Wednesday 27 April 2016

Book Review: My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal's debut novel introduces her nine-year-old central character so vividly, he seems to step straight off the page.

For one so young, Leon already has more than his fair share of troubles; an absent father and a neglectful mother who loves him but can't cope with her responsibilities. Yet, taken into care and passed between social workers, his life still revolves around an overwhelming purpose. He needs to look after his baby brother, because - as Leon informs Maureen, his new foster parent - nobody knows Jake as well as he does:

Leon tells her everything. How if you want Jake to go asleep you have to keep stroking his head or the side of his cheek. How Jake puts everything in his mouth and you have to keep both eyes on him all the time so sometimes you can't even watch the telly. And how sometimes it's too hard.

But Jake is a baby and white, while Leon is neither, so now it seems they may not even be able to stay together. There's a new family who want to adopt Jake, leaving Leon behind.

The story is set in the 1980s and the grown ups, when not whispering about Leon's situation behind closed doors, are busy preparing for the celebrations of Prince Charles' and Lady Di's wedding. But Thatcher's Britain is a place of simmering social tensions and juxtaposed with street parties are the inner city riots that directly touch Leon's life.

De Waal's writing encompasses the sadness of one family's broken circumstances; a feeling of their falling between the cracks that reminds me of Nick Hornby's About A Boy or the Jacqueline Wilson novels I used to read with my daughters. There's grief and anger too, building within Leon to a pent-up rage that has no safety valve.

Yet, despite the aching chasm of love for Jake and his mum, the leaving behind of beloved Action Men and lonely succession of new schools, Leon can still find glimpses of happiness. Fuzzy-haired Maureen provides comfort and Curly Wurlies after the latest prickly visit from a well-meaning social worker. Her no-nonsense sister Sylvia tells him hilariously unsuitable bedtime stories that had me laughing out loud on the train. And he's given a BMX bike that he loves to ride downhill as fast as he can; while dreaming of finding what he's lost, it also helps him to discover new friends and unforeseen opportunities.

Most of all there's his awakening joy in watching the Scarlet Emperor runner beans he's planted popping their heads up through the soil. A sense of renewal and hope that transcends the everyday injustices and struggles just to get by.

Kit de Waal has years of experience in working for Social Services and My Name is Leon is a compelling and often witty endorsement of the old maxim that you should write what you know. Her characters have a three-dimensional substance rooted in observation and Leon's situation feels sadly all too real.

If occasionally - especially early on - I forgot the book was set in the 1980s and wondered why he wasn't constantly on his mobile phone, this is because Leon is living life with the immediacy of a nine year old, rather than noticing the token details of the decade he's growing up in. In this way, his predicament becomes even more urgently universal. As de Waal said in a Guardian interview in February: 'I know you don't tell those stories casually: it really matters.'

It's rare to find a novel - especially one not written in the first person - so strongly inhabited by its clever and lovable young protagonist. Such is the impact of Leon - brother, son and foster child - that in stepping off the page, he walks right into your heart.

My Name Is Leon will be published in the UK on 2 June 2016 as a Viking hardback. It will also be available as a Penguin eBook and audiobook. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy | Images courtesy of and Penguin Random House.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Theatre Review: All's Well That Ends Well at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

All’s Well That Ends Well is the second play in Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s season commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Following on from Hamlet, and again co-produced with Tobacco Factory Theatres, this difficult, lesser-performed comedy has been rewritten in parts by Dominic Power, moving its action to the mid-19th Century and reimagining some of its characters.

At the dark heart of this problem play is the uneasy union of doctor’s daughter Helena and Bertram, son of the Count Rossillion. Its central characters don’t emerge from the relationship covered in glory; neither Bertram, who is given to Helena as husband by the King of France and runs away to war to escape her, nor Helena in the trickery she employs to win him back.

Eleanor Yates as Helena is earnest and determined; in the certainty of her desires and how to fulfil them, she shines as a woman potentially ahead of her time – beloved , it seems, by all apart from Bertram. Yet, in her purity of spirit, she also seems to lack the complexity required to descend into deceit. Craig Fuller as Bertram succeeds on the whole in treading a difficult line, having to be worthy of the virtuous Helena’s love and yet equally willing to reject her for lack of status. Instead, he pursues the life of a single man intent on proving his own masculinity – although his hopeless dilemma as victim of the King of France’s commands could be expanded upon.

Paul Currier is pitch-perfect in bringing out all the foppish comedy of the braggart soldier, Parolles, and the scene of his downfall, as he is exposed as a coward and unwittingly betrays each of his compatriots to their face, is one of the highlights. Isabella Marshall, who portrayed Ophelia so convincingly in Hamlet, is again outstanding as Diana, the Florentine maid favoured by Bertram, who conspires with Helena to deceive him with the infamous bed-trick.

Lavatch, played by Marc Geoffrey – a clown in Shakespeare’s original play – for some reason becomes Bertram’s music and dancing master, although the inclusion of ballads and a pavane are a nice touch. Max Johns’ staging is once again minimal, leaving it to Elizabeth Purnell’s sound design and Matthew Graham’s lighting to provide an effective contrast between the scenes at court and war.

Overall, Power’s changes to the text have the effect of drawing out the comedy and transforming Shakespeare’s original into a more upbeat, less equivocal piece. That this glosses over some of the more complex moral issues that provide the substance of All’s Well That Ends Well is disappointing, but it does add to Andrew Hilton’s renowned clarity of story-telling and the ultimate entertainment value of the play.

Runs until 23 April 2016 (in repertoire with Hamlet 28 – 30 April 2016) | Image: Mark Douet

Sunday 17 April 2016

Book Review: In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings

With her third novel, In Her Wake, Amanda Jennings examines issues of identity and trust, scraping away the veneer of middle class respectability to expose a shocking reality that nevertheless holds the promise of redemption.

It unsettles from the first. Bella may have a loving husband and a comfortable life, but the sense of foreboding in the opening pages isn't fully explained by a recent family bereavement. Bella is strangely passive, her husband David controlling and her father Henry distant. Her whole upbringing involved hiding away behind the walls of her parents' gracious home with only an imaginary friend for company; her family so intent on avoiding strangers, she's never even travelled abroad.

When a further tragedy rips her world apart, Bella discovers her entire existence has been based on a lie. Leaving David behind, she sets out on a journey to the southern tip of Cornwall to uncover truths about herself that question the very basis of her being.

In picturesque St Ives comes a steady stream of revelations; not all of them is savoury on the surface. But, in uncovering the secrets of her past and finding out who she really is, there's also a welcome sense of Bella sloughing off the layers of other people's control and finally inhabiting her own skin. She may make her mistakes, but in her new life, they're all her own.

Writing intimately in the first person, with the occasional foray into Henry's diaries to broaden our understanding, Jennings exposes the turmoil in Bella's head and peels back layers - not just of people but also of place. Away from the tourist centre of St Ives, she reveals its darker underbelly; the deprivation and lack of opportunity that exist behind the stunning sweep of beaches, galleries and seafront cafes. Yet, in this hinterland emerges a deeply entrenched feeling of real community.

The twists and turns of this complex web of domestic noir will have you in its thrall - from Bella's burgeoning new life and her reawakening memories to the haunting nightmares of her past. There are sins of omission as well as commission, but even those guilty of the darkest of deeds have their reasons.

In Her Wake is a novel of much more than simple plot shock; shaded with warm, but often painful relationships by day and disturbing magical realism by night. Jennings entwines the grief of Bella's past and her tentative new beginning with such empathy that, by the end of this very absorbing and atmospheric story, I'm sure I'm not alone in crying and cheering with her every step of the way.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings is published in the UK by Orenda Books, many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Theatre Review: Forever Yours, Mary-Lou at the Ustinov Studio, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
The second in the Ustinov’s season of French-Canadian drama, Forever Yours, Mary-Lou (À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou) comes to Bath with a substantial pedigree already under its belt. Written in 1970 in the French working class vernacular of Montreal, Michel Tremblay’s tragedy of a dysfunctional family haunted by its past is today widely considered a masterpiece.

That’s not to say it has always been so well received in translation, with English language versions often criticised for failing to capture the viciously earthy cadences and embattled spirit of the piece. So, it’s surely nothing less than a stroke of genius for Michael West, long time collaborator with Ireland’s Corn Exchange, to transpose the setting for his new translation to downtrodden Dublin, where its volcanic mix of Catholic angst and social deprivation flows into a ready-carved niche.

Sisters Carmen (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and Mandy (Amy McAllister) are seated centre stage, in an expressively non-naturalistic setting against a darkened background, talking candidly about their past life growing up with their parents. And yet, their father Liam and mother Mary-Louise (Paul Loughran and Caitriona Ni Mhurchu) are still sitting either side of them. Distinguished only by subtly different lighting, they’re carrying on the unsparing conversation of one morning ten years ago over the heads of their two daughters.

This static positioning of all four cast members side-by-side in a row brings the evenly-matched rhythm of their voices to the fore. Conversations past and present intermingle and overlap, sometimes fragmented, sometimes Greek chorus: sister heaping accusations upon sister, mother upon father, husband upon wife. Loughran’s Liam simmers – always on the edge – with a volatile mix of disappointment and rage, while Mary-Louise seems determined through her own disillusionment only to provoke him further – until, that is, we realise the anguish behind her spite.

Mostly it makes for uneasy listening; shattered fragments gouging and wounding the flesh, reinforcing the scar tissue of year upon year of perceived wrongs for both generations. McAllister’s quietly resolute Mandy, convinced her father was a monster, like her mother before her has turned her face away from his memory and found solace in religion. Dunne’s brilliantly realised Carmen, however, is having none of it. She alone offers an isolated glimmer of hope in breaking the cycle of despair, taking up the country and western circuit and refusing to countenance her sister’s accusations that she’s a whore. Mary-Louise, she alleges, ‘spent her whole life on her knees so she wouldn’t have to get on her back’, while Liam battled many-headed demons: day-to-day drudgery, creeping insanity and constant rejection from his wife.

Laurence Boswell’s direction grasps the rhythm of the words early on and keeps their pace flowing as tragedy unfolds. Polly Sullivan’s design largely avoids the temptation of unnecessary distractions; only at the end comes a welcome spark of redemption among the greater decay. So Beckettian is this paean to the failure of religious and social constructs to satisfy real human needs, so wrought from the depths of despair and bitterest laughter that, by the end you need to remind yourself Forever Yours, Mary-Lou really was forged not in the mean streets of Dublin but the political cauldron of 20th Century Quebec.

Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image: Simon Annand


Monday 11 April 2016

Book Review: The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

The Invisible Guardian is the first thriller in Dolores Redondo's Baztán trilogy, set in the densely wooded valleys and remote rural communities of the Basque Country and neighbouring Navarra in Spain. Translated from the Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler, it crackles with the atmosphere of a region where traditional superstitions still find their way into everyday life.

The story is eerily gripping from the first page, as a young girl's body is discovered in a desolate forest:
Ainhoa Elizasu was the second victim of the basajaun, although the press were yet to coin that name for him. That came later, when it emerged that animal hairs, scraps of skin and unidentifiable tracks had been found around the bodies, along with evidence of some kind of macabre purification rite. With their torn clothes, their private parts shaved and their upturned hands, the bodies of those girls, almost still children, seemed to have been marked by a malign force, as old as the earth.
As Inspector Amaia Salazar is put in charge of the investigation, she must return to Elizondo, the village where she was born. But despite being a rising star of the local police force and happily married to her American husband James, Amaia has a dark past. In moving back to Elizondo to pursue a serial killer that the locals believe to be a basajaun - a woodland being with supernatural powers - she also has to face the resurfacing of her own childhood demons:
leading her to wonder whether she had succumbed to what murder investigators fear most: that the horror she faced on a daily basis had broken free of the dark place where it ought to remain locked away and had taken over her life, gradually making her into one of those police officers with no private life, left desolate and isolated in the knowledge that they are responsible for letting the evil break through the barriers and wash everything away.
This is a novel that combines the ancient and modern; local traditions of witches, evil spirits and Amaia's Aunt Engrasi divining the future through Tarot cards, contrasting with the contemporary policing techniques Amaia learnt in her time in America and the scientific laboratory analysis that is the backbone of her investigation.

With its graphic descriptions of the ritualised killing and ensuing autopsies of young girls, their bodies described as the 'sole subject of a murderer's work of art', The Invisible Guardian is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Although fiction, it makes for uncomfortable and voyeuristic reading at times - at least, if you're as much of a wimp as me. Yet, despite the brutality, it's a story that draws you in with its powerful sense of place; as you read, you can almost feel the claustrophobic chill of winter's mist closing in around you.

Dolores Redondo was born in the Basque Country's San Sebastian (Donostia) and, in writing of the country she knows intimately, has produced a hauntingly original novel with an intriguing protagonist who must eventually question every aspect of her past. Her characterisation is always empathetic and the conflicts Amaia faces in her entangled personal and professional life, alongside the simmering resentments she encounters at every turn, are never less than compelling.

As the story hurtles towards its conclusion, there are surprising elements of magical realism that make you feel as though you might have stumbled into a novel by Gabriel García Márquez or Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Yet, in the landscape of which she writes - beautiful by day but menacing and isolated by night - these almost feverish happenings still feel authentic.

Redondo draws all the threads of her narrative together into a satisfying conclusion, but one that leaves room for the English translation of the second in the trilogy, The Legacy of Bones, to provide the next instalment of Amaia Salazar's darkly captivating story later on this year.

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo is published in the UK by HarperCollins. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Opera Review: WNO's The Marriage of Figaro at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Welsh National Opera brings The Marriage of Figaro to Bristol as part of its spring season, Figaro Forever, featuring one of opera’s best known comic characters. Mozart’s much-loved masterpiece is the second in this trio of works, sandwiched chronologically between Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Elena Langer’s brand new piece Figaro Gets a Divorce.

It’s a bold move for WNO as all three operas are new productions to be bedded in, performed in February for the first time in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre.

The Marriage of Figaro opens on the wedding day of our eponymous hero and his bride-to-be, Susanna, both now servants in the household of the Count and Countess Almaviva. It’s a typical soap opera style of wedding, where you just know that nothing will go according to plan; full of schemes for false identities and double-crossings that, in becoming unstuck at the last moment, reveal a dragnet of universal human emotions coursing beneath the surface.

Determined that Count Almaviva should not succeed in his seductive intentions towards Susanna, Figaro hatches a plan to dress up an impish young page, Cherubino (Naomi O’Connell in this breeches role), as his future wife. He’s hoping to confirm the depths of the Count’s depravity to the Countess, who is already suspicious of her husband’s wandering attention and longs to regain his love.

In the title role of Figaro, David Stout is vocally assured, with a twinkle in his eye and enough guile to outwit his master, while Anna Devin complements his performance in delivering a Susanna who is mischievous, independent and bold. Her outstanding soprano combines beautifully with the rich tones of Elizabeth Watts as the Countess, particularly in Act II when the pair conspire to hide Cherubino’s potentially scandalous presence in the Countess’ bedroom from her husband (Mark Stone).

The music is sublime throughout, with convincing characterisation and strong vocal performances, both sung and recitative, from the leads. There are sparkling comic moments from Susan Bickley as arch-schemer Marcellina, who has her own plans to marry Figaro, and Richard Wiegold as her sidekick, the no less Machiavellian Doctor Bartolo.

Jeremy Sams’ English translation delivers an accessible and fluently attractive version of The Marriage of Figaro that must surely broaden its appeal for contemporary audiences. The plot twists and turns, sometimes amusingly, sometimes poignantly, as the Countess laments the loss of her husband’s affections. The WNO orchestra plays at the top of its game, thanks in no small part to the taut but expressive conducting of Timothy Burke.

Some aspects, however, don’t work quite as well; the opening attempt to create a play within a play by having cast members on stage in modern dress seems little more than a token gesture that is too easily forgotten. And the production is let down by unimaginative staging; two large flat panels forming a loose V-shape that expands and contracts throughout the performance may provide all the functionality required for a touring opera, but lack majesty and imagination, particularly in the final two Acts after the interval.

Fortunately, Sue Blane’s sumptuous costumes and Linus Fellbom’s lighting design go a long way towards mitigating this shortcoming. Ultimately, Mozart’s glorious music, the outstanding vocal performances and orchestration are enough to make this a thoroughly enjoyable production that must surely be destined to become a staple of WNO’s repertoire.

Reviewed on 16 March 2016 | Image: WNO

Friday 1 April 2016

Theatre Review: Oh Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Robert Lloyd Parry returns to the Tobacco Factory with Nunkie Theatre Company’s production of two more enjoyably chilling ghost stories from Victorian author M R James.

In his one-man storytelling, Parry is the very epitome of the antiquarian scholar. He steps effortlessly out from the Factory Theatre darkness, straight into James’ shoes; sitting in a wing-back chair by candlelight, sipping whisky poured from a decanter and regaling us as though we are his old chums from King’s College, Cambridge.

His first story, The Ash Tree, is a tale of revenge through the generations. A grand old country house, Castringham Hall in Suffolk, is inherited by Sir Richard Fell, who finds that the house has been cursed since his grandfather, Sir Matthew, condemned a woman to death for witchcraft. Sir Richard nevertheless decides to sleep in the very bedroom where his ancestor died a painful death, only to find he is haunted by a presence inside the ash tree outside his bedroom window.

While rarely moving out of his chair, Parry’s delivery doesn’t miss a beat. He’s lively and fluent, letting his audience fill in the blanks; easing us into moments of laughter, before heightening the tension and making us jump. Lighting and sound effects are minimal; Parry uses simple props like a tin box full of papers to create his startling percussion. In blowing out all but one candle and cleverly recreating Sir Richard’s night of terror, Parry lays bare with shivering intensity the hideous secrets forcibly given up by the tree.

Parry’s second story is one of M R James’ most well-known; Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad; another tale where nocturnal terror looms large. On the Suffolk coast, Professor Parkins is investigating a preceptory, or meeting place, thought to be attributed to the Knights Templar. There he unearths a whistle that bears a Latin inscription translated as ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Reasoning that the best way to find out is to blow the whistle, Parkins unwittingly unleashes supernatural forces beyond his wildest imaginings.

This is another masterful performance by Parry, who has proved so popular with Bristol audiences that an additional date was added to his schedule. However, the two stories in Oh Whistle… while both absorbing individually, perhaps don’t provide enough of a contrast with each other to sustain the audience after the interval.

Nevertheless, Parry is well worth catching for his characterful performance and the consistent quality of his story-telling; testament, if it were needed, to the universal appeal of a well-told, pleasingly spine-tingling ghost story.

Reviewed on 6 March 2016 | Image: Shelagh Bidwell