Thursday 30 May 2019

Theatre Review: The Stranger on the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatres

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The difference between life and death can be infinitesimally small; captured in the moment it takes for a stranger to stop beside a man on a bridge - a young man balanced on the edge of the railings ready to jump.

Such moments of humanity indicate that a world of support and compassion does exist - that an outstretched hand can help that man survive. In Mental Health Awareness Week, The Stranger on the Bridge explores the real-life reasons that brought Jonny Benjamin to contemplate suicide and his quest to find the man who saved his life on Waterloo Bridge that morning in 2008.

Jonny’s subsequent #FindMike social media campaign was covered in a Channel 4 documentary in 2015. Now in this new play from Katie Hims, developed by Postcard Productions, the timeline alternates between Jonny's search for the man he has arbitrarily called Mike and his life leading up to that fateful day.

It’s Jonny’s story and he’s played with endearing warmth, vulnerability and openness by Jack Brownridge-Kelly - astonishingly in his first professional role - who switches between narration, engaging the audience and acting out key scenes. In a clever piece of theatricality that brings the terrors of mental illness to life, he’s joined on stage by his nemesis, Panda, the voice that has existed in Jonny’s head since he was ten.

Panda tells Jonny what to do and threatens all sorts of catastrophes for family and friends if he doesn’t obey. A swearing, hectoring and sometimes disturbing presence, he’s energetically and humorously realised by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Marco Young, building on his last promising performance at the Tobacco Factory in Welcome to Thebes.

As his social media campaign goes viral, Jonny is troubled when one interviewer suggests that Mike doesn’t really exist but is a figment of his imagination. Yet soon, many Mikes step forward and Jonny’s problem is in identifying the right one.

Other characters in Jonny’s life are empathetically portrayed by a trio of actors: Joanna Van Kampen, Robert Macpherson and Jessica May Buxton, who introduce a welcome lightness to the play’s emotional range; stepping in and out of the action as they switch roles, bickering about who should be the next doctor or worrying whether their portrayal is sufficiently true-to-life.

Some of the most affecting moments are when Jonny meets those whose relatives didn’t have a Mike to save them; he faces their anger at a loved one’s selfish act and guilt for not being there to help. But he is encouraged by e-mails thanking him for revealing his struggle with depression, creating a discussion that has made the senders realise they’re not alone.

Lizzie Minnion’s direction of such sensitive subject matter is immediate and beautifully thoughtful. Yet the play's pacing occasionally feels unbalanced; through a desire to include all the details, the initial scene-setting of Jonny’s childhood tends towards the leisurely, delaying our arrival at the heart of the story. By contrast, his time at university, seminal friendships and exploration of his sexuality could have been further developed.

It’s striking how seldom Jonny is helped by professionals - one doctor breezily advising him to eat more fruit and vegetables - in comparison to a stranger’s random act of kindness. Yet help is out there; many organisations are ready to listen, and the possibilities of theatre’s healing role are revealed by the play’s moving conclusion, featuring performers from Bristol-based mental health theatre group Stepping Out.

The Stranger on the Bridge is a courageous and inspiring tale of triumph over despair, poignant in the simplicity of Jonny’s eventual meeting with his saviour, ultimately uplifting in its message that devastating mental illness can be survived and, if not necessarily conquered, then subsequently lived alongside.

Reviewed on 15 May 2019| Images: Jack Offord

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Book Review: You Are What You Read by Jodie Jackson

As an avid but somewhat disaffected follower of current affairs, Jodie Jackson's new hardback treatise, subtitled Why changing your media diet can change the world, instantly captured my attention.

If like me you've felt a creeping dissatisfaction with the news in these tumultuous times - the rolling 24-hour cycle requiring a constant turnover of stories, the frequent sensationalism, negativity and lack of depth - then Jackson's book will resonate. She presents clearly articulated and well-constructed arguments about the shortfalls of current news delivery and backs them up with evidence and analysis.

For her master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology, Jackson undertook academic research into the psychological impact of the news, which she shares in this book. As a founder of The Constructive Journalist Project, she goes on to consider how its negative effects could be mitigated, by including a greater emphasis on solutions-focused stories.

Jackson argues that the news media is one of the greatest story-telling industries outside Hollywood and that its objectivity is no more than a veneer, prey to compelling commercial pressures. Thus, to quote Mark Twain; 'If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper you're misinformed.'

News is a product and the argument long-held by those in the industry is that bad news sells and there's little that's newsworthy or interesting in the good. They also argue that the role of journalism is to shine a light and uncover injustices so that improvements can be made - such as in the women's movement or racial equality.

While Jackson accepts the validity of these arguments, she also posits that an overwhelming focus on bad news without the counter-balance of any reported solutions warps perceptions, leading us to believe the world is much more dangerous than it really is. Using studies and examples from both the United States and the United Kingdom, she shows how traumatic events framed in sensational terms begin to lose their shock value; pessimism and passive 'learned helplessness' set in, with the feeling there's little we can do to bring about change for the better ourselves.

Yet, Jackson argues, such helplessness can also be unlearned; the news has the capacity to become a guide dog as well as a watchdog. We as consumers can hold journalists to account, absorbing the cycle of stories less frequently but in greater depth. She sets out six ways in which we can do just this, including the avoidance of tabloid reporting and social media echo chambers.

Instead, she recommends in-depth reporting and long-form articles in publications like The Week and The Economist (there's a full list of recommended titles at the back of the book). Ultimately then, the solution lies in our own hands; to become more selective and conscious consumers, retaining a sense of perspective and hope as a coping mechanism in the face of bad news.

There are many sides to this growing debate, and if you're already predisposed to accept this argument you may not need too much convincing. Others surely will, including those already working in the industry and invested in the status quo. Nevertheless, this intelligent and impassioned book adds weight to the growing call for more solutions-focused journalism; recommended reading for anyone wishing to gain a greater sense of perspective and control of their own news consumption.

You Are What You Read by Jodie Jackson is published by Unbound. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Theatre Review: Matilda The Musical at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Based on Roald Dahl’s classic novel for children, the multi-award-winning Matilda The Musical, adapted by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly, needs little introduction. Since its opening in Stratford-upon-Avon as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2010 Christmas show, this story of an ordinary little girl with extraordinary talents has gone on to become a West End institution. It transferred to Broadway and travelled across North America and Australia before embarking on a tour of the UK and Ireland that now has Bristol as its latest destination.

You certainly can’t choose your parents, but here Matilda is unusually unlucky; far from seeing her arrival as miraculous, her mother Mrs Wormwood (Rebecca Thornhill) is concerned that her new baby will interfere with her ballroom dancing commitments. Meanwhile her father (Sebastien Torkia), who refuses to believe she isn’t a boy, is preoccupied with his business selling dodgy motors. Neither of them recognises Matilda’s exceptional gifts for words and numbers, considering them of little importance compared to the vanity of peroxide roots and hair oil.

It’s an engrossing scenario, elevated from amusing caricature by Kelly’s sharp, playful and compassionate book and Minchin’s pitch-perfect lyrics and music - alternately spiky, comical and profound. The range is all-encompassing - from Mrs Wormwood’s full-on rendition of “Loud” to Matilda’s eye-of-the-storm “Quiet” and the poignant harmonies of “When I Grow Up”, capturing the anxieties of childhood and perceived freedoms that lie beyond.

The depth of talent in the child actors on stage is astonishing, none more so than Matilda herself, played on press night with big-hearted resilience and a little bit of mischief by Olivia Juno Cleverley.

School should be a refuge for bookish Matilda - her kind and perceptive teacher Miss Honey, portrayed with beautifully voiced vulnerability by Carly Thoms, being quick to recognise her potential. Yet the adults in this story are more often demons of outrageous cruelty and thoughtlessness; Miss Honey in her timidity is at first thwarted by the oversized disciplinarian ogre Miss Trunchbull, brought loathsomely to life by a toweringly villainous and hilariously aerobic performance from Elliot Harper.

The children here are the unsung heroes showing the way; as well as Matilda, Charlie Garton and Lily van Veen excel as Bruce and Lavender. Matilda’s story of the escapologist and the acrobat adds a beautifully interwoven depth to the narrative and Michelle Chantelle Hopewell brings a charismatic presence as the eagerly story-loving librarian Mrs Phelps.

Matthew Warchus’s direction veers seamlessly from comedy to pathos, framed within Rob Howell’s colourful, dramatic and ever-shifting design of books, desks and alphabet blocks.

Having caught Matilda The Musical in its early Stratford days, it’s clear this is a show that keeps on delivering. Exceptional entertainment on every level for children and adults alike, it surely merits its billing as the musical of the decade; if you get the chance to see this family-friendly sensation, then make sure you grab it with both hands.

Runs until 8 June 2019 and touring| Images: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Theatre Review: 1972: The Future of Sex

In rewinding the decades to the early 1970s, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s infectiously silly, sad and true take on adolescent sexuality reminds us that while the clothes and music may change over the years, the initial awkwardness and tentative first steps toward self-discovery remain the same.

It’s a welcome return for this production to the ensemble’s home city of Bristol, having toured around the UK since its première in 2015.

1972 was supposedly the Age of Aquarius: a drug-induced, hallucinogenic uprising of permissive free love, loosening society’s rigid grip. David Bowie was in his Ziggy Stardust phase and androgyny was hip. It’s easy to see this as a simpler, more innocently loving time, pre-Internet porn and its heightened expectations. But try telling that to the couples we first meet, lined up like rabbits caught in the headlights, in this hour-long exploration of the eggshells we tread on when tentatively negotiating intimate relationships.

Hannah Kamen’s Christine decides she’s going to sleep with her rock band boyfriend Rich (Ben Vardy) but begins to worry about the mechanics and decides that watching the luridly erotic film Deep Throat will show her all she needs to know. In an era when Gay Pride is in its infancy, Anna (Jesse Meadows) spots Emily Greenslade’s Tessa across the racks of albums in a record shop and decides she’s the coolest person she’s ever seen.

Penny (Helena Middleton) explores feminist theories and D H Lawrence’s scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover with her sociology lecturer Martin (a gyrating performance from Tom England), before discovering his theoretical enlightenment doesn’t always stretch to practical equality. Meanwhile, Bowie-inspired Anton (James Newton) examines his sexuality alone in his bedroom; dressing and undressing in borrowed clothes, but afraid of revealing himself to his parents.

Co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones have great fun intercutting characters and action, strongly assisted by Tom Crosley-Thorne’s evocative live music and Rachael Duthie’s striking lighting design. Running between their four microphone stands as though they are outposts in a game of rounders, the ensemble delivers narrative, song and innermost thoughts, before quickly resetting to the next scene.

There’s clever period detail in costumes and references—space hoppers, glam rock glitter and Angel Delight—and some standout moments: Anna’s physical ecstasy at Tessa’s proposition sees her lifted and floating across the room while Tom England continues his confused contortions as the ever-dancing Brian deserted by his partner.

Flashes forward link this youthful retrospective to present-day middle-aged disappointment, and it doesn’t end well; opportunities for real love are lost and chance meetings in later life puncture the balloon of illusion. Even Germaine Greer falls short in the end, the lauded writer of The Female Eunuch scraping the barrel with her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.

It’s inventive and energetic stuff; sometimes rough around the edges but fizzing with creativity. The more things change, the more they stay the same in this rite of passage; it’s the universality of that message that elevates 1972: The Future of Sex into a more thoughtful and reflective work than it first appears.

Reviewed on 1 May 2019 | Images: Jack Offord

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Theatre Review: Rouse, Ye Women! at The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Today’s gig economy may feel like a modern invention, but it shares its heritage with the piece-workers of the early 20th Century, toiling away beneath the breadline with none of the rights bestowed on regularised employees.

Townsend Theatre’s latest production brings this connection into sharp relief, by focusing on the Black Country in 1910 and the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath. The men who produced the heavy metal chains worked in factories for adequate pay, while the womenfolk sweated in cramped outhouses to make the lighter chains, earning a pittance and prey to the middlemen or ‘foggers’ responsible for subcontracting their labour.

Billed as a folk ballad opera, Rouse Ye Women! charts the intervention of the now overlooked Scottish suffragist Mary Macarthur, determined to secure a decent minimum wage for these put-upon ‘sweated’ women. This may perhaps sound earnest – but while always socially aware, this is political theatre with tangible warmth and humour that quickly establishes a strong connection with the audience and engages them in singing choruses and applauding stirring speeches at rallies.

That it does so is due to the charismatic performances of its three-strong cast, from the affable Neil Gore – who as co-writer, singer, musician and chief programme seller also narrates and acts the unsympathetic characters of Albert the Fogger and boss George Williams – to Bryony Purdue as Mary Macarthur and Rowan Godel as the chain-making Bird. Later scenes become even more involving, as audience members entreat Bird not to sign her rights away under Albert’s crafty pleas.

Though enhanced by a combination of narration and acting, director Louise Townsend primarily relays the story through song – evocative new works penned by John Kirkpatrick blended with traditional folk ballads. The inspirational Mary arrives fully formed, speaking up in the face of injustice without her background and motivations being explored – there’s another play that could be written. Purdue’s performance is gripping, expressing Mary’s no-nonsense but cheery determination and warm-hearted powers of persuasion, bringing the melodic clarity of her operatic training to the steeliness of Mary’s songs.

Bird is the everywoman of Cradley Heath, embodying their long hours of toil and suffering; her ballads have a plaintive, yearning quality clearly conveyed in Godel’s voice. Under Mary’s influence, she blossoms into a woman ready to stand up and strike for her rights, no longer willing to accept the fogger’s petty fines or argument that the new wage is unaffordable for the bosses. The women unite, bound together like Mary’s example of a bundle of sticks. In their phrasing, the harmonies between the actor-musicians are uplifting and exquisite, simply supported by guitar, banjo, and mandolin.

This is a big story told on a small stage, a shining example of what can be achieved in a compact space, with Elizabeth Wright’s versatile set – adaptable to theatre, village hall and library alike – comprising Bird’s tiny outhouse and Mary’s office desk. Black and white images projected onto clothes on a washing line – though occasionally obscuring the faces of the actors – bring to life the background of a sweated labour force of women old before their time. Rouse Ye Women! is rousing stuff indeed, with an enduring relevance for all comers who desire to see a burning wrong put right.

Reviewed on 17 April 2019 | Image: Contributed

Saturday 4 May 2019

Book Review: Turbulent Wake by Paul E. Hardisty

Regular visitors to this blog will know that - despite my usual resistance to reading about firearms, physical violence, and anything overtly army-related or vaguely mechanical - I've become a fan of Claymore Straker, action hero of Paul E. Hardisty's four hard-hitting, suspenseful but socially conscious adventure thrillers (you can read my review of his fourth novel Absolution here, and the other titles are linked at the bottom of that page).

I've spent more time than is healthy questioning why this is and - apart from stating the obvious, that we read to see the world from another perspective - I've concluded that I'm drawn in by Hardisty's textured, fast-paced and authentically detailed writing. What's more, I love a flawed but driven character, and Claymore Straker delivers this in spades, even if I might run a mile from meeting him in real life.

Now Hardisty has stepped away from Straker, though his latest central character is hewn from the same rock. In Turbulent Wake, Ethan Scofield returns from London to his Calgary birthplace to bury his estranged father. Clearing the house, he finds a collection of manuscripts, a series of highly biographical short stories, that begin to explain his father's neglect and fit together the missing pieces of Ethan's own life.

For years, Ethan has wondered what really happened to his little brother, how his mother was taken from him and why his engineer father seemed to disappear. Why he has frequently felt so alone and disconnected from the world. Now, page by page, he begins to uncover the answers - and the truth is often explosive.

Stories from the manuscript are interspersed with Ethan's own musings. In many ways, his life mirrors that of his father's: he, too, had a troubled childhood and a difficult relationship with his wife and child. Drinking hard and unable to become the emotionally articulate man they require, he struggles to cope with the changing role of women and comply with society's norms.

At times I found myself conflating father and son, a confusion compounded by the novel's episodic, continent-straddling structure. At one moment, the action takes place in the Carribean's coral cays, the next in a Kilburn bar with a suspected member of the IRA. Ethan's father roams the world from Yemen's wadis to the wilds of Africa, Hardisty drawing on his own experiences to enrich the vivid, detailed and often harrowing descriptions of political injustice and corporate greed.

Gradually, though, a focus emerges at the heart of this novel and a looping helix of love and loss begins to exert its grip. As the pages yield up their secrets, it's impossible not to feel the tug of the engineer's regret for what should have been and his longing for reconciliation and redemption.

In his later years, Ethan's father meditates on the theme of 'write what you know', concluding, along with Martin Amis, that you should 'write what you know so you don't have to write what others already have'. To this male view, you could add a woman's voice; Toni Morrison's 'If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.' In this most personal and compelling of novels, Hardisty seems to have done just that.

Turbulent Wake is published in paperback on 16 May 2019 by Orenda Books. Many thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

Thursday 2 May 2019

Opera Review: Roberto Devereux at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The last of Gaetano Donizetti’s so-called Tudor trilogy of operas, Roberto Devereux is loosely based on Elizabeth I’s late-flowering passion for the traitorous Earl of Essex. WNO’s revival of its 2013 production, directed by Alessandro Talevi, embraces an intriguing concept not entirely realised in its staging. Yet it more than makes up for this with a gloriously rousing vocal and orchestral performance.

At its heart, Salvatore Cammarano’s 1837 libretto is essentially an entangled love quadrangle: Sara is broken-hearted that her yearning for Roberto, Earl of Essex, can never be satisfied as she is trapped in marriage to the Duke of Nottingham. The Duke, a close friend of Roberto’s, is also adviser to Queen Elisabetta, but it is for the Earl that Elisabetta reserves her desire.

The repeated appearance of a spider motif to portray Elisabetta is theoretically apt. Donizetti’s Queen in her later years is venomous and all-consuming; two moths signifying Roberto and Sara are prey to her power. Yet in realisation, this fixation with arachnids mostly distracts; the strange glowing box of insect projections and spidery metal chariot throne with thrashing umbrella-spoke legs. It all throws up unanswered questions about what clunky, dystopian universe we are supposed to be inhabiting.

There are more successful touches. The spider’s web ties that bind Roberto in imprisonment are simple and effective in their visual symbolism, as are the chorus’s outstretched hands clamouring at the gloomy glass panels dividing the Queen from her courtiers. And while the mood is overwhelmingly corseted, dark and austere, this does allow a striking contrast with Elisabetta’s scarlet carnivalesque costume.

Transcending all these caveats though is the sheer quality of the bel canto; Justina Gringytė captivates from the first with the smooth, rich texture of her vocals as Sara, while Joyce El-Khoury is in control of the demands of the notoriously difficult role of Elisabetta. In her flowing vocal embellishment, she still brings a sense of the vulnerability behind the myth of Gloriana; her final aria “Vivi, ingrato” is full of the aching poignancy and loss of an aging woman who has sacrificed so much to retain her crown, steeped in unrequited love.

Rhys Jenkins is in fine form standing in for Roland Wood as the Duke of Nottingham, while Barry Banks as Roberto, though in danger of being out-sung at times in duet, excels in his later tortured aria upon facing death. And, as ever, the WNO chorus, though not so much required in this work as other operas, is still an aural delight.

James Southall, picking up the baton from the esteemed Carlo Rizzo, vigorously reflects the on-stage experience, his youthful conducting full of flowing gestures that are entertaining to watch in their own right. The WNO orchestra responds with an energetic performance attuned to the unfolding melodrama, stretching from a dazzling opening overture with its ironic take on “God Save the Queen” to the subtlety and pathos of moments of quieter reflection.

In culmination, WNO’s Roberto Devereux becomes an immersive experience; this may be a 19th century opera but, rather than typically dying of consumption, here a woman holds the power over life and death. Overlook the questionable aspects of the production’s staging and catch it while you can for musical splendour par excellence.

Reviewed on 12 April 2019 | Images: Bill Cooper