Wednesday 24 January 2018

Theatre Review: Translunar Paradise at The Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

The tide of grief unleashed by the loss of a beloved partner is tenderly explored in Theatre Ad Infinitum’s achingly evocative Translunar Paradise.

First shown to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 and having garnered a raft of awards in the intervening years, this performance at the Ustinov kicks off the production’s 2018 UK tour.

Told entirely without words and using astonishingly expressive hand-held masks to portray their older selves, original performers George Mann (who also directs the piece) and Deborah Pugh recreate the intertwined lives of William and Rose. Here the personal triumphs and tragedies weathered over their many years together are laid bare, within the poignant framework of William’s inability to let go of his past life after Rose’s illness and death.

The power of this mime emerges in exquisitely realised moments of detail: the habitual setting out of two cups for tea when only one is now needed, the tapping of a finger melding into the ticking of a clock, the suitcase carrying life’s load transferred between partners, the scent of a handkerchief and caress of an abandoned scarf.

The story plays out against actor-musician Sophie Crawford’s haunting soundtrack of accordion and vocals. Much more than a bystander, she is the third storyteller on stage; circling to hold masks in position as William and Rose’s younger selves emerge, setting the teapot and cups on the table, creating heightened moments of silence and pressing air through the accordion to create a mournful sigh as the couple resume their masks of age.

Props are minimal, centred around two chairs and a table that folds out to become a hospital bed. The space is filled instead with the actors’ faultlessly timed movement and fluid transitions; their youthful dancing and the joy of falling in love, the pain of Rose’s pregnancy and William’s experiences of war, their older selves slowing down and shuffling around the furniture. Such choreography is a trademark of Mann’s direction, used to great effect in previous productions such as Pink Mist.

The era and narrative of William and Rose’s earlier life is occasionally unclear, their experiences not so much thought-provoking as profoundly felt. Most moving of all is that Rose’s ephemeral self is still so strongly present. Determined to lead him out of his grief, she stays close to William after death, yet as he repeatedly reaches out for her, he finds she is beyond his grasp.

Originally devised in response to Mann’s experiences as his father was dying of lung cancer, Translunar Paradise is an experiential and immersive piece. In the emotionally charged switching between past and present, what emerges beyond simple nostalgia is the universal grief and pain of loss; not only for a long-term partner, but also a younger self and a shared life that once held all its promise before it. 

Reviewed on 23 January 2018 as part of a UK tour | Images: Alex Brenner

Theatre Review: Beauty and the Beast at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Bristol’s Tobacco Factory has garnered a deserved reputation for the quality of its family Christmas shows and this year’s playfully quirky Beauty and the Beast is no exception. Think Disney unplugged; New International Encounter (NIE) and Cambridge Junction, under the direction of Alex Byrne, revisit the original French fairy-tale and strip it back to its story-telling essentials, conjuring up a delightfully eerie musical adventure full of mischief and heartfelt rustic charm.

The fable’s central message – that beauty is only skin-deep and it’s what’s under the surface that counts – may be well-worn but it’s delivered with real energy and freshness by NIE’s five-strong cast of actor-musicians. Maurice (Ben Tolley), a bankrupt Gallic shipowner, relocates his family to an impoverished hovel – known as Le Gite Terrible – in the middle of a forest. Terrible twins Latrice and Anastasia, played with ghastly verve by Samantha Sutherland and Stefanie Mueller (in this performance replacing Elliot Davis) hate their new environment and long to return to Paris, but Sara Lessore’s down-to-earth Isabella is drawn to the gite’s humble charms and soon has plans for a well-stocked vegetable garden.

Little do they realise that in a nearby chateau lurks a hideous beast – transformed from a vain and shallow playboy by a witch’s curse – until Maurice seeks shelter there in a storm and only escapes with his life when Isabella resolves to take his place as the chateau’s prisoner. Martin Bonger’s Beast combines the haunted, restless physicality of his enduring ordeal with a light-hearted turn as his new captive’s potential suitor; his song asking to be Isabella’s hairy fella is a comic masterpiece. Lessore, meanwhile, portraying a strong character in her own right, is also his perfect foil. Her Isabella radiates goodness and purity of heart without (despite her sisters’ condemnation of her creepiness) ever crossing the threshold into an annoying goody-two-shoes. The moments when she laughs at the Beast’s terrible Christmas cracker-style one-liners and later realises she loves him are full of poignancy and dawning revelation.

NIE and Cambridge Junction’s Beauty and the Beast is an enchanting antidote to everyday life. The original, folksy score is captivating and mood-changing, underpinning the narrative with a seamless blend of jaunty rhymes, searing strings, woodwind, percussion, and accordion. Stefanie Mueller’s inventive set design transforms from humble cottage to gothic chateau to table-top romance with the manipulation of a few wooden boards around a stage dotted with statues and foliage. Audience interaction (at this matinee with a house full of excited primary school children) is pitched at just the right level, while the simple addition of a wheel-barrow, a couple of chandeliers and some fallen leaves is all that’s needed to complete the picture.

Reviewed on 14 December 2017 | Image: Mark Dawson

Ballet Review: Romeo and Juliet at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

English National Ballet (ENB)’s Renaissance-set Romeo and Juliet revives the original choreography created by Rudolf Nureyev in 1997 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This new restaging under artistic director Tamara Rojo, first seen at the Royal Festival Hall in 2016, is a visual spectacle of intricate footwork, sumptuous costumes, and vibrant ensemble pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nureyev’s vision for his own performance often placed greater emphasis on Romeo’s predicament, the posturing of his friends and fighting between factions, than on the tragic love affair at the heart of the story.

While his work has been compared unfavourably to the gold standard of Kenneth MacMillan’s emotionally charged 1965 choreography, it still has more than enough to commend it. Renaissance Verona with its funeral carts and colourful market stalls is a setting both terrifying and entrancing in equal measure. Doom is augured by sinister and shadowy figures throwing dice and the beggar who, having been helped by the ill-fated Romeo, immediately drops down dead. The menace is palpable as young Capulets and Montagues bait each other in the square with bawdy hand gestures and their skirmishes flash with undertones of deepening violence.

By contrast, the grandeur of the opulently red-robed Capulet ball, set to Prokofiev’s now all-too-familiar music, is the dazzling centre-piece of Ezio Frigerio’s evocative design, establishing the family’s wealth and prestige. But there are comedic touches, too; Pedro Lapetra’s Mercutio is the joker in the pack, his swordplay with Tybalt (Fabian Reimair) a source of japes and general amusement until the devastating outcome is realised. The interplay between Lapetra and Reimair is dynamic and arresting from their first meeting: in Act 2, skilfully depicting life and death divided by an instant; comedy and tragedy forever interlaced.

Aaron Robison is charismatic in the lead role, his Romeo strong and lithe in the technically challenging Act 1 solo, convincingly transitioning from his initial boyish infatuation with Rosaline to the agony and ecstasy of obsessive love for Juliet. His backward leaping duet with Benvolio (James Forbat) in the final Act is an expressive highlight, emphasising the unexpectedly tender bond of male friendship.

Jurgita Dronina dances eloquently as Juliet, at first more interested in playing games with her girlfriends than dressing for the ball and the prospect of an arranged marriage to Paris. She sensitively portrays Juliet’s headstrong nature and growing maturity and enjoys a potent chemistry with Robison. Her storytelling is clear and persuasive, making the most of her role within Nureyev’s constraints, as she shares a single passionate night with her new husband, before his subsequent banishment leads her into desperation, conjuring to life the ghostly Tybalt and Mercutio in a dramatic scene that lays bare the futility of her plight.

ENB’s orchestra, under the sure-handed musical direction of Gavin Sutherland, effortlessly draws out the emotion of Prokofiev’s surging score. Only the tragic final scenes appear dimly lit and too brief, in comparison with earlier narrative, but overall this Romeo and Juliet is a revival that doesn’t disappoint: full of entrancing set pieces and moments that dazzle the senses.

Reviewed on 21 November 2017 | Image: Contributed