Sunday 31 July 2016

Theatre Review: Into The West at Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Bristol-based theatre company Travelling Light is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Into the West, the show that first established its reputation, by reviving it for a new generation of young people. And such is the timelessness of this play’s vivid, lyrical storytelling that it seems as relevant and captivating today as it must have been in those earlier performances.

In the tower blocks of Dublin, traveller children Ally and Finn live a shuttered existence with their widowed father and the void where their mother should be. Into the West tells the story of an extraordinary white horse that gallops into their lives; unexpectedly brought to them by their Grandpa, who still travels in the traditional way.

Ally and Finn name the horse Tir na n’Og after a mythical land under the sea and decide it’s a good idea to keep her in their flat. Not surprisingly, the authorities think otherwise – and so the children find themselves embarking on a series of adventures across Ireland to escape the police and all those who would tame this magical horse for their own gain.

It’s a layered and delicately woven story, adapted from Jim Sheridan’s screenplay for the 1992 film of the same name, performed with skilful clarity by just three actors – each taking their turn to embody Tir na n’Og – and musical accompaniment from Thomas Johnson.

Nina Logue and Adam J Carpenter bicker and jostle convincingly as Ally and Finn against a backdrop of inner city debris – admirably, this is still the original touring set designed by Pete Milner – but ultimately they stick together like good siblings do. Craig Edwards, meanwhile, gives a virtuoso performance of a colourful panoply of characters; his Pa and Grandpa may be central to the story, but his over-eager police dog, super-cool helicopter pilot and thornily disgruntled blackberry bush are hilariously caricatured and warmly appreciated cameos.

Into the West is low tech, folksy and endearing; its combination of spell-binding storytelling and energetic, spin-on- a-sixpence characterisation is a real antidote to our turbulent times. Under Greg Banks’ direction, for every cry of longing and despair, there’s a corresponding moment of laughter and freewheeling flight. It may not be as groundbreaking today as it was when first performed, but this show provides a funny, poignant and reassuring 70-minute ride of magical discovery, whatever your age may be.

Reviewed on 30 June 2016 | Image: Contributed

Monday 25 July 2016

Q and A: Liz Nugent on Lying in Wait

I really enjoyed Liz Nugent's page-turning debut Unravelling Oliver, reviewed on my blog here.
As mentioned in my review, once you start reading, it's exceptionally hard to put down.

Well, now Liz has just published her second novel Lying in Wait. It has much in common with Unravelling Oliver - the multiple viewpoints, the why rather than who dunnit - but is equally compelling and no less enjoyable for that.

Today I'm delighted to welcome Liz to my blog to answer questions about Lying in Wait. 

1) Lying In Wait, like your first novel Unravelling Oliver, has an incredible opening line. Why did you decide to open your two novels in such a distinctive way? And what effect did you want the opening lines to have on your reader?

I think that in both cases, I wanted to immerse the reader in the world of the character immediately. With Unravelling Oliver, ‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her’ sets you up for a thoroughly dislikeable character, dismissive of his victim from the very first line. Similarly, in Lying in Wait, when Lydia opens with ‘My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle but the lying tramp deserved it’ she tells you that although she does not consider herself responsible, she feels the victim earned her own murder.

My hope is that the reader will be intrigued enough by these opening lines to want to know more about these despicable characters and their victims.

2) Lydia has a very distinctive voice yet Lying In Wait is told from the perspective of three different characters. How did you get into the head of Lydia, who is such a dark and unlikeable character? And how did you manage to keep her voice separate from the other two characters, Laurence and Karen?

Writing Lydia was really interesting. Without giving anything away, an incident that happened on her ninth birthday has left her emotionally stunted, so even when she is near 50 years old, she still speaks like someone in 1940. Her language is formal, but she is an expert manipulator who must always find justifications for her actions.

Laurence, her only son, has quite a sophisticated vocabulary for a young man, but that is because he had no siblings and therefore grew up mollycoddled in the company of two middle-class educated adults. He does, however, have his teenage influences from TV shows and pop music so his language is more relaxed than that of his mother. He is not clinging to the past in the way that she is.

Karen comes from a working class background. Her father and sister both have dyslexia and can barely read. A lot of the time she speaks in a way that is grammatically incorrect, but she is smart and has no problem making herself understood. She speaks the vernacular that she grew up with. Her vocabulary is more limited than the other two narrators, but she is emotionally more advanced than either of them.

3) Lying In Wait is set in Dublin during the 1980s. Why did you choose to set it during this time period? And do you think the time they are living in impacts the characters and their decisions in any way? 

Without giving away too much, in present day Ireland, nobody would bat an eyelid at a 16-year-old girl having a baby, but I needed to write about a time where that would have consequences. For Annie Doyle, those consequences were devastating and really dictated the course of her life thereafter.

Also, I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland and it was quite a scary time for a child. There was constant talk of nuclear war between Russia and the US, the IRA was bombing innocent children in the UK, Ronald Reagan and the Pope survived assassination attempts and John Lennon was shot dead on a New York street. It was a time of great unease and uncertainty and there was an underlying feeling that the world could end at any time. In writing Lying in Wait, I wanted to capture that sense of unease without referencing all those events. I hope I managed to do that.

4) You’ve described your book as ‘a mother’s love can be smothering’. Why did you choose to write about such a sinister mother?

I don’t think there are enough sinister mothers in fiction! There are lots and lots of horrific fathers but I really couldn’t think of too many mothers that were murderous like Lydia is. Also, I like to confound expectations. With the opening line above, you don’t really expect that Lydia might be the driving force behind the murder, but she is, and worse!

5) Lying In Wait has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In what ways do you think your novel is similar to Gone Girl, and in what ways is it different?

I hope that Lying in Wait is as compelling as Gone Girl and that readers will see both books as page-turners where you want to get to the next chapter quickly. I guess where we differ is that I use lots of twists and turns along the way rather than one big one in the middle. I admire Gillian Flynn enormously and am flattered that anyone would compare me to her!

6) What can we expect from you next?

Fingers crossed book 3 next September 2017, but I have had very little time to work on it over the past month or two so that may not be realistic!

Thanks very much Liz!

Thank you Claire for the great questions and for taking part in the blog tour! x

Lying in Wait is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy and for facilitating this Q and A.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Theatre Review: King Lear at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There may have been a glut of King Lears already in Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year, but never has one felt more apposite in its post-Brexit timing than this production from Bristol Old Vic. Timothy West takes on the role of a leader brought down and driven mad by his own actions, bequeathing to the younger generation a country split asunder and riven by fault lines of hatred.

In his collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Tom Morris’ casting of the majority of roles with its students brings out a strong sense of youthful energy. It’s an effective counterpoint to Timothy West’s Lear, resigned and world-weary from the start, foreshadowing what is to come rather than emphasising the heightened tragedy of a monarch’s loss of absolute power.

West’s performance, after a slightly shaky start, is thoughtful and nuanced; there’s a rare moment of rage as Lear slashes at a huge projected map of his newly divided kingdom. More often, he contains and hints at inner turmoil, the occasional flashes of the charismatic tyrant beneath all the more striking. He’s at his most touching in the final scenes as, with renewed clarity, he recognises the enduring strength of Poppy Pedder’s loyal Cordelia.

Stephanie Cole is endearing and winsome as the far-sighted and aged Fool; part guardian angel, part comedian in knitted coxcomb hat. She alone recognises what will come of the schism as David Hargreaves’ increasingly frantic Gloucester is deceived and betrayed by Alex York as the scheming Edmund. Goneril and Regan (Jessica Temple and Michelle Fox) are glib-tongued and unflinching in their pursuit of power, while Tom Byrne masters his various incarnations as the wronged son Edgar and Danann McAleer is memorable and enduring in his portrayal of Kent.

The Theatre School students have been involved in all aspects of production; Anna Orton’s set design presents an effectively oversized, dark and forbiddingly masculine kingdom, if occasionally unwieldy for actors to manoeuvre. Aldo Vazquez Yela’s contemporary costuming, though sometimes puzzling, is full of colour and interest, while the storm is a highlight of lighting and sound by Rob Casey and Dave Price in an otherwise pared-back treatment. But, in the background, the chorus is more often a distraction than an enhancement; there are ideas and imagination aplenty but they lack a certain cohesion.

In case we ever doubted it, so many of Shakespeare’s lines emphasise his enduring relevance; as Lear in their bittersweet reunion tells a blinded Gloucester ‘get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not’, it draws a rueful laugh of recognition from the audience. There may be unevenness in this King Lear, with some moments feeling underpowered, but there’s plenty of promise from a new generation, here well supported by its seniors.

Reviewed on 28 June 2016 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday 11 July 2016

Book Review: A Perfect Square by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel Blackthorn was born in London but received her doctorate in Western Esotericism from the University of Western Sydney in 2006. She's the author of Asylum and The Drago Tree, both published by Canberra-based Odyssey Books in 2015.

Her latest novel A Perfect Square - part meditation on creativity, part literary thriller - is certainly ambitious in scope. Telling the story of two sets of mothers and daughters separated by thousands of miles, it encompasses the artistry of painters and musicians, their personal relationships and struggles to find through art a healing balm to overcome the ills of the past.

When fledgling pianist and composer Ginny Smith moves back into her mother's house in Sassafras, east of Melbourne, her return is not entirely welcomed by reclusive artist Harriet. The two have long shared an uneasy relationship; centred around the absence of Ginny's father, there's an enigmatic void that Harriet is reluctant to discuss.

Nevertheless, determined to make something of their predicament and provide her daughter with direction, Harriet proposes a creative collaboration; an exhibition of art and music, themed around - one of her many unconventional obsessions - the phases of the moon. Ginny agrees reluctantly, to find to her surprise that it is she, rather than her mother, who is able to tap more easily into the wellspring of inspiration.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world on the moors of Devon, Judith, another mother and artist, reflects on her troubled relationship with her daughter Madeleine, as her own prodigal returns to the fold. It's the mysterious connection between these two fragmented, distant families that lies at the bleak heart of this story, a thriller that will take the full course of the novel to unfold.

It's a complex, intriguing premise in a book that can be read on many levels; most insightfully, for me, as an examination of the process of creativity and true nature of art. This brings with it a typical level of artistic self-absorption that can render the main characters obtuse in their internal monologues. It's a realism that makes them difficult to empathise with at times; Ginny, in particular, wallows in the feeling that her mother has ruined her life, while the synaesthesic, eccentrically intellectual Harriet becomes a fascinating but difficult puzzle to piece together.

As a literary thriller, this novel holds a great promise that it doesn't always quite manage to deliver; the pacing is uneven, starting slowly and leaving too much of Ginny's father and his dark associations to be unveiled at the end, with few clues along the way. Yet, despite this, A Perfect Square proves to be an evocative and unusual read; on the one hand charting creative depths and exploring alternative philosophies, on the other dissecting the often dysfunctional but still indestructable bonds between mothers and their daughters.

A Perfect Square will be published by Odyssey Books on 29th August 2016. Many thanks to Odyssey for my review copy.