Wednesday 24 April 2019

Theatre Review: Equus at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Peter Shaffer’s 1973 work about a disturbed teenage boy who blinds six horses has courted controversy ever since its first staging at the National Theatre. Though this unsettling subject matter feels no less provocative today, it has become familiar through the play’s revivals, notably in 2007 when Daniel Radcliffe sought to shed his clean-cut Harry Potter image along with his clothes.

Yet in English Touring Theatre's latest production, Ned Bennett’s stripped back direction succeeds in casting a modern classic in a fresh light, focusing anew on the troubled character of child psychiatrist Martin Dysart and bringing an intense physicality to its staging.

Against Georgia Lowe’s simple curtained set evoking a hospital ward, it is Zubin Varla’s Dysart that we first see, lying crumpled in a corner. How he has been brought here is every bit as intriguing as the plight of his patient; trapped in the vacuum of a loveless marriage, riven by Dionysian cravings and smoking compulsively as he admits to a dream of carving up children, Dysart is reaching his own breaking point.

There’s a compelling push-and-pull tension to his relationship with his 17-year-old patient Alan Strang, played by Ethan Kai, a seemingly typical teenager full of truculence and supressed rage who sings advertising jingles in response to questions. Dysart unravels the boy’s story through a combination of trickery and revealing more of his own fallibilities than he would like, exposing a growing envy as their sessions progress. Strang responds in a series of vividly reimagined flashbacks; we learn of the preoccupation with religion inspired by his mother Dora, his father Frank’s arbitrary judgementalism and his first transformative encounter with a horse on a holiday beach.

The visceral rawness of Strang’s revelatory set pieces cuts through the self-indulgent verbosity of Dysart’s ponderings; nightmares flay the teenager’s sleeping hours, sandcastles arrive like shove ha’pennies to create a seaside and the horses are transfixing, none more so than Ira Mandela Siobhan in his muscular, athletic portrayal of Nugget. Simply clad in shorts, his movement mesmerizingly equine, he crystallises the reasons for Strang’s orgasmic obsession.

Bennett does have some fun in the quivering anxiety of Dora’s determined hoovering and the comical reactions of a cinema audience to a late-night porn film - pinpoints of light against the destructive and climactic darkness of Strang’s spiritual compulsion. But as Dysart muses that the only mementoes his wife brought back from the Mediterranean were four bottles of chianti to turn into lamps, it’s clear he regrets his marriage as one of the dead-eyed compromises of adulthood and that Shaffer portrays little joy in the play’s heterosexual relationships.

Still set in the 1970s, the production’s fifty-shades-of-brown wardrobe emphasises the contrast with Technicolor moments of quasi-religious sexual fervour. Far from being a simple two-hander between doctor and patient, there’s a pervasive sense of collaboration, with actors dual-rolling as horses within the heightened physicality of Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction and strong performances from the supporting cast. Ruth Lass is generous and far-sighted as magistrate Hesther Salomon, while Robert Fitch and Syreeta Kumar are quietly tormented as his inadequate parents and Norah Lopez Holden excels as Strang’s uncomplicated lover.

This production brings a striking and distinctive new direction to Shaffer’s words. Rather than being flashy for his own sake, Bennett is careful to maintain the work’s integrity while uncovering nuances of meaning that recast Equus as challenging and exhilarating for a modern audience.

Reviewed on 2 April 2019 | Images: The Other Richard

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Theatre Review: Glengarry Glen Ross at Theatre Royal, Bath

David Mamet’s lacerating anatomy of a team of 1980s Chicago salesmen dates from the “greed is good” era of unbridled capitalism. This first major revival in over a decade, directed by Sam Yates and transferring to tour with a new cast after playing the West End, should really have the grace to be an anachronism in the 21st century. Yet it hasn’t; aside from the lack of cell phones and laptops and the copious amounts of files and papers, this is no period piece. Perhaps we need look no further than the testosterone-fuelled negotiating tactics of the current US President to understand why.

Act I consists of three vignettes in an otherwise deserted Chinese restaurant, a prologue to the office-based decimation of the main event. Here Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene (Mark Benton), former demon salesman on a downward trajectory, attempts to procure premium leads from po-faced office administrator John (Scott Sparrow) so he can close more deals on the company’s real estate parcels in Glengarry and Glen Ross. Cynical Dave (Denis Conway) tries to persuade fellow old-timer George (Wil Johnson) to break into the office and steal some files while smooth-talking star performer Ricky Roma (Nigel Harman) entices a vulnerable punter to buy into his spinning web of aspiration.

It’s a sequence that doesn’t quite soar. The quickfire staccato of Mamet’s much-lauded words comes across as shouty rather than poetic, the scenes feel static and there’s an overall impression of desperation but not much else. Much stronger is the second act set in the company’s office after a break-in. Despite the devastation in Chiara Stephenson’s authentically detailed set, the salesmen are driven by self-interest; what paperwork is missing, and will it affect the leader board and their chance to win a Cadillac?

Benton and Harman bounce off each other effectively and there’s a welcome injection of camaraderie as Shelley seems to have rediscovered his touch, recalling his heyday when he taught Ricky everything he knew. For a few moments, Benton turns the veteran into an endearing family man slogging at the coal-face to pay his daughter’s medical bills. Harman’s Ricky is expansive and fulsome in his praise for his mentor but pivots into ruthlessness as soon as his stooge from the previous day arrives. As Shelley joins Ricky in the hustle, he exposes his own amorality along the way; there’s no level these men won’t sink to in pursuit of closing the deal.

Conway delivers the most nuanced performance, well able to handle Mamet’s invective as the embittered Dave, and Johnson’s George is convincingly hapless. But the salesmen’s greatest contempt is reserved for the pen-pushing John who never has to leave his desk and scrap for a living in the seething feral underworld of sales; as Ricky’s deceit is undone, he skewers John with a foul-mouthed tirade.

Though fast-paced throughout, this revival doesn’t always fire on all cylinders. Yates’s direction brings only glimpses of the fractured characters in its all-male cast rather than a full view and so misses some of Mamet’s subtleties and power. But the continued relevance of Glengarry Glen Ross is never in doubt and this production succeeds in encompassing a masculinity that is toxic to a contemporary lens. Like flies hurling themselves against a sealed window, these men are hollowed out; trapped and exhausted by their own virility, with little hope of escape.

Reviewed on 18 March 2019 | Images: Marc Brenner

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Theatre Review: Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Matthew Bourne’s bold reinvention of Swan Lake took the world of classical ballet by storm over 20 years ago, so can this show that enjoyed its West End première in 1996 still be as ground-breaking today? Back then it was those sensational male swans that grabbed the headlines; the traditional fluttering tutus of a female corps de ballet being replaced by bare-chested, menacing young men in feathered breeches.

Now this version has become a classic in its own right and Bourne has revived it for the 21st century, complete with new designs and some revised choreography. Astonishing as those swans still are, they’re not now unexpected and, as attitudes have changed, the prospect of the Prince dancing with another male no longer holds the same capacity to shock.

Yet there is so much more to consider and what’s immediately striking is the emotional depth of this production’s storytelling, centred around the psychological trauma at the heart of the Prince’s life. His relationship with his ice-cold mother, the Queen, is distant and empty; she has plenty of time for young guardsmen but little for her son. His daily routine is one of ribbon-cutting and ship-launching ceremonies: glamorous and polished on the outside, mundane and unfulfilling within. Little wonder the repressed, hallucinating prince is driven, first towards the arms of an over-excitable Girlfriend in the pay of his mother’s private secretary, then to the contents of a bottle and lakeside despair.

This being a New Adventures show, designed by long-time Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston, there’s plenty of playfulness. The Prince needs the help of a troupe of valets to get out of his oversized bed in the morning, while a pet corgi on wheels snaps at the hand of his newly acquired starstruck Girlfriend. Then there’s the show-within-a-show that sends up the overblown melodrama of a traditional 19th Century ballet and a world-weary burlesque dancer who goes through the motions in a seedy nightclub, cigarette dangling from bored lips throughout.

On press night, Dominic North is lithe and graceful as the Prince, brim-full of yearning as he seizes on his mother’s slightest touch, sagging with hopelessness outside the nightclub before being transformed by his encounter with the Swan. Nicole Kabera is chilly and unyielding as the stone-hearted Queen who prefers to find comfort in her courtiers' vacuous flattery and Katrina Lyndon brings a lightness to her comic turn as the empty-headed but endearing Girlfriend.

Of course, the arrival of the flock of swans in a moonlit city park is still the production’s spectacular highlight, signalled by diaphanous cinematic projection and enhanced by the surging dramatic shift in Tchaikovsky’s much-loved music combining with Paule Constable’s ethereal lighting design. The energy and intensity of this all-male corps consume the stage and Will Bozier’s lead Swan is wild and menacing. Both defensive and poised to attack, he’s a virile yet lithe and otherworldly creature who reveals the capacity for increasing tenderness in his technically accomplished pas de deux with the Prince.

Bozier is equally charismatic at the royal ball, arriving as the posturing and ruthlessly charismatic Stranger clad in black leather trousers. The Swan’s human double (in the classic Odette/Odile role), he captures the hearts of all the female guests as well as the lovelorn Prince. It’s a towering and masterful performance that informs the Prince’s descent into violent madness and the tragedy it will bring.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake remains an unmissable event; more than two decades on, the soul-stirring grip of its unique fusion of dance and theatre shows no sign of diminishing.

Reviewed on 12 March 2019 | Images: Johan Persson

Sunday 7 April 2019

Book Review: Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech

Louise Beech's writing defies easy categorisation. Her last book The Lion Tamer Who Lost had the sweep of an epic love story, a panorama stretching from the pride lands of Zimbabwe to northern English urban grit.

Her new novel Call Me Star Girl is, at first glance, more claustrophobic and contained. Set once again in Beech's home city of Hull, key events play out over a single evening of a late night local radio show, hosted by presenter Stella McKeever. Billed as a psychological thriller, it centres around the murder of a young woman, Victoria Valbon, near to full term in her pregnancy, and the events surrounding her tragic death.

First impressions can be deceptive. How much does Stella know? In using her final show to call for her listeners' secrets, it seems she may have plenty of her own. She never met her father and has only recently been contacted by her mother, Elizabeth, who walked out of Stella's life when she was twelve.

Switching back and forth between past and present, the narrative broadens in perspective and gradually unveils its mysteries: the puzzle posed to Stella by an unsettling book, her new boyfriend Tom's complicated past and the unexpected connections Elizabeth begins to reveal in her sections of narration. And who is the sinister Man Who Knows, repeatedly phoning into Stella's show, who seems to hold vital evidence that could help solve the murder?

Scrape beneath the genre-switching surface and Beech's writing has common themes. Families are fractured, leaving the protagonist with an eerie sense of isolation. An everyman called Bob Fracklehurst links her books. As with The Lion Tamer's silver box of wishes, mementos once again take on symbolic importance; Stella never lets go of the star-stoppered glass bottle of perfume her mother gave her and invests great significance in the initialled twin keys she got cut for herself and Tom.

Call Me Star Girl is the definition of a page-turner. The locked room studio setting builds tension inexorably, the unravelling story becomes increasingly chilling and atmospheric. Closeted in her late night workplace, Stella looks to the stars as she often did as a child and tries to freeze her emotions in the cold night air. It's a novel that can be devoured in a couple of sittings, the final twists taking you into territory very far from home.

Call Me Star Girl is published in the UK by Orenda Books on 18 April 2019. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Theatre Review: Richard III at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

You can’t help but think Richard III would enjoy being alive right now: posting endless selfies on his Instagram account, frantically applying all the filters to present an unblemished profile. While Bristol Old Vic and Headlong’s dazzling new collaborative production of Shakespeare’s most notorious serial killer doesn’t quite reach this level of narcissism, director John Haidar succeeds in emphasising Richard’s ingrained combination of vanity and self-loathing and rooting it firmly in the present.

The stage is set by Chiara Stephenson’s crown-shaped, tiered design of two-way mirrored doors that offer multiple perspectives, revolving for entrances and exits but staying firmly closed as Tom Mothersdale’s Richard takes centre-stage. In this circle, he plots his ruthless schemes or imprisons yet another of his victims and Mothersdale, in a mesmerising performance that marks his arrival as a top-flight force to be reckoned with, makes the space his own. Twisted out of shape, his left leg braced, his Richard is nonetheless capable of moving with swift dexterity, his physical speed more than matched by the mercurial machinations of his mind.

Mothersdale’s portrayal of this most complex of men is detailed and nuanced, full of character tics as he prowls the stage seeming to capture every fleeting thought. His Richard veers from murderous venom to dark humour to charismatic charm in an instant, wooing Leila Mimmack’s Lady Anne to be his wife despite her being fully aware of all he has done. And the audience is no less susceptible, witnessing misdeeds yet still drawn in by his direct address and sly asides.

Crucially, Haidar’s production, in reshaping the text with elements from the three parts of Henry VI, shines a light on Richard’s relationship with his mother, the Duchess of York, allowing a glimpse of the underlying traumas that have brought her son to where he is.

The play’s central character is supported by a strong cast speaking Shakespeare’s verse with impressive clarity, notably Stefan Adegbola as Richard’s smoothly faithful ally Buckingham, whose squeamishness at killing the young princes in the tower is ultimately his undoing. Heledd Gwynn brings a striking presence to her dual roles as Ratcliffe and Hastings and Eileen Nicholas is an impassioned, desperate but steely force in holding Richard to account as the Duchess of York.

Scenes are enriched with Headlong’s trademark theatricality: red flashes accompany a violent death, the circlet of light above intensifies, sounds judder and buzz and there are jump-in-your-seat moments as the body count rises. But it isn’t overdone; Richard’s coronation is marked with a visually and musically exquisite but simple ceremony. When he finally attains his coveted place on the throne, the crown that has been suspended out of reach in the first half is finally his.

At times, the mirrors fade to glass to reveal the mounting casualties of Richard’s tyranny, looking on from behind and beckoning yet another to their fold. As Richard’s merciless victory begins to unravel, he is increasingly haunted by their presence; ghosts that crowd his mind, mocking and tangible in his dream before the final Battle of Bosworth. By his own death, Richard becomes the eternal outsider, caked in mud, vilified and shut out by his own actions.

Whether Shakespeare’s tale was anti-Plantagenet propaganda or not, this vivid new Richard III is a compelling reinterpretation; an outstanding contemporary take on the most heinous of kings that almost - just almost - elicits your sympathy and certainly dwells long in the mind.

Reviewed on 6 March 2019 | Images: Marc Brenner