Thursday 28 February 2019

Book Review: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Ever since watching an incandescent Liza Minnelli play Sally Bowles in the 1972 film Cabaret, I've been fascinated by the cultural, economic and political maelstrom that was Berlin between the two World Wars. So I was instantly attracted to Clare Clark's new novel In the Full Light of the Sun, which evokes the glitter and decadence, hyperinflation and growing political extremism of the short-lived Weimar Republic.

Inspired by real-life events, Clark explores the turmoil wrought in the rarified 1920s German art establishment by the emergence of a cache of previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh. Events unfold through the eyes of three diverse but interconnected Berliners: Julius, a celebrated art critic called upon to authenticate the paintings; Emmeline, a rebellious young artist who seeks his help to escape her overbearing mother and Frank, a Jewish lawyer caught up in the scandal over the paintings' origins, witnessing the rise of Nazism with mounting terror.

All three find their lives thrown into disarray by their involvement with the enigmatic art dealer Matthias Rachmann. Flattered by his deference, Julius becomes Matthias's mentor and friend, supporting his rapid rise in the art world and legitimising the van Goghs he sells from the collection of a mysterious Russian. Emmeline, capricious and gifted but struggling to support herself, becomes drawn into the web. And finally Frank, denied employment by a society that despises his existence and fearing for the safety of his family, stumbles across further secrets as he reviews the Rachmann case he previously defended in court.

Clark, with a background in historical novel writing, has meticulously researched her subject and brings the setting vividly to life. Her initial narrative from Julius's perspective is particularly well-drawn; she captures his sense of entitlement as a reputed establishment figure, his intimate appreciation of the beauty and perfection of art that transcends his flawed and friable relationship with his wife and young son. The myopic self-regard and vested interests of the art world are laid bare, for where do truth and value really lie? As authenticity is first confirmed and then denied, a painting worth a fortune one day, robbed of its provenance the next, can be instantly reduced to worthlessness.

At times, the changing perspectives affect the novel's cohesion and I found Emmeline's story to be more fractured, pinballing to different extremes as a reaction to her mother's narrow viewpoint. For all her artistic talent, Emmeline is, after all, just a young girl trying to figure out what it is she wants from life; existing on the fringes of respectability, she meets a struggling writer with a nose for a story and finds herself accused of fraud by virtue of her own prodigious talent.

Frank's section of the book is the only one to be written in the first person, a diary of the horrific persecution suffered by Berlin's Jews when the Nazis rose to power.  As modern-day readers, we appreciate the full extent of the brutality about to be unleashed, but it is still chastening to absorb the everyday terrors, inflicted not only by the fanatical street-corner Brownshirts but also ordinary non-Jewish citizens ready to grasp a scapegoat for society's ills. Yet Frank is the one to uncover the story's central mystery - though some of it you may already have guessed by now. To Clark's enduring credit, she manages to weave the three disparate strands of her intriguing narrative satisfyingly back together by the end.

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark is published in hardback by Virago Press on 28 February 2019. Thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Thursday 21 February 2019

Theatre Review: Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Dora Chance’s voice leaps off the page in Angela Carter’s 1991 swansong Wise Children, almost as if this most theatrical of novels is demanding to be staged. Yet, translating its bawdily exuberant multi-layered narrative into a play was never going to be straightforward, which is why, perhaps, it has waited in the wings until now.

In her new adaptation, first seen at London’s Old Vic last October, Emma Rice has simplified some elements but captured all the celebratory spirit of the original book. With her Kneehigh credentials of imaginative, anarchic storytelling and a new theatre company named after the Carter novel, Rice directs a comic and poignant confection of an acting dynasty beset by twins, adultery and incest.

You can almost smell the greasepaint, daubed on behind the scenes to cover the cracks and fissures of everyday existence. Vicki Mortimer’s eclectically detailed set includes a dilapidated caravan that serves as the family home and the play’s name emblazoned in lights. Against this board-treading backdrop, the Bard looms large: Dora and her twin sister Nora’s natural father Melchior is a notable Shakespearean actor, as were both his parents before him.

The story spans the thespian generations with a sprightly 75-year-old Dora taking on the lead narrator’s role. Played with confiding, twinkling warmth and pathos by Gareth Snook, looking back on her life, Dora is far from in her dotage: still able to "lift a leg higher than your average dog". Carter’s singular prose stalks in glorious Technicolor through the show, skewering its targets: 1980s gentrification creeping south of the Thames is "a diaspora of the affluent" while "comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."

Rice’s collaborative ethos is much in evidence. The ensemble cast embraces the challenge of subverting the obvious; characters fluidly swap gender, colour and age while breaking into seemingly spontaneous song and dance. Ian Ross’s score combines elements of original music with era-signalling favourites ranging from familiar show tunes to the 1980s vibrancy of "Electric Avenue".

Puppetry enhances the story of young Dora and Nora, born on the wrong side of the tracks in Brixton as the Zeppelins were falling. Ignored by their father, they are taken under the protection of his twin brother Peregrine, athletically played in the canary yellow tartan trousers and flowing red locks of his prime by Sam Archer. Ankur Bahl as Young Melchior is a theatrical distillation of disdain and ego while Paul Hunter switches between the larger-than-life funny man Gorgeous George and the faded glory of the older Melchior. Katy Owen is outrageous as the naturalist, foul-mouthed but good-hearted Grandma Chance while as showgirls Dora and Nora in their heyday, Melissa James and Omari Douglas combine the blinkered effervescence of youth with long-limbed sensuous grace.

In case there weren’t quite enough elements, thrown into the final mix is a spellbinding pivotal animation that transports the older Chance twins to respectable north London. The motif of Carter’s words "what a joy it is to dance and sing!’ rings out its peal repeatedly; Wise Children is vividly messy, rambunctious and melancholic, sometimes a paean to aging but always an affirmation of life.

Reviewed on 24 January 2019 | Images: Steve Tanner

Thursday 7 February 2019

Theatre Review: Crimes on the Nile at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Belgian super-sleuth Artemis Arinae returns in New Old Friends’ latest comic murder mystery, set in a fictional Agatha Christie inspired golden age.

This Bath-based theatre company has built a reputation for good old-fashioned spoof silliness, underpinned by Feargus Woods Dunlop’s verbally dexterous scripts and some energetic well-timed multi-role-playing from a four-strong cast directed by James Farrell.

For those who have seen New Old Friends’ previous productions, the formula for Crimes on the Nile is an entertainingly familiar one. Because wherever she goes, even on holiday, Arinae is stalked by murder. This storyline finds our detective heroine ready to relax on board a cruise ship, impervious to the inevitable requests for investigative assistance, until tragedy befalls one of the other guests. Then it’s up to Arinae and her legendary intellect to identify the murderer before any further killings take place.

Elements seen in previous productions are nonetheless endearing: hats fixed in position on set with actors scurrying between them to portray different characters and doors opening and closing in rapid succession, as cast members deliver lines while switching back and forth between roles.

Still, there’s no shortage of new show inventiveness to savour: alliterative tongue-twisters and innuendo abound. Then there’s the rewinding of the timeline - with the cast reversing across the stage as the central clock whirrs back to the beginning of the trip, an ingeniously recreated crocodile encounter and the ever-enlarging perspectives of a fiercely competitive camel race.

The cast of four is hard-working and incredibly enthusiastic in serving up its archetypal array of character-based fun. Kirsty Cox as Arinae performs a pivotal role in delivering the narrative with aplomb; as the body count increases, so does the number of suspects - and it pays to keep an eye on that clock.

Husband and wife team Feargus Woods Dunlop and Heather Westwell delight in switching personalities with abandon (at the drop of a hat, you could say), from lascivious erotic novel writer Temperance Westmacott (whose every book includes wenches) to her overgrown and disapproving son Colossus and Hans Reichman, a doctor practiced in timing bodily functions with Germanic precision. Fergus Leathem fleshes out the ship’s booze-addled captain and other guests, from acrobatic Scottish lawyer Kirk McMiller to the convention-busting American steel magnate Marty Montgomery Jr, who euphemistically discloses a penchant for fish and red wine.

Occasionally this production could push even harder; there’s creative use of cases and trunks but the various levels of Connie Watson’s polished set are under-utilised. And the final timeline of events is devilishly hard to follow, until you decide it doesn’t really matter and go with the flow to the quick-fire set-piece saloon bar dénouement.

Yet, as New Old Friends grow in confidence, this could be their most ambitious and impressive production to date. Crimes on the Nile is a fast-paced, beguiling romp through the thriller genre; a combination of slick storytelling and new and old tricks. Lightening the mid-winter gloom with hearty chuckles, for sheer madcap fun, you could find it criminally hard to beat.

Reviewed on 16 January 2019 | Images: Pamela Raith Photography