Tuesday 21 February 2017

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger

Nordic Noir is alive and well; for proof look no further than Thomas Enger's Cursed. Despite it being his fourth novel revolving around Norwegian journalist Henning Juul, Cursed also works as a gripping, multi-layered crime thriller in its own right.You might just need to concentrate a little harder to catch up with the twisty but well-integrated backstory, if you haven't already read the first three instalments in the series.

Henning Juul is barely existing; living on the edge in Oslo after losing the family he loves. His young son Jonas was taken from him in the most painful of circumstances and his ex-wife Nora has a new partner, Iver. But, as a fellow reporter, her investigation into the disappearance of a friend unexpectedly overlaps with Henning's attempts to discover the facts behind the night that devastated his life. The estranged couple have more reasons than ever to talk to each other, however difficult that might be.

When Hedda Hellberg doesn't return after a three-week trip to a retreat in Italy, her husband establishes she'd never been there in the first place. He calls on Nora, as an old school friend, to delve into the conundrum and she quickly becomes absorbed in the tangled relationships between generations of the wealthy Hellberg family. What connects Hedda's disappearance with the murder of an old man in his own woods in Sweden? Nora forensically uncovers a trail leading back to events of the Second World War, only to find herself enlisting Henning's help as their investigations converge.

Henning and Nora's alternating narratives are the heart of this novel; two people floundering in the aftermath of a tragedy that drove an insurmountable wedge between them. Both flagrantly disregard their own safety in pursuit of the truth. Nora sought comfort in Iver, but has only succeeded in weaving more complications into her life. Yet, while he doesn't exactly seem like the settling-down type, Iver redeems himself by rescuing Henning from a new threat. A fascinating love triangle is established, one that underpins every twist and turn of this intriguing and all-too-human tale.

Enger has written a complicated, skilfully-drawn story that rewards your close attention. This translation by Kari Dickson captures all the pared-back Nordic style of The Bridge or The Killing, combined with the most compelling chapter-end hooks I've encountered since reading Harry Potter to my children.

There are the streets and suburbs of Oslo and the beauty of the islands nearby; in this setting, the elemental perils of fire and water combine with the dark underworld lurking beneath the mask of wealthy Norwegian society. Menace and brutality abound, morality is skewed, but there is also intense humanity in the complex web of relationships. Finally, there's a conclusion that hints at redemption and seems to settle matters, before ripping them open again with a shocking new revelation that must surely lead straight to Book Five.

Cursed  by Thomas Enger is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books on 1 March 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Theatre Review: Spillikin at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The full title of this 90-minute play from Pipeline Theatre is Spillikin, A Love Story. It combines the theme of an identity lost in the debilitating chasm of dementia with the technological innovation of an on-stage robot, becoming both substitute companion and treasurer of a lifetime’s experiences. What emerges is ultimately a very human story, a testament that what survives of us is love.

Sally’s husband Raymond is away at a conference, she thinks. He’s always away at a conference, despite his age and infirmity, because he’s an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence. She appears well-groomed and together, but looks can be deceptive. Her mind is fading fast and it seems that Raymond’s absence may be the permanent kind. What he’s left behind is an extraordinarily patient and reactive robot, filled with his memories of their first meeting and marriage; an offering of consolation extending beyond the grave.

Interspersed with Sally’s decline is the unlikely story of how she and Raymond first met in the 1970s and fell in love; she liked Blondie and he liked physics, but he had kind eyes and she loved the softness of his neck. Hannah Stephens as the bold, facetious younger Sally and Mike Tonkin Jones as shy, geeky young Raymond have great chemistry; they spark off each other and, despite their differences, under Jon Welch’s tightly choreographed direction, their mutual attraction is believable, hopeful and impulsive.

Judy Norman plays the older Sally with the bitterness and frustration of a woman whose mind is unravelling; alternately raging at her robot companion and treating him with the tenderness of renewal. Gradually losing her orientation, her hair becomes wilder, her clothing disordered, her vocabulary diminished. Through an evocative soundtrack, clever projection and symbolically emptying bookshelves, we realise Sally and Raymond’s long marriage was not always a happy one; childless and with shades of infidelity, yet a residual love endured.

The robot itself, a repository of older Raymond’s memories, remains almost infuriatingly calm throughout; played by a remarkable ‘Robothesbian’ designed by Will Jackson of Engineered Arts to mimic human movement. Seated and omnipresent, it assimilates Raymond’s personality and habits just as Sally is losing hers; exhibiting an eerily nuanced range of expression and movement, as well as the ability to sing along to My Funny Valentine. It may not be able to replace humans quite yet, but Spillikin raises intelligent questions about how developments in robotics could help, or indeed threaten, future generations, as our ageing population inevitably declines.

Several productions exploring human frailty and the devastating loss of identity in dementia sufferers have been staged at the Ustinov in recent seasons, including The Father and Half Life. Spillikin moves the debate forward by examining the role of technology; the strength of human bonds might prove impossible to replicate, but artificial intelligence could still provide comfort as well as functional support. The answers are far from clear-cut, but this riveting piece of theatre brings an insight and substance of its own.

Reviewed on 7 February 2017 as part of a UK tour until 7 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Thursday 9 February 2017

Theatre Review: Airswimming at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Here’s a shocking premise for a play; that women who don’t conform to convention should be shut away in an institution and left to decay. And yet, in early 20th Century Britain, this was too often their fate; from unmarried mothers to those who simply didn’t fit in, exclusion from society could be brutally sudden and final.

by Charlotte Jones, the writer best known for Humble Boy and creating the ITV series The Halcyon, focuses on the lives of two compelling representatives of this injustice. Most productions of this 1997 play use just two actors to portray young Dora and Persephone and their older alter egos, Dorph and Porph. Here, Old Bag Theatre Company clearly delineates the younger and older characters by having four.

Dora, played by Phoebe Mulcahy, is mannish, down to earth and working class. She’s already a dab hand at polishing baths and staircases and treats these daily chores with all the precision of a military operation. She’s joined by a new recruit, Serena Dunlop’s Persephone, an upper-class debutante with no knowledge or aptitude for housework, certain she will soon be rescued by her family. Both are dressed in 1920s maids’ uniforms but their residence, rather than a grand old country house, is St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

It’s hard to reconcile these fresh-faced, still hopeful young women with their older counterparts Porph (Jane Lawson), larger than life with her facial tics and Doris Day wig and Dorph, ostensibly the voice of reason, played by Liz Hume with stoic calm and occasional shades of a Dawn French character.

With a simple set of a tin bath and a couple of stairs and the help of some of Doris Day’s greatest hits, this bleakly funny and poignant story shifts backwards and forwards in time to cover the 50 years of the women’s incarceration. All four actors are evenly matched and do justice to their unfolding relationship; as hope turns to despair, they comfort and cling to each other to survive. There are moments of madness, with the women’s grasp on reality beginning to slip away through extended isolation. There’s a deep vein of humour, mainly played out in Porph’s growing obsession with Doris Day and Dorph’s alternating exasperation and weary acceptance, as well as the moving, magical originality of the air swimming of the play’s title.

Directors Andy Cork and Emma Firman handle the subject matter and Jones’ sensitive writing with insight and compassion. Towards the end of the play, the downside of having two versions of each character on stage is that events are harder to follow as young and old converge. The intimacy of the stage begins to feel almost crowded and yet, despite this, it still works; emphasising the passage of years and adding another dimension to a story that, for all its cruel intolerance, ultimately celebrates the boundless capacity of the human spirit for friendship and survival.

Reviewed on 1 February 2017 | Image: Contributed

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Book Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

Schroder is the story of a German immigrant to America, who arrives in the Boston hinterlands as a young boy and attempts to assimilate as he grows up. Nothing too unusual about that, except Eric's reinvention goes much further than the norm; changing his surname to Kennedy, distancing himself from his taciturn East German father and successfully creating a whole new background for himself. It's only when his marriage to all-American Laura falls apart and he's left with strictly limited visiting rights to his six-year-old daughter Meadow, that his sense of self begins to unravel.

Eric takes his daughter on a road trip to Mount Washington, on an impulse that both of them share. Meadow is excited about spending more time with her father and skipping a few days of school. Eric promises he'll speak to her Mum and have her back home in a week. But along the way, priorities change and the adventure becomes a kidnap. As Eric documents the twists and turns of their increasingly desperate journey, we learn about his own elusive mother, the reasons behind his deception and his overwhelming love for his only child.

Eric's story takes the form of a confession to his estranged wife. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator and yet his moments of self-awareness are heartfelt and sensitively written. And his relationship with clever, inquisitive Meadow is well drawn, particularly in the descriptions of her endurance and willingness to forgive his questionable choices, because he is her Daddy. She has a child's perceptiveness and patience in dealing with his mounting delusion.

Yet, for all its plausible premise, effective structure and poignant prose, I found myself losing sympathy for Schroder towards the end. Eric's selfish and irresponsible self-pity begins to grate. He lacks insight into the failure of his relationship with his wife and it's hard for the reader to discern the truth between the lines. His research projects and footnotes suggested a pedantic, minutiae-loving character that doesn't seem to tally with the rest of the novel. I pondered whether this was throwback to his Germanic roots, yet crucially, the main body of writing feels so American, it might hardly have been written by an outsider at all.

I loved the sound of  this novel when I heard Amity Gaige discussing it at the Bath Literature Festival back in 2013. She's an articulate speaker and clearly a talented writer. If, by the end, it doesn't quite live up to my initial expectations, it's still an intriguing exploration of one man's unreconciled soul and his need for validation and identity.

Schroder by Amity Gaige is published in the UK in paperback by Faber & Faber. 

Monday 6 February 2017

Ballet Review: St Petersburg Classic Ballet's The Nutcracker at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

The wrapping may be a little old fashioned, but Saint Petersburg Classic Ballet’s presentation of The Nutcracker still offers a selection box of colourful treats for all ages.

This piece is performed in repertoire with Swan Lake – seen at the Theatre Royal earlier in the week – under the artistic direction of Marina Medvetskaya, with prima ballerina Natalia Romanova taking the lead in both productions.

Traditionally a festive ballet based on the short story by E T A Hoffmann, The Nutcracker was first performed in Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. It begins with a family Christmas party, where young Clara Stahlbaum is given a toy soldier nutcracker by her godfather, Dr Drosselmeyer. She is heartbroken when her brother Fritz breaks her gift, but delighted when the mysterious doctor mends it, just in time for her to hug it to sleep.

Saint Petersburg’s classic staging depicts an impressive ballroom with a towering Christmas tree, but is essentially a backcloth and series of painted flats that ultimately has the static, two-dimensional feel of a past era. In contrast, the dancers of the corps de ballet are like twinkling, festive baubles; full of light and life and resplendent in bright jewel-coloured costumes. Romanova, sparkling in sapphire blue, performs the role of Clara with fluent, graceful precision, while Dmitriy Popov is a darkly commanding Drosselmeyer.

If the events of the party take time to unfold in this strictly classical interpretation, then the battle that begins in Clara’s dreams, as she falls asleep afterwards, seems over far too quickly, without any great build-up of tension. Popov swaps roles to portray real menace as the Mouse King, but his army, though looking the part in sleek, charcoal grey costumes with glowering red eyes, appears timid and easily defeated by Yuliya Yashina’s Nutcracker soldier and his compatriots.

The transformation of Clara and the Nutcracker into a Princess and Prince (Vadim Lolenko) and their journey into a snowy land brings the first real moments of magic to this production; the Waltz of the Snowflakes, vivid in pristine white complete with falling snow, is mesmerising as it draws Act One to a close.

Another unfolding pleasure is the live performance by the Hungarian Sinfonietta orchestra under the baton of Vadim Perevoznikov. Although lacking power on occasion – perhaps due to acoustics – their interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s romantic and lyrical score is flawless throughout.

In the Second Act, celebrations in the Kingdom of Sweets bring Clara a series of delicacies; the Sugar Plum Fairy is also expressively danced by Romanova, while Fujise Kana, poised and sinuous in her Eastern dance, is exotic in luminous orange.

At times, the corps de ballet appears hemmed in by the size restrictions of the Theatre Royal’s stage, and the already tenuous narrative of The Nutcracker tends to be interrupted in Act Two by lengthy curtain calls after some of the dances.

Even if the storytelling – through adherence to the original – falters at times, Saint Petersburg Classic Ballet’s The Nutcracker still represents a perfect introduction to the elegance and accomplishment of Russian classical ballet for a new generation, while having plenty to offer those already familiar with this particular box of delights.

Reviewed on 26 January 2017 | Image: Contributed