Thursday 26 October 2017

Theatre Review: The Real Thing at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing dazzled when it was first produced in 1982, both for the intelligence and precision of his writing and the performances of Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the leading roles. Thought to be one of his most autobiographical plays, its themes of marital infidelity and the pursuit of enduring love are so universal that, today more than 30 years later, they should surely still resonate.

And, against an evocative soundtrack of vintage chart hits, Stoppard’s wit and wisdom do emerge as sharply observed as ever, as life and art become inextricably interwoven. In a play penned by her husband Henry (Laurence Fox), the foremost writer of his generation, Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) is portraying a woman trapped in a failing marriage. Her on-stage partner Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) suspects her of being unfaithful, yet it is Max’s wife Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) who is embroiled in a real-life affair with Henry.

As always, this is a polished production from Theatre Royal Bath, in conjunction with Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston, incorporating Jonathan Fensom’s sleek and minimalist design. What a pity then, that – despite the laughter induced by Stoppard’s clever lines – it misfires, thanks to an uneven overall performance. Fox’s Henry most noticeably lacks the clarity and conviction of delivery that his central character demands, especially in the early scenes.

Although he does show some measure of Henry’s progression from the detached observer in the first Act to desperate cuckold in the Second, it seems a puzzling directorial decision from Stephen Unwin that an actor of Fox’s stature should portray Henry in this underpowered way. While the Second Act is an improvement, this still drains energy from a production that consequently achieves little variety of pace. It distracts attention from other excellent performances, particularly by Spencer-Longhurst and Jackson-Smith, as well as recent RADA graduate Kit Young in the cameo role of Billy.

Although it doesn’t feel as tender and moving as it should, there’s still some satisfaction to be gained, as The Real Thing’s clever construction gradually reveals itself. When Annie decides to perform in a play written by her pet cause Brodie (Santino Smith), an unjustly imprisoned soldier, Henry’s comparison of the writing process with the skillful creation of a cricket bat is compelling.

Henry’s original play becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that echoes through the years, with honesty and trust being repeatedly eroded. Is lasting love ever achievable or simply an unattainable ideal pursued through a succession of relationships? Though the authentically detailed late 20th Century vinyl LPs and manual typewriter pin this play to the time of its first staging, it’s never in danger of feeling dated.

While Stoppard’s play is eminently watchable and emerges as a modern classic, this production sadly misses the mark. It’s early in the run and there’s still time and room for improvement, but it can’t yet be described as the real thing.

Reviewed on 20 September 2017 | Image: Edmond Terakopian

Friday 6 October 2017

Book Review: Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Readers of this blog may know I've reviewed several novels by Ragnar Jonasson in the Dark Iceland series, translated by Quentin Bates and published by Orenda Books. My review of his latest book Rupture can be found here.

Jonasson's novels are set in Siglufjördur in the far north of Iceland; a remote town of atmospheric winter darkness. Now from the same independent publishing and translating stable comes another Icelandic author, Lilja Sigurdardottir, whose thriller plays out primarily in the country's bustling capital, Reykjavik.

Both authors examine Icelandic society at a pivotal time, after the banking crash that devastated the country and the catastrophic eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Snare begins in November 2010; there's the taste of ash in the air and many lives are in turmoil.One of these is Sonja's, victim of an acrimonious divorce, now caught in a net of cocaine smuggling as a mean of supporting herself and battling for custody of her young son, Tomas.

Sonja is the novel's central character and, despite her morally questionable occupation, Sigurdardottir makes it easy to identify with her. Sonja's back is against the wall; she's renting a shabby apartment and just about making ends meet. Her ex-husband Adam seems to hold all the cards and Tomas' well-being is threatened by the ruthless drug dealers who keep her smuggling to ensure her son's safety. Her choices are limited; Sonja is truly caught in a snare.

To complicate matters further, Sonja is in a relationship with a woman, Agla, a high-level bank executive embroiled in the fallout of the financial crash. Agla has her own professional connection to Adam and her own demons to battle. Unlike Sonja, Agla refuses to acknowledge her sexuality and, despite her obvious desire, resists taking their relationship to a deeper level.

As the pressure builds for Sonja, she begins to attract the attention of seasoned customs officer Bragi at the country's international airport. Forced into carrying ever bigger consignments, Sonja's meticulous planning begins to unravel and Bragi closes in. Sonja attempts to wriggle free from the trap that ensnares her, but in doing so, puts herself and her son at ever greater risk.

Lilja Sigurdardottir has written a taut, tense and highly engaging thriller that delivers characters you care about - precisely because they have been backed into a corner.

She delivers several twists - some anticipated and others a genuine surprise. As Snare is the first of a trilogy, Sigurdardottir necessarily leaves some threads undone - which can be frustrating if you're looking for neat resolution. But if, like me, you've become invested in the characters and want to know what will happen to them, there's an impatient pleasure in anticipating the next compelling episode in this series.

Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir is published by Orenda Books, many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Theatre Review: Living with the Lights On at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Mark Lockyer portrayed a convincingly complex Iago in the Tobacco Factory’s Othello earlier this year, unleashing the dark and destructive forces of a master manipulator on those most deserving of his loyalty. Now he returns to the Factory Theatre in his one-man show Living with the Lights On, recounting his own personal encounter with the Devil in a performance of unflinching, soul-baring honesty.
In this Actors Touring Company production, Lockyer welcomes his audience into the theatre with disarming ease – offering the tea and Hobnobs of a typical village hall gathering. There isn’t any barrier or theatrical artifice – the lights, quite literally, are always on. He sets the scene with humour and pathos, but mental illness isn’t cosy or inclusive. His story soon turns to the very public breakdown he experienced as Mercutio in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet.

Under Ramin Gray’s nimble direction, Lockyer’s delivery switches from manic intensity when meeting the Devil – who is bizarrely dressed as a Californian beach boy – on a country walk near Stratford, running amok on the RSC stage and being unfaithful to his long-term girlfriend, to moments of quieter reflection on the consequences of his actions. He deftly characterizes those he loves or meets along the way – his mother, the doctors and the RSC landlord who frowns at the pizza boxes and saucers of ‘Holy water’ he has strewn around his bedroom.

As the tale of his disintegration continues, the moments of lucidity become fewer. His actions spiral into self-destruction and a reckless relationship with a can of petrol. Lockyer maps out the all-consuming suffering of his existence with such clarity that at times it’s difficult to keep watching. Most remarkable, but sadly not surprising, is how lightly his plight is brushed aside by the authorities; not only missing the clues but actively looking away, as he is sent home alone from hospital after a stomach pumping because there are no beds available.

It’s a cathartic, compelling 80-minute bombardment of pain, leavened by Lockyer’s flashes of bleak and self-deprecating humour. After descending into the depths of hell, the help he was crying out for is eventually at hand and he begins to find a path back to his former life. If it seems miraculous that Lockyer is now back on stage, this clearly took years of small steps to recovery that are summarised a little too quickly. Perhaps this is because these steps are still being taken and this show is a part of that. As a one-man embodiment of the fall from the precipice of sanity, it’s a courageous and insightful reminder of how close we all live to the edge.

Reviewed on 19 September 2017 | Image: Simon Annand