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