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.