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