Wednesday 26 June 2019

Theatre Review: In The Willows at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Metta Theatre’s hip hop reworking of Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical children’s fable The Wind in the Willows is a theatrical breath of fresh air. Transferred from a genteel Edwardian riverbank to gritty inner-city mean streets, this tale of Rattie, Toad and Mole in human form starts slowly but builds momentum to deliver a family high school musical full of exuberance and diversity.

Mole arrives for her first day at The Willows, a failing senior school, with even more anxiety than most, for she has a dark secret that prevents her making friends. Victoria Boyce’s portrayal is full of affecting vulnerability; burdened by guilt from her early childhood, Mole doesn’t fit in, but, under the wise and watchful gaze of kindly teacher Mr Badger (a terrific performance from Clive Rowe), begins to find acceptance.

Zara MacIntosh’s compelling cool girl Rattie, conflicted about her Cambridge University application, reassures Mole that everyone has issues. Chris Fonseca’s genial Otter teaches her street dance and sign language, while Harry Jardine’s flashy and misguided Toad rules the decks at The Riverbank club but leads her astray with material possessions, only later revealing the hidden longing that lies beneath.

All this backstory means the narrative is slow to get going, with Poppy Burton-Morgan’s clever adaptation only gathering pace towards the end of the first half. Infectious from the off, though, are her witty lyrics, coupled with Pippa Cleary and Keiran Merrick’s music incorporating elements of hip hop, rap and grime. Energetic numbers such as “In the Willows” and “Easy Life”, performed with verve by the vocally talented cast, combine uplifting harmonies to linger long in the mind.

It’s in the second half that the story really catches fire, as Toad is rescued from gaol, only to be kidnapped by a gang of scurrilous weasels. There are moments of endearing bittersweet comedy as, imprisoned in his swanky (lily) pad, Toad attempts to resuscitate his beloved goldfish while lamenting the damage done by the weasels in leaving the freezer door open and neglecting to use coasters for their drinks.

Dynamic choreography from Zoo Nation’s Rhimes Lecointe incorporates BSL signing, either as part of the fast and riveting group numbers or by an interpreter who is on stage throughout. Deaf street dancer Fonseca and Bradley Charles as Chief Weasel dazzle in their moves as they battle for control of Toad Hall and there are entertaining tap-dancing dream sequences, led by X Factor’s Seann Miley Moore as non-binary Duck.

It’s a show of primary colours, not only in William Reynolds's design and Ryan Dawson Laight’s bright costumes, but also in the moral lessons learnt. Though not exactly subtle in its message, the finale is irresistible, as Mole finds forgiveness and the value of true friendship and the class of 2019 celebrate their exemplary achievements.

The exposition could be more fluidly woven into the narrative, yet it’s impossible not to warm to this vibrant, thrilling and inclusive delivery of Kenneth Grahame with ASBOs. Young or old, whether you know the original story or not, by the end of the show, In the Willows will have charmed its way into your heart.

Reviewed on 29 May 2019 | Images: Richard Davenport

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Book Review: The Body Lies by Jo Baker

Jo Baker's writing defies easy categorisation. Her previous novel A Country Road, A Tree delves into historical fiction, telling of Samuel Beckett's experiences in France during the Second World War. In Longbourn, she explores the world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from a servant's perspective. By contrast, her latest book The Body Lies captures the elements of a contemporary thriller, told mainly from the viewpoint of a young creative writing lecturer who takes up a new job at a rural university far from home. 

The job is a fresh start for our unnamed narrator, after suffering a vicious and unprovoked attack near her flat in South London. Leaving her husband behind at his teaching post, she and her young son Sammy move to a remote country retreat. Determined to put the violence of the past behind her, she picks up the threads of a new life, grappling with the demands of academia and an ever-increasing workload.

Other voices pervade the narrative; there are factual reports that suggest the collection of evidence, and unsettling extracts from the work of the six MA students on her creative writing course. One student, Nicholas, catches her attention - not only for his talent but also for the darkness of his subject matter and insistence on the truth. The class becomes increasingly fractious; as others write in stereotypical tones, confrontation arises over the portrayal of violence against women. Then, after the shocking outcome of an end of term party, the professor recognises herself in Nicholas' work and is disturbed and alarmed by his depiction of her fate. 

The effect of the different narrative strands is occasionally disjointed, and Sammy seems far too biddable a young child, but Baker's layered and sharply observed writing feels authentic from the first. In exploring men's casual encroachments and destructive assumptions, the nature of consent and a woman's response to a legacy of violence, she is examining issues at the heart of contemporary gender politics.

Though tense and gripping in its storytelling, there's much more to The Body Lies than mere suspense. 'You could decide not to think in arcs and lines. You might think of it as a pool in which narrative pebbles are dropped.' Baker, it seems, is taking her fictional creative writing lecturer's advice. Even as she writes in the thriller genre, she is finding space to comment on its worn motifs, moving beyond boundaries to divine the essence of what it is to be a woman navigating life in modern-day Britain.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker was published in the UK on 13 June 2019 by Doubleday. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Saturday 8 June 2019

Theatre Review: The Remains of the Day at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

In adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker prize-winning novel, Barney Norris has taken on a challenge: to translate a study of one man’s idiosyncratic world view, expressed as an inner monologue of repressed emotion, duty and regret, into a coherent piece of theatre. In the main, the result is finely constructed but, while under Christopher Haydon’s direction some aspects are highly successful, in totality it feels smaller than the sum of its parts.

The story captures the intimacy of an almost-love affair against a backdrop of momentous world events in which Stevens, long-serving butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, has his own role to play. When we first meet him in the 1950s, the Hall has a new American owner and Stevens, portrayed with ramrod-backed dignity by Stephen Boxer, is unsure what is required; his new employer’s practice of casual banter fills him with confusion and dread.

In a stalwart performance, Boxer is rarely off stage as the narrative switches between this era, with Stevens setting off on a journey in his employer’s Daimler to the West Country, and the 1930s, where the deferential butler is more certain of his place in the world. His life is one of dedication to his master Lord Darlington’s every need, even when the Hall becomes the centre of efforts to appease the Nazis and avoid a Second World War.

Lily Arnold’s design of ornate gold-framed sliding panels with projections by Andrzej Goulding is at first stunningly claustrophobic. Stevens is haunted by his memories of Miss Kenton, former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, finely embodied with playful spirit and vigour by Niamh Cusack.

In their developing relationship, Stevens and Miss Kenton spar consistently and a certain teasing familiarity develops that sees the buttoned-up butler almost imperceptibly unbend. It’s an affinity that was intimately captured in the 1993 Merchant Ivory film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins but in the play is more brushstroke, only truly realised in the heart-breaking poignancy of the concluding scenes.

Some of the most effective moments are when Stevens’s memories crowd in on him—conveyed by Norris splicing the two timeframes together so seamlessly that, at one moment, the butler is talking to the landlady of the 1950s inn where he’s staying the night and pretending to be a gentleman of stature, only to turn and find himself addressed by his pre-War master, Lord Darlington. The ensemble’s timing here is perfect, swirling around Stevens in the eye of the storm, switching roles with the changing of an apron, coat or hat.

Edward Franklin impresses as Darlington’s godson, Reginald, bringing a welcome lightness as he misunderstands Stevens’s attempts to convey the facts of life, while later having the more serious mission of discovering covert attempts at appeasement. Miles Richardson is equally convincing as the entitled Lord Darlington and genial west country Dr Carlisle, whom Stevens meets on his travels.

Over the course of the play, though, the constant darkness, rain and on-set servants’ bells that never ring combine to have a stilted, lowering effect; a greater contrast in the play’s lighter moments would be welcome. Then, the pacing of some scenes seems off; Stevens’s distant, dutiful relationship with his father and the subsequent demise of Mr Stevens Senior are too quickly realised and consequently lacking in pathos. And, when Stevens is uncovered as a manservant by Dr Carlisle, the moment is thrown away; there’s no accompanying cringing sting of shame.

The sting comes instead from stark reverberations of the present day; when the Lords in their drawing room regret the decision to put matters of international importance to the vote of the ill-informed common man, the audience gives a perceptible Brexit-shaped groan. As a piece of theatre, The Remains of the Day has undoubted elements of powerful resonance; while they never quite coalesce into a fully satisfying whole, this is a thoughtful adaptation that delivers fine performances and many moments to savour.

Reviewed on 22nd May 2019 | Images: Iona Firouzabadi

Sunday 2 June 2019

Book Review: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

When the publicity for a forthcoming novel calls its author the Norwegian Anne Tyler and combines this with hints of Ingmar Bergman, I can't help but sit up and take notice.

But then the doubts begin to set in. Can this book possibly live up to its billing? Suddenly, A Modern Family by Helga Flatland has high expectations to deliver against.

Yet, this up-and-coming author, born in 1984, is far from an over-hyped ingénue. In Norway, she has won the Tarjei Vesaas first book prize and is already very widely read, writing for both adults and children. A Modern Family is her fifth novel - though the first to be translated into English.

The story focuses a lens on adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon. Arriving in Rome with their partners and children to celebrate their father's 70th birthday, they are stunned instead by the announcement of their parents' impending divorce. The tectonic plates beneath a family's life begin to shift, forcing the children to examine their shared past and the early warning tremors they might previously have overlooked.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Liv, Ellen and finally Håkon, the novel then explores the emotional aftershocks of this revelatory decision, set against the increasingly troubled trajectory of current relationships. The whole of the siblings' childhood is subject to examination and revision, their bonds with each other, their partners and newly single parents put under strain.

Liv, the eldest, believes she has always carried more than her fair share of responsibility. Middle child Ellen has exerted an independence that she now feels to be floundering, while as the youngest and only son, Håkon has so far escaped any shouldering of the family burden. Ther narratives reflect their places in the hierarchy and describe subtly different versions of the same events - where is the truth here and who is the unreliable narrator?

There are shades of Anne Tyler's closely observed domestic complexity and the unexpected poignancy of simple acts; the rhythms of family holidays and everyday preparation of meals. Yet, Tyler's Baltimore homeliness contrasts with the clean, crisp and notably Norwegian accents of Flatland's work, with its professional middle-class setting, where emotions that seem one stage removed gradually begin to implode.

It's impossible to compare any single novel from an emerging (in the United Kingdom, at least) writer with the body of work of one of literature's established greats. Yet nonetheless easy to reflect that, in this highly readable translation by Rosie Hedger, Helga Flatland has written an elegant, empathetically observed and insightful saga of the habitual ties that bind a family together, but ultimately threaten to cast it asunder.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland is published by Orenda Books on 21 June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.