Sunday 26 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


Celebration is in the air at Bristol Old Vic, as the UK’s oldest working theatre marks the 250th anniversary of its opening. And the birthday festivities continue this week in collaboration with the ever-exuberant Kneehigh, bringing Emma Rice’s final production for the Cornish company, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, to the main stage.

The lovers in question are Marc and Bella Chagall, who met and fell in love in 1909 in their Russian hometown of Vitebsk. They shared a particular vision of the world; Bella, a gifted writer, quickly became her painter husband’s muse and continued to inhabit his canvases for the rest of her life. Famously, he often depicts them flying together – their love embodied as a physical reverie.

Marc Antolin as an elderly Chagall looks back over his life; he and Audrey Brisson have the daunting task of telling the couple’s story as a two-hander in a combination of direct address and tender vignettes. Joining them on stage are musicians Ian Ross and James Gow, who weave into the narrative an original soundscape ranging from the sultriness of a Parisian cafe to the rousing traditions of Eastern European Jewish Klezmer music.

It’s an intimate combination that soars from the start; Antolin and Brisson dramatically look the part and their voices harmonise exquisitely. Brisson’s voice is particularly striking as she leads their paean to the transcending power of love and art. Marc makes a name for himself in modernist Paris, but returns to Vitebsk in 1914 to marry Bella in a traditionally Jewish ceremony that, staged with intoxicating song, dance and specially-adapted wedding chairs, suggests a whirling hall full of guests.

All of Kneehigh’s inventiveness is present in the couple’s ‘milkmoon’ (a honeymoon blessed with cheap and readily available milk) filled with the colourful animals of Marc’s paintings. And there is a memory to revisit, of Bella surprising Marc with flowers in his room for his birthday. In a set made up of disorienting slopes and angles, Antolin and Brisson move together with a dynamic and physical fluidity that refuses to acknowledge any hard edges – holding onto ropes and leaning in, weaving through Sophia Clist’s timber-framed set. Their chemistry is entrancing and Malcolm Rippeth’s stunning lighting design reflects the many colours and shades of their relationship.

But the Chagalls are living through turbulent times of war and revolution. They argue in their hardship and, although blessed with a daughter, often have differing priorities. The music becomes an elegy to the devastating and needless losses of their generation – of their Jewish homeland Vitebsk and its many inhabitants.

Other characters are created by Ross and Gow, by Antolin and Brisson acting with themselves and using puppets, balloons and canvases. But the presence of others is fleeting; it might round out the narrative if roles such as Bella’s brother were further developed, but ultimately this is a story that belongs to the Chagalls.

Although there are occasional lapses of pace that could be tightened, this is a gloriously mesmerising, romantic and joyous production that will ultimately break your heart. A wonderful farewell from Rice, it’s a fitting part of Bristol Old Vic’s celebrations and up there with Kneehigh’s best.

Reviewed on 2 June 2016  |  Image: Steve Tanner

Sunday 19 June 2016

Theatre Review: Sasha Regan's H.M.S. Pinafore at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Sasha Regan’s all-male take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian classic H.M.S. Pinafore was originally staged at Southwark’s Union Theatre over two years ago, but feels just as pin-sharp in this 2016 tour as when it first set sail.

Based below decks in a Second World War battleship, sailors lounge on metal-framed bunk beds with little in the way of distraction. To occupy themselves, they begin performing one of their favourite comic operas and H.M.S Pinafore is reborn in a version teeming with vitality, imagination and breath-taking vocal arrangements.

All the infectious humour and rollicking silliness associated with this tale of mismatched love on the high seas, between common sailor Ralph Rackstraw (Tom Senior) and Captain’s daughter Josephine (Ben Irish), is here. Mattresses are dragged off beds to facilitate an opening display of gymnastics, while a stack of metal boxes is enough for First Lord Sir Joseph Porter, played with great little man pomposity by Michael Burgen, to elevate himself above the crowd in an energetic rendition of When I Was A Lad.

In between the heightened fun and laddishness of the chorus – a company of cooped-up sailors letting off steam – it’s surprising to find moments of genuine pathos. The duet Refrain, Audacious Tar between our handsome, erudite hero Ralph and the lissom Josephine captures all the intense desire and anguish of a love disallowed by society. Then Irish expresses the dilemma of Josephine’s choice between her duty to marry Sir Joseph and love for Ralph with heart-rending tenderness in his exquisitely sung The Hours Creep on Apace.

With the minimum of costume changes – lifejackets, netting and different coloured shorts – members of the crew seamlessly inhabit all the male and female roles. David McKechnie creates a coquettish, strong-voiced Buttercup from a tool-belt of cloths while James Waud becomes the dastardly hunchback Dick Deadeye with the aid of a doubled-up pillow. Rope is used to great effect to recreate both the sea and the sides of the ship, and torches illuminate the scurrying mischievousness of the nocturne Carefully on Tiptoe Stealing.

There may be a simple piano accompaniment, but this H.M.S. Pinafore couldn’t be further from a typical am dram performance. In its pared-back, innovative staging it moves on with great pace. Seemingly spontaneous frivolity is built on solid foundations; movement and dancing tightly choreographed by Lizzi Gee and soaring harmonies under the musical direction of Richard Bates.

We may be getting used to Regan’s various all-male reinventions of Gilbert & Sullivan, following The Pirates of Penzance last year, but she once again succeeds in bringing a fresh twist to the work for a contemporary audience. Whatever your opinion of the Savoy Operas up to now, this outrageously entertaining version of H.M.S. Pinafore is enough to make you think again.

Reviewed on 31st May 2016 as part of a UK tour | Image: Theatre Royal Bath

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Book Review: Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

Last year, I reviewed We Shall Inherit The Wind, my first Gunnar Staalesen novel. You can read my verdict here, but - short version - it left me keenly anticipating the next instalment in Norwegian private investigator Varg Veum's turbulent life.

Now this has arrived in the form of Where Roses Never Die, which finds Veum three years later with - for reasons quickly apparent - the darkness closing in around him. Drinking too much, a bottle of Aquavit always close at hand, he's barely taken on any work and the only thing bleaker than his mood is the disastrous state of his finances.

Yet, when approached by the mother of Mette Misvaer, a three-year-old girl who disappeared seemingly without trace almost 25 years ago, Veum is galvanised into action. He begins by uncovering links to a recent brutal jewellery heist and, digging further, unearths intimate secrets between close neighbours that have lain undiscovered by police.

Like the wolf he is named for in Norwegian, Veum is relentless in his pursuit of the truth; circling his chosen prey with probing questions until he finds a weakness that lets him in. And, if he doesn't exactly conquer his own demons in the process, then he is at least able to walk alongside them for a while.

Veum is not the only one damaged; all the characters he meets from different walks of Norwegian life - from car salesman to failed footballer - have been ravaged by their experiences in one way or another. At every stage, Staalesen demonstrates Veum's keen perception of human nature; a flawed protagonist able to understand others because of his own personal failings.

Tense and authentically inspired by two real crime cases in Norway, you can find the reasons behind the book's title (and a link to the song it's taken from) in this guest post on Jackie Law's blog neverimitate.

Once again fluently translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, Staalesen's first person prose is so meticulous, it could have been sculpted out of ice. There's not a superfluous word as Veum edges closer to the frozen core of a truth buried away for decades, revealing as he does so dark and shocking tensions that have split apart the couples living near little Mette's family. Superbly paced, taut and atmospheric, this is a beautifully-crafted crime thriller that's always full of humanity.

Where Roses Never Die is published by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday 13 June 2016

Perspective: M J Carter on Pornography in 19th Century London

The Infidel Stain, second in M J Carter's Victorian detective series, was one of my favourite historical reads of 2015. Now, for the launch of the paperback, it's been retitled as The Printer's Coffin. According to publishers Penguin this avoids the term 'Infidel', in this context referring to 19th Century Chartists, being confused with Middle Eastern conflicts.

Continuing the adventures of Blake and Avery at the end of their heroic struggles in The Strangler Vine, here we find the mismatched duo returned from colonial India to London. Once again meticulously researched and full of period detail, this is a novel that grips from the very first page (you can read my full review here). Much of its intrigue centres around the scurrilous goings-on in Holywell Street, centre of London’s 19th Century pornography industry, and the people who worked there.

Today, I'm delighted to host a guest post from M J Carter on my blog, sharing her insights about the street and some of its shadier characters: 

Holywell Street and Pornography in 19th Century London
by M J Carter

It was when I was doing my research for The Printer’s Coffin that I first came across Holywell Street, a dingy little thoroughfare that ran off the east end of The Strand, where the Aldwych is now. In the 1840s, when the book is set, The Strand was the fashion and literary hub of London. As for Holywell Street, well, it was the hub of London’s porn industry (though the word didn’t take on its current meaning until about 1906).

Holywell Street had a reputation before Queen Victoria came to throne, its booksellers produced rude cartoons of the fat spoilt Prince Regent and his mistresses. But in the 1830s a new generation of pornographers arrived and the place came into its own — a bit of an irony as Britain as a whole was becoming increasingly prudish.

I came across Holywell Street because I looking into the working-class revolutionaries of the 1820s who were inspired by the French Revolution. They were an angry lot, some of whom planned to bring down the government. But it turned out that in the 1830s many of them had gone from fighting for press freedom and the vote to setting up as pornographers in Holywell Street! Middle age had arrived and they needed a steady income. Why not publish obscene publications! After all they were well-used to producing underground publications and distributing them secretly. One printer got his pamphlets to his customers in a laundry basket tied to a rope that was lowered from an attic window at the back of the premises. I thought, how can I not write about this?

The striking thing about much of what they produced was that it wasn’t just smutty and rude (though it was that), it was also full of social satire and attacks on the church and the government and the aristocracy. A particular Holywell Street speciality was prints of bishops and nuns having orgies (you knew they were bishops and nuns because the men wore mitres and the women wore wimples), and endless jokes about arse-bishops. There were books, such as The New Epicurean or the Delights of Sex, which included explicit prints and tales of sexual escapades, but also attacked Victorian morality and the law, which the writer claimed were just cynical methods by which a hypocritical corrupt aristocracy kept the rest of society under its thumb: the pursuit of pleasure and sex was the only honesty. Ironically, a lot of this material was regarded as high-class erotica, highly-priced and only affordable by the wealthy.

Most of the porn wasn’t political of course. The ex-revolutionaries were also big on erotic parodies of famous books (Nicholarse Nickelby anyone?), lewd poems about the sex lives of famous people: ‘What ‘e gets up to round ‘Er Majesty’ about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and pamphlets with racy titles like Lady Bumtickler’s Revels. There was also a lucrative market in flagellation, known as ‘birchen sports’, for which the customers, (mainly aristocrats and boarding school girls according to George Cannon, a former editor of philosophical journals and political radical turned pornographer) were willing to pay extra.

It turned out that the move from radical politics to porn was a lucrative one in general as many of these booksellers and printers were still making a good living from it well into the 1850s and 60s.

The Printer's Coffin by M J Carter is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Complete Deaths at Bristol Old Vic for Mayfest

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

First Mayfest brought us Dead Centre’s riff on Chekhov, now physical comedians Spymonkey introduce their take on Shakespeare – specifically the 75 deaths (counting the black ill-favoured fly in Titus Andronicus) performed onstage in his plays. Directed by Tim Crouch, it’s a unique examination of mortality that – literally – buzzes with energy, played first and foremost for laughs with the hint of a more serious endeavour running beneath.

Death is here in its many different forms; from the bloodbath of Titus with the characters eagerly clambering into a man-sized mincer, to Richard III accompanied by techno music and frenzied horses in gas masks. In between there’s Cleopatra festooned in asps and Cinna the Poet’s fiery demise in Julius Caesar as one tiny newspaper puppet at the mercy of others.

Yet, all life is here as well; the outrageous buffoonery is held together by four performers each with their own agenda. Toby Park, their intellectual leader, is out to make art that will shock the audience from its well-fed, bourgeois complacency while Stephan Kreiss insists on slapstick and joking around. Behind the scenes, he’s intent on declaring his love for Petra Massey, but her main concern is to make sure Ophelia’s death is included even though, technically, it happens offstage. And Aitor Basauri, in Elizabethan ruff and huge comedy codpiece, takes on the full clown’s persona – until confronted by an animation of the long-dead Bard, who instructs him in becoming a true Shakespearean actor by standing with his legs apart, pointing, spitting and rolling his ‘r’s.

Action is captured with live-feed projections from a hand-held video camera, frequently tracking the progress of Titus’ black fly-on-a-stick as it crawls into the noses and mouths of the deceased. Lucy Bradridge’s set is sparse and practical; a supermarket warehouse vibe with enough plastic sheeting to contain all the mess. Meanwhile, deaths are detailed on an overhead display and counted down at the side of the stage by a silver-haired lady, sitting and knitting with all the insouciance of Madame Defarge at the guillotine.

Here and there, it could do with a little tightening; necessarily episodic, there’s an occasional lull between one death’s crescendo and the next. But those ludicrously silly high-points just keep on coming; from Macbeth in yellow plastic kilts (and nothing underneath) to the carnage of Hamlet’s final scene including an inflatable clown costume. There are enough references from the traditional to the post-modern to keep theatre geeks happy, but it’s equally accessible if your Shakespearean knowledge is incomplete. Death, after all, is the one thing that unites us all; encapsulated here in the unexpectedly poignant demise of that pesky ill-favoured fly.

Reviewed on 18 May 2016 as part of a tour | Image: Spymonkey

Sunday 5 June 2016

Theatre Review: Chekhov's First Play at Bristol Old Vic for Mayfest

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
One thing you could take from Dead Centre’s shocking and visceral Lippy at last year’s Mayfest is to expect the unexpected from this Dublin-based theatre company. So, to open this year’s festival, its UK premiere of Chekhov’s First Play promises to be anything but a traditional interpretation of Platonov, written by Anton Chekhov as an 18-year-old and widely considered unstageable.

Loosely based around a dissolute central character and the four women who compete for his affections, an uncut version of this sprawling and chaotic play would involve 20 characters and take over five hours to perform. While still capturing Chekhov’s essential tone and themes on stage, director Bush Moukarzel provides a live commentary to the audience through headphones to explain the plot and cuts he’s made. With deadpan timing, he quickly takes over; regretting directorial decisions, commenting on characters’ motivations and the six actors’ inability to portray them and quipping as he pauses for a line: ‘this play is getting in the way of me explaining it.’

Knowing Dead Centre, this can’t last. Just as you feel you have a handle on what’s happening, the artifice of the 19th Century is stripped away by a wrecking ball striking through the grandiose country house set. An audience member is brought on stage to portray the central character. Microphones are torn off and the actors’ words through headphones are out of synch with those on stage. It all adds to the overwhelming sense of disorientation.

Fast forwarding to the present day with dance music, voiceovers for bank ads and medical drips containing red wine, the production becomes as messy and painful as the original play, but with a challengingly fresh twist. Action degenerates into nihilism, turning Chekhov’s obsession with property on its head and exploring the enigmatic boundaries of meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, in this performance, a technical hitch prevented the wrecking ball from working properly and (having established this was unintentional) the production inevitably lost some of its momentum. Nevertheless, it’s transparently clear that Dead Centre is doing remarkable things in its take on what 21st Century theatre can and should be exploring. Whether you’re an aficionado of the stage or simply enjoy having your preconceptions challenged, this is another startlingly memorable and joyously original 70 minutes you really shouldn’t miss.

Reviewed on 13 May 2016 | Image: Contributed

Saturday 4 June 2016

Book Review: Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

The Botswana of Michael Stanley's thriller Deadly Harvest is a rapidly modernising country, where the mask of new development never quite conceals the corruption and superstition lurking beneath. Into this melting pot of the traditional and new steps detective David 'Kubu' Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department, a man devoted to both family and creature comforts, with a deceptively razor-sharp mind.

When young girls start to go missing in mysterious circumstances, Kubu is called upon by rookie investigator Samantha Khama for help. Working together, they begin to suspect the girls are being abducted for muti - the traditional African medicine dispensed by witch doctors. Usually derived from plants or sometimes animal parts, the most powerful medicine of all is believed to be created from human organs. As Samantha delves further into this age-old tradition, she is told:
'Many, many people believe in witchcraft. Not just ignorant people and children, but business people, people in the government...And many in the police also believe. That's why so few cases are solved. They're scared the witch doctor will put a spell on them if they get too close.'
But Samantha has personal reasons for pursuing the case and, as politicians with power and those seeking it become both victims and suspects, the plot grows ever more intricate. The killing continues and Samantha and Kubu find themselves having to face their own personal fears to decipher the clues and capture the murderer.

This is the fifth book in the Detective Kubu series, although the first to be published in the UK. Its location will be familiar to readers of Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling series The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency featuring the irrepressible Ma Ramotswe. But Deadly Harvest has a much darker and grittier feel that already has it being cast as ‘sunshine noir'.

The writing team behind Michael Stanley is Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South African born and working in business and academia. Apparently, they hit on the winning formula for their first Kubu mystery, A Carrion Death, having watched a pack of hyenas devour its prey on a flying trip to Botswana. I’m always surprised and fascinated by a work of fiction written in collaboration, perhaps because, for me, writing is an intensely personal experience. In their place, I can’t imagine agreeing on anything much at all. Happily, if Deadly Harvest is anything to go by, Sears and Trollip don’t suffer from this problem.

Deadly Harvest is published in the UK by Orenda Books on 30th June 2016. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Book Preview: Epiphany Jones' Michael Grothaus on Humour in Characters

I'm looking forward to reading Epiphany Jones - it sounds like an intriguing and original debut:
Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins.
Here, I'm delighted to welcome the novel's writer Michael Grothaus, to discuss how he uses humour to make his unconventional characters appear more sympathetic to his readers:

How Humour Makes Us Love Characters We Shouldn’t Like

By Michael Grothaus

We could all name characters from the novels we love that we take a liking to right away. These are characters that, no matter what their predicament, we are rooting for from page one. Maybe they remind us of ourselves, or they are facing an obstacle we ourselves have faced. Maybe they’re smart or clever – as we wish to be. Or perhaps they are seeking the same goal as us and if they can achieve it, then maybe so can we. Whatever the reason, these characters are someone we would want to have a coffee with, if they were real, and possibly even invite over for a meal.

Jerry Dresden, the main protagonist from my novel Epiphany Jones, is not one of these characters. By design Jerry, when you first meet him, is probably one of the last people you would want to hang out with in real life. He suffers from a number of psychological afflictions and…unique…addictions. Even his last name – Dresden – was specifically chosen to represent how wrecked his life is. Dresden, Germany was one of the most devastated cities in Europe during the Second World War. Jerry’s life is, metaphorically, just as wrecked; not by bombs and war, but by tragedy and addiction.

What I set out to do with Jerry was create a character you don’t find in many books. A protagonist that you should by no means like, yet one you would love by the end of the novel. I wanted to do this because in real life some of my favourite people are the ones I disliked most when first meeting them. Yet whether by chance or determination I stuck with these people, got to know them — really know them — and my life has been the better for it.

Of course, that’s hard to pull off in a novel. After all, with a novel, it’s easy to cut a person out of your life for good – just close the cover and pick up another book. That’s why Jerry’s sense of humour is so important. Humour has the power to carry us through tough predicaments; to see us through to the other side. In Epiphany Jones Jerry – and the reader though him – experiences some of the most harrowing situations possible: addiction, human trafficking, murder. It’s Jerry’s often inappropriate and out-of-the-blue comments that make us warm to him; it’s his sense of humour that makes us stick with him. We may not like him at first, but at least he’s entertaining.

His humour acts as a tool to soften the reader, to open a small tear in their heart that leads to an inkling of affection for him – and it’s a tear which, once Jerry starts to reveal his dark past and the reader discovers why he is how he is, widens until, by the end of the novel, not only does the reader feel for Jerry, but feel with him.

One of the greatest compliments a writer can receive is having someone tell them their novel made them cry. I knew Jerry was a successful character, despite all his flaws, when a six-foot-three muscular cop who has seen countless amounts of human suffering over the course of his career told me he wept for Jerry at the end of the book. What’s not to love about that?

Epiphany Jones is published in the UK on 30th June 2016 by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda and Michael Grothaus for writing here.