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