Monday 3 December 2018

Theatre Review: Rocky Shock Horror at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Wardrobe Theatre’s alternatively adult Christmas comedies have become something of a Bristolian institution over recent years, splicing together two popular genres with unlikely but hilarious results. They’ve previously bestowed Muppits Die Hard and Goldilock, Stock and Three Smoking Bears on an unsuspecting world.

Now, with Oedipuss in Boots about to open in their home venue, director Tom Brennan has revived 2016’s hit Rocky Shock Horror with a new cast and a tour of the south of England, kicking off in the Tobacco Factory. This madcap musical charting the increasingly surreal exploits of Rocky Featherboa is about to reach a whole new audience.

The clue, as always, is in the title; the 1976 film starring Sylvester Stallone about a small-time boxer who takes on the fight of his life collides with Richard O’Brien’s cult sci-fi parody The Rocky Horror Show. Down on his luck and low on self-esteem, Rocky’s life is going nowhere. Even his coach Mickey berates him and his relationship with Adrian, the shy girl he loves, is faltering thanks to some Trump-style locker room advice about what girls like from best friend Paulie.

The touring four-strong cast may not have had a hand in the script’s original devising, but they capture its spirit from the first; deliberately clunky and repetitive dialogue is tackled with comic overacting, dodgy Philadelphian accents and multi-rolling, gender-swapping verve.

There’s plenty of potential for chaos, but the show is elevated by its constant flow of clever, exposition-filled songs, split-second timing and smart choreography. There’s a riotous attempt at Thanksgiving, grappling with an over-sized turkey and an ingenious yet oddly poignant ice-dancing date in an abandoned skating rink. And when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed materialises in flamboyantly unlikely boxing gear to issue his challenge, the storyline takes off into delightfully bonkers and risqué territory. For it’s not only the fight of Rocky’s life, but he must also take on a quest to save the whole of humanity…

Caitlin Campbell does an admirable job in the central role of Rocky, a gutsy but none-too-bright straight man with a good heart and a bad wig. Daniel Norford swerves between macho posturing (albeit in high heels) as Mickey and increasingly assertive femininity as Adrian, a heroine for the #MeToo generation. This is a woman in touch with her sexuality, taking what she wants when she wants it, once her coy veneer has been stripped away.

Kim Heron is a blur of dextrous physicality in the roles of Paulie and Riff-Raff, presiding over much of the action on roller skates. Meanwhile, Alex Roberts as Creed steals every millimetre of limelight whenever he appears; strutting about the stage and flirting with the audience, he’s the outrageously over-the-top brazen drag-queen of boxing.

Maybe in the second half the storyline becomes too bizarre and unresolved, but it doesn’t really matter, because the belly laughs keep on rolling. Rocky Shock Horror is the perfect antidote to traditional Christmas fare; a hugely enjoyable and audacious flashback to the seventies, with enough contemporary edge to keep its audience hooked.

Reviewed on 13 November 2018 | Images: Paul Blakemore

Thursday 15 November 2018

Theatre Review: The Duke at The Spielman Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Rather than taking on an alter ego, Hoipolloi’s Shôn Dale-Jones is keen to emphasise he’s being himself in The Duke. And indeed, his hour of one-man storytelling feels very personal: a funny, heart-warming and poignant blend of real and imaginary events.

It’s a deceptively complex and contemporary tale that belies the fluency of its recounting to gnaw away at the relative values we ascribe to life and art, not only in financial but emotional terms as well. It’s also perfectly suited to the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory’s newly opened Spielman Theatre.

Shôn’s central thread is of a family heirloom, a Royal Worcester porcelain statue of the Duke of Wellington that his Dad bought as an investment in 1974 and kept under his bed, wrapped in sponge, to gradually increase in worth. After her husband’s death, while Shôn is working on a breakthrough film script, his mum calls him in disarray from Anglesey, to tell him that she’s accidentally broken The Duke.

Pushing aside a fast-approaching deadline for revisions that will tear the soul out of his script but mean his work might get financed, Shôn embarks on a mission to track down a replacement statue. But current events keep intruding into his consciousness; taking in the charity shops of his home town of Cambridge, he and his mother meet a refugee family—a mother of two young children whose husband has been left behind.

Seated at a desk, choreographing his own music and sound effects from his laptop, Shôn weaves these disparate strands together into a fantastical road trip to Anglesey. His mother, his film script and the refugee crisis all vie for his attention. You may never quite know how far real events are overtaken by inventiveness, but there’s a playful sense of which way the scales are tipping.

Though Shôn’s been touring this show since August 2016, he wasn’t the same man he was a year ago or will be in a year’s time, he says. He has the knack of drawing the world closer; alongside family, the political becomes personal, too. Sadly, the refugee crisis remains as pertinent as ever, but rather than dwell in guilt, he’s been doing something about it. Since he began, The Duke has raised nearly £50,000 for child refugees.

The Duke is an antidote to our divided times, emphasising connection and kindness. Told with charismatic wit and warmth it delivers an enduring message with the lightest of touches, that even if you can’t solve everything for everybody, it’s still possible to give what you can.
Reviewed on 30 October 2018 | Image: Brian Roberts

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Opera Review: WNO's La Cenerentola at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

WNO brings two heroines of diverging fortunes to Bristol this season; the tragic decline seen at the core of Verdi’s La traviata in stark contrast to the lighter-hearted triumph of virtue over greed in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

First staged in Rome in 1817, this dramma giocoso of the Cinderella story may be missing the now familiar pumpkins and glass slippers but has a refreshingly assertive heroine who knows her own mind.

At the ball, Rossini’s Cinderella rejects the advances of the man she believes to be Prince in favour of the valet she has loved from the first. Rather than capitulate when his identity is revealed, she challenges her lover to recognise and still want her when she is dressed once again in rags. And, reflecting on her own good fortune, she generously forgives the selfish shortcomings of others who have shown her nothing but scorn.

It’s an essentially moral tale that combines the romantic arias of love at first sight with larger than life characters and a rousing male ensemble. WNO’s revival of Joan Font’s production, initially performed in 2007 and here directed by Xevi Dorca, plays it for full pantomime appeal. Designer Joan Guillén’s inventively visual spectacle is awash with primary colours: characters are robed in extravagantly lofty wigs and exaggerated silhouettes while dancing mice scuttle around the stage, a cross between teasing Greek chorus and scenery shifters. Though they have the potential to irritate, by the final curtain these velveteen rodents prove more endearing than distracting.

While there may be little subtlety in the setting, Tara Erraught’s central performance is full of confident nuance. A beguiling Angelina, she is as strong and fiery as she is loving and kind. Her mezzo is clear and controlled, mastering the difficult libretto with warm and silky tones. This Angelina endures the knocks of domestic servitude, but still dares to dream. Yet, while she takes a girlish delight in her transformation from rags to riches, her feet remain firmly on the ground. Happily-ever-after only comes to fruition here on Cinderella’s terms.

Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe combine strong vocal fluency with comic acting verve to form a magnificently vile double act as Clorinda and Tisbe, Cinderella’s self-regarding ugly sisters. Fabio Capitanucci as her indolent and gluttonous step-father Don Magnifico completes the despicable trio. These two-dimensional characters take such cartoonish delight in advancing their own cause that you could begin to boo them from the audience.

Matteo Macchioni brings a romantic dash to the role of Don Ramiro, rich and tender in his first act duet with Angelina. Yet at times he is in danger of being upstaged and over-sung by Giorgio Caoduro’s animated Dandini, the valet who relishes his role as the stand-in Prince a little too much.

Though the tempo is inclined to be fast-paced in some of the more reflective moments, Tomáš Hanus conducts with a flamboyance attuned to the greater part of the work, and WNO’s orchestra is as assured as ever. When the chorus of the Prince’s male attendants fills the stage, whether with pomp and ceremony or drinking revelry, it breathes life and exuberance into the scene.

It’s the apogee of a production that may lack some of the structural light and shade required by Rossini purists but is always full of sparkle.

Reviewed on 26 October 2018 | Image: Jane Hobson

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Book Review: Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

There was so much to enjoy in Snare, Lilja Sigurdardottir's first novel in the Reykjavik Noir trilogy to be translated into English. I loved her crisp prose, tense twisty storytelling and the moral ambivalence of an empathetic cast of characters doing all the wrong things for the right reasons. You can read my review here.

Now Orenda Books has published the second in the series, translated once again by Quentin Bates. Trap picks up where Snare left off, with Sonja having fled to a Florida trailer park with her young son Tomas, escaping a life of cocaine smuggling that was closing in around her.

When Tomas is snatched by strangers, Sonja follows in desperation, only to find herself back in Iceland with her original problems compounded. Her estranged husband Adam is in charge again, cutting off access to Tomas and forcing her back to the life of a drugs mule. Meanwhile, her lover Agla is caught up in an international web of financial misconduct stemming from the Icelandic banking crash and involving ever greater, more convoluted risks.

You don't need to have read Snare to understand Trap, but it will enrich your enjoyment - because you are returning to old friends. The sort of friends who may have an unwavering instinct for self-preservation and make questionable choices, but do so from the best of motives. Whatever they've done in the past, you still want to hang out with them and get to know them better - such is the deftness of Sigurdardottir's characterisation and emotional pull of her multi-faceted viewpoint.

Sonja is nothing if not a fighter, and she devises an audacious plan that could end her predicament, with a little help from her former adversary, customs officer Bragi. Sonja wishes for nothing more than an ordinary life, working and caring for her son. But, as her attempts to break out of her trap spiral into new and more disturbing realms, her goal seems further away than ever.

Many issues are resolved in Trap and hope is on the horizon, but there are deep psychological wounds that will not easily be healed. It's darkly messy and disturbing yet simultaneously multi-layered and satisfying - a second instalment that plants the seeds of struggles to come in the final novel of the trilogy.

Trap is published by in the UK by Orenda Books, many thanks to them for my review copy.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Wils Wilson takes the gender confusion at the heart of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to new levels in her direction of this flamboyant new co-production for Bristol Old Vic and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s flowing costumes of flowery kaftans, shimmering flares and platform shoes set us somewhere in the summer of love. Framed within a psychedelic house-party in a run-down country pile, casting is apparently spontaneous. Shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian are both played by women who look nothing alike. In Elizabethan times, Viola was a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man; now Jade Ogugua’s androgynous incarnation becomes a woman disguised as a man, while Joanne Thomson’s crisp Sebastian is a man played by a woman.

Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Tobi and Duke Orsino a trouser role. Shakespeare’s original conceit for a riotous Epiphany celebration is compounded, but it only adds to the enjoyment of this exuberantly entertaining interpretation. The additional layers bring even greater fluidity to the central love triangle between Viola, Colette Dalal Tchantcho’s swaggeringly theatrical Orsino and Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s lovelorn but fiery Olivia.

There’s no shortage of bumptious physical comedy, particularly whenever Dawn Sievewright as hard-drinking Lady Tobi and Guy Hughes as her ungainly sidekick Andrew Aguecheek crawl out of the stage’s various orifices or descend from the balcony by way of a fireman’s pole.

In a play that celebrates music as the food of love, Meilyr Jones’s compositions infuse the play. With live performances melding old and new, they reset the mood in an instant, from Lady Tobi’s strutting punk to nimble Feste’s (Dylan Read) dreamy traditional melodies and the wistful longing that underlies Aguecheek’s hilarious yet poignant ballad proclaiming the most fleeting of loves.

Spirits may be playful, involving the audience in high-jinks, but the pain and desperation of unrequited passion is still in evidence. Christopher Green portrays Malvolio as a bowler-hatted, tightly buttoned bureaucrat whose transformation into a yellow-stockinged rock icon takes the concept of cross-gartering to new extremes. Yet, for all his outrageous posturing, Malvolio’s heartfelt suffering at the hands of those who trick him lends sympathy for a man who will always be out of step, casting his deceivers in a cruel light.

Some performances are inevitably bigger than others. Yet, there is such joy in the detailing: the pantomime ting of a bell every time a coin is slipped to Feste for his services, the over-the-top eavesdropping in the letter-reading scene and a wind machine fanning Malvolio’s newly released golden locks to their full power ballad glory. On occasion, it’s overworked but still gives the impression that Wilson has mined every aspect of the play’s landscape for potential.

The set-piece ending is warmly appreciated in the auditorium, as Sebastian lands on the island of Illyria causing further consternation and double-takes before true identities are revealed. With an alternative version currently running at London’s Young Vic, other Twelfth Nights may be available, but this production more than holds its own, one sublime house-party you wouldn’t want to miss.

Runs until 17 November 2018 | Images: Mihaela Bodlovic

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Book Review: Little by Edward Carey

Madame Tussaud's waxworks may be world-renowned and her name synonymous with lifelike images of the famous, but her own story remains much less familiar. Edward Carey's latest novel Little reveals the woman behind the models, in a quirky chronicle that blends a captivatingly original first-person narrative voice with a catalogue of detailed illustrations.

The tale begins in 1761 with the birth in a remote Alsatian village of Anne Marie Grosholtz, the girl who would one day become Madame Tussaud. More commonly known as Marie or simply - because of her stature - Little, she and her mother move to Berne when she is six years old, following the untimely death of her father. Here she becomes part of the eccentric household of Doctor Curtius, a man who initially models human body parts for the local hospital but progresses to making wax replicas of living human heads.

Fleeing insolvency, Curtius moves to Paris with Marie as his assistant. In this walled, wooden city, they find lodgings with tailor's widow Charlotte Picot and her son and embark upon an existence that will span an era of historical upheaval - from the closeted opulence of the court of Versailles to the grisly and vengeful bloodlust of the French Revolution.

In Little, Carey creates a remarkable heroine, never conventionally attractive in society's terms but quick-witted, resourceful and courageous. Life is always precarious for Marie and love in any form hard-won, but she takes crumbs of comfort where she can, clinging to her few precious objects and enduring her many reversals with pragmatism and a total lack of self-pity.

Despite being reduced to little more than a servant girl by Widow Picot and suffering years of her disdain, the business of wax heads prospers. Marie defies her station in life to brush shoulders with the great and the good, securing the position of sculpting teacher to Princess Élisabeth and meeting King Louis XVI. Unrest grows among the Parisian mob and she encounters more than her fair share of violent criminality, from domestic serial killers to the murderous architects of revolution. As Marie's fate is touched by history, she unfailingly records its ghoulish outcome in pencil and wax, her subjects more often dead now than living.

Despite scope and detail of epic proportions, the research behind this precise but pacy and entertaining novel is lightly worn. Little is a unique and beguiling fictionalised account of a woman small in stature but immense in achievement; a life that could stand alongside any of those that the eventual Madame Tussaud came to capture in wax.

Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books, many thanks to them for my review copy. You can read an extract from the book, catch up on an author interview, other reviews and more by clicking here

Monday 22 October 2018

Theatre Review: Beautiful Thing at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

It’s the 25th anniversary of Jonathan Harvey’s play, later a Channel 4 film, about a coming-of-age relationship between two adolescent schoolboys. In 1993, this celebration of love whatever its guise struck a chord with the LGBT community and challenged pervasive anti-gay sentiment. An AIDS epidemic was taking its toll and teaching about the acceptance of homosexuality in a family context was banned in schools.

Times have changed and so here has the message. Though the recently reported rise in hate crime is a reminder that today’s inclusive society may be little more than a veneer, Mike Tweddle’s nostalgic direction and the involvement of a community choir lends this revival a mood more homespun and heart-warming than revolutionary.

Beautiful Thing charts the growing affinity of shy, bullied Jamie and sporty Ste, both living on a south London council estate. Jamie’s mum Sandra works all hours in a pub to make ends meet, his father has long-since vanished. Ste lives with an alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother. When he is abused one night for burning the bubble and squeak, Sandra takes Ste in, warning that the only space for him to sleep is top-to-toe with Jamie.

From here burgeons a teenage romance like any other, nervous and hesitant. Yet it’s layered with further sensitivities; each boy struggling to accept his own sexuality and vulnerable to the prejudices of the outside world. Ted Reilly and Tristan Waterson as Jamie and Ste convincingly portray this awkwardness, their tentative relationship developing within the confines of schooldays and the council estate.

Harvey’s writing is still sharp and funny: as Jamie reads aloud to Ste from the pages of his mum’s Hello magazine, the pair discuss Sally from Coronation Street. In a later scene, progressing to the listings in a gay magazine, Jamie tells Ste with confidence that frottage is a kind of yoghurt.

Anisha Fields’s understated set cleverly creates a council estate with concrete barriers and coloured metal frames and there’s a London Road vibe in the choir representing the estate’s inhabitants, complete with hanging baskets and potted plants. The music that underlines the action is a mixed medley: Mama Cass from the counter-culture of the sixties, a throwback to more experimental times, and nineties reminiscences in the soundtrack and a choral rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

There’s little opportunity for the boys to escape; when they opt for the supposed anonymity of a gay bar, word spreads quickly. As in A View from the Bridge, Tweddle’s debut for the Tobacco Factory, the principal characters find themselves bound by strictures of class and community.

Yet support is found in unexpected places; from mouthy, trouble-making Leah, played with spirit by Amy-Leigh Hickman, from Sandra’s pseudo-hippy boyfriend Tony (Finn Hanlon) and eventually from spiky, battle-hardened Sandra (a wonderfully feisty Phoebe Thomas) herself. There’s more than one sort of love on display and the bond between mother and son that endures despite their fighting is poignantly reaffirmed.

Although its ending feels over-sweet and under-powered, this is an endearing revival and sentimental backward glance that will resonate with anybody who grew up in the nineties. It may lack the cutting edge of Beautiful Thing’s original breakthrough but succeeds on the level of tenderly capturing the precious volatility of a first love that strives for acceptance against society’s prejudice.

Runs until 27 October 2018 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Theatre Review: Henry V at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide 

"Here was a royal fellowship of death". In the battle of Agincourt, the powerful die alongside the powerless, dukes are slain as well as luggage boys. Shakespeare’s Henry V provides an explosive reminder that there are no winners in war, only a bloodied and diminished survival. What emerges from the visceral exchange is a need to heal divisions, both between warring countries and within each battered land.

At the beginning of Elizabeth Freestone’s dynamic production, Henry is an awkward and uncertain king, clinging to the partying of his misspent youth. War with France seems not so much his decision as that of his closest advisers. But Ben Hall’s Henry has a thread of steel, almost menace, running through him that gives credence to his transformation. Despite his hangover and slept-in clothes, slumped shoulders and uneasy gait, here is a man capable of threatening the citizens of Harfleur with rape and pillage and standing by as his friend Bardolph is brutally executed for looting.

What seems less obvious is that Henry will also become an inspirational leader, able to rally his troops before the approaching firestorm. But Hall crosses this divide with dexterity, delivering a thrilling "Once more unto the breach, dear friends". Now he is a warrior king forged in the crucible of war, bitter experience informing the growing wisdom of more thoughtful moral judgements.

Having already run for a month at the Ustinov in Bath over the summer, this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production has had time to bed in, feeling at ease in its contemporary context. Lily Arnold’s simple set of metal cage platforms strewn with grit is both an austere reminder of war’s stringencies and a versatile backdrop, remoulding a podium for kings into the trenches of France and flag-draped coffins of the fallen. Only an over-reliance on two microphones to herald every proclamation of importance has the potential to prove a touch wearying.

Joanne Howarth as Chorus is a folder-carrying, spectacle-wearing bureaucrat who introduces each act with the resignation of one who has seen it all before. Her clarity of verse speaking is matched by that of the tightly-choreographed ensemble cast, who seamlessly switch allegiance in war from England to France and back again with nimble changes of jacket and insignia. Like the gun fodder of World War I, dying only yards apart, the foot soldiers on both sides have everything in common.

There’s a prescient alchemy in Freestone’s decision to remould Katharine as a shaven-headed soldier. Combining the roles of princess and dauphin, Heledd Gwynn portrays her as a punky feminist streetfighter who looks forward to the rigours of battle, but also plunges the depths of grief over her slain lover and meets Henry’s wooing in the final act on her own terms.

Here Henry and Katharine’s verbal jousting is full of ambiguity. This is no simple capitulation and the symbolism of their two shaven heads locked together in eventual embrace is striking. Sacrifices on both sides are needed for the first tentative buds of fragile conciliation to appear; Freestone’s Henry V has mined the personal and political divisions of the medieval world and found in them our own.

Runs until 6 October 2018 and then touring | Images: Craig Fuller

Monday 10 September 2018

Theatre Review: Shrek The Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Shrek the cantankerous green ogre is midway through a new UK and Ireland tour of the musical first seen on Broadway nearly ten years ago.

Based on the perennially popular 2001 DreamWorks movie, it’s a warm-hearted and fun-filled family show with a message that today seems more relevant than ever. And, though there are as many musical misses as hits in Jeanine Tesori’s songbook, Nigel Harman’s direction still provides plenty of toe-tapping exuberance to enjoy along the way.

By way of introduction to a familiar tale, we learn more about the backstory of the main characters. It emerges that Shrek and Princess Fiona were both cast out of their family homes at an early age into a life of seclusion. Later, the show-stealing Lord Farquaad is revealed to have had a hilariously colourful past.

Tim Hatley’s slick and serviceable touring set is enhanced by projection and puppetry. As Shrek (played in this performance by Michael Carolan replacing Steffan Harri) embarks on his quest to rescue Princess Fiona so that he can get his swamp back, some of the most enjoyable moments are refreshingly low-tech.

There’s the physical comedy of Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad shuffling on his knees with tiny yellow-clothed prop legs replacing his own and an eclectic parade of animals met along Shrek’s road trip with Donkey (a sassy, braying Marcus Ayton, reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s Cat). In act II, an ingenious rat tap routine turns into a glittering song and dance number that wouldn’t feel out of place in 42nd Street.

Some moments in the first act do feel static, particularly the scenes between Shrek and Donkey, where there are one or two forgettable ballads and, despite individually strong performances, an initial lack of chemistry. Momentum is restored by the strong ensemble cast of fairy-tale characters ejected from the town of Duloc, perfect in both pitch and step, as well as Lord Farquaad directing the remaining townspeople according to his vision and the magical puppet Dragon guarding her quarry in the castle.

Act II feels to be on firmer ground. Shrek and Donkey trek back to Duloc escorting a hopeful Princess Fiona, portrayed with distinctive verve and spirit by X Factor’s Amelia Lily. The sound is clearer and words more distinct. All the film’s humour is still present in Fiona’s memorable "Morning Person" and enhanced in her flatulence-filled duet with Shrek "I Think I Got You Beat". As with the original, there’s enough here to appeal to adults and children alike.

The odd contemporary reference to Love Island and Meghan and Harry is thrown in to give a pantomime feel, but when Shrek is persuaded he doesn’t need to build a wall and isolation is not all he thought it was, the show’s central theme of inclusiveness really hits home.

That we should be loved for who we are and not how we look or where we’re from plays out in the rousing song "Freak Flag". After this, the reprise of "Big Bright Beautiful World" and zestful rendition of the Neil Diamond-penned classic "I’m a Believer" are all it takes to send the audience home on a high note.

Reviewed on 9 August 2018 | Images: Tristram Kenton

Saturday 1 September 2018

Book Review: The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

Louise Beech's fourth novel The Lion Tamer Who Lost has the scope and feel of an epic. Switching between a troubled present and the events leading up to it, her story's setting ranges from the sun-dazzled pride lands of a lion rescue venture in Zimbabwe to a life-changing chance meeting in Hull.

In volunteering at the Liberty Lion Rehabilitation Project, Ben is fulfilling a long-held ambition. Yet it's clear from the outset that there's something he's running from. Africa is his refuge: the glorious sunrises, majestic wildlife and chance to start anew all overshadowed by his past.

Andrew is a writer of children's books working on his third novel, his day-to-day existence full of challenges. Growing up as the only child of a hard-working single mum, he's always felt intensely lonely. He has a silver box with an ill-fitting lid that he keeps his wishes in. Many have already come true, but there's one from his boyhood still waiting to be fulfilled. 

Despite their difference in ages, these two men's lives are seemingly interlinked: they keep bumping into each other unexpectedly. Their friendship deepens but, while Andrew is at ease with his sexuality, Ben has not yet confided in his feckless father, scared of the reaction he might provoke.

So, their relationship is covert: one of tender snatched moments and outward pretence. It's only as their sacrifices become greater that the past begins to yield up its skeletons. And Ben and Andrew discover what has drawn them together is the very thing that could finally tear them asunder. 

Beech writes with an eloquence that defies easy classification. Her narrative develops with initial stealth, throwing up so many questions that its direction is often a puzzle. At times the mood is dream-like and poetic, at others hard-hitting and unsparing. Her assurance with a complex structure defies any easy second-guessing. Though there are connections and revelations aplenty, she tantalises in what she chooses to reveal and what to hold back.

While one or two more minor players sometimes feel undefined, Ben and Andrew are always characterised in believable, involving detail. Their burgeoning relationship is handled with sensitivity and it's only when their bond is irrevocably established that the secrets tumble forth.

The consequences are devastating and tragic, only partially tempered by moments of bittersweet reconciliation and seeds of future hope. Ultimately, you come to care deeply about Ben and Andrew's story and I have to admit, more than once, that I may have had something in my eye. 

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech is published in paperback by Orenda Books, many thanks to them for my review copy. 


Tuesday 21 August 2018

Theatre Review: Pomona at theSpace Triplex, Edinburgh

'Everything bad is real': in the darkly disturbing world of Alistair McDowall's Pomona, where time is fractured and reality blurred, this is one route to distinguishing truth from role play.

This dystopian thriller caused something of a stir when it was first staged in 2014. Originally commissioned by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, it transferred from Richmond's Orange Tree to the National Theatre and was named as one of Lyn Gardner's Top 10 picks of that year.

Now, following a sellout run in their home city, University of Manchester's HiveMCR have brought their production of Pomona, co-directed by Tom Thacker and Kwame Owusu, to the Fringe.

The story begins with a vulnerable young girl Ollie (Imogen Hayes) looking for her missing twin. In the course of her search, Ollie learns of Pomona, a deserted island in the heart of Manchester with a ring road running around it. Vans deliver daily through closely guarded gates, but their cargo is a mystery. The city's seedy underbelly is revealed in the lives of sex workers, those who seek their custom and those who profit from them.

Against a simple black backdrop with only a chalk circle and minimal props - aside from a monstrous octopus head - Thacker and Owusu skilfully build momentum with moments when the pieces of the puzzle almost seem to fit, juxtaposed with scenes that blow any sense of linear narrative wide apart. Is there a deeper exploitation taking place, a sinister cult intent on wreaking havoc, or is this all part of a role play game based on horror stories, devised by a geeky security guard in an effort to win friends?

There are strong performances across the board from the talented and committed student cast: I have to declare an interest as my daughter is one of them. Christopher Stoops is outstanding in the central role of unlikely security guard Charlie, full of an amenable puppy-like enthusiasm for fantasy and gaming - a naivety that belies a darker core.

Every character exudes desperation, some more immediately obvious than others. One of the many strengths of McDowall's fluid construct is that each character has their own story arc or, more accurately, existential loop they must circle. It's the points at which they intersect that become compelling. Even the bleakest of characters has a moral code they've failed to live by: Sam Whitehouse's conflicted henchman Moe's moment of redemption with Grainne Flynn's warm-hearted, damaged sex worker Fay is particularly affecting.

This production mines the work's moments of comedy, though it is of the bleakest kind, and you may need to give yourself permission to laugh. McDowall's worldview is unsettlingly pessimistic, but always prescient, taking in the information-rich 24-hour onslaught of popular culture, the facts we choose to act on and those we decide to ignore. Pomona is never short of gripping  - a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill once said of Russia), yet truly a parable for our times.

Pomona is at theSpace Triplex Studio, Venue 38, Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August 2018, tickets are available here

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Theatre Review: Birdsong at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

The First World War novel Birdsong - written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993 - is composed of such densely descriptive prose and nuanced storytelling that it’s difficult to imagine this complexity being transferred to the stage. And yet Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation, rewritten after an initial spell in the West End in 2010, poignantly captures the book’s essence as it tours again to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.

Rather than follow Faulks’s chronology, Wagstaff begins in the mud and squalor of the trenches in 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is already emotionally ravaged, hollowed out by the horrors he has endured. His pre-war love affair with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), beautiful young wife of a cruel factory owner, is conveyed by a series of flashbacks.

Charlotte Peters, now replacing Alastair Whatley as director, navigates a fine line between past and present, delving into the turbulent unfurling of illicit passion. Though well crafted, there are so many transitions that, for a time, Wraysford’s current gruesome predicament and the developing story of the soldiers in his charge are overlooked. Perhaps Kay’s portrayal of a tortured and complicated man is emotionally repressed for too long, without even a flicker to convey the feeling beneath, but his transformation in the final scenes is compelling.

Knight’s Isabelle convinces in her evolution from initial wariness of Wraysford’s wooing to the giddiness of overwhelming love. Later, she embodies the suffering of those left behind; damaged and compromising as she must to survive, she retains a dignity and determination to follow her chosen path.

It would be impossible to recreate the whole of the novel and ridiculous even to try. Some aspects of the story seem too curtailed; Wraysford’s encounter with a prostitute, though shocking, takes too little time to build. And layers have been lost, there’s no direct link between events of the early 20th century and the present day, though there are hints.

Wraysford’s life becomes unexpectedly intertwined with that of Sapper Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), an expert tunneller who in peacetime helped build the London Underground. Though working in conditions even more hellish than those of the trenches and denied leave to visit his desperately ill young son, Firebrace retains his humour and humanity. Treloar’s portrayal brings real emotional heart and heft to Firebrace’s close bond with fellow tunneller Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd), his care for others in his regiment and growing regard for his commanding officer.

Victoria Spearing’s set evokes the nightmare with barbed wire entanglements towering above the confines of cramped tunnels below. It combines with plaintive violin and song and last letters home to loved ones, interspersed with the shocking staccato flashes and booms of exploding shells, to become a deeply affecting backdrop to the devastation being played out.

This stage adaptation of Birdsong brings a Journey’s End sensibility to the meaninglessness of mass slaughter. As faith is lost, the final scenes trapped in the virtual darkness of the underground tunnels are almost unbearably moving; the suffering of millions condensed into the very personal tragedy of two wholly different men yoked together by fate.

Reviewed on 10 July 2018 | Images: Jack Ladenburg

Thursday 26 July 2018

Book Review: The Last Thing She Told Me by Linda Green

If a gripping psychological thriller is your idea of the perfect summer read, then Linda Green's new novel The Last Thing She Told Me could well be for you. Not having read any of Green's previous work, its title sounded a little melodramatic for my taste, but within pages I found myself hooked.

In her final words, Nicola's grandmother Betty tells her there are babies at the bottom of the garden. Are these the hallucinations of a fading mind, or is there something in her claim? Nicola has her suspicions: why has there been a rift between her mother and Betty for as long as she can remember and why won't her mother tell her anything about it?

When her daughter finds a bone in Betty's garden, Nicola is determined to unearth the truth. But just how far is she prepared to go? As the police move in and painful secrets surface, Nicola begins to realise the distress she is causing, not only to her immediate family but also to herself.

The story begins in a domestic setting but soon casts its net further afield in both time and place. Letters and voices from the past are intertwined throughout the narrative and Green has a mastery of detail; in portraying her main character as a teaching assistant in a town on the edge of the Pennines, it feels like she's writing what she knows.

All too often in novels children are underwritten, only there to move the plot along. By contrast, Nicola's daughters Ruby and Maisie are both well-rounded characters, integral to the storyline. Ruby's transition from accepting girlhood to awkward, questioning adolescence is particularly affecting.

The only occasional quibbles are in the ease of selling a house or finding a long-lost relative and the apparent saintliness of Nicola's partner, James. As the haunting truth emerges, it looks like Nicola's family has suffered more than its fair share of misfortunes through the generations. What's more, she still has a fight on her hands to stem the suffering and prevent any further tragedy.

The Last Thing She Told Me is a page-turner in the good old-fashioned sense: compelling you to read on, desperate to fit together its tangled puzzle of pieces, gratified and a little breathless once you do.

The Last Thing She Told Me by Linda Green is published as an ebook on 26th July 2018 by Quercus Books. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

Monday 23 July 2018

Theatre Review: Welcome to Thebes at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

A country ravaged by civil war emerging from the ashes of destruction to become a fledgling democracy. A paternalistic patron, who could make all the difference, arriving to visit the wastelands. It could be the setting of so many conflict zones in recent history but, in Moira Buffini’s 2010 play, this is Thebes, centre of an ancient Greek myth now transposed to the near future.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s graduating students show admirable ambition in tackling this thrilling if uneven epic but suffer in the opening scenes from the weight of exposition required to set up Buffini’s poetic complexity of tensions.

Eurydice (Emma Prendergast), widow of Creon, is democratically elected leader of Thebes, promising to rebuild the country with a distinctly feminist agenda. She may be supported by a sisterhood, but she still needs aid from Theseus (Alexander Mushore), arrogant first citizen of neighbouring superpower Athens, to do so.

A summit between the two heads of state and Eurydice’s inauguration are hindered by her vengeful refusal to bury the body of former dictator Polynices, the murderer of her son. The nation unsettled, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young), a violent malcontent from the former regime goaded by Polynices’s wife Pargeia (Lucia Young), sees his opportunity to seize control.

Towards the latter part of the first half, this production gets into its stride as Eurydice and Theseus become locked together in negotiations that threaten to demand too much. Their performances are well matched: Prendergast a compelling and idealistic Eurydice, firm in her belief that her new manifesto should not be compromised by Athens’s profit-motivated view of Thebes, while Mushore’s Theseus oozes entitlement as he seeks to take possession, on both a national and a personal level.

The country’s violent militia and the hawkish security contingent from Athens circle the unfolding narrative, unhinged Antigone (an incredibly expressive Bonnie Baddoo) vows to bury her brother and blind soothsayer Tiresias (a mournful George Readshaw) foretells of doom. Free-will and destiny collide, culminating in a disturbing standoff with explosive consequences that threaten the basis of this fragile democracy.

Counterpoint to the action are the touching testimonies of those who have lost family and friends through war and the personal tragedy of Antigone’s sister Ismene (movingly portrayed by Anna Munden) who keeps her suffering to herself until she can bear it no longer. But Buffini’s writing is playful, too: evoking the myth of Phaedra as Theseus repeatedly calls his wife on a mobile phone and then asks his son Hippolytus to search for her, while a bittersweet moment finds an almost blind Haemon (James Bradwell) proposing to the wrong person.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace uses Emily Leonard’s simple but effective stone plinth design and Daniel Scott’s strikingly demarcated costumes to build from some initially static moments; the desecration and brutality of war, the fragility of democracy and compromises and corruption of power are finally laid bare. What begins with the capacity to confuse ends with the momentum of a genuinely absorbing and satisfying piece, with performances full of potential from a talented and committed company.

Reviewed on 22 June 2018 | Image: Craig Fuller

Friday 13 July 2018

Theatre Review: Three Sisters at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The British Theatre Guide

There’s little in this show’s title and its innocuous-sounding ‘After Chekhov’ disclaimer to suggest the anarchic, exhilarating and playfully intelligent subversion that lies within.

While RashDash is well-versed in tackling the social and political ideas behind traditional narratives, this is its first foray into interpreting a classic. It takes a drawing room in 1901, somewhere in the Russian countryside, where three painfully constrained sisters are living out their days, and asks why.

If male, the characters would be philosophising, but, with all men removed from the play, their feminine talk is viewed as lacking in merit. That is until the consciously disjointed narrative is blasted apart with music, from vibrant and incisive punk to mournful power ballads, before being cradled back together with the lingering shared physicality of movement and dance. It’s less an updating of a familiar story and more an explosive examination of how the dead white guys still get so much attention.

The framework of Chekhov’s writing and his big questions - of dreams, dissatisfaction, and isolation - remain in this mixture of forms, but these three sisters throw in a few of their own. Olga (Helen Goalen), Masha (Abbi Greenland) and Irena (Becky Wilkie) unfetter themselves in a frenzy of costume changes that suggest this play’s many reinventions. After baring all, they transform into present-day young women. What resonance does Chekhov hold for them? Why do the men still get all the best lines?

Aspects of the dissection of the staging and meaning of theatre recall the perceptiveness of Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play. Time passes with an endlessly looping Tick Tock on an LED screen, while Irena is still being enchanted by a spinning top. But now, questions of love and destiny are wrapped up in creating events on Facebook and swiping on Tinder.

Interspersed with the music and dance are witty explorations of the weight of the playwright’s canon. The sisters become Chekhov’s cheerleaders and two pinion the third to the floor under a pile of dusty tomes. Newspaper reviews of various Three Sisters revivals are read aloud, mutating into song, from male reviewers opining about who should and should not be permitted to interpret the work.

Not a weak link can be discerned in the three superlatively self-aware performances: raw, energy-charged, and full of heart. The company’s two talented musicians - Chloe Rianna on drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on violin and synth - are well-integrated into the action and given their moments to shine. Rosie Elnile’s set design - a fallen chandelier, a bathtub and a disconnected view - simply and inventively accommodates the piece’s themes.

RashDash’s Three Sisters is feminism unstoppered, riotously entertaining and empowering but also personal and reflective. When the early 20th century costumes are rebuttoned, there’s a sense that the genie is being shoved back into the bottle, but with every expectation that it won’t be staying there for long.

Reviewed on 12 June 2018 | Image: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Thursday 5 July 2018

Theatre Review: Miss Saigon at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

With its epic themes of war, love, and loss set against a heightened score, Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon was a 1980s West End phenomenon.

Now a new production of the musical, revived by Mackintosh in 2014 for both London and Broadway, is embarking on a UK tour. Can it maintain the breathtaking excitement and captivating relevance of the original for a new millennium audience well-versed in theatrical spectacle and further removed from events surrounding the last days of the Vietnam war?

It certainly dazzles from the outset, with the clamour of aerial strafing and bombardment offsetting the manic hustling energy of Saigon bars. Here, American GIs seek a girl for the night, while the girls in return hope every soldier might be their ticket to a better life in the USA.

Showstopping set pieces pile up in quick succession, highlighted in the slick military display and acrobatics of the new regime in Ho Chi Minh City and the glitz and glamour of “The American Dream”, not forgetting that now iconic evacuation, complete with life-size model helicopter, full of blinding confusion and the desperation of those left behind.

But, while there are noise and action aplenty, it never truly establishes a quieter counterpoint in the central story (loosely drawn from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly) of 17-year-old Kim, an innocent arrival from the country put to work in a brothel by local fixer The Engineer. On her first night, Kim meets and falls in love with Chris, a marine who promises to take her out of Vietnam.

While their duets - especially “Sun and Moon” - are polished with a sincerity that reaches towards the intimate, they are never given quite enough space to develop, before becoming as loud and action-filled as every other number. This same treatment is applied to any instance of profoundly felt emotion, resulting in a show that frequently awes the senses but rarely moves the heart.

The timeline of the narrative, switching back and forth from the end of the Vietnam war to Ho Chi Minh’s regime, can be difficult to follow without reference to the programme. This does not take away from a dexterous songbook and strong performances, particularly from Sooha Kim as Kim, displaying an astonishing vocal range and combining vulnerability with an inner determination, making the most of a role that appears all too passive in this era of #MeToo.

Ashley Gilmour as Chris is a convincing foil as the GI with a conscience and Ryan O’Gorman as John makes a believable transformation from macho marine to saviour of mixed-race children fathered by Americans and abandoned in Vietnam after the war. Elana Martin masters the difficult role of Chris’s wife Ellen while Red Concepción as The Engineer strikes a jocular maverick note at odds with his darkly sinister actions but endearing to the audience, earning him the biggest curtain call of the evening.

What this production lacks in subtlety, contemplation and the chance to interpret a deeper message for yourself, it attempts - not wholly successfully - to make up for in sheer entertaining extravagance. Though the universality of Miss Saigon’s themes still emerges, larger questions are raised around the acceptability of Kim’s abject victimhood and an unquestioning view of America and its dream as saving graces in the 21st century.

Reviewed on 18 May 2018 | Image: Johan Persson

Thursday 28 June 2018

Book Review: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

Readers of this blog will know I'm a fan of Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum thrillers - I've reviewed three already (see below) and find myself reeled in by his combination of crisp Norwegian prose and intriguingly twisty storyline. And private investigator Veum is such a flawed but likable protagonist - his personal life crumbling and finances a mess, he readily admits to many a wrong turn in the past, yet retains a dogged determination to uncover the truth in every case he tackles.

So Big Sister, the next instalment from independent publishing superhero Orenda Books (once again translated into English by Don Bartlett), has my senses conflicting with a heady mix of anticipation and trepidation. Leapfrogging its way over my teetering TBR pile to prime location on the bedside table, it has a reputation to live up to.

Veum is a lone wolf. Yet his latest case turns out to be intensely personal:
Everyone was welcome to bring whatever they had on their minds. It took a lot to surprise me. Unless they came from Haugesund and said they were my sister.
His newly discovered half-sister, Norma, brings him a missing person case in the shape of her own nineteen-year-old god-daughter, Emma. But, more than this, she opens up questions about his own childhood that have long been repressed. His mother was a worker in a canning factory, the father he remembers a tram conductor with a love of Norse mythology. But who is the shadowy jazz band saxophone player that his mother once knew? And why was his father always such a distant figure?

Chapters begin with a statement and end in a question. Staalesen is a master of detail, drily capturing place:
Rain and income tax arrears are among the surest signs of autumn in Bergen. 
while skewering his characters:
He was in his early seventies and the little hair he had was combed back diagonally across his narrow scalp. He wore slender steel-frame glasses and continually peered over the top of them as though they were unable to cope with the distance between us at the table
Intertwined with the personal, Veum sets out to discover what has happened to Emma, a trainee nurse who's lost all contact with her family. She's moved out of the flat she was sharing and isn't answering her phone. But Emma also has a complicated past - a father caught up in a biker gang, disowned because of a harrowing incident in his adolescent past. A mother who became a single parent, full of dependencies. As Veum delves into family history, it turns out there's more than one big sister in the frame and the past has an explosive way of catching up with the present.

For a long while, it appears he's getting nowhere, yet Big Sister doesn't disappoint. Staalesen returns to familiar themes but with new insights, weaving a tale where plot threads - through persistence - eventually yield up their dark secrets. He reveals another side to Veum and the more we learn, the more there is to know.

Big Sister is published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

Links to previous Varg Veum series reviews:

We Shall Inherit the Wind
Where Roses Never Die
Wolves in the Dark

Thursday 21 June 2018

Theatre Review: A View from the Bridge - Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Arthur Miller’s landmark depiction of the 1950s docklands of Brooklyn’s Red Hook – ‘the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world’ – is authentically recreated in Mike Tweddle’s first production for the Tobacco Factory. The stage is filled with pallets, pulleys and winches echoing in an ominously clanking soundscape.

In the slum housing of the neighbourhood, longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Letheren) comes home to his wife Beatrice (Katy Stephens) and her niece Catherine (Laura Waldren), raised by the couple since infancy. Catherine is set upon taking a job she’s been offered as a stenographer in a nearby plumbing company, but Eddie has greater dreams for her: that she will work in a respectable office over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Further conflict arises when Beatrice’s cousins arrive, illegally smuggled ashore from Italy. Marco (Aaron Anthony) and Rodolpho (Joseph Tweedale) are initially welcomed into the household, but tension builds as Eddie witnesses Rodolpho and Catherine becoming entwined in a relationship. The complexities that hold a man together and bind him to his family and community begin to unravel, strand by strand.

Loosely based on a real-life incident that was relayed to Miller, the story is narrated by the lawyer Alfieri (Simon Armstrong), consulted by Eddie as his troubles deepen. In a world of dark secrets where loyalty is paramount, any recourse to the law can only result in betrayal.

Letheren convincingly conveys the inner turmoil of a decent, hardworking man, head of the household and family provider, whose illicit passion is tearing him apart. Eddie’s desires are slower to surface under Tweddle’s direction than they were in Ivo van Hove’s claustrophobic 2015 version for London’s Young Vic, the childish embrace where Catherine wraps her legs around his waist seeming just that. But the pace quickens with a gripping supporting performance from Stephens, who mines Beatrice’s pain in watching the man she loves moving away from her, showing her emotional strife to be every bit as deeply set as Eddie’s.

Waldren’s commendable portrayal of Catherine in her professional stage debut should come as no surprise to those who saw her Bristol Old Vic Theatre School performances. A heartfelt combination of tentative and courageous, she brings out the excitement and fear of a young woman beginning to make her way in the world. The moments when she questions whether Rodolpho’s love is for her or the American citizenship that marriage would bring are particularly poignant.

Only towards the end, the atmospheric sound effects become overloud and melodramatic, unnecessary in a production that is sufficiently engrossing.

The outside influences of migration on established neighbourhoods are as relevant to explore in Bristol today as they were in 1950s Brooklyn. That there are local players, many of whom haven’t acted before, taking some of the smaller roles, ties in with the strong sense of community threading through this play. The second of the Factory Company’s inaugural season, A View from the Bridge is a thrilling dissection of personal and societal breakdown with the most tragic of consequences.

Reviewed on 24 April 2018 | Image: Mark Dawson Photography

Friday 15 June 2018

Opera Review: WNO's Tosca at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

WNO’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ season has Puccini’s perennially popular Tosca at its centre — flanked by Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Given that Puccini concentrates on the personal and melodramatic elements of the story above its 19th century Italian social and political setting, this link may seem a little overstated. Yet Benjamin Davis’s revival of Michael Blakemore’s traditionally staged 1992 production rises above such quibbles, with strong performances full of colour and vibrancy.

Having sung the role of Floria Tosca on many previous occasions, Claire Rutter is on commanding form from the moment she enters the chapel, jealously believing that her lover Cavaradossi is dallying with another woman. Her Tosca is spirited rather than gentle, steely in both voice and demeanour, but she has a softness too—melting as Cavaradossi soothes her with words of love, tender and passionate in her act II aria "Vissi d’Arte" ("I Lived for Art").

Rutter is well matched with Gwyn Hughes Jones (replacing Hector Sandoval at this performance) as the painter Cavaradossi and the duo share a convincing chemistry. Thus, it becomes entirely believable that Tosca would betray the whereabouts of escaped prisoner Angelotti (Daniel Grice) to end her lover’s torture and contemplate submitting to the carnal desires of the evil police chief Scarpia — and even murder — in her attempts to save him.

Hughes Jones also persuasively portrays the affection he feels for Tosca in the richness and depth of his tenor, most memorably during his act III reminiscences in the hour before death and "O Dolci Mani" ("Oh Sweet Hands"), as he admires Tosca’s courage and ingenuity in the face of danger.

Mark S Doss as Baron Scarpia is a formidable adversary for the couple from the outset: almost a pantomime villain without redeeming features, always scheming towards his own ends with menace and sadistic glee. The American baritone gives a full-blooded performance that is suave and full of narcissistic swagger.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s design is a suitably atmospheric and forbidding setting for the unfolding drama; the huge statue looming over the condemned in Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo in act III foreshadows approaching catastrophe.

WNO’s orchestra is at its finest, conducted here by the assured baton of Timothy Burke, rather than the laureate Carlo Rizzi. There are sections of contrasting sweetness and purity, with the strings underlining Tosca and Cavaradossi’s many expressions of mutual devotion. But all the soul-stirring tension of Puccini’s score is given full rein, rising to a crescendo in the final Act as the reality of her lover’s demise dawns on a horrified Tosca and she decides to take charge of her own fate.

Reviewed on 11 April 2018 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Theatre Review: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

It may be impossible to condense a lifetime of legendary achievement into two-and-a-half hours of stage entertainment, but Beautiful - The Carole King Musical certainly showcases the extraordinary talent of this incomparable singer-songwriter. Having opened on Broadway in 2013 and made an award-winning transfer to London, it now stops off in Bristol as part of a UK and Ireland tour.
Beginning with King’s 1971 appearance in Carnegie Hall following the phenomenal success of her solo album Tapestry, the story then rewinds to her early days in Brooklyn, writing music in her bedroom after school.
More than simply a jukebox musical packed full of hits, this is a biography of love and friendship, too. On tour, King is played by Bronté Barbé, who captures all her initial awkwardness and vulnerability, selling her first songs and marrying her writing partner Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry) while still in her teens.
Her geekiness contrasts with the self-assurance of fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (a compelling Amy Ellen Richardson and Matthew Gonsalves) who quickly become the couple’s firm friends and professional rivals in the competitive business of creating US number one hit singles for other artists - from the Shirelles to the Drifters to Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers.
The cast is well served by Derek McLane’s slick scenic design and there’s fine work here from the energetic ensemble, as the song factory on 1650 Broadway transforms into a stage for glitzy 'sixties classics from both song-writing teams; showstoppers like “Up On The Roof”, “The Locomotion” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” are performed with authentic verve and style.
Douglas McGrath’s storyline punctuates the flow of hits and has a lightness of tone throughout, delivered by the cast with polished comic timing. However, as personal problems emerge for Goffin and King, the darkening mood seems too sanitised, with the inevitable tension and heart-wrenching messiness of break-up lacking in emotional intensity. Here, the songs come to the rescue, with King wistfully echoing the words of “One Fine Day” and reprising “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to illustrate the depth of her pain.
There are strong performances, but as King becomes successful in singing her own material as well as writing it, Barbé’s portrayal - though always endearing - threatens to veer into impersonation and she struggles on occasion to find the range of her voice without losing its tone.
Yet, under the assured musical direction of Patrick Hurley, the songs just keep on coming. From “It Might As Well Rain Until September” to “You’ve Got A Friend”, it’s impossible not to bask in nostalgia for these superb hits of the 'sixties and 'seventies, or to marvel at the spectacular scale and influence of Carole King’s work.
If you’re lucky enough to have seen her perform live then there may be no real substitute but, by the end of the show, much of the audience is up on its feet and dancing to the sheer vitality of her songbook.
Reviewed on 4 April 2018 as part of a UK tour. Image: Contributed.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Book Review: Absolution by Paul E.Hardisty

Where next for Claymore Straker? He's tackled environmental contamination and endemic corruption stretching from Yemen to Cyprus, before returning to his native South Africa to testify about his incendiary past in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He's fled for his life so many times, it's beginning to take on the regularity of a daily commute.

Set in 1997, Absolution is the fourth in Paul E. Hardisty's series of hard-hitting, socially conscious adventures, finding Clay laying low off the coast of Zanzibar, seeking uneasy sanctuary with a local family. This peaceful existence can't last, of course, and when gunmen arrive to shatter the lull, Clay realises there's still no refuge from the violent and bloody path he's been seeking to escape.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Clay's former lover Rania LaTour discovers that her husband Hamid, a prominent human rights lawyer, has vanished along with her young son. Her journalistic instincts lead her towards unearthing the most painful of stories: that their disappearance is somehow linked to a case that Hamid had been fighting in Egypt and that their very survival is in doubt. As Rania is forced to flee France for Cairo to find out what has really happened to her family, she embarks upon a perilous investigation that she calls upon Clay's help to resolve.

Rania plays a more prominent role in Absolution than she has in the first three novels, her writings in her diary - addressed in the second person to Clay - alternating with his unfolding third person narrative. Rania abhors violence in any form and this brings a counter-balancing perspective to the havoc he seems forced to wreak simply to save his own life. In some ways, we get to know Rania better - her past and the faith that guides her - although she still remains a character defined by her own desires and desirability, as seen through Clay's and other men's eyes.

Still, in this multi-faceted thriller, there is no shortage of fresh perspective to be found. Clay may be war-damaged, physically scarred and mentally ravaged by killing, mentored by his steely-hearted former commanding officer, the aptly nick-named Crowbar, to hit first and hit fast with whatever weaponry is at hand. Even so, hope emerges for him to edge towards the absolution of this book's title, even if it is brought about by the witnessing of yet more death.

Hardisty has become expert in piling on the adrenaline-fuelled tension and the page-turning pace in Absolution never lets up. Plot twists fly like shrapnel and environmental and political concerns are revisited in the chaotic labyrinth of 1990s Cairo and the dramatic backdrop of the Nile Valley. Peeling back the personal, social, religious and governmental layers of the complex plot to reveal the kernel of truth within is as satisfying in this novel as in the first three instalments of the Claymore Straker series.

Absolution by Paul E Hardisty is published by Orenda Books on 30 May 2018. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

To read my reviews of the first three Claymore Straker novels, click the following links:

The Abrupt Physics of Dying
The Evolution of Fear
Reconciliation for the Dead

Thursday 12 April 2018

Theatre Review: Crimes under the Sun at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Returning to the Ustinov for the beginning of the Crimes Under the Sun UK tour, New Old Friends have really honed their brand of comedic Golden Age murder mystery. This third instalment of their Crimes capers, while conjuring up a classic mix of the bygone age of Agatha Christie and Noel Coward, has a decidedly modern twist of its own, replacing Hercule Poirot with a feminist Belgian super-sleuth.

Artemis Arinae, a renowned civilian detective, is holidaying in a secluded island hotel on the English Riviera while completing her memoirs. But when one of her fellow guests is found dead in suspicious circumstances, she instinctively becomes involved in solving the mystery. All the hotel residents are potential suspects and, with a hapless police force stranded on the mainland by a sudden storm, Arinae must cast aside a trail of false clues to uncover the murderer before more mayhem can be unleashed.

Spiriting up a cast of 14 with just four actors is a challenge the company relishes, with any slight mishaps being humorously improvised into the drama. From a thorough introduction of each character and their backstory at the outset, they swap between roles in an increasingly intense whirlwind of resourcefulness.

Jill Myers as Arinae is the only exception; in the eye of a storm of madcap events, she more than holds her own, an engaging and intriguing narrator who spins the unfolding yarn of explorers, free divers and shipping magnates with twinkling alacrity. Jonny McClean once again demonstrates his versatility as he swivels on a pinhead from gurning hotel owner to louche playboy to a diminutive precocious child, distinctively droll in each role. Meanwhile, husband and wife team Feargus Woods Dunlop and Heather Westwell create an array of suspects, from derring-do army major and unhinged priest to sporting rival and dispossessed heiress, with Westwell’s breakneck turn as a trio of police constables an unmissably inspired set piece.

Woods Dunlop’s original script is a masterclass in nimble, highly-tuned verbal interaction that delights in dual meanings and misunderstanding. There is some padding in the first half, as the complex premise having been established, the characters break out into an amusing but distracting song-and-dance routine. However, as events progress, James Farrell brings his West End experience from directing The 39 Steps to bear, in ratcheting up the velocity and immaculate timing. Carl Davies’s simple but adaptable Riviera hotel set is used with creative ingenuity, as magical spells are cast in a darkened cove, clues discovered on the sandy beach and suspects meet on a cliff edge – building to a frantic, farcical climax that rounds off this entertaining and inventive romp with gusto.

Reviewed on 20 February 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith