Wednesday 23 November 2016

Book Review: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

In The Exiled, police detective Anna Fekete takes a break from the cold of Finland to return to Kanizsa, the Balkan village of her birth. But, what's meant to be a relaxing holiday turns into a fresh investigation, as her bag is stolen and the thief found dead next day in the mud of the riverbank.

Anna can't help but get involved - even though her intervention is not entirely welcomed by the Serbian authorities. Details of their investigation don't ring true and she suspects something is amiss. As she probes more deeply into the background of the dead man - a Romany living on the marginalised fringes of society - she becomes more and more convinced that his death was no accident. She finds evidence of traffickers taking advantage of the thousands of refugees trying to cross the border into Hungary, of corruption and cover ups by officials. And, most frightening of all, a trail that leads back to her own family, that threatens to reopen the wounds of hurt and grief from her past.

Anna is a complex character - as readers of Kati Hiekkapelto's previous two Fekete novels The Hummingbird and The Defenceless will already know. Living in one country with her roots in another, she finds it hard to feel fully at home in either. Her policeman father was killed on duty while she was still a child and, in following in his footsteps, she's driven to extremes in her singular dedication. Her mother wants nothing more than for Anna to settle down with a family of her own - the accepted feminine role in traditional Kanizsa - but she is unwilling and unable to conform.

As in The Defenceless, Hiekkapelto mines themes that resonate with the world today; of migrants forced to flee from war, enduring the most abject conditions in their desperate scrabble for survival. Of racism, prejudice and playing politics with people's lives. Of a village fighting to retain its values and identity. In the midst of this she places Anna and her family, her loss of her father and older brother and renewed friendships with villagers who have never left Kanizsa.

Hiekkapelto writes in her signature taut, gritty and unsparing style - translated once again from the Finnish by David Hackston - though at times it feels like the insights into Anna's home life are weighing the story down. For me, it takes longer than in previous books for all the elements to come together - there are too many new friends and family members to fully get to grips with, perhaps. But the help she receives from Finnish colleagues leads to breakthroughs and her new relationship with Péter, a man she only began flirting with for information, becomes an intriguing aside. In the last third of the book, the tension mounts as the enormity of the crime is uncovered, leading to a shocking and satisfying conclusion.

The Exiled is published in paperback and ebook by Orenda Books. Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Theatre Review: Trouble in Mind at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
In the aftermath of a brutal 2016 election dividing the US along racial lines, Trouble in Mind offers a particularly timely glimpse of segregation in mid-20th Century America. Laurence Boswell’s latest production for the Ustinov revives Alice Childress’ trailblazing but overlooked work, originally produced Off Broadway in 1955; a race-play-within-a-race-play. It’s a powerful, funny and ultimately disturbing portrayal of the stereotypes African Americans have fought against for generations, which still resonate all too clearly with a contemporary audience.

Wiletta Mayer is a singer and actor with a lifetime’s experience, glad to take on the mother’s role in a new work, Chaos in Belleville, set in America’s deep south. She may have a low opinion of the play’s merits, but she’s willing to go along with it to keep the white director happy. Only as rehearsals progress does she begin to question its authenticity; simple black characters depicted through the prism of a white writer, protected from their own foolishness by the benevolence of a white boss.

Tanya Moodie turns in a powerhouse performance as Wiletta, simultaneously still excited by acting in the theatre and wearied to her bones by the limitations of playing ‘Mammies’ and ‘Jemimas’. She’s spirited, bold and brimming with energy; mining the nuances of every emotion, her larger-than-life bravado runs into sudden, devastating moments of defiance, as Wiletta gradually realises she’s no longer willing to gratefully accept the crumbs from the white man’s table.

While this is overwhelmingly Wiletta’s story, under Boswell’s vivid and well-paced direction, the whole cast is superb. The play’s other black characters may agree with Wiletta, but they’re less willing to put their jobs – and lives – on the line; veteran actor Sheldon (Joseph Marcell), the only one to have seen a lynching in real life, questions whether he would whittle a stick while his own son is in danger, but does it anyway. Kiza Deen’s Millie is bright and sassy in life but will only go through the motions of her part, while Daniel Ezra’s eager and naive John quickly discovers the compromises he must make to survive in theatre. Meanwhile, Jonathan Cullen delivers a mercurial portrayal of white director Al Manners, who has his own agenda; paying lip service to motivation and black lives, he’s ultimately dictatorial, ruthless and lacking in any real empathy.

Polly Sullivan’s set design has all the meticulous detail we’ve come to expect at the Ustinov; a dingy 1950s Broadway stage area for rehearsal, littered with mismatched furniture and assorted props. Alice Childress was herself an actor and Trouble in Mind is rooted in her own experiences; a work of rare intensity, excoriating humour and textural depth, that deals not only with racism but touches on sexism, too.

Could this be why the play, which won an OBIE award in 1956, has been so infrequently performed and too often neglected since? Ironically, it might have got to Broadway had Childress agreed to compromise with a white director’s demands to change the ending. Occasionally, it may seem to have too much happening to absorb in any one sitting, but this production of Trouble in Mind is not only an overdue revival; in the light of current social and economic upheaval, it also serves as an unsettling reminder of a patriarchal past that is still exerting its grip.

Runs until 17 December 2016 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday 7 November 2016

Theatre Review: The Weir at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
There’s a deceptive air of normality at the opening of Conor McPherson’s much garlanded 1997 play The Weir; another evening in a rural Irish backwater pub, where the regulars shut out the howling wind and gather for a few pints and a ‘small one’ or two.

Rachel O’Riordan – hugely successful last year in her direction of Iphigenia in Splott – takes the helm of this co-production between the Sherman and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Transferring to the intimacy of the Factory Theatre from its run in Cardiff, with Kenny Miller’s authentically spit and sawdust bare-wood design, it feels as though we’re listening into a series of illicitly intriguing conversations at the next table.

Yet, there’s a huge hinterland here. As Jack and Jim chew over their day with barman Brendan, their easy familiarity is underpinned by years of shared experience, growing up in the same small community, immersed in its traditions and now comparing betting tips. Then, this evening’s equilibrium is threatened by the arrival of local-boy-made-good Finbar with Valerie, a newcomer recently arrived from Dublin. It’s in seeking to impress the stranger in their midst that the men begin to tell stories from their past; tales veering into ghostly local folklore that also expose the bitter resentments and confessions of their own youth and childhoods.

O’Riordan mines the play for its rhythms; the startling intensity of the monologues, the poignant silent pauses and humour’s intense but welcome waves of relief. McPherson writes with exceptional skill and precision; his characters are quite ordinarily flawed and rounded, each one with their own moving and convincing story arc.

The five-strong company of actors rises to the challenge. Simon Wolfe is magnificent in his embodiment of the foul-mouthed, cantankerous Jack, unexpectedly reduced to displaying his emotional underbelly. You can hear a pin drop during Orla Fitzgerald’s shocking and revealing monologue as Valerie, so haunting and naturalistic is her delivery. Steven Elliot is glib as successful entrepreneur Finbar; in the end, despite his superficial veneer, he’s impossible to dislike. Meanwhile, Richard Clements disarms as the introverted Jim, still looking after his aged mother, and Patrick Moy’s Brendan is the glue that holds this fragile community together.

It’s a story to take home and ponder. Like Brian Friel’s revelatory Faith Healer or Barney Norris’ more recent Eventide, it explores the spaces between everyday life and eternity, the extraordinary emotional struggle and pain we all pack away behind the relief of routine. It also celebrates the power of conversation and the human need to commune.

A well-executed revival of a beautifully written, hauntingly melancholic and unexpectedly humorous play, this newest incarnation of The Weir makes 100 uninterrupted minutes pass in an instant, while still retaining the meaning of each word.

Reviewed on 27 October 2016 | Image: Camilla Adams

Saturday 5 November 2016

Nine things I learnt in nine months of commuting

At the end of January, the company I was working for closed its Bath office and offered me the chance to relocate to a business park near Didcot. And so, a short commute to the centre of a beautiful heritage city mushroomed into a 90 minute car-train-bus ride to an office block in the shadow of a decommissioned power station.

I embarked on the sort of journey to work I hadn't undertaken since my twenties, the major part being a train from Bath Spa station to Didcot Parkway and back again. No The Girl on the Train moments (thankfully), but here, in nine months of commuting, is what I learnt:

  • I HATE having cold feet. Train platforms are stubbornly chilly even when the temperature elsewhere is balmy. It took me until mid-July to break out of opaque tights and boots. 
  • Every peak-time passenger (myself included) bristles with electronic appliances, BUT... 

  • DON'T even think about relying on the GWR WiFi. Apart from being insecure, in my experience it rarely works - except late at night, by which time you've probably given up.
  • DO take advantage of extra reading time but be warned; the frequent announcements, nearby conversations and compulsion to people-watch aren't conducive to concentration. High-octane thrillers are better than subtle works of contemplation.
  • It's a bubble land, where people discuss all sorts of things they really shouldn't in public. I've overheard details of confidential pricing, contracts, legal cases and even staff appraisals.
  • The vast majority of rail staff (though sometimes difficult to find) are fantastically helpful. The same can't be said for bus drivers.

  • All sorts of things can be spotted on the tracks: sooty black rats, hairbrushes, a single shoe, a potted plant. Each one has its own story.
  • Sadly, people on the lines are all too frequent, too.
  • Travel may be exciting but long-distance commuting is tiring, boring and expensive. And that's when it all goes to plan. You really need to factor this in from the start - or negotiate as many opportunities as possible to work from home.

Image of Didcot Power Station courtesy of the BBC.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Book Review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

Locked rooms and locked hearts; from the first, there's a chilling core of isolation running through Agnes Ravatn's The Bird Tribunal. The lonely house only reached by a forest path. A man who guards his words like bullets. A woman running away from her glittering past to a job as housekeeper and gardener.

At six o'clock on the dot he emerged from his bedroom, pulled out a chair and took a seat at the head of the table. He waited. I placed the dish containing the fish in the middle of the table, then put the bowl of potatoes in front of him. I pulled out my chair and was about to sit down when he halted me with an abrupt wave.
No. You eat afterwards. He stared straight ahead, making no eye contact. My mistake. Perhaps I wasn't clear about that fact.

Allis Hagtorn has left her career as a TV presenter behind in a hurry; disgraced somehow in a way that's unclear. Arriving at Sigurd Bagge's remote house on a fjord, she's expecting to find an old man to look after. Instead, she's greeted by a fit and healthy forty-something full of secrets; Bagge's wife apparently away on her travels, his work undertaken behind closed doors.

Initially, their daily encounters have the swift, nail-biting thrust and parry of a sword fight; opponents taking each other's measure, jabbing tentatively before darting back defensively into silence. But, despite - or perhaps fuelled by - this distance and shared isolation, Allis feels a growing attraction for her employer:

...inside the washing machine, our underwear swirled around in close contact, tangling together in warm soapy water once each week, and I wondered if he took for granted the fact that I did it like this, the most natural way, or if he'd keel over or see red at the whole idea. 
Drying on the lines in my bedroom, in the moonlight my clothes cast human-like silhouettes on the wall and ceiling, and when I woke I was forced to acknowledge I'd had an erotic dream.
As the weeks pass, this attraction is the thread that binds Allis and Bagge ever closer in an obsessive, claustrophobic relationship of gradual advances and sudden reversals. Unexpected kindnesses are followed by savage cruelty, mythical retellings interwoven with strange nightmares. When disclosures are - often unwillingly - revealed, they only serve to expose greater unknowns and even question the integrity of the narrator.

The engulfing suspense is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's writing in Rebecca and The Birds, veering from haunting, poetically-spun folklore into horror territory. Ravatn's imagery is startling, her prose pared back with Scandinavian precision, combined with clean translation by Rosie Hedger from the original Norwegian. At under 200 pages, this is a book that can be read in one or two breath-taking sittings; despite one seemingly off-the-shelf revelation, there are many more that ambush the reader and the climactic ending is as taut and shocking as it is satisfying.

The Bird Tribunal is published in paperback and as an ebook by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Theatre Review: The Grinning Man at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The land of The Grinning Man is one of seeping pain and lost memories, where the old cannot forget while the young seek desperately to remember. Director Tom Morris and writer Carl Grose have taken Victor Hugo’s 19th Century novel The Man Who Laughs and transplanted it into a timeless, ravaged otherworld that also happens to be England’s capital city…Bristol. It sets the tone for this brand new musical; combining grotesque, mercurial transformation through suffering with earthy comedy and love, told with social commentary.

Les Miserables it’s not, but the story retains Hugo’s depth and complexity; Grinpayne lives with a bandaged face, covering scars from infancy that have left a permanent, hideous grin. As a child, he was rescued, along with blind baby Dea, by a pedlar of potions and freak show proprietor at Stokes Croft fair. A show-within-a-show uses shadow play and puppetry to tell Grinpayne’s story from when, as a young boy, he lost his mother at sea. The revelation of his face proves infectious, transforming the lives of those – from commoner to royalty – who watch. But, while Grinpayne is desperate to discover who he really is, there are those equally determined he should never unearth the truth.

There’s strong ensemble work from the cast and Julian Bleach as the spidery Barkilphedro takes on the Emcee’s role with darkly comedic aplomb, as though in a version of Cabaret directed by Tim Burton. Louis Maskell is a charismatic, compelling Grinpayne, convincing in his ability to transgress normal societal barriers and save a nation while Audrey Brisson as Dea channels emotional clarity and strength into exceptionally pure singing. Onto this canvas, Gloria Onitiri as the louche Duchess Josiana and Stuart Neal’s nice-but-dim Lord David layer energy and entertainment with their double act of hapless, self-centred royalty.

The original score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler has a refreshingly folksy and organic feel, deploying the necessary emotional drive but occasionally bogged down by the weight of exposition, particularly in the first half. Here the story verges on confusing and overlong but in the second half there’s no such problem; with a firm grip on its evocative carnival atmosphere, the narrative picks up breath-taking pace.

Jon Bausor’s distinctive design – a giant smiling mouth encasing a grimy stage – sets the macabre scene while puppetry from Gyre and Gimble, part of the team behind War Horse, is tenderly, exquisitely realised – especially in Mojo, the wolf. One or two other aspects – the picture-frame portraits used one too many times now and strangely simplistic neon faces – work less well.

There’s more than a hint of Kneehigh – Grose also penned Dead Dog in a Suitcase and many of the actors are regulars with the Cornish company. There are also touches of a diamond in the rough, one that will continue to improve with performance and revision. But this production undoubtedly resonates with universal themes; it’s ambitious, exuberant and surprising – entirely fitting for Bristol Old Vic in its 250th year.

Runs until 13 November 2016 | Image: Simon Annand