrasting pace and dance styles from classical to contemporary.

The finale is full of edgy colour, wit and dangerous dramatic tension to the last step; a fitting end to this triumphant revival of a tale of good versus evil which continues to resonate on every level.

Reviewed on 1 March 2016 as part of a tour | Image: Johan Persson

Saturday 19 March 2016

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

I'd been meaning to read Claire Fuller's debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days for a while, but was galvanised into action when it was chosen as the Big Read for the Bath Literature Festival recently. As one of the stewards for Claire's author event in the Guildhall (grappling with the idiosyncrasies of the two-way radio, but that's another story...), I wanted to be able to follow the discussion of this 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize-winning book.

In the hot, sticky summer of 1976, eight-year-old Peggy is taken by her father, James, to live in die Hütte - an isolated cabin in a remote German forest. Here, he tells her the worst fears of the Cold War years have been realised and the rest of the world has been destroyed. Everything familiar in her childhood so far - her mother, Ute, and her London home - has been swept away. From now on, the pair must survive on their own, dependent on what they can scavenge from their surroundings and what little they've carried with them.

Peggy - renamed Punzel, as if in a Brothers Grimm fairytale - and James set about making a life for themselves, repairing the cabin and exploring their new terrain. That first summer, they have plenty; enjoying a diet of mushrooms, leaves and roots, fish, rabbit and squirrel, with time taking on a new dimension:
Each morning since we had arrived, my father had cut notches into die Hütte's door frame, but when he got to sixteen he decided to stop.
'We're not going to live by somebody else's rules of hours and minutes any more,' he said. 'When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.'
I couldn't remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.
'Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we're going to live by the sun and the seasons.' He picked me up and spun me round, laughing. 'Our days will be endless.'
Yet, with winter approaching, it becomes harder to find food and even her father's optimism is tested. And, as Peggy realises there's no going home, she faces many devastating challenges in her years of isolation in the wilderness. Putting away her one doll, Phyllis, who also voices her childish feelings, she grows into adolescence with a father who seems increasingly delusional. At the mercy of the elements, lacking in emotional and physical essentials, Peggy finds it more and more difficult to retain her own uncertain grip on reality.

The novel first opens in 1985, as Peggy is trying to settle into life back home with her mother and younger brother almost a decade later. So, we immediately know two things; that James is lying to her all along about the world's end and that she will come through her ordeal alive - if not exactly unscathed, either mentally or physically. What we are hungry to find out is how - and what has happened to her father. 

The structure of the two timeframes twists and intersects to a riveting and psychologically shocking conclusion - one with consequences that aren't immediately obvious and only become clear at the very end of the novel. I found myself wanting to know more; what will happen to Peggy next and how will she cope? For me, the 1985 timeline was underwritten and I was always eager to get back there, feeling impatient on occasion with the descriptive elements of Peggy's years in the forest; the catching of squirrels,foraging for food and increasing dissonance between reality and illusion.

Having said this, Fuller's depiction of the summer of 1976 vividly conjures up that heatwave we thought would never end, the low thrumming of the ever-present existential threat of nuclear holocaust and the post-apocalyptic life depicted in the 1975 TV series Survivors (which I somehow managed to pursuade my parents I was old enough to watch).

There's also considerable complexity in her portrayal of family relationships; skilfully exploring how far a child can be led into accepting the word of a parent despite the evidence of their eyes, and how easy it can be to recast reality into anything you want to make it. The importance of music threads through Peggy's existence; distancing Ute as a concert pianist who never takes the time to teach her daughter the piano and contrasting this with the poignant playing of Liszt's La Campanella in the forest on a roughly constructed keyboard incapable of making any sound.

That Fuller mines so many stimulating themes makes Our Endless Numbered Days a perfect book group choice. Indeed, Bath's Big Read event was full of illuminating and enjoyable discussion between Claire, her interviewer Mark Lawson and a well-informed audience. My only quibble is that we were asked not to discuss the ending for fear of spoiling it for those who hadn't read it yet. As the audience seemed full of book groups who knew the novel and were particularly eager to talk about its controversial conclusion, this did seem an unnecessary constraint on a free and full discussion.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is published in the UK in paperback from Penguin Books | Image of Big Bath Read courtesy of Julian Foxon Photography (2016)

Saturday 12 March 2016

Theatre Review: Check The Label at Bristol Old Vic Studio

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
In Check The Label, Eno Mfon combines her own personal experience with film and audio projection to question the everyday extremes endured by black women in conforming with society’s ideals of their beauty.

It’s a clear, engaging performance from young Mfon, currently still a student of English and Drama at the University of Bristol. From a childhood defined by playground chants and skipping songs, she tells how she became aware, through the influence of her older sister, that her hair in its natural state was deemed unattractive and needed to be ‘relaxed’; a process anything but relaxing that painfully burnt into her skin.

The playground songs become fractured and disjointed; bullied at school, she overhears her brother and his friends rating girls on their attractiveness. Darkness equates to dirtiness and being burnt by God and she understands her skin needs to be bleached to a lighter tone – a message reinforced by endless music videos defining prettiness in young women as straight-haired and caramel-coloured.

Here, Mfon directly confronts these prejudices in her own words – part poetry, part testimony – and recordings from daytime TV of black girls and women describing how their hair and colour makes them feel and the lengths they go to in changing them. Yet, this is a process that distances women from each other, opening up those with darker skin to the judgement of their lighter sisters.

Mfon is a natural on the stage. She smiles, skips and confidently brings her audience along with her, as she single-handedly reveals the toxicity of this quest for notional beauty; reciting a list of chemicals you would hesitate to clean your bathroom with from the labels of hair relaxant and skin lightener bottles – ingredients that will irritate and maim.

Deftly directed by Tanuja Amarasuriya, in a work first showcased as part of Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment Fortnight, Check The Label is a powerful challenge to assumed norms; it reveals Mfon as a writer and performer of considerable talent and one to watch in the future.

Reviewed on 27 February 2016 | Image: Contributed

Theatre Review: Curried Goat and Fishfingers at Bristol Old Vic Studio

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There’s a natural warmth and chemistry between Miles Chambers and Edson Burton that’s evident from the beginning of Curried Goat and Fishfingers.

Part poetry, part conversation between friends, this hour-long reflection on the lives and experiences of these two Bristol poets and performers encompasses their relationship and all it means to be Black and British.

From early childhood, they have both always written; Miles in his bedroom, Edson – one of a West Indian family of eight kids where privacy was non-existent – at school. With the use of music and a projected backdrop, they explore their early stories and differing experiences from attending church to visiting Jamaica for the first time.

Their love for Bristol, the vibrant multi-cultural city both call home, comes through loud and clear, as does their anger at its roots in the slave trade and the prejudice encountered by their parents’ generation. The tone changes from light-hearted, with a translation of Jamaican patois into Queen’s English, to poignant tales of love and loss and fast-paced verbal explosions at the treatment of newly arrived immigrants in the 1960s: the colour bar on working on the buses and advertisements for accommodation that stated ‘No dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’.

Presented as a series of loose vignettes, just when you feel that the performance might be sliding out of focus, it snaps back in again with organic energy and wit – as the pair collide on the dance floor, they lament how they’ve ‘got to get the dance right or no one will say we’re black’. Today, they see fusion everywhere in Bristol: in food, music, people and ideas.

Combined with Pink Mist still playing in the main house, there is a real emphasis on the unique culture of the city that Bristol Old Vic has called home now for 250 years. It may lack a taut structure, but Curried Goat and Fishfingers is both thoughtful and full of infectious exuberance; ultimately optimistic that a frustrating, elating city of paradox has become a place with room for all.

Reviewed on 27 February 2016 | Image: Contributed


Monday 7 March 2016

Book Review: Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov

In his debut novel Jihadi: A Love Story, Yusuf Toropov takes on some of the most urgent and complex issues facing our civilisation. Terrorism, the clash of ideologies, the role of women; so many moral dilemmas on a global scale set the stage for a thriller that at heart - as its title suggests - also captures love amongst the wreckage.

Thelonius Liddell, an intelligence officer working for the CIA, is sent on a covert mission to Islamic City, leaving his wife, Becky, at home. We know from the outset that something has gone badly wrong, because he begins his memoir:
I am the dead guy telling you this story. Stories are all I have left.
Thelonius is now being held in a containment unit he calls The Beige Motel, intent on giving his account of who - and what - has brought him here. But his reliability is called into question by a second narrative strand; a psychologist who sees patterns in everything, scathingly annotating his manuscript and setting out an alternative version of events.

This contradiction is disconcerting at first, a puzzle to the reader. But, as the story unfolds, secrets are revealed and fragments coalesce. There's a slow-burning satisfaction in piecing it all together, listening to the voices, hearing their reversals and and choosing what to believe:
After years of being the one whose behaviour had to be monitored with care, Thelonius found himself locked in a minivan, in the middle of the night, face-to-face, not just with insomnia, not just with betrayal, but with a role reversal. He had to address the possibility that Becky might be the one in need of close watching. That he might need to do the watching. That her behaviour was likely to get worse, more impossible to ignore, perhaps more dangerous as time passed. That they had reached the endgame, the point of sudden shift or collapse, much faster than he had anticipated.
This is a novel that doesn't do all the work for you, but rewards you for walking in the shoes of its characters and thinking about how you would act in their place. Each makes a significant transformation during the course of the story; Thelonius is challenged to examine what it means to be a Muslim, forced towards introspection, while the psychologist takes on personal battles of body and mind. My own favourite is Fatima, a courageous young woman living in the eye of the storm - an outsider in her own world - who begins by making choices to protect her family but ends by having a profound influence on so many who touch her life.

There are some fantastically quirky moments - informed, one suspects, by the author's preoccupations; Thelonius' conversations with an American comic book character and the psychologist's obsession with the insights to be found in the Beatles' White Album.

Despite dark and often harrowing events, the ruthless pursuit of ideals and disregard for the suffering they unleash, Jihadi: A Love Story is, above all, a celebration of the ability of the flawed, frail human spirit to survive and reach out even until death.

Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim author, currently living in Ireland, who has already written a number of non-fiction books and plays. In this, his first novel, he has produced a thriller that bridges both sides of the conflict arising from US involvement in the Middle East. He questions the lazy assumptions routinely used to justify abhorrent actions and introduces pivotal female characters with their own opinions and narrative, so much more than accessories to the plot. In doing this, he has produced an intriguing work of rich complexity that really taps into the zeitgeist.

Jihadi: A Love Story is published in paperback by Orenda Books on 10 March 2016. Also available as an ebook. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Theatre Review: Right Now at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The Ustinov Studio’s new season of French-Canadian drama kicks off with Right Now, a psychologically intriguing dark comedy produced in association with Traverse Theatre Company and Bush Theatre.

Like Florian Zeller’s The Father and The Mother – recent predecessors on the same stage – in Right Now Quebecois playwright Catherine-Anne Toupin toys with her audience’s perceptions from the outset. Rather than using repetition as a device, Toupin’s is a version of shifting reality that poignantly comes full circle.

Alice and Ben have recently moved into their stylish new apartment, but with Ben working long hours as a doctor at the hospital, Alice has too much time to nurture her loneliness. The cry of her baby sends her into palpable shivers of pain; what seems to be a severe case of post-natal depression begins to take on the mantle of something even more disturbing. If this doesn’t seem like a sound basis for even the bleakest of comedies, then the introduction of the neighbours across the hall changes that.

The Gauches are so loud that you instinctively feel yourself wanting to shush them; faded temptress Juliette Gauche, as though reincarnated from Abigail’s Party, introduces her grown-up son, François, and smoothly reptilian husband, Gilles, in a manner that will brook no refusal. And so, before long – fuelled by the twin powers of red wine and shared community – the neighbours are exchanging intimacies along with the hors d’oeuvres. Torrid tales of how each couple first met, flavoured with erotically charged glimpses of lingerie, lead to ever more unsettling encounters within this increasingly disturbed quintet – despite Herculean efforts at pantomime distraction from a frenetically book-juggling, cart-wheeling François.

If it feels like the writer is delving into her own subconscious – like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage on acid – then it’s no surprise to learn that Toupin has used her family’s personal experience of grief as the basis for her writing. In this, she’s well supported by Chris Campbell’s vibrant translation, which transports the French-Canadian original from a land surrounded by English speakers to a similarly resilient Scottish setting, as well as enthralling performances from the tightly meshed cast.

Lindsey Campbell, already a Ustinov veteran from The Big Meal and The Harvest, delivers a finely nuanced portrayal of depression and loss as the frail and vulnerable Alice. Veering between clutching her dressing gown tightly around her and throwing on a dress with waif-like beauty, she is never less than magnetic; at least to father and son Gilles (Guy Williams) and François (an assuredly pivotal Dyfan Dwyfor), if not to her husband – Sean Biggerstaff’s cruelly indifferent Ben. Juliette, played with a consuming, larger-than-life relish by Maureen Beattie, certainly appreciates Alice’s attractions too, if only because she reminds her of her younger self, but is even more drawn to Ben, who represents all that her own son is not.

Michael Boyd’s direction makes the most of this exciting, shape-shifting writing; the pace never lets up, allegiances cross over and events become ever more surreal. By contrast, Right Now’s ending teeters on the brink of being out of kilter and yet gives real pause for thought; an absence turned into tenderly physical presence, whose reality might just be taking us back to where we thought we were in the beginning, with the same uneasy questions to answer.

Reviewed on 24 February 2016: runs until 19 March 2016| Image: Simon Annand 

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Theatre Review: I Know All The Secrets In My World at Bristol Old Vic Studio

 This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There’s much to admire in Tiata Fahdozi’s I Know All The Secrets In My World, produced in association with Watford Palace Theatre. With barely any words, instead encompassing physical movement and an eloquent aural vocabulary of domestic sounds, the play explores what happens when a father and son’s world falls apart.

Solomon Israel and Samuel Nicholas are the father and son initially united in the joy of everyday; playing on their games console and turning the clearing of the kitchen table into an elaborate masque. In Helen Skiera’s audacious sound design, their wife and mother is only heard; never seen. Then the unthinkable happens and the pair must come to terms with her loss. They become shadows backlit in a dry-iced, fragmented darkness; attending her funeral, putting life on hold, before trying to get back to the familiar motions of a routine with its heart ripped out.

As a piece of theatre, I Know… is immediately immersive and affecting; an exploration of grief as an embodied and somatic experience, with shades of Gecko and Frantic Assembly. Each word spoken is carefully weighted. Father and son’s movement becomes a fractured duet, frequently discordant in their differing, day-to-day interpretation of sorrow. The son is still looking for opportunities to play despite his sadness while the father shuts out the wider world but still finds the familiar interior fills him with despair.

Having brought its audience to this devastating understanding, however, this is the point where I Know…fails to move on, instead dwelling within the grief it has already documented. Of course, there are different stages of mourning that the pair must move through, yet the play becomes too intent on hammering home the same note; the dead wife’s clothes so heavy with meaning, each kitchen object she has touched imbued with her absence. Eventually, a production of only 60 minutes’ duration slides into becoming over-long.

Despite the eventual renewal of hope through the strength of the father-son bond, this play feels incomplete, as though perhaps it should be condensed into a fragment of something bigger. Nevertheless, it must still be commended as a beautiful meditation on grief in its own right, a piece that is saturated with ideas worthy of further exploration.

Reviewed on 18 February 2016 | Image: Wasi Daniju